Wrestling With Wisdom
September 22, 1996
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1 and 2
In the Q&A section of InfoWorld was an interview with George Morrow of Morrow Systems (computers). He observes:
"An article in the Harvard Business Review called 'Market Myopia' talked about how some people didn't understand what business they were in. For example, the railroad people didn't realize they were in the transportation business; they thought they were in the railroad business. Had they realized they were in the transportation business they would have invested in the airplane. The telegraph people thought they were in the telegraph business instead of the communications business. In 1886 or so, they could have bought all the telephone patents for $40,000. So obviously these people didn't know what business they were in."
At the Peter Lowe Success Seminar on Thursday, I heard Larry King, talk show host and comedian, teach with a subtle finesse that didn’t come around and hit me until later. His story about his speaking engagement with the Rotary Club was a tremendous illustration about this truth. (Explain: “The merchant marine has no future!”)
Solomon was given a tremendous gift of wisdom by God. But it took a lifetime for him to discover the real meaning of the gift he was given - that is, for him to discover what business he was in - what it was that held a future. He wrestled with this gift just like we might observe a national championship wrestling match. He wrestled with all the implications of whether his gift was ultimately to serve himself or the God who gave it. Let’s start at the beginning of the story about the man whom God appointed as David’s successor - the man who, in Ecclesiates, identified himself as “The Teacher.” Let us see what he has to tell us who also teach - as well as learn.
God promises to bless David’s descendant(s):
2Sam. 7:12 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men.
This son whom God chooses to bless is Solomon, the fruit of David’s repentance from adultery:
2Sam. 12:24 Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The LORD loved him;
25 and because the LORD loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah.
David prepared for the work Solomon would do:
1Chron. 22:5 David said, "My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the LORD should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it." So David made extensive preparations before his death.
David gives Solomon his call and direction:
1Chron. 22:11 "Now, my son, the LORD be with you, and may you have success and build the house of the LORD your God, as he said you would.
12 May the LORD give you discretion and understanding when he puts you in command over Israel, so that you may keep the law of the LORD your God.
13 Then you will have success if you are careful to observe the decrees and laws that the LORD gave Moses for Israel. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged.
David has Solomon anointed as king:
1Kings 1:34 There have Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel. Blow the trumpet and shout, 'Long live King Solomon!'
35 Then you are to go up with him, and he is to come and sit on my throne and reign in my place. I have appointed him ruler over Israel and Judah."
1Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.
11 He had reigned forty years over Israel-- seven years in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem.
12 ¶ So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.
Solomon asks God for wisdom (but not for the heart for God that David had):
1Kings 3:6 Solomon answered, "You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.
7 "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.
8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number.
9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?"
10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.
11 So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice,
12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.
13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for-- both riches and honor-- so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.
Solomon displays wisdom:
1Kings 3:28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
But Solomon does not always display the faithful, righteous and upright heart of his father David as he wrestles with his gift of worldly wisdom in the arena of fallen humanity, especially his own:
Solomon involved himself in improper relationships:
1Kings 3:1 ¶ Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter. He brought her to the City of David until he finished building his palace and the temple of the LORD, and the wall around Jerusalem.
1Kings 11:1 ¶ King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter-- Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.
2 They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, "You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods." Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.
3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.
4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.
5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites.
6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.
Solomon involved himself in improper worship:
1Kings 3:2 The people, however, were still sacrificing at the high places, because a temple had not yet been built for the Name of the LORD.
3 Solomon showed his love for the LORD by walking according to the statutes of his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places.
1Kings 11:7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites.
8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.
9 ¶ The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.
10 Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the LORD's command.
Solomon involved himself in improper possessions:
1Kings 4:26 Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses, and twelve thousand horses.
1Kings 10:26 Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem.
27 The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.
28 Solomon's horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue--the royal merchants purchased them from Kue.
All this in spite of God’s instructions:
Deut. 17:16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again."
17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites.
19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees
20 and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
Solomon involved himself in improper priorities:
1Kings 6:2 The temple that King Solomon built for the LORD was sixty cubits long, twenty wide and thirty high.
37 The foundation of the temple of the LORD was laid in the fourth year, in the month of Ziv.
38 In the eleventh year in the month of Bul, the eighth month, the temple was finished in all its details according to its specifications. He had spent seven years building it.
1Kings 7:1 ¶ It took Solomon thirteen years, however, to complete the construction of his palace.
2 He built the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon a hundred cubits long, fifty wide and thirty high, with four rows of cedar columns supporting trimmed cedar beams.
And yet Solomon’s wisdom was unparalleled in the world:
1Kings 4:29 ¶ God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.
30 Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.
31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite-- wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations.
32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.
33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish.
34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
But was this merely worldly wisdom about God’s creation or divine wisdom about the Creator Himself? (Jer. 9:23-24)
And so God carried out His decree:
1Kings 11:11 So the LORD said to Solomon, "Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.
12 Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son.
13 Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen."
Solomon did indeed wrestle with wisdom. His gift of wisdom was a worthy opponent and teacher as he himself, the Teacher, struggled with the life and death issues of a proper view of God, life, and the world. We can especially see this from his own journal of thoughts and convictions in the Book of Ecclesiastes which he wrote much later in life as the fruit of his lifelong struggle with the meaning and value of wisdom. Let us take a look at chapters one and two.
I. Solomon discovered that all labor just for the sake of worldly gain is ultimately meaningless.
Why? Because v. 4 says generations come and go. What I do apart from God will have no eternal value to me because I too will go.
II. Solomon discovered that the pursuit of knowledge just for the sake of worldly knowledge is meaningless.
Why? Because vv. 10-11 say that there is ultimately no new knowledge. All knowledge is God’s knowledge - man’s discovery of what God has always known. God has given his creation to man to discover the immensity of what God has done. But man will never discover it all (Jer. 31:37), and much of what a man knows may die with him, being left for the process of discovery in the experience of others. Can we say that we really know what we have not experienced? And what can a man experience in a lifetime that does not go down with him? Can we today construct a pyramid with what the Egyptians had to work with?
III. Solomon discovered that the pursuit of wisdom just for the sake of worldly wisdom is meaningless.
Why? Because v. 18 reveals that, although the ability to apply wisdom is in opposition to folly, one must also understand folly to know and apply wisdom. Definitions are also in terms of opposites - what something is not. Basically, wisdom is discernment which also perceives what is unwise as well as wise. And the knowledge of what is unwise brings grief. Also, what difference does man’s wisdom make against the sovereignty of God (v. 15).
IV. Solomon discovered that the pursuit of pleasure just for the sake of worldly pleasure is meaningless.
Why? Because vv. 10-11 reveals that pleasure is only in the mind of the beholder and accomplishes nothing eternally significant. The short-lived pleasure of lightheartedness produced by wine is pure folly, accomplishing nothing. The pleasure of great projects diminishes after the challenge of their accomplishment. The ownership and reproduction of slaves and flocks and herds can grow quickly stale as they become possessions for the mere sake of possessions. Likewise treasure and the things of culture and the attentions of many lovers can all be a distraction from the very wisdom that acquired them, ultimately proving to be the meaningless folly that wisdom fears. What can be said to have been gained?
V. Solomon discovered that the pursuit of both wisdom and folly are ultimately meaningless.
Why? Because vv. 15-16 the same end awaits both the wise and the foolish, even though wisdom is to be preferred over foolishness. When a man dies his memory fades whether foolish or wise. So the pursuit of either end is the same end. Every generation contains men greatly wise and men greatly foolish. Nothing new can be gained for eternity in man’s own efforts at immortality.
VI. Solomon discovered that he hated life because of his wisdom that revealed his own worldly insignificance, and the ultimate insignificance of all his labors and accomplishments that must be left to the whims of others who may follow with folly and without appreciation.
Why? Because vv. 22-23 the great accomplishments and possessions of the wise erode away the very pleasure of their attainment through worry about the continuation of their existence. Worldly wisdom therefore becomes its own burden of meaninglessness.
VII. Solomon discovered the conclusion of the matter in God and in God alone. Only in God can there be ultimate meaning and satisfaction.
Why? Because the meaning of life is for the glory of God. Then we can eat and drink (1Cor. 10:31) and find satisfaction in the process of labor (Col. 3:23-24) for the glory of God. This is wisdom and real wealth - that is, to know God. The task of the sinner is to give precedence to the righteous.
Dan. 7:26 "'But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever.
27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.'
The sinner gathers and stores up wealth for himself only to find out that it is not his. He discovers the only true value of wealth is to honor God with it (Hag. 2:8; Is. 60:3,5,6; Rev.21:24). Since the sinner has not pleased God, it is he who is meaningless like the chasing of wind upon the earth.
VIII. Solomon’s Eventual and Ultimate Wisdom vv. 12:13-14
Eccl. 12:13 ¶ Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Solomon’s true gift of wisdom came at the end of his life-long wrestling match with this gift from God as he searched out every possible hold and maneuver to his advantage. He eventually found wisdom not to be an opponent to pin down in servitude to his own flesh but rather a friend to follow in pursuit of God. In a sense he found the truth of 1John 2:15-17.
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For everything in the world-- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does-- comes not from the Father but from the world.
17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
John distilled this truth even further for us in 1John 5:11-12. (Compare it with Solomon’s concluding words.)
This then is the task of the teacher (whether it be Solomon or us), to give testimony that will draw the hearts of students toward the purpose and love of God in Christ so that the real meaning of life in service to God may be discovered. I challenge you all to be the kind of students and teachers God desires. His instruction of truth is a matter of life and death.
A young Oriental student decided to mock his elderly teacher. He caught a small bird and cupped it in his hands behind his back. He then approached the sage with this plan in mind. He would ask the old man what he had in his hand. If he answered correctly, he would then ask the teacher if the bird was alive or dead. If the old man said, "Alive," he would crush the bird. If he answered, "Dead," he would release the bird.
Upon approaching the teacher, the young student said, "What do I have in my hand, old man?
The man responded, "A bird, my son."
"Is he alive or dead, old man?" the boy prodded.
The sage replied, "The answer to that question, my son, is in your hands."
Harold L. Fickett, Jr., wrote about a wealthy businessman who on his deathbed was filled with deep remorse. When his pastor called, he opened his heart and shared the burden he was carrying. He said that 10 years earlier he had been given the opportunity to teach a Sunday school class of 9-year-old boys. Thinking he didn't have the time, he declined the offer. Now, however, deeply conscious that his life would soon be over, he confessed to the pastor that his most painful regret was that he had missed such a golden opportunity to serve the Lord by investing his life in the lives of those 9-year-olds. He estimated that at least 100 boys would have passed through that class. "My investments in stocks and bonds will stay behind when I leave," he declared. "What a fool I have been."