Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"Wisdom is God’s recipe to success."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
In the past number of weeks we have sought to follow Solomon’s quest for understanding. What, he wanted to know, is the golden thread that makes sense of life? Life knows so much brokenness, so much crookedness, so much injustice. How do you cope with it, survive in this broken world? You’ll recall that as we got further into the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s answer became clearly. Solomon’s inspired instruction to us is that we live on this side of the fall into sin, and so we need to take seriously God’s ordinance of Genesis 3: life, by God’s decree, is characterized by thorns and thistles, by sweat and tears, by pain and death. We can protest it, but, says Solomon, it’s not for man to do that, for man is only man (6:10). Rather, we need to accept God’s ordinance, in the conviction that He will straighten out the things He has made crooked (7:13; 28). So, said Solomon in chap 8 & 9, let a man enjoy his food and drink, let a man relax and be happy; all things are in the hands of God (8:17; 9:7ff). That was his conclusion….
It raises a question. Doesn’t this approach encourage passiveness, even carelessness? Do we not have a responsibility to do things? Surely, Solomon would not have us just bask in the sun like a dog, without actually laboring? Must we not try to improve life on this side of the fall into sin, try to fix up some of the brokenness and crookedness??
This, congregation, is precisely the point Solomon addresses in the next section of his instruction to his people. We most certainly have our responsibility, and the responsibility taught in this portion of Scripture is caught specifically in the words of our text: "wisdom brings success." That’s the action Solomon impresses upon his hearers: be wise! And so: let your conduct be driven by your wisdom.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
Wisdom is God’s recipe to success.
1. The Biblical nature of wisdom.
"Wisdom brings success," says our translation. Before I go into the word ‘wisdom’, I need to say something about that last word, success. We hear that word, and in our minds we equate it immediately with winning on the famed ‘ladder of opportunity’. Then we fill that out in our own way; for the one it means that we’ve achieved a management position over numerous others, for another it means that we’ve done well financially, etc. So we hear in the phrase ‘wisdom brings success’ the notion that wisdom is somehow the recipe to prosperity and fulfillment. Certainly a modern theme….
The term translated for us as ‘success’ appears more often in Scripture, also in the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, though, does not use the term to catch the notion of ‘prosperity’, but to catch the notion of ‘gain’, ‘advantage’ – in the sense of contentment, being satisfied with the purpose of your life. Solomon, you recall, had sought to understand the sense of all our sweat and tears in this broken world. He asks in 1:3, for example: "what profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?" Profit: that’s the same word as is translated in our text as ‘success’. The Preacher wants to know what the sense of all our toil and labor is, for he observes that "one generation passes away, and another generation comes" – so what value has all that toil; what advantage, what profit, what sense, what success is there in the toil? He repeats the question in 2:22: "For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity." That’s the theme that came back time and again in his book: in this broken life there is no true advantage in man’s labor, no dinkum gain or profit, no value or sense…. Try though one will, there is no recipe (says Solomon) for success, for advantage, for gain.
But see: now in our text he does have a recipe! Wisdom, he says, that’s the recipe; "wisdom brings success," wisdom brings profit, gain, advantage; wisdom makes your efforts bear fruit, wisdom makes sense of it all. But ‘wisdom’: what’s that?!
Let me state first, congregation, what it is not. The NIV translates the term ‘wisdom’ in our text with the word ‘skill’: "skill will bring success." So we think of qualifications, of expertise, of experience in the field. Skill, wisdom, is then what you pick up from years of training, be it in college, be it on the job. And this much is clear: the key to success, the key to getting advantage from your labor and making sense of it all lies in yourself, in your efforts, in how good you are and in how good you make yourself to be.
The term ‘wisdom’, however, is not to be translated as ‘skill’, expertise. It just does not mean that. The term ‘wisdom’ has specific content in Scripture, and specifically in Solomon’s writing. True, he does not define the term in his lecture known to us as the book of Ecclesiastes. But Solomon did so very much more teaching in his day, and in that other teaching he most certainly did explain what he understands with the word ‘wisdom’. I refer specifically to Proverbs 1:1-7.
What is wisdom? The word has many nuances, many aspects. But at bottom the word catches a way of thinking about life that takes God seriously. Wisdom takes God for real, and so takes seriously His promises and His commands. The wise man fears God (Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10), while the fool says in his heart, "There is no God" (Ps 14:1; Prov 1:7b). That is why a wise man will listen to God’s instruction, while the fool will despise it; the wise man takes God seriously and therefore appreciates instruction that acknowledges God, while the fool does not take God seriously and therefore does not appreciate instruction that acknowledges God. Wisdom: the term is not to make us think of expertise or skill in the workplace; the term is instead to make us think of what one thinks of God, how open one is to His instruction, whether one takes God seriously in the midst of the questions of this life.
Now, in the earlier chapters of Ecclesiastes, Solomon has taken God quite seriously as he sought to understand life in all its brokenness. God was real, he knew that, and this God was sovereign, master over all. So he could say in 3:11 that God "made everything," more, God "made everything beautiful in its time." Then yes, there’s so much crookedness, so much unfair. Exactly because God is God, His hand is in the crookedness – and therefore it’s so tempting for man to criticize God, to find fault with the way He let’s things happen in this life. But Solomon knows: you can’t do that; 6:10: man is only man, clay…. Criticize God? No, it is for man to accept what God has done, and He, Solomon knows, has made things crooked (7:13) – for the Lord God responded to our fall into sin with the penalty of Genesis 3, the curse of pain and tears and thistles and death. At the same time God in mercy has pronounced His gospel of deliverance for fallen man; the Seed of the woman would triumph over the seed of the serpent (7:28). So He will make straight what is crooked, in His good time.
What shall we do now? How shall we live this broken life? Shall we object to all the brokenness? Shall we try to straighten all things out ourselves? But that, Solomon insists, is not taking God seriously. That’s what the fool does! He doesn’t take God seriously, and so dreams about fixing all the brokenness, restoring this fallen world to a paradise, a utopia. The wise man acts differently. The wise man takes God seriously, both in terms of God’s ordinance after the fall that life would be characterized by brokenness as well as in terms of God’s decree to straighten things out at His good time. The wise man recognizes that God is at work in His own way setting straight at His time and in His manner whatever He in wisdom wishes to set straight. The wise man leaves it to God, and does not get in God’s way. That wise man takes God seriously. That attitude, says Solomon in our text, that’s the way to success, to advantage, to gain in this broken, fallen world.
Now I need to say more about this ‘success’, this ‘advantage’. No, Solomon does not mean with that word something like getting to the top of the ladder of opportunity, achieving a management position or owning your own yacht. His book was about how one copes in a fallen world, how one can be content and enjoy life in the face of crookedness. That’s the point of the term translated for us as ‘success’. Solomon’s recipe for success, for advantage, for contentment and happiness in that world of brokenness after the fall into sin is wisdom, is taking God seriously in all the bits and pieces of this life.
I come to our second point:
2. The human rejection of wisdom.
If this, now, is wisdom, do people embrace it? Does society, for example, recognize this wisdom for what it is, and applaud it? Does the general population see wisdom as the road to success, to advantage, and work with it?
The material from 9:13 up till our text provides numerous anecdotes to prove that society rejects this wisdom, does not appreciate it. The first bit of evidence comes in the form of a story, a story of the little city besieged by a great king. The little city had no chance; it had to surrender. But there was "a poor wise man" in the city, "and he by his wisdom delivered the city" (9:14). In context, it is evident that this poor man was wise in that he took God seriously – and so found a God-centered answer to the problem of the city. Did he, like the king of Nineveh, urge the people to repent and proclaim a fast? Did he, like Hezekiah, lay the problem before the Lord in prayer and beseech Him to deliver for His own Name’s sake? We’re not told. We are told that this man’s wisdom brought success, advantage, gain to the city; it was delivered because this one man took God seriously. So it’s obvious: wisdom, taking God seriously, "is better than strength"; through wisdom the poor man overcame the might of the great king.
One would expect that the citizens of the city would seek to make the poor man’s recipe for success their own. But see: society saw no value in the man’s wisdom, in his godliness and his trust in the Lord! Vs 16: "the poor man’s wisdom was despised." It takes but one man to ridicule the value of wisdom, of taking God seriously in the face of life’s problems – and let’s face it: it’s so easy to mock the value of repentance and prayer! Sinful hearts will the mocker, and scorn God…. "One sinner destroys much good," as a fly or two will destroy the perfumer’s fine ointment (10:1). Society does not appreciate the value of wisdom….
Solomon mentions a second bit of evidence. Yes, there are wise people, people who fear God, take Him seriously, listen to His Word. Vs 2: "a wise man’s heart is at his right hand." But there’s also those who don’t – the fool whose "heart [is] at his left." The point of the references to the right hand and the left is this: a wise heart, a heart that takes God seriously in life, directs the wise man to do the right thing, while a foolish heart, a heart that ignores God, prompts the fool to do the wrong thing. And then you’d expect that the fool would be embarrassed that he’s ever and again doing the wrong thing, but no, "even when a fool walks along the way, he lacks wisdom and he shows everyone that he is a fool" (vs 3). He doesn’t even catch on that his behavior-without-regard-to-God leads him astray, yes, society does not give him the cue either that behavior-without-regard-to-God is senseless. For society does not appreciate wisdom, society does not appreciate the need to take God seriously, society spits wisdom out, rejects wisdom.
Solomon mentions a third bit of evidence, vs 4. "If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post; for conciliation pacifies great offenses." Natural, human reaction to being offended by your superior is to walk out, leave your job, search for something better elsewhere. But back in 8:3 Solomon had counseled caution in leaving the presence of the king (despite his overbearance) –on what grounds?- on grounds that the Lord God has sworn an oath – and that is that He will set all things straight at His time (cf Gen 3:15; Ecclesiastes 7:13). The wise man –he takes God seriously in the questions of life- works with this revelation of God – and so doesn’t run away from a strained or broken relationship. The fool, on the other hand, has no perspective of better things to come – unless he brings it about himself. So he follows his own head – and so demonstrates again that society-as-a-whole does not appreciate the value of wisdom, does not appreciate that wisdom is the recipe to success, to advantage, to contentment.
Once more, Solomon draws out the same point in the vss 5-7. The leaders of society appoint folly –and remember, that’s the person who ignores God, no matter how talented- the leaders appoint folly, the unbelievers to exalted positions. But what’s the result of that? This: "the rich sit in lowly places." Or, to put it differently, "I have seen servants on horses, while princes walk on the ground like servants." The rich, princes: they have a sense of how to govern; how else would they acquire their riches, what else would they learn in their royal school. But because fools, unbelievers, those who ignore God, are elevated to positions of leadership, those familiar with the art of government are tossed out – to society’s obvious disadvantage. And what is the benefit of that?! But society doesn’t realize that this is the inevitable consequence of ignoring God. Society does not realize that the way to success lies with wisdom, lies with taking God seriously. People incline to reject wisdom.
Solomon belabors the point with a fifth bit of evidence. As one lives in this broken world, one must invariably work. That work has risks. You dig a pit, and could end up falling into it yourself. You break down one of those walls the Israelites had between their vineyards –they were thick rows of stone- and could end up with a snakebite. You quarry stone, and you could have a stone fall on top of you. You split wood, and your axe could damage your leg. That’s life in this fallen world after the fall into sin. How, then, get ahead? How achieve success, advantage, contentment in life? Through own effort?! Own effort will result in some form of injury. You’ll always find that your axe is dull…, and so you have to try harder…, and the harder you try the more you get hurt…. But no matter how hard you try, the conclusions Solomon has reached in the earlier chapters hold true: all die, so what’s the sense of your labor (2:22; 3:19). Effort, sweat, toil is not the road to success, to advantage, to catching the sense of all things, to contentment…. But society doesn’t realize that….
Now what do you think, beloved: are Solomon’s examples valid only for the unbelieving heathens living outside of the land of Israel in Solomon’s days? Or might his examples be true also with respect to the people of Israel themselves – children of God by covenant though they be? Let this be clear: the very fact that Solomon has to give the instruction of our chapter to the people of Israel is evidence aplenty that in his judgment God’s people by covenant were equally inclined to reject true wisdom. With the material of our chapter, then, Solomon impresses upon the people of his day how necessary it is for them to take God seriously in the questions of life. How do you live in a fallen world? How do you cope with brokenness? Like this: be wise, take God seriously. What that means? This: you take seriously what He says about creation and the fall into sin – including His response to that fall, ie, His decree of toil and tears and brokenness and crookedness as described in Genesis 3 as well as His decree to provide redemption at His time. So the wise man does not strive to fix this world himself (or with the help of many others), but he leaves the fixing of things to God. That trust in God’s promises, that humility before God, gives success, gives advantage, gives peace, gives contentment; it leaves the big puzzles to God in whose hands the problems and injustices of life are safe.
Is this passiveness? No, it is not! Leaving matters to the Lord is probably harder work than trying to fix the brokenness you see; trust is hard work! Leave it to the Lord, be meek (Mt 5:5), trust in the Lord, take His promises seriously, simply obey His commands in your circumstances: it’s the daily struggle for the sinful child of God!
So I come to our last point:
3. The ultimate example of wisdom.
Who is sufficient for these things? Do you, beloved, have it in you to step back from life’s problems and leave it to God to fix up? Take God seriously, in His promises and in His commands: how often we fail so dismally! If this is the action God requires of His people, truly, we fail, we fail….
For that reason I draw your attention to our chief Prophet and Teacher, that wisest of men, our Lord Jesus Christ. This Man was wise, most wise in that He took seriously the God who sent Him to earth. And that’s to say: in all the time He lived on earth Jesus Christ did not take matters into His own hands, did not use His almighty power to bring about a Paradise restored through His own initiative. It wasn’t –let this be clear!- it wasn’t that Jesus wasn’t able to do so! As true God Jesus had almighty power – witness how He healed the sick, raised the dead, stilled the storm, cast out demons, etc. But Jesus did not raise all the dead, did not heal all the sick, did not still all the storms, did not cast out all the demons, did not even make wine for every wedding or multiply loaves for all Israel’s hungry. He could have done so¸ and even had the power to prevent further illnesses and deaths, prevent further hunger and thirst, prevent further storms and demon possessions. That’s to say: Jesus had the power to make on earth a new Paradise, simply by His word of command. Action, fix things up: Jesus could do it!
He didn’t. Why not? That, beloved, is because He took God seriously. That is: He took seriously God’s response to the fall into sin, recognized that the trials and troubles of this life are His ordinance in reply to our transgression in the beginning, recognized too that God had ordained a way to restore Paradise – and that was through the forgiveness of sins through the blood of the Son of God. That was God’s ordinance, and therefore Jesus respected it; He did not strive to set things right in a manner different than God had ordained.
So, instead of casting out all demons and healing all the sick of Israel, instead of feeding all the hungry and raising all the dead, Jesus, Seed of the woman, labored –in obedience to God’s commands- to crush the seed of the serpent. He took God seriously, and so accepted humbly the path God laid out before Him, and so obediently went to the cross – terrifying though the agony of the cross was. He did not succumb to the temptation of the devil to receive all the kingdoms of the earth as His own through bending the knee to the devil (Mt 4:8f), but withstood the temptation to defy the ordinance of God. He did not give in to His own feelings of revulsion at the thought of going to the cross (Mt 26:36ff), but withstood the temptation to go a human way. He took God seriously, and so obeyed – and that was His wisdom.
The result? Jesus received success! All His suffering, all the brokenness and crookedness He tasted, bore the rich fruit of reconciling sinners to God! Through His obedience Paradise is in principle restored; wisdom brings success!
And we? Yes, we praise God for the Savior’s wisdom; it is our salvation. But is that the only way for us to respond to Jesus’ work?
No, beloved, our response needs to go deeper. In Jesus’ work we have the example of the truth of our text; His life and ministry for the evidence that "wisdom brings success." So it is for us equally to be wise, to take God seriously in all His promises and demands in the midst of life’s daily nuts and bolts. With Solomon’s instruction and Christ’s example we have been warned, have been taught, instructed. Now we need to take this instruction seriously. And that is what Solomon drives home in vs 11. "A serpent," he writes, "may bite when it is not charmed." By nature we are fools, wanting to go our own way, fix life’s problems ourselves. There is in us all a serpent that will hurt us, kill us, that inclination to follow our own head. That serpent needs to be charmed, and that’s to say that we need to take the instruction of our text seriously and so be wise – lest we perish as fools who do not take God seriously. It begins with talk, talk not of how we shall fix things up –that’s the talk of fools, and that’s madness, empty- but talk of God’s will for us. Such "words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious," edifying. Such words point the true way ahead, while the fool, the unbeliever, gets lost in all his words and efforts; those who don’t take God seriously "do not even know how to go the city!" Life’s roads are for them a maze of which they can make no sense, let alone find the way forward.
What, then, is required for a land to prosper? "Woe," says Solomon in vs 16, "woe to you, O land, when your king is a child." In context, the reference is not to a youngster; recall how those two young kings of Judah were such a blessing in their youth – Joash was seven years old when he became king (2 Kings 11:21) and Josiah was eight (2 Kings 22:1). No, the reference is to being infantile, immature in faith, in wisdom. Solomon refers in vss 16ff to the scenario he’d painted earlier in vs 6: fools are exalted to positions of leadership, people who do not take God seriously. That can never be good for a land – and not for a family either or for a school board or a consistory or any body that must give leadership. On the other hand, "blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles" – and again, the reference here is to the high breeding of faith, people who are noble in the eyes of God, people who take God seriously in every question of life.
There, then, congregation, is the instruction flowing from the material of our text. "Wisdom brings success," and that’s to say that taking God seriously, standing in awe of God, fearing Him, is the recipe of making sense of the troubles and brokenness of life, is the recipe for seeing advantage in what happens, and being at peace. So then: are you wise? Do you fear God, obey His commands, trust His program for restoring Paradise? Or would you rather do things, follow your own head to solve the problems of your neighborhood?
Jesus put it this way: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Mt 5:5). Amen.