The Limited Value of Wisdom
Passage: Ecclesiastes 9:11-18
The Fear of the LORD
I want to begin this morning by addressing a question I got asked two weeks ago, and we didn’t get to last week. This actually works out really well, because my regular lesson is shorter this week. Someone came up to me after Sunday school two weeks ago and asked, “Couldn’t we change the word ‘fear’ to ‘awe,’” as in “the awe of the Lord”? He said, “I don’t really fear God. I don’t think I should fear God.” And I told him I’d address that this morning because it’s a very important question that I’m sure other people have, too. So, the short answer is, “No.” We can’t change the word “fear” to “awe.” The Hebrew word means “fear.” And that’s very clear. That’s how all of the versions translate it.
However, there is more to it than that. Because like you said, in one sense, we as Christians don’t fear God, because we’re no longer under wrath. In fact, there’s a certain type of fear of God that results from sin. For instance, after Adam and Eve sinned, what did they do? They hid from God! Why? Because they were afraid of Him! They never hid from Him before! We sing a hymn that says, “I now am reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear. He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear.” So in one sense, we shouldn’t be afraid of God any longer. But Ecclesiastes 12:13 says, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.” So how do we rectify those two ideas? Any thoughts?
I did a quick web search last night and came across a short article by R.C. Sproul that was very helpful on this topic. I posted it to the church Facebook page last night and then shared it on my wall. I also printed out a couple of copies for anyone who’s interested. In the article, Sproul refers to the distinction that Luther made between what he called “servile fear” and “filial fear.” “Servile fear” is the kind of fear that a slave has toward an abusive master. It’s the kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber feels toward his tormenter. “Filial fear” is the kind of fear that that a son has towards a loving father. It looks a lot like deep-seated respect. He dreads displeasing his father, not because his dad is so bad, but because his dad is so good. However, Sproul also points out that there is still a sense in which God should be awesome and even frightening to believers because of His holiness and justice. Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” I hope that helps. Any questions?
Alright, please turn to Ecclesiastes 9:11-18. There is a sort of an intramural debate among pastors that has to do with the helpfulness of secular books on leadership. You may never have thought about that before, but being a pastor involves a lot of leadership, and there are a lot of good secular books on leadership. And when you get into those books, you often find that even though the authors may not have been Christians, the lessons they teach can be traced back to principles in the Bible. So how do we approach books like that? Do we read lots of them? Or do we just ignore them? Solomon’s message here in Ecclesiastes sheds an interesting light on that question. Solomon says, “Wisdom is good, but it’s value is limited, especially apart from God.
I’d like to organize my lesson today around four main questions having to do with wisdom; and the first is this: “What is wisdom?” That may seem like an obvious question, but it’s actually more tricky than you might think, and it’s very important when it comes to understanding what Solomon is saying not only in this text, but also in the book as a whole.
What Is Wisdom?
How many of you have ever known a godly man or woman who was, quite candidly, a bad leader? How many of you have ever known a good leader who was not a godly person? What is it that makes a good leader? You can talk all day about compassion and people skills, but when it comes right down to it, the defining trait of a good leader is the ability to make good choices. It is what Al Mohler refers to as “the all-important quality of knowing what to do.” That’s what the Bible often means when it refers to “wisdom.” Wisdom is skill at making good choices. It’s the ability to take logic and information and come up with the right answer. You say, “That doesn’t sound very spiritual!” Sometimes it’s NOT very “spiritual” in the sense that it doesn’t always have to do with deep theology. Sometimes, wisdom has to do with very mundane life decisions like “Which car should I buy?” “My boss is mad at me; how should I respond?” “Should I brush my teeth before bed or when I wake up in the morning?” These are not super “spiritual” decisions. However, the writers of the Bible INSIST that foundational to ALL GOOD DECISION-MAKING is an understanding of who God is and a proper relationship with Him. Thus, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” So you can have unbelievers who operate very wisely within a limited context (coaches who make all the right calls, venture capitalists who seem to know the future, technicians who have an uncanny ability to fix anything, etc.); and yet, if you evaluate their entire lives based on Scripture, it becomes clear that they are nothing more than highly competent fools.
So one of things Solomon is trying to do in this book to is to make us see the limited value of wisdom in and of itself so that we embrace the fear of the LORD as the starting point for our wisdom and trust completely in Him, not in ourselves. Does that make sense? If you don’t that understanding of what wisdom is, you’re not going to get Ecclesiastes. You’ll think, “Why is Solomon criticizing wisdom in this verse, and then commending wisdom in the next verse!?” Solomon wants us to recognize the insufficiency of “apart from God wisdom”; but he certainly doesn’t want us to abandon it altogether! I hope that makes sense.
So now that we’ve talked about the definition of wisdom, let’s answer the question, “How is wisdom limited?”
How Is Wisdom Limited?
It Cannot Ensure Success (v. 11).
The words “wise,” “understanding,” and “skill” at the end of v. 11 are all synonyms that point to the fact that Solomon’s point is about wisdom. But he starts off by talking about speed and strength. So let’s just take what he says about speed. Solomon starts out, as he loves to do, by saying something provocative. He says, “You know, the fastest person doesn’t win the race.” Now he’s got our attention. The Winter Olympics are here. What do you mean, “The fastest person doesn’t win the race? That’s the definition of a race, isn’t it?” “No,” says Solomon, “The fastest person doesn’t win. It’s the person who happens to be able to afford the training, the person whose parents put her into sports at age three, the accident who happens not to break her leg in a freak skiing accident, the one who is born into a situation in which he doesn’t have to go to work full-time as soon as he is old enough in order to support his family. It’s the guy who happens to end up with the best coach, the one who doesn’t get sick on the way to tryouts, the girl who is born in the right year so that she is hitting her peak during the year of the Olympics. It’s the guy whose country does not disqualify itself by doping other athletes, the one who performs well under pressure, the one who happens to have a good day on the day of the race–that’s who wins the races–NOT the fast guy!” In other words, “You’re naïve if you think that it all depends on you! There are so many factors outside of your control that wisdom (or in this case, speed) cannot possibly ensure success!”
Instead, “Time and chance happen to them all.” That sounds a bit fatalistic, doesn’t it? How can Solomon talk about chance, when throughout the entire book, he has emphasized the fact that a sovereign God reigns over all? Well, don’t read too much into that word “chance.” As one commentator said, “[T]he Teacher is not abandoning his earlier position that the will of God determines all; he is merely looking at the arbitrary nature of life from a human rather than theological perspective. Merit is not always rewarded, and the world can be unfair.”
That’s true, isn’t it? Life isn’t fair. Get over it. We ought to teach our children that lesson. Many people have become discouraged because they expected life to be fair. But life isn’t fair! So we’ve got to adjust our expectations! It may be that today you’re feeling crushed under a load of unmet expectations. You expected everything to work out just because you were hardworking and prudent, but it has not turned out that way at all! You need to recognize that you’re not alone in this. The feeling that life has cheated you is a temptation that is common to man. It’s not like you’ve been singled out for something that nobody else faces; rather, it’s that your expectations were naïve. But there IS hope. Because besides a broken, unfair world, Solomon also presents a sovereign God, whose justice always prevails. And he says in 8:12, “I SURELY KNOW that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him.” Maybe not now, maybe not even in this life, but keep fearing God, and eventually, you will be blessed.
It Cannot Save You from Death (v. 12).
The idea of the word “time’ in v. 12 is “proper time.” In other words, Solomon is talking about every man’s appointed time to die. Does God know when your time to die is? (yes) Do you know when your time to die is? (no) That’s the point in v. 12. You have an appointed time, but you don’t know when that is. So from your perspective, it’s probably going to come upon you like when a bird or a fish gets caught in a net. That bird is just going about life, enjoying the day, when all of a sudden–bam! It’s caught. I know it’s not necessarily pleasant to think about death in those terms, but it’s true, and like I’ve said before, it’s healthy to do so. Thinking about death humbles and sobers us and helps us live life to the fullest.
I want to make a couple of quick points here before moving on to question three. First, I hope Solomon is beginning to sound like a broken record, because his purpose is to aid learning by driving these truths into our heads. Second, I want to point out once again that Solomon’s presentation of the limitations of wisdom demands salvation by grace alone. You can’t make this life work on your own. You’ll end up feeling like the victim of forces outside of your control; and then eventually, you’ll die. You can’t fight against that. So your only option is to cry out for rescue. You need God to save you from the vanity of this world. Solomon doesn’t necessarily go into all of those details, but he does say very clearly later on that the solution to the problems he has raised is found in a relationship with God.
So given those limitations of wisdom, we have to ask ourselves, “Is wisdom even worth pursuing?” Obviously, the answer to that question is “yes,” but why?
Is Wisdom Worth Pursuing?
Wisdom is worth pursuing because it’s better than strength (vv. 13-18). The story in vv. 13-15 forms the basis of the lessons in vv. 16-18. So let’s start by talking about the story. What happened? Can you tell me the story in your own words? Now what does Solomon conclude based on this story in v. 16? (“wisdom is better than strength”) And what else does he say in v. 18? (“wisdom is better than weapons of war”) In other words, it’s better to have wisdom than advanced military technology. That one poor wise man in the story was of more value than all of the expensive siege towers put together. So I hope that you agree, wisdom is incredibly valuable! And because of that, you must pursue wisdom. That’s the main point Solomon is making in these verses.
But before we talk about the application of the main point, I want you to notice some of the peripheral bits of wisdom that Solomon throws in here. If this passage were a meal, the ribeye steak would be the point that wisdom is valuable. But the rolls, asparagus, and cheesy potatoes are the other little lessons he throws in there. So what are some of those side points?
First, what’s significant about the wise man in Solomon’s parable? (he’s poor) What can we learn from that? (Not all rich people are wise, and not all poor people are foolish.) We can tend to assume that rich people are wise, and poor people probably don’t know what they’re talking about; but Solomon’s story breaks that stigma.
Second, what was the fate of the poor wise man? (After he had saved the city, everyone forgot him. According to v. 16, they wouldn’t listen to him anymore.) So once again, we see that wisdom in itself, though extremely valuable, is not ultimately satisfying. You could save your entire city from destruction, and yet still fail to secure a lasting name for yourself or even the kind of reputation that would ensure that people will listen to you again in the future! That’s tragic! But again, it’s just the way life goes.
Third, according to v. 17, how do the communication styles of the wise man and the foolish man differ? (The wise man speaks quietly; the foolish man shouts.) “The ruler of fools” in v. 17 is himself a fool. And he shouts out orders with an authoritarian air. Perhaps he’s angry or out of control. Perhaps he uses power and threats to manipulate and control people. Perhaps he just wants everyone to look at him. But whatever the case, he’s loud and obnoxious. Contrast that with the wise man. He speaks quietly. Why does the wise man speak quietly? I think there are two main reasons. First, because he’s in control of his emotions. Proverbs 25:28 says “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit Is like a city broken down, without walls.” But that is not the wise man. Second, the wise man speaks quietly because shouting does not help him accomplish his purpose. He’s not in it for the popularity, so he doesn’t need to attract attention to himself. He’s not like the preacher in the joke who wrote in his notes, “Weak point; pound pulpit harder”–he doesn’t need to cover up for bad logic. And he knows that if people won’t listen to common sense, yelling won’t help anything. In other words, when the wise man speaks, he does so in order to help others, and no one is usually helped by yelling. By the way, can you shout using the written word as well as the spoken word? Can you shout in print, or in an email, or on Twitter? Sure you can! Use of highly emotional language, hyperbolic speech, exaggeration, personal attacks–these are all ways to “shout” on paper or on a screen. This stuff is normal in our society, isn’t it? Many times, it seems like the public debate had turned into a shouting match rather than an informed, logical, discussion. We need to be reminded that most of the time, the wise man does not need to shout.
Finally, I want you to see the last phrase in v. 18. What is it that can nullify the benefits of wisdom? (sin) And not just lots of sins–one sinner! Now remember that the context here is one of war and counsel. So the sinner in view is probably not just a regular citizen. He is some kind of man in power who is corrupt or even a traitor. And Solomon says that one man like this can destroy a host of good. One spy in the White House, one dishonest accountant, one child molester in the preschool–these guys can wreak absolute havoc for everyone else. Can I apply this to the church? One schismatic deacon, one immoral youth pastor, one false teacher on the seminary faculty–can destroy the work of hundreds of other godly men and women. By the way, this is why it is so crucially important who is in leadership at our church, and especially who we elect as pastors and deacons. Because one “bad apple” as they say, can ruin the whole bunch. But this also applies to church membership and discipline! You say, “Where do you get that?” Well, every member in our church has the opportunity to be an active participant in the affairs of the body–not just in voting, but in relationships, influence, etc. So it is very important that every member of Life Point has a credible profession of faith. If we allow someone who persists in unrepentant sin to go on participating in the body, we are asking for trouble. I think we could also apply this to the workplace. Some of you may be in the position of hiring and firing people. You ought to look, not just at competence, but at character when deciding whom to hire and promote. Wisdom is important, but purity is more important.
That brings us to our final question: “How should I respond to wisdom’s limited value?”
How Should I Respond to Wisdom’s Limited Value?
Value wisdom, first of all, by developing an ear for it. Because the shouting is so prevalent in our society, you must develop an ear for the words of quiet wisdom. This is easier said than done. Because the people who are shouting in your ear all day demand your attention. That’s why you’ve got to identify the people in your life who are just quietly feeding you wisdom from God’s Word. Who are those people? They are the ones you ought to seek out and listen to, and tune out all the rest. Of course, the ultimate place we ought to go to find wisdom is the Bible. The words of the wise recorded in this book are more important than all of the others! In fact, what you are looking for in wise counselors is ultimately just people who know God’s Word and are skilled at applying it to various situations. So first, value wisdom by developing and ear for it.
Second, value wisdom by seeking to be wise. You can accomplish a lot of good through wisdom! You may even save a city! So “cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding.” “Seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures,” as the book of Proverbs says. You say, “How do I start?” You start by admitting your need and making a choice. You’ve got to have the will to gain wisdom. No one can make that choice for you. And then, you’ve got to go to the Word of God. It’s an old, tested method to read and meditate on a Proverb every day. There are thirty-one Proverbs in the Bible, and most months have thirty-one days, so you can get through the book in a month. And then when you’re done, start it over again! Let those truths sink into your soul! Finally, I should point out that Paul says in the book of Colossians, which we are studying in the morning services, that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. In other words, for the Christian, wisdom is not an elective class. In a college degree program, there are certain classes that are required and certain classes that are electives. Wisdom is not an elective. Wisdom is found in Christ–that is, in relationship with Him. So as you seek to grow in your relationship with Him, you will grow in knowledge. So quite simply, seek Christ!
The second response to the limited value of wisdom is to seek purity. You say, “Where’d you get that from?” Well, it’s found in v. 18 (v. 18). I want to make a logical argument based upon the text, and see if you follow me. If one sinner can destroy much good–can destroy the work of numerous wise men, then which is more fundamentally important: wisdom or purity? (Wisdom is more important.) Now, if a person is walking with God, then hopefully, he is both wise and pure. However, let me say this: if you ever find yourself in a position in which you’re forced to choose between someone who SEEMS wise but has low character and someone with HIGH MORAL CHARACTER BUT MAYBE LESS INSIGHT AT TIMES, choose the guy with high moral character EVERY SINGLE TIME. A truly righteous man can develop wisdom over time. But a wicked man’s character deficiencies will always come back to bite you. Even if he seems to make up for them with shrewdness in the short term, in the long run, the health of the group will suffer because of his wickedness. He will destroy much good.
In many ways, our culture is crazed with the concept of wise living. Books on leadership are published at the rate of about four per day, and the self-help industry now rakes in almost $10 billion per year. Everyone wants to be wise–to take the knowledge that’s available and apply it well in order to make their lives better. Solomon says that that’s good, but also that apart from God, it has limited value. In fact, even godly wisdom does not allow us to control our lives or to escape death. Despite popular opinion these days, it’s purity (and not necessarily wisdom) that is most important. Our starting point and guiding principle must always be the fear of the LORD.