Wisdom | The Voice 12.12: March 20, 2022

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Next, I decided to consider wisdom, as well as foolish behavior and ideas. For what more can the king’s successor do than what the king has already done? I realized that wisdom is preferable to folly, just as light is preferable to darkness: The wise man can see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also realized that the same fate happens to them both.
So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?”
So I lamented to myself, “The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!”
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be remembered for very long, because in the days to come, both will already have been forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies – just like the fool! So I loathed life because what happens on earth seems awful to me; for all the benefits of wisdom are futile – like chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17).

Wisdom is greatly praised in the witness of the Scriptures. The Preacher was very wise. Yet what is the end of wisdom?

The Preacher has been setting forth his exposition on life in this corrupt creation, “under the sun”: it is all hevel, a vapor, vanity, futile, or absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). People expend all kinds of effort, yet the creation continues as it has before; there is nothing truly new under the sun, and what has happened will be forgotten by future generations (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11).

The Preacher, king in Jerusalem, then began to consider the results of his inquiries into life under the sun: it is all a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14). Should people just pursue what is pleasurable and enjoyable? The Preacher lived a life of pleasure to the full, giving himself over to the pursuit of every desire and pleasure: he found it all futile, for trying to obtain them was like chasing the wind, and ultimately without profit (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).

Since pleasure is thus futile, what about wisdom over folly? As with pleasure, so with wisdom: God granted Solomon great wisdom so that there were none wiser in all of Israel or even the ancient Near Eastern world (1 Kings 3:12, 4:31, Ecclesiastes 2:12). If anyone were able to fully explore the depths of wisdom to see if we can place our full confidence in wisdom to provide hope and meaning in life, it would have been Solomon. Furthermore, who would we expect to be a greater advocate or champion for wisdom than the author of Proverbs and much of what we deem the “Wisdom Literature” in the pages of Scripture?

The Preacher already summarized what he had learned regarding wisdom and folly in Ecclesiastes 1:15-18; he set forth his exploration in greater detail in Ecclesiastes 2:12-17. Whereas Solomon could not find much value in pleasure, he did see some benefit in wisdom: wisdom is better than folly just like light is better than darkness, since the wise person can discern the journey and its attendant dangers, but a fool stumbles through and suffers greatly (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14). And yet ultimately the same fate awaits both the wise person and the fool: they will die (Ecclesiastes 2:14).

The Preacher bitterly lamented the common fate of the wise person and the fool, for he who endeavored so diligently to pursue wisdom and the person who put absolutely no effort into obtaining wisdom will equally die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). The wise person and the fool will equally be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 2:16)! Thus wisdom is ultimately futile and absurd, a chasing after wind: whatever benefits it may provide for you in life end at death (Ecclesiastes 2:15, 17). The Preacher thus found this aspect of life quite distasteful: wisdom cannot keep a person from dying, and wisdom cannot provide ultimate hope and meaning (Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Many of us find ourselves in a similar predicament as the Preacher, especially if we hold Proverbs and a philosophy of self-realization through moral improvement dear to our hearts. We can see great value in the wisdom of those who have come before us and the stupidity of folly. We anguish over the not well considered decisions of others which have caused them and others great grief. We strive to instruct our children to pursue the ways of wisdom and not folly. We want to keep improving our virtue and abilities so that we can excel and do better at life. We want to believe that the more wisdom we cultivate the better and more meaningful our life will be.

And yet the Preacher said it is ultimately futile and a chasing after wind. Wisdom, like pleasure, cannot entirely satisfy. Wisdom, like pleasure, cannot really deliver on its promises.

We must not overstate the case. Pleasure intrinsically cannot deliver; it promises things it can never truly provide. Wisdom is better than folly, and it is right, well, and good for us to pursue wisdom and to live wisely and not foolishly. We should meditate on the Proverbs and find ways to practice wisdom and eschew folly.

Yet under the sun wisdom cannot save us. Yes, fools will suffer from their folly; many will even die in their folly. Yet even if the wise person avoids all sorts of preventable forms of anxiety, stress, and death, they also will die some day. We would also like to believe that fools will be mocked and maligned in their memory, and the wise will be highly esteemed; yet this also is not the case. In the short term there are plenty of people who deem folly to be wisdom and laud it while persecuting the wise; in the long term both the wise and the fool are forgotten.

We can find no greater testimony to the futility of wisdom than Solomon himself. Solomon had great wisdom and his kingdom enjoyed prosperity beyond anything they had previously enjoyed or would ever enjoy again. We do well to remember that the “father” exhorting his “son” is a standard literary convention in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, but we would imagine that Solomon very much tried to exhort his son Rehoboam to live in the ways of wisdom and to rule wisely. And yet as soon as his father died Rehoboam foolishly wanted to assert his own power and privilege, and it led to the division of his kingdom and a wound against the kingdom which would never heal (cf. 1 Kings 12:1-19). Solomon was extremely wise; he died, and his kingdom was given over to folly; truly futility and a chasing after wind!

We may still speak fondly of Solomon’s wisdom and castigate Rehoboam’s folly, yet they have been practically forgotten. Each generation arises and learns lessons from previous generations for better and for worse; they may exhibit some wisdom their fathers neglected, but will likewise surely leap headlong into forms of folly regarding which their ancestors learned from experience or avoided by heeding their elders. No amount of instruction in wisdom will secure future generations from these trials.

Under the sun there is no ultimate meaning or hope in pleasure, wisdom, or in anything else. Yet thanks be to God that He has established eternal wisdom in Christ Jesus who is the treasury of all wisdom and knowledge, and through whom we can obtain confidence in eternal life (Colossians 2:1-3). We ought to be rooted and grounded in Christ Jesus, not in ourselves, and understand that it is only in the Lord Jesus that our efforts and our wisdom is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58, Colossians 2:4-10). The wisdom of the world is ephemeral and will not endure; the wisdom that comes from above, which is pure, peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy, which will produce the good fruit in faithful believers that endures for eternity (James 3:13-18). Let us not seek to pursue wisdom for its own end; let us instead be rooted and grounded in Christ, stand firm all wisdom and knowledge rooted in Him, manifest the wisdom which comes from above, and obtain eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Striving After Wind | The Voice 12.03: January 16, 2022

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The Voice

Striving After Wind

I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.
I thought to myself, “I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem; I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas; however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind! For with great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).

The Preacher knew of what he spoke. We do not have to like it, but we do well to seek to understand and respect his witness.

The Preacher has testified that all things are hevel: a vapor, futile, even absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). He understood time as a cycle; nothing is really new under the sun, all things have already been done beforehand, and later generations have forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11).

The Preacher now sets forth his purpose. He spoke of himself as Qohelet, the Preacher or Teacher, even though he was king over Israel in Jerusalem; thus we understand him to be Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:12; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12:9). He wanted to understand human effort and striving on the earth. He understood it to be the burdensome tasks God has given to mankind to keep them occupied, and yet they are all futile (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).

The Preacher introduced us to one of his favorite images which exemplify the futility of life and deeds under the sun: a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). To strive or chase after the wind represents sheer folly: how could you catch the wind? It continues to blow across the earth; you cannot expect to grab ahold of it; and even if one could theoretically capture wind, it would immediately cease being the wind!

Humans bristle at the thought that all their work ultimately does not mean much and that we strive after wind. We tell ourselves motivational and uplifting platitudes about how what we do will influence and shape the world. We seek to satisfy desires and enjoy the good life. We recognize we have various challenges and difficulties but want to imagine that if we just had a little more money, a little more time, or worked on ourselves just a little bit more, we would be able to overcome them and get what we want.

Can we all think of people who have profoundly influenced our lives and our patterns of behavior? Absolutely. Is the Preacher thus wrong? Not in the grand scheme of things. What has become of all the “influencers” of four or more generations ago? They have been forgotten, just as the Preacher expected (Ecclesiastes 1:11). To seek after meaning and renown in the works of this world is to strive after wind: fame and meaning are ephemeral vapors which will not last.

Likewise, to live for the future and expect things to get better with just a little more this or that is also a striving after wind. If you do come into a little more money, there will always be more reasons to spend. If we work on ourselves a little bit, we will find other problems. We can never fully overcome our limitations, challenges, and difficulties; the “ideal” or “good life” is futile, absurd, and a striving after wind. One can pursue it all day long; whatever one captures will cease being what is desired after being obtained. Thus, indeed, all that is crooked cannot be made straight; what is lacked will never be fully satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:15).

The Preacher continued with an extraordinary claim: he had become wiser and more knowledgeable than those who had ruled over Jerusalem before him (Ecclesiastes 1:16). We might be skeptical of such a “flex” and boastfulness, yet God indeed had given Solomon great wisdom (1 Kings 3:12-13, 4:30). Furthermore, his goal is not to vaunt himself as much as it is to establish credibility for what he was saying. Humans understandably resist what the Preacher has to say; they would be tempted to wonder who the Preacher was to make such claims and why we should accept them. The Preacher spoke thus of himself to establish his bona fides: he has explored wisdom and knowledge. He has greater depth of experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Will we thus consider what he has to say?

Surely a man as wise and knowledgeable as the Preacher would thus affirm the great power and importance of wisdom and knowledge. Yet when he compared wisdom and knowledge with folly, or attempted to know both wisdom and folly, he considered them also a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:17)!

How could the same man who so exalted wisdom over folly in the Proverbs here consider all of it a striving after wind? The question, as always, is to what end? Paul rightly warned Christians that knowledge can make arrogant (1 Corinthians 8:1); we must remember that it also ultimately is a striving after wind, since what we learn dies with us, and of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom there is no end. Furthermore, was Socrates wrong when he considered that all he knew was that he knew nothing, for the more he learned, the more he recognized he had to learn?

The Preacher recognized frustration and grief attended to knowledge and those with wisdom consign themselves to heartbreak (Ecclesiastes 1:18). Consider Cassandra of Greek legend: she was able to see the future, but whenever she would speak of it, she would not be believed. A similar curse comes to all who have reliable wisdom and knowledge. One would like to think wisdom and knowledge would be heeded, yet many people’s livelihoods depend on them not accepting such wisdom and knowledge. Folly parades in the streets seemingly unmolested and those with insight are left to mourn and weep. Such is how it feels today; yet in truth, such is the way it has always been. Perhaps this is part of the reason the old adage declared ignorance to be bliss! From the beginning knowledge has come with a curse, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that wisdom and knowledge will save the day. To this end the author of Proverbs thus reminds us of the limitations of the wisdom and knowledge he so thoroughly exalted in its pages. It can only go so far, and it causes great grief when one perceives how well wisdom is considered and honored.

Thus the Preacher has established his central premise: human life under the sun is futile and a striving after wind. We look for meaning where none will endure; we want permanence where there is nothing but vapor and wind; we want to hang our hat on some certainty, some form of advantage that will endure, and find them all flawed, limited, and ultimately hopeless. It will all be forgotten in the end. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the Preacher is not wrong about this life. Such is why it is so important for us to invest in what God is accomplishing in the Lord Jesus Christ so we may obtain eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry