Monday, November 5, 2012

Ecclesiastes 8 : The Mystery of Wisdom


TEXT:      Ecclesiastes  8
THEME:   The Mystery of  Wisdom  
DATE:      04/11/2012

After  a short break from  Ecclesiastes we now return to consider the 8th chapter.  The mystery of wisdom!  Just when you think that you get a little wiser, it escapes you. And yet, it is undeniable that wisdom  may be  learned. We see that very clearly in this chapter and elsewhere in Solomon’s  writings (e.g. Prov. 2).  
The  subject of  “wisdom”   starts  and ends  Solomon’s conversation in Chapter  8  (see vv. 1, 17).
Verse 1   celebrates  the gift of  wisdom and  of having  truly wise  people  among us. “Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed.“  To be sure it is a rare  gift (see 7:27–28), but  we should treasure it  when it is  found among us. 
A wise person possesses the ability to interpret  a matter and its resulting calm assurance produces a radiant  face  (v. 1b). Wisdom softens one’s face. It is a  reflection of the  softened heart  and mind that is  instructed by God. 
The wise heart  is  a   discerning heart – it  does not merely know the difference between right and wrong; it knows the difference between right and almost right.
The wise person is  not just  a person  who  is intellectually wise. Their wisdom comes  out of a spiritual fountain which is  from God. David Powlison, a Biblical Counselor  speaks about  the blessing of  being in the presence of  wise love’[1] : “Wise love  makes a huge difference in other people’s lives… genuine care, a searching question , sympathy and understanding, a timely and true word of God , practical aid , patience in the process- these are life giving.”
Pray then  that  God would be pleased to raise up many such people among us in these days! Pray  for this gift,  and seek it  in the Scriptures and by prayer, brothers and sisters!

Having said that , verse 17  brings us  down to earth: [16] When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, [17] then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.

Here  Solomon announces the frustration of the wise person who says, “I know,” but cannot understand  everything  about  the work of God. Wisdom is a wonderful  gift (v. 1b),   but no one, except God  possesses  it  without limit.  There are aspects of life  and knowledge that just remain mysterious  and elusive. There are  times  when we  simply have no words .Job’s situation comes to mind . None of those wise and theologically articulate  friends of Job ultimately understood the nature  of Job’s suffering.  The key  to Job’s suffering was  with God.
At times  the  reason for our suffering is plain, particularly  when our own  stupidity  and hardheadedness  has been the cause of our suffering  (see 1 Peter 4:15).  But there  are times  when suffering has a mysterious origin (see  1 Peter 4:16).  
Solomon’s  quest is to search out  and explain  the nature  of  true wisdom. In that process  he once again   reflects  upon  various  matters that require  wisdom that can be acquired through knowing God and His will , whilst admitting  that at other times  this  just doesn’t work . Let us simply follow Solomon’s  thought processes:

Firstly,  Solomon  advises his  hearers  to submit to the king (vv. 2-6).  [2] “I say:  Keep the king's command, because of God's oath to him. [3] Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. [4] For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” [5] Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. [6] For there is a time and a way for everything, although man's trouble[f3] lies heavy on him.

Here is the first  bit of  wisdom.  Know your place  with respect to the political rulers that God has placed  above you! Submission to  authority finds its basis in “the oath of God”.  According to Scripture  kings  occupy their offices  by God’s  decree. So, being submissive to the king is part of one’s obedience to God  (see Rom 13). Respect to the king   or the president of a country  is seen in v. 3: “Be not hasty to go from his presence.“  We call it  “observing protocol“.  He tells you when to go. 
We  also must beware of getting involved in an ‘evil cause’  - a  matter that the king might find displeasing.  The king  whose duty is to  maintain stability in the country will punish any appearance of evil, lack of submission or  rebellion as he sees fit (cf. Prov.  14:35; 24:21–22).

Verse 4  also warns about arguing with the king or demanding an explanation for his decisions. The rhetorical question “who may  say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” demands a negative response, “No one”!  God, king, and potter exercise similar power over their subjects.  So as a   citizen it is wise  to  observe protocol , and to be  careful in one’s timing.   I am not always sure that the public media  is  wise in this regard!
The mention of a ‘proper time’  (v. 5)  introduces  further issues involving timing.(vv. 6–8).  For there is a  time  and a way  for everything (v. 6 ) . We have seen this already in  3:1 ff. The rest of  verse 6 further clarifies the thought : “For there is a  time  and a way  for everything, although  man’s trouble lies  heavy upon him.  All our problems , all our lack of wisdom  ultimately originates  from  our  sinfulness (see Eccl 7:29).  

To summarize:  To be a wise citizen means  to be obedient to the governing authorities, in as far as  they do not resist  the  rule of God . We need to understand   at all times that we are fallen people , and we must guard ourselves  that we are not tempted to  annoy  our rulers. That would be very unwise! Pray for  wisdom to be a positive citizen  of your country!

Secondly ,  Solomon  reminds us of our inability to control life’s circumstances (vv. 7–9) [7] For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? [8] No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. [9] All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.
It is wisdom to know  that we all lack  knowledge  concerning  the future (v. 7).  Only God has the ability to declare what  the future holds  (see Isa 46:10–11).
In verse 8, Solomon offers four examples of an individual’s lack of control over life:
    1.       No one can restrain the  ruach’ (Hebr.)   which can  be translated  either  “wind “(see  Prov 27:16) or  “spirit“. We cannot control  the wind; we are unable  to control our spirits - speaking  of inability to prevent death.  
   2.       No one can control the day of their  death. Only God knows the day or hour.
   3.       No soldier can discharge himself in time of war. Deserters  get  punished . Apply this to the spiritual realm.  Jonah’s  don’t get away  from their  divine commission!
   4.      Wicked deeds cannot  deliver evil doers. God will ultimately  bring every evil deed into the light!

Mankind  cannot  ultimately control  or  change  the decrees of God.  Do you understand this?  I know that many people find this   very limiting  and perplexing, but ultimately it is wisdom to accept  God’s sovereignty over  all aspects of your life. Pray for humility  and submission  to  your sovereign God!

Thirdly ,   know  that those who fear God will do well!  (vv. 10–17)
Again , Solomon reflects  upon  what he has seen ( see vv. 9, 10  All this I observed… then I saw…” )

V. 10 : [2] [10] Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised  in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity.  He observed wicked people being buried. These  wicked  people  were known to  have  entered the “holy place” (probably the Temple) where they mingled with believers. They were praised, even while everybody knew that they were  wicked. This unfortunately happens all too often in the church, where  the wicked  are allowed to influence  the  direction of the church,  even receiving praise, when  they should have been removed  (1 Cor. 5). “This also is vanity “ says Solomon. What wisdom and what courage it takes to deal with such matters, particularly when evil doers are deeply entrenched in the church.  Pray for the purity of the church!

V.11  - 13  [11] Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. [12] Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. [13] But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.
Here is another  important insight! Solomon says that because of the sluggish pace of the legal system, the law loses its power to dissuade people from evil.  When justice is not  meted out quickly, evil doers  have no reason to fear  the justice system  ( which is given by God to man). We are familiar with this in Namibia. Delayed justice is really a terrible  evil, and to recognize this and  to deal  decisively with it  requires wisdom and courage .  Pray that our  justice system  sees this !

In verse 12 Solomon observes that an evil person might have the opportunity to  commit an act of evil  a  100 times and still live a long time. And in  the light of v. 11, it  appears that Solomon attributes to God the same delay in justice that is so evident in human courts of law.  That may be so, but remember that  God’s delayed justice  is  not because of   His forgetfulness  or inefficiency  or inability to  control evildoers . It is because of his patience and mercy  with  mankind!  And so  Solomon  confidently declares, “still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly.” This truth he knows by conviction and  he holds  to  it by faith. Pray that you may  have the wisdom to see this clearly!

An evil person’s major problem consists of the lack of any fear of God (v. 13). In verse 12 a sinner “may  prolong  his life” but in v.13 the wicked “will not lengthen his days.” – particularly when we  think of life in the light of eternity.  Jimmy Saville, the one time BBC presenter who has just been  posthumously  exposed  in the UK  to have been a  sexual pervert and  child molester  may  have lived to a ripe old age, but be sure that his sins  have  found him out before the throne of God.   Pray that you may not deceive yourself with respect  to  the consequences of sin

Fourthly , know that no man can know God’s ways  (vv. 14-17)
Here is the climax of  wisdom’s mystery. It is expressed in v.14:  Wicked people prosper and live healthily , and righteous people seem burdened and suffer.  It all seems so unfair!  Humanly speaking this does not make sense. So what advice  does Solomon have  to give in response to this enigma?   

Verse 15 reveals the answer. Enjoy  your  God given pleasures  while you can!  This is  the third time  that Solomon gives this  sort of advice  (see 2:24–26; 5:18–20).  He does not give this advice as an anesthetic simply to deaden the pain of   life’s injustice.  His point is that  we  should  not waste  our God-given joys by  constantly worrying whether God is fair or not!   Solomon says  "seize the moment" !  Worrying about what’s fair or not  brings us no joy, no peace, no rest, and no solution.  It is important to understand that God’s wise  providence  rules all that happens “under the sun”. Pray that you may have the  wisdom to see this! No one can understand the ultimate reasons for what happens, because even the wisest person  is but a fool by comparison to God.

And so, Solomon reviews his pursuit of wisdom in vv. 16–17. In his search for wisdom he could eliminate sleep and still not succeed (v. 16). The fact remains  that  humans are incapable of discovering all of God’s work “under the sun.”  There comes a time  when  we will have to say : It is  wisdom’s mystery!   This is the conclusion of Paul  after he has  written  to the Romans of the  electing grace and mercy  of God, and   he finishes his  thoughts with these words  in Romans 11:33–36. “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (v. 33b).

The  conclusion of Chapter 8 finds an echo in the words of 1 Corinthians 1:20–25.
Human wisdom (influenced  so strongly by our sinful nature)  and  unaided by God  cannot  help us.  We need God’s wisdom for life! God displays His  wisdom in the person of the person and work of Jesus Christ, and so Solomon’s sermon  prepares   our  hearts for the greater message of redemption. And no-one  can turn to the Redeemer until they  first recognize their own inability to do anything for themselves.

[1] Quoted in “ The  Biblical  Counselling Movement after Adams” by  Heath Lambert, p.16
[2] Some commentators  consider verse 10 the most difficult verse in  Ecclesiastes

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