Summary: HOw do gain wisdom? Sometimes we find that what works in one situation backfires in another. But ecclesisastes helps us to see that the only source for wisdom is God himself.
Wisdom is one of those things we all aim for as we go through life. We try to teach it to our children from an early age. We want them to avoid the mistakes that we or others have made. So what do we do? We teach them the same way people have done it for millennia: through the use of proverbs. You probably heard these sorts of things over and over again from your parents or your teachers as you were growing up: An apple a day keeps the doctor away. A bad workman blames his tools. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. One of my favourites is "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
How about these: A picture is worth a thousand words. All’s fair in love and war. Often they involve contrasts: Better late than never. Better safe than sorry. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; Waste not, want not; or are simply pragmatic: "You can’t take it with you." I quite like this one: "The only stupid question is the one that is not asked." Useful in a bible study setting.
The book of Proverbs has lots of these sorts of short pithy statements, intended to teach young people how to be wise in this world. In fact it contains several collections of proverbs, collected it seems, by several different people. These sayings came from people observing the world around them and noticing the things that work and the things that don’t.
The only trouble is, sometimes they leave us with a dilemma. Sometimes we find that what worked in one situation backfires in another. In fact as you read through Proverbs you realise that the writer has already worked this out himself. So we find in Proverbs 26:4: "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself." But then the next verse says: "5Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes." Simple answers just don’t work in this world.
That’s what we found in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes isn’t it? The teacher has set his mind to understand everything that’s done in this world and what does he conclude? It’s all vanity, meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Why? Because "What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted." The wisdom of Solomon, if it’s taken in parts, separated out into proverbs and sayings, is flawed, because it’s based on observation of a fallen world. What works in one place doesn’t work somewhere else. All our efforts to systematise the world, to catalogue it, analyse it, explain it, are at best partial. I remember when I was working as an engineer something would fail and I’d give it to one of my staff to fix. But it wasn’t enough simply to get it working again. Dropping it on the floor might have done that. No, I wanted them to tell me why it had failed and what they’d done to make sure it didn’t happen again. If they couldn’t explain the failure then they probably hadn’t really fixed the fault and it’d happen again.
Well that’s what the teacher finds. This wisdom, as good as it may be isn’t sufficient to explain a world like the one we live in. Why is that do you think? With all our twenty first century wisdom and knowledge why are we still struggling to understand the world we live in?
Well, when we get to ch 3 we discover that part of the reason we can’t understand all that happens in this world is because God has made it like that: "I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him." (Eccl 3:14 NRSV) A few verses earlier we read: "11[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." There’s something about the world that pushes us to admit our weakness, to look beyond us for an answer. We know there’s more to life than we see at first glance. As the X-Files constantly reminded us, there’s something out there.
When we look at the world and see its crookedness, its perverseness, its inbuilt futility we realise that we need something or someone greater than ourselves to make sense of it all.
Does this futility and perverseness in the world surprise you? I think lots of people are surprised when people they’ve looked up to do the wrong thing. Whether it’s a politician who’s been arrested for drunk driving, or a Christian minister who’s had an affair with one of his parishioners, or a football star who’s been taking drugs, we’re often surprised that such a thing could happen. Yet if you think about our Christian theology, we shouldn’t be, should we? Isn’t this just the sort of thing we expect in a fallen world? Didn’t God tell Adam and Eve that their relationships in the world were going to be broken as a result of their disobedience? Didn’t he say that from now on there’d be pain and struggle as they tried to control the world; weeds to dig up, sweat as they ploughed the land, pain in childbirth?