Is Wisdom Enough? audio
Wisdom is one of those things we all wish we had – especially in retrospect. It’s one of the things we try to teach our children. In fact that’s always been the case. The collection of sayings we find in Proverbs was apparently meant for training young people who might one day be leaders.
And we continue to use these sorts of saying today. I’m sure you heard them over and over again from your parents or your teachers as you were growing up: An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Bad workmen blame their tools. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. All's fair in love and war. One of my favourites is "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Often these proverbs involve contrasts: Better late than never. Better safe than sorry. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; Waste not, want not; or they’re simply pragmatic: "You can't take it with you." In fact I saw one in an Age headline last week: “Better to be good than happy”.
One problem with proverbs though is that sometimes they can be confusing. Sometimes we find that what worked in one situation backfires in another. In fact if you read through Proverbs you realise that the writer has already worked this out. 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 he says: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Simple answers just don't work in this world.
We found that in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes didn't we? 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 vapour. 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 broken world. What works in one place doesn't work somewhere else. All our effort to systematise the world, to catalogue it, analyse it, explain it, is at best partial.
This wisdom, as good as it may be, isn't sufficient to explain a world like the one we live in. Do you ever wonder why, with all our twenty first century wisdom and knowledge we’re still struggling to understand the world we live in?
Well, we saw in ch 3 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)
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. That in itself is a clue. What does Proverbs tell us? The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
So does this futility and perverseness in the world surprise you? I think lots of us are surprised when people we've looked up to do the wrong thing. Whether it's a politician who's taken bribes, or a Christian minister who's abused a child, or another 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?
The preacher in today’s passage warns us of this. He says in v13: “13Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?” He doesn’t mean crooked in the sense of moral crookedness but rather of things and events that don’t work out or that go pear-shaped. He’s saying this is the sort of world we live in, so get used to it.
So does this mean that wisdom isn’t enough? Does it even mean that it’s not worth worrying about? They say that the only thing we’ve learnt from history is that we never seem to learn from history. Despite the fact that we all know what's right and what's wrong, that we all understand that corruption and injustice are wrong, yet corruption and injustice continue to thrive. We Australians pride ourselves in being the fairest of the fair, yet we continue to see developers and unions pouring huge amounts of money into the coffers of the political parties on both sides of politics, we see the gap between the rich and the poor increasing every year, we read reports of companies that are ripping off their employees and getting away with it, financial advisors who are found guilty of corruption and get a slap over the wrist, not to mention governments sending asylum seekers to indefinite detention off shore. It goes on and on and we never seem to learn our lessons, do we? So what value is wisdom? Why not forget it and just do what works? Be pragmatists rather than idealists? As one proverb puts it, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." So why try to be wise in this world?
Well, here we get this long series of proverbs that remind us that despite the perverse nature of our world, despite the apparent futility of life on earth, there is value in living wisely. The secular humanist view of the world may lead to despair, but a Judaeo-Christian world view encourages us to live with an awareness of God's presence within us.
Just look at these verses: "1A good name is better than precious ointment." A person's reputation is priceless isn't it? That's why we have such strong laws about libel and slander. The person who lives wisely will be a person whose name is honoured by those they move amongst.
"5It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools." Have you noticed how the world today is full of people whose words are like the crackling of thorns under a pot? If you've ever used an open fire you'll know that if you want good heat you use solid wood. But if all you want is a bright flame that flares up for a moment and then dies away throw on some kindling, some of the desert thorn bush that he has in mind here. It's very showy but has no substance. I don't listen to breakfast radio but this seems to me to be a good description of the sort of thing I see advertised for these shows: vain laughter, high spirited chatter, but no substance. A diversion perhaps, but a diversion doesn't overcome the problems we face, it simply masks them for a moment, until the flare of light dies down and there they are still. No, much better to hear the rebuke of the wise, to be reminded of the things in our life that need to be changed so we can get more out of life.
“11Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.” Wisdom is given to us to preserve our life, to protect us from the adversities that life will inevitably bring. Can you see how wisdom prepares us to face the futility and meaninglessness of life? It prepares us by giving us a broader perspective than just life under the sun. For Christians, wisdom reminds us that we live not under the SUN but under the SON.
But, notice too, the warnings that are included in this passage. Not only is a good name better than precious ointment, but the day of death is better than the day of birth. That sounds back to front, doesn't it? Which would you rather go to, a baptism or a funeral? I know which I prefer to preside at. We’d much prefer a baptism wouldn't we? So why does he say that the day of death is better than the day of birth? Well it might be that the day of death heralds something better waiting for us. Paul did say (Phil 1:21-23) “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. ... 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” But the teacher doesn't seem to have a future view here. Nor is he advocating euthanasia – better to get the struggles of life over with than to keep going. No, what he's saying, I think, is that you understand more of life at a funeral than you do at a birth. I mean at a birth the general mood is one of excitement and hope for the future. This child could be a future prime minister in the making. They'll make us so proud of them. The most wrinkled, ruddy face is beautiful when it's on a new born baby. Optimism rules at a birth, doesn't it? This is not the moment for thinking about the brevity of life; for remembering that the moment we're born we start to die; or that God might ask us to account for the way we’ve lived.
On the other hand at funerals the mood is more factual and in a sense more vital. At that moment we're forced to stop and reflect on life's uncertainty, on the fact that some day we too will face our maker. We're reminded that the same fate is suffered by all people. Death is the great leveller.
He gives us another pair of warnings in vs 9&10: “9Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.” Anger achieves nothing other than lodging in our hearts where it begins to fester. That’s why we’re warned in Ephesians 4: "do not let the sun go down on your anger."
Likewise, we’re warned about those rose coloured glasses we so often put on: “10Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” I’m sure you can all remember back to the "good old days." Whenever they were. I can. Life was beautiful back then wasn't it? Churches were full. Everyone loved one another. There was a real sense of community. Everyone knew their neighbours. There were never any disagreements. It’s called ecclesiastical Alzheimers. And if you can remember those things listen to what he says here: Thinking that the good old days were better than these days doesn't arise out of wisdom. It's merely the selective memory of old fools. We choose to remember the good things and forget the bad. Much better to live in the present, accepting the inevitable changes that life brings, and seeking to live wisely under God. Remember what he told us in ch1: “9What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
So how are we going? Is wisdom worth pursuing? Is it enough? Do we need more than good old common sense? He seems to be aware of that question because he raises it in vs 15 and 16, perhaps a little cynically. He says: "15In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil-doing. 16Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? 17Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time?"
It’s true isn’t it? Job complains bitterly about this sort of thing. You can live a perfectly righteous life and things still go terribly wrong. So common sense says to avoid the extremes. Look around you. There are those who have no interest in righteous living yet they seem to flourish. There are those who turn righteousness into a fundamentalist legalism with the result that they destroy themselves and their religion in the end, by that overzealous application of the rules of righteousness. So the pragmatist says don’t kill yourself, just walk the middle path, be good enough and if you must sin, sin boldly. You’ll be fine. In the end God will look after you.
So is the pragmatist right? Can we ignore wisdom?
Well, he tells us: “19Wisdom gives strength to the wise more than ten rulers that are in a city.” If you’re cynical about our political leaders remember that wisdom is a much more reliable foundation.
Yet it’s true that wisdom is hard to come by. He says “20Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” No one is righteous, no, not one. For Christians part of being wise is acknowledging that we can never achieve righteousness by our own efforts. Only the righteousness that comes by grace through the death of Christ will suffice.
The teacher seems to be saying you have three choices. You can follow the path of foolishness and evildoing. You can be a pragmatist, who uses common sense to avoid the extremes of righteousness and wickedness. Or you can seek to live by wisdom, knowing that in the end God is the one who’s in control of everything that happens.
Following the way of wisdom will help you avoid the cynicism that can so easily overtake you in a fallen world. Listen to what the teacher tells us: “14In 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 mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” Don't think God loves you just because something good has happened to you. Don’t worry that God is against you when things go wrong. Remember that the day of death is better than the day of birth, not because it ends everything but because by then you might have worked out that God loves you even when things go wrong. In fact it's at those moments that his love for you is greatest, because that's when his love has the greatest impact.
Yes, wisdom is worth striving for, so seek wisdom. Look at your life and think about how God is using the things that happen to you to help you grow in maturity.
And finally remember that wisdom is a gift from God available to all who ask in faith. James 1 tells us: "5If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you."