The Futility of Human Wisdom
Topic: Meaning of Life Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:1–10:20
“THE FUTILITY OF HUMAN WISDOM”
One of the things I most enjoy doing when I have the opportunity is leisurely browsing through a used book store. I immediately make my way to the section marked “religion,” where I spend most of my time, and then invest a little more time in the “sports” section. As I pass from one section to the other, I note several large racks of books laeled “self-help.”
Often, “self-help” books bear titles that appeal to people’s problems and felt needs. Things like, “How to Lose Weight and Keep it Off” or “Seven Steps to Being a More Effective You.” Many of those books were best-sellers when they were first released, which probably suggests that the people who buy them are looking for “quick-fix” solutions to ongoing problems that they have probably struggled with for years. I’ve always found it interesting how soon after these books have peaked in popularity that they end up in used book stores. Apparently, the solutions that they offered either had an immediate effect or don’t work at all. I suspect the latter.
At the risk of “full disclosure,” I must admit that I am no fan of “self help” books...especially those written by Christian authors. Contrary to the opinion of many, the Bible is not a “self help” book. It does not offer “quick fix” answers to life’s most perplexing questions or solutions to life’s more pressing concerns. The Bible is meant to be read reverently, studied diligently, pondered carefully, and applied fully and contextually. It is not an anthology of inspirational sayings meant to be pulled out and used as amulets or “magic charms” at our selective discretion. It is the inspired Word of God, and its message is without error and more than sufficient to give us God’s answer to our deepest need.
It may seems strange and even ironic, but I cannot fully endorse Solomon’s “rules for life” recorded for us in these first ten chapters of Ecclesiastes. Now before you brand me a “heretic” and pick up stones to throw at me, let me remind you of the perspective from which Solomon is writing this book. I remind you that he has been engaged in a personal quest to find the meaning to life. His search has traveled along a “horizontal” plane of life, one that has been repeatedly described as being “under the sun.” And from that perspective his pursuit has taken him along a number of paths. Sadly, he has failed to find fulfillment and significance in any of them. Thus, he concludes, “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Clearly, Solomon has not left for us a “how to” book in terms of doing life.
Last Sunday we noted many of “the Preacher’s” observations, and today we will look at some of the conclusions he has arrived at, as well as some words of instruction that he has chosen to record. His counsel is not all bad. It may, in fact, be the best human wisdom that man can come up...if God is left out of the equation. In the final analysis, however, it is woefully inadequate in addressing the deepest needs of the one God has created.
Nevertheless, let’s spend some time this morning considering what the man who identifies himself as “the Preacher” has to say. We’ll begin in Ecclesiastes 7 with his...
Advice in view of man’s incomplete wisdom (7:1-29).
Solomon waxes poetic in penning the first thirteen verses of chapter 7. We immediately see similarities to the Book of Proverbs. Here we find a series of comparative contrasts in which one thing is said to be “better than” another. A great deal of the language he employs is figurative and requires some thoughtful reflection. For example, the opening line reads, “A good name is better than precious ointment.”
That may sound like a strange comparison, but we find a parallel expression in Proverbs 22:1, which says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” In the beginning of both that chapter and this one, “the Preacher” declares that one’s reputation or “name” is the most valuable thing a person can possess.
It is the second part of the couplet in verse 1 that adds to the mystery: “And the day of death than the day of birth.” When we put those two comparative phrases together (in the manner of Hebrew poetry) what we find Solomon saying is that it is better to die with a good reputation than to be born with an uncertain future.
Now read verse 2 in connection with that thought: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” In other words, the inevitability and realization of death should motivate us to build a “a good name” or a lasting legacy. He further explains that bit of wisdom in verses 3 and 4 by contrasting it with those who invest their lives with foolish pursuits.
The other comparisons in these thirteen verses similarly address foolish behaviors and encourage the reader to choose what is “better”—namely, what is “wise”—over those impulsive and transient actions and responses that result in “vanity.” That applies to receiving “rebuke” over meaningless praise (verses 5 and 6), suffering oppression over accepting a bride (verse 7), being patient rather than harboring anger (verses 8 and 9), and anticipating the future rather than reliving the past (verses 10 and 11).
In short, according to “the Preacher,” the best path in life is to be able to discern and to choose those things that are “better,” even over things that may be “good.” A widely-attributed quote says, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til the good is better, and the better is best.” That’s good advice...but it doesn’t go far enough.
Verse 13 suggests that it is the hand of God that has ordained the pattern that man must follow: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” It’s interesting that the man who has been so cynical about life now suggests that the unexplainable lies in the hands of One who is sovereign over all.
That thought is expanded a bit more in verse 14 as Solomon returns to narrative form and continues his counsel: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”
Although tension remains, Solomon—like Job before him—has begun to settle into the realization that the answers to life are not to be found “under the sun.” He admits that God has the “final say,” but he does not yet seem to know this God well enough to entrust himself to Him in a personal way. All he can do is strive to live life in a way that seems most fitting to the occasion and according to the best human standard as he sees it.
Verses 15 through 22 seem to encourage moderation. Mind you, this deduction comes from having lived in way that was anything but “moderate.” Appearing to look back with some regret and a recently acquired level of maturity, he writes in verses 17 and 18, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not be overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Moderation in life may be good worldly advice—we certainly hear it often enough—but it does not assure anyone that they will necessarily live a longer or more fulfilling life because of it.
By verse 20, Solomon has arrived at a conclusion that is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to understand the Gospel: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” All sin—sins of omission as well as sins of commission—are included here. These words of “the Preacher” foreshadow those later written by Paul in Romans 3(:10-18), a passage that places every person without exception under God’s just condemnation and need for salvation.
You may recall that this same Solomon included similar words in the prayer in his prayer of dedication for the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:46). They reinforce the dilemma we all face. “Iniquity is an equal opportunity employer,” as one observer of life put it. Though a discouraging discovery and admission, it is an essential one if we are to get to the place where we become candidates for redemption. Apart from sin, there is simply no need for salvation.
It is one thing to discover that we have a need that is beyond our ability to meet, but quite another to recognize its solution and where it comes from. We can, therefore, sense the frustration dripping from the words of “the Preacher” near the end of chapter 7. In verses 23 and 24, he admits that the answer “was far from me,” and so he asks, “who can find it out?” Neither the companionship of men nor the comfort of women, both of which he earnestly sought, brought him anything but disappointment. Thus he concludes in verse 29, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”
Because man is not omniscient, his wisdom is always incomplete. For all of his intense and thorough search, Solomon was forced to admit that man’s fallen nature prevented human wisdom from extending beyond certain limits. Daily life merely confirmed that the problem was not with God, but with man himself. And as long as life was being lived along the “horizontal” plane—“under the sun”—satisfying answers to the meaning of life were not to be found.
Chapter 8 begins by asking, “Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?” In other words, where are the answers to life’s most important questions to be found? Admittedly, it is God who exercises sovereign control, but just how does man make his way through the maze of God’s inscrutable ways to discover what it all means? The counsel he offers in chapters 8 and 9 are his attempts to face life and provide...
Advice in view of God’s impenetrable providence (8:1-9:18).
Unlike most of us, Solomon was a student life. He didn’t simply let one day pass into the next without assessing its outcome and planning for the next. Unless we are unique among our peers, we too face our days in much the same way. How often do we actually pause and take stock of where we are headed? The weeks, months, and years may pass without any notable significance, but as the world rotates on its axis and encircles the sun, we are constantly changing. One day our “daily grind” will come to a screeching halt, and we will be called into account by the One who has given us life in the first place. No doubt, we need to think about that a little more than we do.
In his quest for answers, “the Preacher” wanted to provide guidance for those who—like him—sought to live the life he was created to live. The problem was, he didn’t know what kind of life that was to be. Modern day prophets appear to know better than Solomon, as they peddle their books with titles like Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Please! Not even Solomon believed that the purpose of a man’s life would be found “under the sun.”
Nevertheless, Solomon does recognize the importance of living meaningfully during this brief span of time we have been given on this earth. So, what we find in these two chapters is the best counsel for living life that human wisdom can offer in light of our limited understanding of God’s sovereign ways. Let’s take a brief survey at what he has to say:
- In chapter 8, verses 1 through 8, he discusses the importance of submission to earthly authority, primarily because it has been ordained for this life by God.
- And then in verses 9 through 13, he insists on the ultimate triumph of justice over evil, even though that may not always seem to be occurring in the present. “I know,” he writes, “that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked.”
- Because he is convinced that is so, even though life is not always equitable and fair, the reader is encouraged in verses 14 and 15 to receive life as a “gift” from God and live hopefully and productively.
- Verses 16 and 17 close out the chapter by reminding us of the impossibility of man’s ever fully understanding God’s ways, no matter how wisely and diligently he seeks to know them. He writes, “I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” That is because, even though man may seek for God, he will not find Him by seeking. Instead, he must be sought by God. From time to time, we all would do well to hit the “pause button” and “Be still and know that (He is) God” (cf. Psalm 46:10) and we are not.
As we move into chapter 9, Solomon’s advice continues:
- The first six verses of this chapter speak to the universality and inevitability of death. As one of my professors used to remind us on particularly difficult days of class, “None of us are getting out of here alive.” Death comes in time, and it comes to all.
- In light of that truth, Solomon urges his readers in verses 7 through 12 to enjoy life with those we love because, as Paul would later on tell the Athenians, God has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries” (cf. Acts 17:26) of man. Therefore, Solomon adds, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” “Life is short. Within reason, live it to its full enjoyment.”
- Now, lest we think that “the Preacher” is advocating an undisciplined manner of life, he hastens to point out in verses 13 through 18 that wisdom is preferred over any other human pursuit. But even man’s wisdom falls short in yielding the meaning to life. We read these familiar words, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time.” Sometimes there are “outliers” in life, things that defy expectations. Solomon is saying that the wise person does not plan on the basis of “what might happen,” but rather on what “most probably will happen.” “Wisdom (is always)...better than might.” The irony, as he points out, is that “wisdom” often goes unheeded.
Admittedly, this is an impressive list. One might even label it “Solomon’s Rules to Live By.” There is little doubt that a person’s quality of life would be improved by the application of what “the Preacher” has left for us to ponder. At the same time, however, these words of advice do not go nearly far enough to prepare us for the unpredictable inevitabilities of life and death.
One day Jesus was confronted by a group of scribes and Pharisees who sought a sign from Him regarding the miracles He performed and the words He spoke. Were they truly from God? In response, our Lord pointed to the wisdom and greatness of this man Solomon, and then shocked them by saying that One even greater was standing in their presence (cf. Matthew 12:42).
Some years later, when writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul devoted considerable space to distinguishing “the (inferior) wisdom of the world” with “the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Even though men looked at it as “foolishness” and “weakness,” God’s wisdom possessed a “power” that was “stronger than men.” That “wisdom” was and remains the message of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is a message that confounds the wisest counsel of man because it speaks to the most basic need of man and the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. It is that for which Solomon and others before and after him have sought for centuries. And it is found in a most unexpected place...at a cross and an empty tomb.
But Solomon has not yet arrived at the place where he can see that. And, perhaps—just perhaps—neither have you. Maybe you’re still searching for the meaning to life by means of human wisdom alone. I can assure you that will not take you far enough. Solomon’s quest continues in chapter 10, where we find his...
Advice in view of life’s insecure course (10:1-20).
The graphic imagery in verse 1 further illustrates the point that was made at the end of the previous chapter. “Wisdom” is often thwarted because it is neither as “loud” nor as “flashy” as “foolish” behavior. It’s like when you were in school...the “smart” kids were looked at as “nerdy” and were basically ignored or made fun of, whereas the “party-goers” and “show offs” were considered “cool” and popular and got all of the attention. That’s Solomon’s point in verse 1: “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”
We remember from what we saw in chapter 7 that “precious ointment” is valuable. But its value is lost—like “pearls before swine” (cf. Matthew 7:6, NASV)—on those unwilling to receive it. In just the same way, the New Testament reminds us that “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (cf. Philippians 3:8) is tragically lost on many to this very day.
One cannot help but recall the story of Jesus’ being anointed for His burial by a woman who sacrificed her most precious possession—“an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment”—in order empty the bottle and pour it out upon Jesus. “And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste?’” To which Jesus responded, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me” (cf. Matthew 26:6-13). Wisdom is “better than” folly, and there is a “wisdom of God” that makes even the best “wisdom” of the world look foolish.
Verse 2 of chapter 10 argues that “wisdom” and “folly” move in opposite directions, just as verse 3 demonstrates that the “wise” and the “foolish” choose different paths in pursuing the meaning to life. Though human wisdom is not the final answer, its counterpart—folly—is to be shunned at all cost.
The remaining verses of this chapter describe foolishness from a number of perspectives. They illustrate what logic would seem to dictate to be a world turned upside down. Verses 5 through 7 depict “folly...in high places.” And verses 8 through 11 provide examples of “folly in action” by expounding the consequences of “foolish behavior.” Who among us have not watched and laughed at those YouTube videos of people who have done “dumb things”? And who among us has not done our own “dumb things” that we hope so one else has seen? You see, these verses may not be as remote from us as we may think.
Fools are inevitably exposed by their talk, and that is what Solomon points out in verses 12 through 15. There are many who can speak like experts on any number of subjects, but over time their incompetence proves them to be “frauds” and “fools.” “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool,” the saying goes, “than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
There is an unresolved tension that brings today’s passage to a close. The entire Book of Ecclesiastes has, for the most part, been theologically disconcerting. Yes, it’s been helpful to be reminded that I need to be “wise,” rather than “foolish,” in my thinking, talking, and living. And it’s good to remind myself that life is temporary and that I will one day be held accountable. That advice is useful...as far as it goes. But surely, there must be more.
Any resolution to life’s most important questions must involve God. But where is He? Go back and check...He isn’t even mentioned in the twenty-six verses of chapter 10. The whole tenor of this chapter—as well as the book in general—has been puzzling, and even at time discouraging. The lack of resolution is troubling, especially when we consider that this is the best that the wisest king of his day can come up with.
So what are you and I to make of all this?
I’m happy to say that “the Preacher” is not finished. And neither are we. There is hope to be found in chapters 11 and 12...and that is where we will be next Sunday, Lord willing.
As Solomon’s search for life’s meaning has progressed throughout the book, we have noticed his increasing understanding of the role God plays in man’s destiny. And while he has not yet arrived at the place where he eventually will, I believe there are two conclusions that you and I can draw from his journey to date:
- First, apart from God’s provision, man is unable to discover what course in life he should take.
- And second, apart from God’s revelation, man cannot know what will come after him.
Human wisdom is able to take a person only so far. Fortunately, God has intervened in the affairs of His creation to make both Himself and His will known to man. That revelation has come progressively through the ages, and man has been accountable to Him at every stage. Unlike in the days of Solomon, God’s self-disclosure is now complete with the advent of His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:3 tells us that it is “Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” That “wisdom” is available to those who ask for it. An when we do, James 1:5 says God will give it “generously.”
“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” is an award-winning documentary which critically evaluates the American public school system. The film begins with these words from its main character, Geoffrey Canada, himself an educator:
One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me that Superman did not exist. I was a comic book reader...And I just loved Superman because even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought, ‘He’s coming, and I don’t know when, because he always shows up, and he saves all the good people...I was reading—I don’t know, maybe I was in the fourth grade—I said, “Ma, do you think Superman is real?” “Superman is not real,” (she replied). I was like, “He’s not. What do you mean, he’s not?” “No, he’s not real,” (she said). And she thought I was crying because...it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was (really) crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I know that is simply not true. There is Someone strong enough to save us. He has already come to make our salvation possible. And He is coming again to make our rescue complete. Nothing can stop Him...not even kryptonite or the strongest surge of Satan himself.
Jesus Christ—and He alone—is the One who reveals what life like is “above the sun.” It is He who gives meaning to what on the “horizontal” plane can at times appear to be so meaningless and full of “vanity.” He doesn’t offer a “self help” program or a book with “how to” instructions. Rather He offers Himself to all who will turn from their endless and meaningless pursuits and place their faith and trust in Him. He came “that (we) may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
If you haven’t yet met this One as Savior and Lord, then I urge to consider that there is more to living than you have known so far. By His death on the cross He has removed the obstruction that separates you from God...your sin. He offers life filled with meaning and purpose to those who respond to Him in faith.
But let me speak a word to those of you who may already have given your life to Jesus. How long has it been since you last marveled at His holiness in light of the price that He paid to rescue you from your lost state? When did you last sit humbly and silently before Him and bask in the awareness that He truly loves you and desires to end your quest for meaning by welcoming you into His fatherly embrace in every circumstance that you face?
The Bible is not a “how to” book. It is the story of Jesus Christ—from His eternal pre-existence to the prediction of His coming, from the life that He lived to the death that He died, from His bodily resurrection from the grave to His promised return to earth—so that you and I might not be stuck to live our lives “under the sun.”
By God’s grace, may we cast our eyes “vertically” and find His arms welcomely extending to us today.