Summary: 3rd in a series from Ecclesiastes. The only profitable wisdom is God-centered.
In preparing for this week’s message, I was taken back to one of the most profitable learning activities that I ever experienced during my seminary training. As part of my Old Testament introduction class, we were required to find articles from scholarly journals and write a three page evaluation of those articles.
One of the articles I read and evaluated came from a 1987 issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. I was expecting to read an article that would help me to have a better understanding of the Bible, but I was in for a rude awakening. I suppose the title of the article should have prepared me at least somewhat for what I was about to experience:
“Dream Form in Genesis 2:4b-3:24: Asleep in the Garden”
The author, in his attempt to explain some of the apparent inconsistencies in the account of creation and the fall of man, claims that this passage is written in the form of a fairy tale with “before”, “during” and “after” panels and that the fall of man is merely a dream of Adam that is framed by the material which comes before and after the dream. I kid you not! There is just no way that I could ever dream this stuff up. As you can imagine, I had some major problems with the article which I explained in my paper. And I’ll never forget my professor’s response:
“You brave soul! This article is a classic example of “too much education!”…This article, in general, is the kind of nonsense that drives me crazy.”
To me, this was a real life example of the fact that it is certainly possible to be “too smart for our own good.” That’s the theme of this morning’s passage from Ecclesiastes:
12 I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, And what is lacking cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with my heart, saying, "Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge." 17 And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Before we take a look at this passage, let me take a moment to see if I can’t clear up some possible confusion. Some people have asked why I’m using the word “Qoheleth” to refer to the author of Ecclesiastes. They’ve asked why I don’t just call him Solomon, or even the “Preacher”.
As I explained during our introduction to Ecclesiastes a couple weeks ago, we can’t identify the author of the book with any certainty. Although there are hints, as we’ll see this morning, that the author is at least taking on the persona of Solomon, he identifies himself only by the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which most of our Bibles translate either as “Preacher”, or “Teacher”. Those may very well be the best English words we have to translate the Hebrew, but in our culture those words give us a picture that is much different than the role of the author. So rather than identifying the author as Solomon, which is just not justified by the evidence, or using English words which may mislead us, I’ve chosen to just use the Hebrew word “Qoheleth” when I’m referring to the author of the book. That word identifies someone who convenes an assembly or possibly even someone who speaks to an assembly. The picture here is that the Qoheleth is assembling God’s people in order to impart royal wisdom to them.
We can’t read our passage for this morning without evoking images of Solomon. When the author claims in verse 16 that he had gained more wisdom than all who were before him in Jerusalem, it certainly sounds like this description of Solomon:
King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.
1 Kings 10:23 (NIV)
But, as I’ve already pointed out, there is just no way we can determine whether these are the words of Solomon himself or whether the author is merely taking on the persona of Solomon in order to make his point. The great thing is that it really doesn’t matter. The principles that we can take from God’s Word here aren’t dependent on who wrote them since they are really God’s words.