Week 8: Wisdom Rediscovered

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Ecclesiastes 7:1-29
Chapter 13: Wise Words for Busy People (7:1–14)
Chapter 14: Putting Wisdom to Work (7:15–29)

 

Ecclesiastes 7 marks the middle of the preacher’s discourse. We have already done an exhaustive study to the futility of life under the sun and, as Chuck Swindoll notes, Solomon seems to begin his journey back home in this chapter. Much of the book to this point has focused on man’s view instead of God’s view. Solomon is now turning a corner and begins to explore and express life from an above the sun perspective. Perhaps this explains why the writing style of this chapter is more reminiscent of the book of Proverbs than the narrative style we have grown accustomed to in the first part of this book. Proverbs are “brief, crisp, simple-sounding statements that offer insightful principles for handling life.” (Swindoll)

Solomon introduces this chapter with a series of "comparative proverbs" that Chuck Swindoll titles "wise words for busy people."

Wise Words for Busy People

The opening proverb begins with a concept we can all understand and then takes an interesting twist.

Ecclesiastes 7:1 ESV
(1) A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.

A good name is something to be prized. Unlike ointment, or perfume as it can also be translated, it has an enduring quality and transcends the moment. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant ointment, the beautiful aroma filled the area but the effects were only temporary, however, her good name lives on wherever the gospel is preached. Contrast that with Judas who was given a noble name by his parents but soiled it with an ignoble act.

The strange twist I alluded to comes in the second part of verse one. We typically see birth as a blessing and death as a tragedy so what is Solomon trying to tell us. Swindoll believes the main idea is that, for the saved, death frees us from the pains of this world and ushers us into the presence of the Father.

In verses 2-4, Solomon contrasts the careful contemplation of life and eternity with frivolity.

While it may seem odd to extol the virtues of places of mourning, it does make sense. Often, laughing and feasting provide a momentary escape from the pressures of life but they do not produce lasting change. Something about contemplating death turns our thoughts towards the eternal rather than the temporal and a mind set on the eternal is more likely to seek after God.

Next, Solomon returns to a subject he and other writers of Biblical Wisdom literature emphasize in verses 5-6; mainly that a wise person knows how to give and except a reproof.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6 ESV
(5) It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
(6) For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

Notice how this theme is echoed in other verses:

Proverbs 9:8 ESV
(8) Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

Proverbs 15:31-32 ESV
(31) The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.
(32) Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

Proverbs 17:10 ESV
(10) A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.

Although it is often hard to accept a rebuke, it could make a world of difference.

Wiersbe titled his comments on the next three verses "The ‘long haul’ is better than the shortcut".

Ecclesiastes 7:7-9 ESV
(7) Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
(8) Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
(9) Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.

Solomon is telling us that quick routes, such as bribery, never lead to true wisdom and a far better approach is to wait upon God. We have seen earlier in this series that God does see oppression and injustice and He will call the guilty to account in His time. When that time comes, those who faithfully served and patiently waited will have their mourning turned to dancing and joy and they will receive their reward. In their case, the end is truly better than the beginning.

Likewise, anger is a path that leads away from wisdom and towards foolishness. Other proverbs expand upon and reinforce this truth.

Proverbs 14:29 ESV
(29) Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.

Proverbs 15:18 ESV
(18) A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.

Proverbs 16:32 ESV
(32) Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.

Finally, Solomon concludes this section by telling us that there is no such thing as "the good old days".

Ecclesiastes 7:10 ESV
(10) Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Wisdom Leads to Balance
In the next section, Solomon’s main theme seems to be balance. Life is filled with pressure to move to the extremes but the wise path is most often the balanced path. In the next few verses, Solomon will look at wealth, providence, adversity and prosperity, and sin and righteousness.

Wealth
Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 ESV

Solomon has already explored the futility of wealth under the sun. Wealth can lose its value but the value of Godly wisdom endures. From a practical standpoint, wealth often flows through the hands of the person who lacks wisdom so without wisdom you probably won’t have and keep wealth either. It is easy to place your trust in gold but in the end, that is futility.

Providence
Ecclesiastes 7:13 ESV

We would all like to think that we are in control but the truth is that God is the one who gets to set the rules. The wise course of action is to discern God’s will and cooperate. Wiersbe has these helpful comments to say about this verse:

If God makes something crooked, He is able to make it straight; and perhaps He will ask us to work with Him to get the job done. But if He wants it to stay crooked, we had better not argue with Him. We don’t fully understand all the works of God (11:5), but we do know that "He hath made everything beautiful in its time" (3:11). This includes the things we may think are twisted and ugly.

Adversity and Prosperity
Ecclesiastes 7:14 ESV

(14) 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.

We have discussed both Job and Paul in previous lessons. Both these men knew times of prosperity and both experienced times of extreme trial. Although some believe that the Christian life would be a walk down easy street if we only had faith, the Biblical view is quite different. Trials are necessary and they help to build our Christian character. God will not spare us from trials but he will ensure that we provide us the strength to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). Likewise, God gives us times of joy and refreshing. As Solomon said in Chapter 3, there is a time for every purpose and, since we cannot see the future, we need to walk by faith in the moment we are in.

Sin and Righteousness
Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 ESV

Solomon exclaims, "I have seen everything". In essence, he is pointing out something that from a human perspective seems amazing to him. A righteous man dies young even though he is following God and a wicked man lives to a ripe old age. From an under the sun perspective, this is truly unfair but we have already seen that for the righteous, death is not a punishment, it is a path to life. For the wicked, the enjoyment they have in this life, which is but a fleeting moment of eternity, is all they will have and their future is eternal judgement.

Next Solomon warns against self-righteousness and pride. Wiersbe explains it this way:

Verses 16-18 have been misunderstood by those who say that Solomon was teaching "moderation" in everyday life: don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too great a sinner. "Play it safe!" say these cautious philosophers, but this is not what Solomon wrote.

In the Hebrew text, the verbs in verse 16 carry the idea of reflexive action. Solomon said to the people, "Don’t claim to be righteous and don’t claim to be wise." In other words, he was warning them against self-righteousness and the pride that comes when we think we have "arrived" and know it all. Solomon made it clear in verse 20 that there are no righteous people, so he cannot be referring to true righteousness. He was condemning the self-righteousness of the hypocrite and the false wisdom of the proud, and he warned that these sins led to destruction and death.

Verse 18 balances the warning: we should take hold of true righteousness and should not withdraw from true wisdom, and the way to do it is to walk in the fear of God. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10) and Jesus Christ is to the believer "wisdom and righteousness" (1 Cor. 1:30), so God’s people need not "manufacture" these blessings themselves.

Wisdom Leads to Strength

In the final part of this chapter, Solomon shows us how Godly wisdom is a source of strength.

Ecclesiastes 7:19 ESV
(19) Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

This strength can help us walk wisely and seek God’s forgiveness when we sin.

Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV
(20) Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

Scripture, God’s great gift of wisdom for us, will teach us how to guard our steps and points us to the only solution for our sin, Christ Jesus.

Wisdom also helps us to bear up under criticism because we know that we also criticize.

Ecclesiastes 7:20-22 ESV
(21) Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you.
(22) Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

To paraphrase Chuck Swindoll, in all likelihood what has been said about us is only the tip of the iceberg when we take into account what we know about ourselves. Some people are "blessed" with the gift of criticism and we are bound to meet one at some point in our lives.

A third area of strength is accepting the fact that we cannot grasp everything God is doing in this world.

Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 ESV

Wiersbe addresses this aspect this way:

Even Solomon with all his God-given wisdom could not understand all that exists, how God manages it, and what purposes He has in mind. He searched for the "reason [scheme] of things" but found no final answers to all his questions. However, the wise man knows that he does not know, and this is what helps to make him wise!

Finally, wisdom gives us strength to face the sinfulness of humanity in general.

Ecclesiastes 7:26-29 ESV

Solomon illustrates this by describing a wayward woman who ensnares a man through sensuality. This was something Solomon would have been keenly aware of because his life spiraled downward when he allowed his wives and concubines to turn his heart from the true God to idols. He follows this illustration by concluding that it is hard to find truly wise people on this earth but we can always count upon God. Turning again to Wiersbe:

Created in the image of God, man has the ability to understand and harness the forces God put into nature, but he doesn’t always use this ability in constructive ways. Each forward step in science seems to open up a Pandora’s box of new problems for the world . . . And beside that, man has used his abilities to devise alluring forms of sin that are destroying individuals and nations.

Yes, there are many snares and temptations in this evil world, but the person with godly wisdom will have the power to overcome. Solomon has proved his point: wisdom can make our lives better and clearer and stronger. We may not fully understand all that God is doing, but we will have enough wisdom to live for the good of others and the glory of God.