Summary: Any path apart from God’s way is a downward path. God offers us light and liberation, while secular reasoning brings only darkness and despair.
Overcoming Futility, a Sermon Series on Ecclesiastes
"Tested by Wisdom", Ecclesiastes 7:13-29 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
I read an apt example of worldly wisdom the other day, in the latest issue of Money magazine: Under the heading of financial tips, the editors recommend attending church, and here’s why: “Church provides lucrative networking opportunities that can increase your business. Your income can grow, assuming you don’t blow all your cash on helping the poor.” Worldly wisdom indeed. Solomon provides us a sample of such wisdom in today’s passage.
He points out the hopeless futility of figuring life out apart from God, verses 13-14. Life is a mystery to people who reject God; they’re left with the only other option, that nothing in life has purpose, if life is a random/chance accident of nature. Apart from God, we’re left with meaninglessness.
We’re advised in verses 15-18 not to be too good, too wicked, too wise or too foolish; in other words, avoid the “extremes”. This sounds perfect for people who say, “religion is OK as long as it doesn’t interfere with your life.” Moderation can be a wise approach to life…but it’s also a safe path many unbelievers take to avoid trouble: “Don’t make waves.” Verse 16 could be translated, “don’t pretend to be wise.” A person may have common sense, which is an understanding of how things work. Wisdom involves an understanding of why things work.
Verse 19 suggests that by surrounding ourselves with the “best and the brightest” we will gain power...yet in spite of worldly wisdom, we’re still flawed people. An Oscar-nominated documentary on the scandalous fall of Enron, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” portrays a now infamous group of powerful executives who grew blinded by greed and brought ruin upon themselves and their stockholders. When God and morality are out of the picture, people do whatever they think they can get away with, whatever works, with devastating results. Worldly wisdom often concludes there are no rules, so people do whatever brings about the desired goal. A Harvard professor writes, “If we have no moral point of reference, what you think is no more right or wrong than what I think” (Nicholi). If there is no basis for ethics, no ultimate accountability, the kind of shady practices that happened at Enron are inevitable.
There’s two ways to read verse 20, “There’s not a righteous person on earth who does what’s right and never sins.” An unbeliever can take these words and figure, “Great, why even try to be holy?” Believers set holiness as a personal goal. Unbelievers may do good to keep out of trouble; believers do so out of gratitude; our primary fear isn’t punishment but grieving our heavenly Father. Parents, if you want your teens to laugh, say to them, “Do this because it will please me.” Children start out wanting to please their parents; they hit a roadblock at adolescence, but most gradually regain that devotion. Unbelievers aren’t bad people; they’re capable of selfless acts, but until they desire to please God, their lives are incomplete; they’re like orphans, and God wants them in His family.
There are many competing voices in our world, arguing for this and that. Solomon cautions in verse 21, “Don’t pay attention to every word people say or you may hear your servant cursing you.”
The secular mind eventually reaches the frustration of verses 23-25. “Wisdom is beyond me.” We return to the central theme of this book, that apart from God, life is meaningless and unfathomable. We see this worldview reflected in abstract modern art, which came about as a result of changing values. We may shake our heads and wonder, “What was the artist thinking?” Artists who think there are no absolutes, that life itself is an accident, convey that sense of randomness on canvass. The result is a kind of senseless “anti-art” that reflects the ugly, absurd meaninglessness of life: “art for art’s sake.” Modern art is a sign of crisis in culture. The abstract artist is saying, “Here is life--chaotic and random, empty, no norms, devoid of meaning.” A case in point is American artist Jackson Pollack, who dripped paint from cans or brushes over a canvass on the floor, for which he earned the nickname “Jack the Dripper.” His style makes the statement that “all is chance.” Pollack’s art illustrates Solomon’s theme that, apart from God, life is futile, an illusion. Dr Francis Schaeffer describes such art as “the expression of people who are struggling with their appalling lostness.”
What do we end up with when we try to function apart from God? Bitterness and death, verses 26-29. Solomon may sound like a hater of women (you wonder why, he was married to so many!), but I think he’s being symbolic here. In his book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman. But there are 2 kinds of wisdom: from Above, and the flawed thinking we’re left with when we take God out of the picture. Such wisdom can only enslave us with falsehood.