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The Value of Wisdom

Ecclesiastes 9

Lesson audioThe world today is mad for knowledge and has little use for wisdom. But the old computer geeks had it right: Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

The View Before the Cross

Ecc 9:1-10 For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him. (2) It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. (3) This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. (4) For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. (5) For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. (6) Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. (7) Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. (8) Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. (9) Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. (10) Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

Death comes to all

It is fascinating to note that so many have passed through this world with no contemplation of their day of death. It seems to surprise many that they will die. What is of importance to us in this lesson is the timing: the hour of your death is in the hands of God.

Does that surprise you? It is by his providence that you are here at all; all the events of your life are in his plan. The real question is, “What next?”

Here is the difference between the days of Solomon and our day. Solomon knew the character of God; he knew that the righteous would fare better with God than the wicked. But he had no specific promises about what happens after death. He didn’t know, “what next?”

He calls this an “evil under the sun.” The argument is pretty simple, really. You know that there is evil and indeed insanity running amok in this world.[1] You know that God is righteous – and yet you don’t see that God’s justice is prevailing in this world. To the contrary, the righteous are sorely tried, and the evil often seem to prevail. And then you die. It doesn’t seem right.

Of course, after the coming of the Christ we know the answer: there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun – and there is a day of judgment coming. Solomon has pointed out the problem; Christ is the solution.

It’s worse than you think

So, from Solomon’s point of view, things are bad because only the living have hope. Stop and examine that for a moment. What you do in this world is what counts eternally. Solomon reasoned that this must be so simply because he had no information about life after death. Once you die, you can change nothing – and therefore “future” is a word which is meaningless. That’s his view.

We see it from the other side. For those who follow Christ, it is still true that only the living have hope – for the dead in Christ are “present with the Lord.” Their faith is now made sight. Hope is a virtue reserved for the living. So live in hope while you can. Remember, your conduct counts.

Indeed, once you are dead, who’s going to remember you? Your family will for a little while, but eventually life moves on and you’re just a name in the family genealogy. This is burdensome to some of us; we think that our loves and hatreds should live on forever (ever try to pass on a love for classical music to your kids?). We are very passionate about things, and we think others should carry on that passion.

Even there – consider those who abolished slavery in our land. Do you feel their passion today? No; their cause is completed; only a few names remain in the history books. That’s the way it is; what are you going to do about it while you’re here?

What to do

Well, says Solomon, if you’re one of the righteous (see verse 1), then here’s what you should do:

  • Eat, drink and be merry – for God approves of your work. If you’re one of the good guys, don’t be gloomy. Act like you enjoy life – abundantly.
  • Enjoy life with the woman you love. Notice the singular; and this is from Solomon! It’s a basic fact for males: things go better when you’re married to the woman you love, and enjoy that.[2]
  • Whatever your vocation might be, give it your best shot – “as if unto the Lord.”

You only have so much time on the planet; make the best of it.

The race

Ecc 9:11-12 I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. (12) Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

The way to bet

The race is not always to the swift – but that’s the way to bet. Consider, though, that if you can bet on it, that means it’s not certain. Let’s translate this well known passage into modern terms:

  • Just because you have the pole position, doesn’t mean you’ll win a NASCAR race. Think about it; if it were always the fastest car that won, we wouldn’t need a race, just time trials. Time and chance happen in NASCAR as well as life.
  • We were supposed to win in Vietnam, too. Remember? We were the ones with all the technology – but wars are not just technology and strength. They are struggles of the will – and our will wasn’t nearly as strong as theirs. So the weak won.
  • Is it possible that among the starving people of Zimbabwe there are no wise men? Or is it not more likely that Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy prevails over all?[3]
  • There is someone who got rich in the latest stock market dive, but it wasn’t me. And I think I’m pretty smart.
  • Skill? Consider one Walter Johnson – the best pitcher baseball has ever seen.[4] He lost 271 games.

There it is: time and chance happen to all. The word “chance” should not be construed as probability; rather, it means “an event or interruption.” The message is clear: stuff happens. Expect it.

That has a significant implication. It means that you are going to face unexpected events in your life – and these events are a test of the Christian character you should be developing. And who knows when that exam ends?

The Value of Wisdom

Ecc 9:13-18 Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed me. (14) There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. (15) But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. (16) So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded. (17) The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. (18) Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Wisdom is greater than strength

So we are told – and then we go out to get more strength. While it is true that “superior firepower is an excellent aid to negotiations” (George S. Patton), there are reasons why wisdom is preferable:

  • Strength alone leads to evil, because power corrupts. Without wisdom, strength simply leads you into trouble.
  • If you rely on strength, you will soon discover that every crisis means war. (If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail). It is plain, however, that war rarely produces benefits commensurate with its cost. Lincoln once estimated that the North could have purchased all the slaves in the South for the price of conducting the Civil War for ninety days.
  • Rarely does war end anything. War is not over when you have defeated your enemy; it’s over when you have made your enemy into your friend. How much better to make friends first!
The poor man’s wisdom despised

Did you notice that in every FUBB[5] there’s someone with a memo in his Pearl Harbor file that screams, “I told you so!” How does this happen?

  • One reason is that we are social animals. In times of uncertainty, we look for the man who seems certain. If we can’t find him, we look for the man with the prestige. The lemmings are always looking for a cliff, it seems.
  • If we can’t find the certain or the prestigious, we can always find the rich. A guy with that much money must know what he’s doing, right? We sure aren’t going to listen to the poor working stiff.

It’s amazing what we can talk ourselves into, isn’t it? So how do we find wisdom?

Wisdom heard in quiet places

It is a fact: my wife’s wisdom has its own wisdom. She delivers it in the quiet of the bedroom. Isn’t it amazing how much more likely a man is to listen when she does it that way? Why is that?

  • One reason is the ego. If wisdom is delivered in raucous argument, it’s likely to be overwhelmed by the emotional response of “saving face.”
  • Contrarily, most of us also know that people who speak softly (but not hesitantly) are confident of their wisdom. They don’t need to shout. Therefore we listen to people who speak this way – if we can hear them at all.
  • Indeed, is it not the case that God himself prefers the “still, small voice?”
It only takes one idiot…

With all this being indisputably true, why is there so much stupidity in the world we live in? I submit a simple answer: it only takes one fool to screw things up. Who knows how many wise men will be required to fix his foolishness?

May I submit to you an example? Consider the Japanese Empire in late 1941. Their relations with America were hardly satisfactory. This is not surprising given their incursion into China and generally threatening attitude. The intelligent thing to do was to back down, lighten up and make some substantial changes in policy. But that would have someone “lose face.” Despite the fact that a long war with America could only have one result, the Japanese saw no choice but to attack. They awakened the sleeping giant. Within four years they were crushed. They knew this would happen, but convinced themselves that the Americans wouldn’t go to war in a serious way. The result was completely predictable.

Interestingly, those in the cabinet who wanted peace were in the majority. They simply could not find a way to avoid the war – without social disgrace. It only takes a few moral idiots to send a nation down the wrong path.

That’s a lesson for us. If you think that such “social pressure” decisions can’t happen to America, I have only two words for you: “politically correct.”

[1] How he knew about Obama that far in advance…. (some things never change.)J

[2] We may assume Solomon’s advice works as well for women; remember that in his time a woman’s status was greatly different.

[3] This lesson was prepared in June, 2010. The illustration will be out of date soon – we hope.

[4] IMHO – but he was one of the first five men elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson and Honus Wagner.

[5] Fouled Up Beyond Belief – the clean translation.

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