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QUESTION: What Does the Saying, “The Race Is Not to the Swift But to Those Who Endure to the End” Mean?


RunnerWhat does the saying mean that the race is not given to the swift but to those who endure to the end?

Many people ask about this “saying.” Most of these ask where to find it in the Bible; you are the first  to ask me about its meaning.

The only problem is that this “saying” is not in the Bible. The first part of your quotation comes from Ecclesiastes 9:11.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

The final part might come from Hebrews 3:14.

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.

Many times we conflate two passages of Scripture in our minds – and come up with something that is no where actually said in the Bible.

The idea of enduring until death is found in a number of passages, though that is not what is in mind in Ecclesiastes 9:11. There the wise man is talking about the uncertainty of life. It is not always the best, the strongest, or the fastest who reap rewards in this life.

Holding out in a race is one of the key thoughts of 2 Timothy 4:7.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Enduring to the end is an important Biblical concept. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

The idea here is that we do not allow anything, even the threat of death or suffering, deter us from our faithfulness to God.

So, the thought of your quotation is Biblical – though the particular wording is not.

21 Responses

  1. i love this proverb..inspirational

  2. You state that “Holding out in a race is one of the key thoughts of
    2 Timothy 4:7. ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.'” Why, in your opinion, does Paul HAVE TO SEE life in terms of an athletic competition, requiring special exertion or sacrifice or more than natural behavior? Beating one’s fellow man, which is the purpose of competition, is hardly “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Note, he says, “I have finished the RACE.” He does NOT say that he has finished “a run” (a non-competitive challenge). The life-as-race metaphor seems absolutely contrary to the jesus teachings regarding the being saved and the “boasting” that goes along with winning in competition is contrary to them as well. Nor in the bible do we see that entering into ANY physical competition or exertion or competition is mentioned as having ANYTHING to do with spirituality except, perhaps, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel which doesn’t really fit the picture of “competition” in the normal sense. I don’t think anyone asked to be born to participate in a life long “RACE,” nor should they be judged as if they were. I, myself, think that trying to run faster than someone else is a fairly stupid waste of time unless you know you can win without too much effort and are in desperate need of an ego-boost.

    • Duane,

      This is an interesting observation! My response is that this is not a race with only one winner’s crown. In the context he says the crown “is for all who love his appearing.” Paul does stress the need for faithfulness and effort in our Christian walk, unlike some who proclaim a gospel devoid of such things. Remember that Jesus calls us to a life of self denial, and I know of few things moe difficult for the human race than to deny One’s self. Do not press the metaphor too far! What if you had asked instead about the other metaphor in that text where he said, “I have fought the good fight”?

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Also you need to remember what Jesus said about putting your hand to the plow and looking back or that we are to be faithful unto death. We do not enlist in the service of Jesus as 90-day volunteers, but as life-long servants who will continue to serve Him in eternity. It is not a competition, nor is it a matter of boasting when a man of God who nears the end of a life filled with toil and trouble and says he has finished the race. Remember the Olympic runner a few years back who finished his race even after he pulled his hamstring? He finished with his father’s support. I think that is a picture of how we also can finish our race of life!

      • Thank you very much. I appreciate your interpretation. Actually, no, I don’t remember the Olympic runner you refer to. He was, of course, entitled to do as he wished , but I’m not sure I would have given special credit for his decision. Maybe it might be said that having his hamstring pulled was a divine way of his being taught a divine lesson, but the “lesson” I’d get from it was one should measure carefully the amount of effort one puts into any particular goal. In fact, the nature of this reality system–divine or not–is that there are overwhelmingly more losers than winners and, as inarguable proof, regardless of how one might wish to assess blame for it, the “lake of fire” prophecy makes that absolutely clear. (Sorry for being so long in reply.)

  3. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and the rest of the site is really
    good.

    • Thank you for your kind comments. Come back for another visit at any time. This article, the most visited on the site, is not one that I consider the most important article here by any stretch of the imagination – but if it is helpful, I am happy.

  4. Good article, so I would I be wrong if I quote “the race is not for the swift but for those who endure to the end? in my preaching?

    • As I said in the article, this “quotation” conflates two different passages; the concept is Biblical though the words themselves are not – at least are not found in a single passage.

      • Thanks for the speedy reply, I am preaching in the morning at my church(Dublin, Ireland) I am preaching about faithfulness to God and not giving up, this has helped me loads.

      • Best wishes for your message tomorrow!

  5. praise the ‘LORD I to have quoted both passages in my prayer telling them to run this race with me for its not giving to the swift to the one who endure to end . I always check where the scripture are found. once I check I saw where you mention “the thought of your quotation is biblical . Thought of a particular word is not”

    Are you saying not to put them together for if anyone check they will not find the passage together ? I do put the scripture so they can read it for them self . The scripture came to me 2 Timothy 4:7
    God Bless

  6. Hi are using WordPress for your site platform?
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  7. Very very helpful to this young Christian who had got caught up in the rat race of life. Praying that you and I endure to the end.

    God bless you brother.
    Thank you for the kind words! I join you in your prayer for the two of us – and add all who follow our Lord. Jerry

  8. Well, if people want to think of life as a RACE because Paul wanted to think in those terms, they’re free to do so. I can think of much more sensible ways of thinking about this existence.

    • Note that Paul was not thinking of a race with only one “winner.” After saying he had finished his race and that there was a crown laid up for him, he added, ‘and not for me only, but for all who love his appearing.’

      If you can think of a better way to think about life than that, I’d like to hear it. – jerry

      • Well, I think the best way to think about life is to be content with the comfort, peace, acquisition of new undestandings, enjoyment of positive moods, friendships, loves, etc.,, that I have always enjoyed. I do not need to think of some reward –either tangible or intangible– BEYOND this “life” as I have experienced it so far. If I can be quietly and peacefully relieved of this mortal life on earth when the time comes, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, I will be quite satisfied. I find nothing scary about the state of NON-BEING I was in before I was conceived and born, just as I find nothing scary or unsatisfactory about going to sleep at night. Why should I NEED or REQUIRE “something” that is called a “CROWN” in some posited future existence to make my existence meaningful and beautiful here on earth as I have lived it? What’s your problem with this perspective–SPECIFICALLY? Can you REALLY conceive of being locked into a state of ceaseless consciousness for a thousand, million, or BILLIONS of years? I truly believe that such a state would drive one crazy after the first thousand years or less.

  9. What you have written is a good statement of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus believed that pleasure, primarily through avoiding pain, is the greatest good. He did not believe that the gods existed, or that if they did they were far away and did not interfere with human affairs.

    Ultimately, life was purposeless. Yet, the cosmos shows at least some signs of intelligent design. Could it have designed itself? Highly unlikely. At the same time, the cosmos – including humanity – shows that something is horribly broken.

    Paul, the apostle of Jesus (whose comment about his life having been a ‘race’) saw himself as a fellow worker with his God seeking to fix what was broken. He spent his early life opposing Jesus – until his life was turned upside down (though he would’ve said ‘turned right side up) by seeing the crucified, but resurrected, Jesus. He then lived to introduce people to the Jesus whom he knew had been dead, but was now alive.

    In his new life, he suffered the same kinds of persecution he had meted out to followers of ‘the Jesus Way’ earlier. He said in one of his letters to a church he had planted that if Jesus (whom he saw as the long-awaited Messiah or Christ) was not raised from the dead, ‘we are of all men most miserable.’

    But in the resurrection of Jesus he found hope, not simply as eternal consciousness, which (if it were simply like our present lives extended indefinitely) could certainly become boring to the point of insanity, but as meaningful work in the ‘new heavens and new earth.’

    As you have probably guessed, I think Paul was right. Really.

    Jesus is the most important thing that has happened to this plantet. More than a prophet with a new twist on an old message, he is the embodiment of absolute goodness. And in hid goodness, we can become good by walking in his way. Now and forever.

  10. Well, I certainly do not agree with any Epicurean belief that life is purposeless and also do not believe that one needs to live a Pauline belief that life should be regarded as a RACE of specific goal-oriented ambition with regard to any specific popular this-life or possible after-life rewards.

    The issue of “intelligent design” has not been settled. Any “at least some signs” of design are more than brought to severe question because of the waste of thousands of species going extinct and the absolute failure of the supposed “designer,” the bible god, to create human beings by the billions apparently destined from the beginning
    to suffer torment in the flames of hellfire FOREVER. There doesn’t seem any purposeful design in this.

    At the same time, the apparent necessity of the conversion of Paul to reach the gentiles even after Jesus had spent 33 years on earth with
    first twelve and then some 70 disciples seems to be very strange evidence of lack of design in efficient delivery of the “kingdom message” to earthlings.

    Surely, if the bible god is all powerful, he would not have needed Paul nor Moses nor John the Baptist to serve as “co-workers” to fix a “broken reality” which an all powerful god would not have needed to
    let happen in the first place.

    Re “work in the new heavens and the new earth,” why are no persuasive examples of such work given. How, under the auspices
    of an ALL POWERFUL GOD would any human work be needed at all? These are typical of questions that have always been puzzles to me.

  11. I did not mean to imply that you consciously got your philosophy of life from Epicurus – only that your statement, “I think the best way to think about life is to be content with the comfort, peace, acquisition of new undestandings, enjoyment of positive moods, friendships, loves, etc.,, that I have always enjoyed.” is very like something that gentleman could have said. Actually, much of Western Civilization since “The Enlightenment has adopted what is essentially an Epicurean world-view, in which the chief purpose of life is one’s own pleasure.

    God is pushed out of one’s thinking as either a non-entity or as being irrelevant to how we live our lives.

    I find this view of life inadequate for two major reasons:

    1. It is, to me, inconceivable that the cosmos could either have existed eternally or have spontaneously come into being without a creative power. As the Hebrew poet wrote even 3,000 years ago, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The thousands of years of knowledge gained since then have only shown the intricacy and magnificence of his handiwork at both the micro and macro levels.

    2. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which shows that the Creator has not abandoned his creation, but is acting to rescue it from the folly of its human inhabitants.

    In view of these things, I personally take the message of God’s Word (both the incarnate Word and the written word) seriously – and try to encourage others to do the same.

    • Thank you for your response. My MAJOR problem with belief in the bible god is that a complete reading of the Old Testament shows the god-figure to be absolutely vicious in his tolerance and, in fact, directives with regard to the treatment “his” people should mete out to adjacent tribes and peoples–murder, mayhem, rape, pillage, use of captured virgins as sex slaves–in fact “his” CLEAR advocacy of slavery (not just indentured servitude). “He” demands the death penalty for disobedient children, for adulterers (who can’t achieve relief from impossible marriage situations), for brides proved not to be chaste on their wedding night. Vicious, indeed!. He curses BILLIONS of individual beings thousands ir not billions of years before they are even born with a prescribed death because of the “questionable disobedience” of forebears they had nothing to do with! In fact, “he,” who claims to be all-knowing and all-powerful, proves incapable of “correcting” the earth population he has created in a sensible way and has to destroy all land-living things on earth (except for an ark-full) has “his” ONLY option! What about all the innocent children destroyed in complete injustice in the “Flood”?!

      This is NOT the kind of entity one can reasonably be expected to believe in. As far as Jesus is concerned, he “claims” to be one with his father (i.e., another version of himself) and, hence, MUST BE (secretly) as vicious as he appears (as his “father self) to be in the Old Testament. He DOES change the law given to Moses (contrary to his claims) and servces as another example that the “original form of himself” is NOT perfect at all. How about the waste of 1.5 million human beings in their lifetime trek after the exodus from Egypt for the
      sole “future-seeing” god’s purpose of allowing only two or three persons to enter the “promised land”–not even Moses!

      As far as the “creative power” of the universe is concerned, I see no reason why this “power” has to have a human-like personality with a “body image” similar to that of human beings. Indeed, of what use would the features of a human anatomy have in a :pre-material earth state of existence–the 13.5-minus 4.5 BILLION years–from the scientifically determined beginning of the universe until the formation of earth?

      Personal pleasure surely should not be the ONLY purpose in life. At the same time, one can hardly hold up the life-style of the monks through the dark ages–including self-multilation and CASTRATION (for those who “can accept the teaching”)–as a “sane” alternative. If one wants to “carry his own cross” for a lifetime, fine, for those so inclined. If the bible god truly is responsible for the cursed suffering of so many–a cause for the more fortunate to devote themselves to allevating, then “he” could have surely created a “reality” in which personal pleasure was available to ALL PEOPLE AND ALL ANIMALS
      instead of the predator-prey, survival-of-the-fittest rat race with which
      life on earth has been encumbered from the beginning.

      May I suggest that you might begin to take the bible claims more skeptically and realistically, and ask yourself why Jesus DID NOT RETURN DURING THE LIFETIME OF SOME OF HIS LISTENERS as is clearly claimed in Matthew, and why this supposedly all powerful “father-son” duality has been able to do no better than continue the mess that earth history seems to have been from the beginning–a mess of things going ABSOLUTELY WRONG IN JUST ABOUT EVERY WAY IMAGINABLE, IN SPITE OF “THEIR” SUPPOSEDLY ALL-KNOWLEDGE OF THE FUTURE EVEN BEFORE IT HAPPENED.

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