Wisdom Without God Is Folly.

1 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.

I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 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. Ecclesiastes 8:1-8 ESV

It shouldn’t be surprising that Solomon has a lot to say about wisdom. After all, he was known for his wisdom. In the early days of his reign, when given an opportunity by God to ask of Him whatever he wished, Solomon had asked for an “understanding heart” so he could govern the people of Israel well. And God responded, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!” (1 Kings3:11-12 NLT). And God followed through in His commitment, blessing Solomon with unsurpassed wisdom. Even when the queen of the nation of Sheba (modern-day Ethiopia) made a royal visit to Jerusalem, she was blown away by Solomon’s wisdom.
2 When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. Solomon had answers for all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba realized how very wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, she was overwhelmed. – 1 Kings 10:2-5 NLT
Like everything else in his life, wisdom became an obsession for Solomon. Seemingly unsatisfied with what he had been given by God, he constantly pursued wisdom. He even wrote and collected proverbial wise statements and put them in a book. In this book, known as The Proverbs of Solomon, he describes wisdom as a woman calling out from the streets, attempting to get the attention of those who pass her by.

20 Wisdom shouts in the streets.
    She cries out in the public square.
21 She calls to the crowds along the main street,
    to those gathered in front of the city gate:
22 “How long, you simpletons,
    will you insist on being simpleminded?
How long will you mockers relish your mocking?
    How long will you fools hate knowledge?
23 Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
    and make you wise. – Proverbs 1:20-23 NLT

But everyone ignored her calls. They rejected her advice and shunned her correction. Nobody wanted what she had to offer. And as a result, they were left in their ignorance and complacency. When the time came when wisdom was needed, she would be nowhere to be found. For Solomon, wisdom was a commodity worth pursuing. He even explained his purpose for writing his book of proverbs by stating:

Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young. – Proverbs 1:2-4 NLT

Wisdom became one of many obsessions for Solomon. He pursued it with a vengeance, and never seemed to think he had enough of it. But it seems that he often forgot his own advice, failing to remember that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). The pursuit of wisdom without a healthy fear and worship of God is a futile effort. But too often, we make wisdom the focus of our attention, not God. And Solomon knew the benefits of wisdom. He had experienced them firsthand. Which is why he could sing the praises of a life of wisdom. “How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things. Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness” (Ecclesiastes 8:1 NLT). 

And it’s interesting to note that in the following verses, Solomon provides those to whom he is writing a number of examples of what wisdom looks like in real life. But notice that they all have to do with their allegiance to the king. In other words, their faithful service to him.

He starts out with a not-so-subtle admonition to “Keep the king’s command.” This is the king telling his own people that if they’re wise, they’ll obey him. Sounds more like a threat than a recommendation to live wisely. While there is tremendous truth and wisdom in what Solomon has to say, it can’t help but come across as a bit self-serving. Yes, it makes sense for a servant of the king, someone who has made an oath to faithfully serve the king, to follow through on their commitment. It would be unwise to shirk your duty or to join in a plot to overthrow the king. It’s also a bit foolish to question the decisions of the king, because his word is final, and he has the power to enforce whatever he determines to do. If you obey him, you won’t be punished. The wise person will know when to speak up and when to shut up. He will understand that there’s a time and place for everything, even when facing trouble. And it’s our inability to control our words during times of difficulty that can get us in hot water. We say things we end up regretting. We express thoughts that haven’t been fully though through. And hasty words spoken in the presence of the king can expose our folly and prove deadly. This thought sounds reminiscent of something Solomon said earlier in his book.

Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV

The apostle Paul shared a similar word of counsel in his letter to the church in Colossae.

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. – Colossians 4:5-6 NLT

For Solomon, it simply made sense not to question the wishes of the king. Of course, since he was the king, we can somehow understand why he felt this way. As king, he had probably heard more than one citizen of his kingdom say to him, “What are you doing?” And he most likely found the tone of that question offensive and its timing, unwise. No one like to have his wisdom and authority questioned, especially the king. And Solomon appears to view his authority as supreme, almost all-knowing in nature. He states that the one who questions the king “does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7 ESV). This individual has no control over anything, including their day of death. Nobody can hold on to their spirit when the time comes for it to depart. Nobody can get out of their obligation to serve when conscripted for battle. They simply have to go. They must do their duty. And the one who chooses a life of evil will find himself hopelessly stuck, experiencing the inevitable outcome of his decision. There is a certain sense of fate in Solomon’s words. You can’t know the future, so you have no control over it. Which brings us back to Solomon’s earlier admonition: Keep the king’s command.

But what are we to do with this? How are we to take what Solomon says and apply it to our daily lives? I believe it is essential to read the book of Ecclesiastes with a clear understanding of the state affairs in Solomon’s life at the time of its writing. He is an old man, having served as king of Israel for a long period of time. He has not finished well. His kingdom is marred by the presence of idols to false gods. He has repeatedly disobeyed God, marrying more than 700 different women and amassing a harem of 300 concubines. He has been unfaithful to Yahweh. And his unfaithfulness would ultimately lead to God ripping the kingdom from his hands and dividing it in two. Solomon was still a wise man when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. But it is safe to say that he no longer feared God as he once had. His wisdom has been marred by sin. His perspective has been skewed by his pessimistic take on life. There is a lot of truth in the words that Solomon speaks, but we must remove the gems of truth from the muck and mire of Solomon’s sin-distorted viewpoint. Wisdom is a good thing. Remaining faithful in your service to the king is solid and sound advice. The one thing that is missing is a recommendation to fear the Lord. To his credit, Solomon will weave that message into the verses that follow. But it seems that Solomon struggled with maintaining the vital connection between wisdom and the fear of God. At times, wisdom became a stand-alone for him. He seems to have applied to wisdom the same philosophy of life he used with everything else: More is better. There were occasions when he seemed to sincerely believe that wisdom was all you needed. But wisdom without a fear of God is useless. It too will prove futile and meaningless. It is our fear and reverence for God that gives wisdom its power. Knowing right from wrong, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness, begins with knowing God. Being able to make good decisions stems from a solid understanding of who God is and what He expects of us. When we live to please God, we make wise decisions. When we live to please self, we end up living like fools and, as Solomon put it, eating our own flesh. In our effort to make it all about ourselves, we end up destroying ourselves.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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