The Ways of the Wise

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
7. The Ways of the Wise (Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:1)
  • Can we find meaning in life through running wise diagnostics?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • There is meaning in leading a life led by wisdom centered on God. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-6, 11, 18)
  • There is evil in the world and in man. (Ecclesiastes 7:20, 29)
  • God is greater than any human wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 7:13 & 14)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What does the life led by wisdom look like?
  • If man is evil, how does one yet life the way of wisdom?
  • What does it mean to say that God is greater than any human wisdom?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • What is important about retaining a “good name?”
  • What is the advantage of a deep, serious life as over against a life of frivolity? Why is the former better than the latter?
  • What is the benefit of wisdom and the way of wisdom?
  • How is wisdom a shelter?
  • What are the limitations of wisdom? How far can wisdom take one towards the answers of life?
  • Why is it not necessarily productive to look back at “the old days?”
  • Why should one not live at the extremes of life? What are the extremes the Preacher sets forth? (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18)
  • What is the state of mankind? (Ecclesiastes 7:26-29)
  • Why is it so hard to find a righteous man or a righteous woman?
  • How does wisdom make one's face shine? (Ecclesiastes 8:1)
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • Describe the ways of wisdom as it plays out in your life?
  • In what ways do you lead a serious, thoughtful life? In what ways do you lead a frivolous life?
  • What is it about the “good old days” that hinder living in the present?
  • How is wisdom good with an inheritance? How is wisdom a protector?
  • Should the fact that you don't know your future in detail bother you in the living of life every day? Why not?
  • How can you avoid the extremes and why should you?
  • What should your approach be to listening to the gossiping words of others, or the criticism of others?
  • How should you view other people without God? What is their state without Him?
  • How should you live amidst people who are not perfect?
  • How can you live the way of wisdom and how can doing so make your face shine?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
Chapter 6 has left us on a low note, the last three verses seeming to say that life is so short and uncertain that we can’t even know what is good and how to live; it’s all vanity and all of
us are just going to die anyway, our lives having been determined by God. So live however you like, for it just doesn’t matter; “[f]or who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12) The Preacher has left us in a dark, depressing place, to be sure. But the real question is whether the Preacher will stay there, and whether, by extension, we will stay there.

The good news is that in chapter 7, the Preacher shakes out of the depression. He does not leave us in meaninglessness, with no direction. The Preacher has already looked to God for meaning (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12; 5:1 & 2, 20), and with that overall context, he now proceeds to give us a series of proverbial sayings that speak to how to live life, sayings that are literally the “ways of the wise” which will serve one in good stead in life, and which are, ultimately, the ways of God as opposed to being the ways of man. Even if they do not provide all the answers to life and its meaning, these sayings give direction and offer a shelter from the lack of answers; these sayings are good, for the now and for the future. So what do these proverbs say?

Verses 1 through 6 basically tell us to be serious in life, not frivolous. Here are their messages:

verse 1 says, “Preserve your reputation”
verse 2 says, “Face the issue of death and eternity”
verses 3 and 4 say, “Allow sorrow to bring you life insights”
verses 5 and 6 say, “Be open to constructive criticism”

In short, they say, “The wise man will live life with a measure of solemnity, and an intentional avoidance of thoughtless behavior, always with humility and with the ultimate future in mind. Life is more than totally in the moment; there is always tomorrow, next week, next year, and even eternity. That future must have an impact on one's present behavior.” As an example of the sense of these verses, one commentator had it right when he wrote the following about the saying concerning sorrow: “A sorrow shared may bring more inner happiness than an evening with back-slapping jokers.” We know that the Preacher is not excluding joy and happiness by offering these sayings as the ways of the wise, because he has already written, “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18) Rather, the Preacher is providing a setting for that enjoyment, a setting that takes life seriously and one's lot in life as having an arc of goodness to achieve.

But the Preacher continues on. Verse 7 says, “Do not seek advantage via your position; remember that bribery undercuts your character.” Verses 8 and 9 say, “See things through to the end, including your life. Patience is helpful and anger leads nowhere.” Verse 10 says, “Don't focus on the past as doing so keeps you from the present.” Verses 11 and 12 say, “The wise one will use well an inheritance knowing it was not earned; and wisdom provides security and preserves life.” Then verses 13 and 14 sum up by saying that the foregoing ways of the wise are sensible from the human perspective, but actually take God into account, knowing that God is in sovereign control over all things, including what seems to us to be good and what seems to us to be bad. We must live in what He provides us and trust in that provision in life. This approach is (again) not fatalism, but rather at least understands that there is a God, that God is sovereign ruler over all, that God has a plan and purpose to everything even if it is not knowable by us, and that God has given us life to live. These thoughts ring true to the believer in Christ who does know the future, it having been revealed by God. However, that believer has more to go on than merely clinging to a God who is somehow distant. The Apostle Paul wrote to this point in his letter to the Romans. Hear what he wrote:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:18-30)

The call of those verses from Romans is to trust in God and the reality that He knows the end from the beginning and everything in between. The issue for us, then, is one of faith, and more particularly, faith that sees beyond the now to the end in light of who God is, even without our knowing how things will work in the midst of those two ends. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote of this:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

The Preacher does not see ahead to the end, but knows enough to life in the now in light of God and His plans. So the Preacher writes of faith even if he doesn't call it that.

But in verse 15 through 22, the Preacher confronts the question that comes up in light of the prior admonition to “do good in this life,” that question being “Why do good in this life if there's no reward for it, but instead even negative consequences?” (Ecclesiastes 7:15) His response, while not an answer to the question per se (that is, in terms of providing a solution), is that while we may not know the end, we shouldn't live at the extremes of “overly righteous,” which is “do-goodism” which undercuts relationships and results in extreme judgmentalism, or “overly wicked,” which is foolishness that can even lead to an early death. (Ecclesiastes 7:16 & 17). Instead, the Preacher says the way of wisdom is that one should put God at the heart of life and thus avoid such extremes. (Ecclesiastes 7:18. Cf. Philippians 3:8-10) Yet, though wisdom is to be sought and lived out, and though it provides strength in large measure (Ecclesiastes 7:19), even the wise person must recognize that wisdom has its limitations as no one is perfect (See Romans 3:10-18). So in that light, the wise one doesn't listen to gossip or the idle words of others, recognizing that he or she has spoken such words himself or herself. (Ecclesiastes 7:20-22) Nevertheless, human wisdom in itself is not able to provide answers to the profound questions of life and meaning; it runs up against the reality of life and evil in its attempt to find meaning, and instead finds these problems to be unsolvable. (Ecclesiastes 7:23-25) Especially galling is the reality that people are not only imperfect, they are evil. The Preacher was not able to find but one man in a thousand who was upright, and no women, and the latter including women who scheme to trap men! (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28) One wonders if this latter observation comes from King Solomon's experience with his multitude of wives, most of whom were foreign and who he presumably married to allow him to keep up with other potentates of his world and to secure treaties with foreign powers (I Kings 11:1-6). These women turned his heart from God and led him astray. But the point is that the wise person is extremely rare, and that reality only serves to underscore the issue of the presence of evil.

So where did the ways of wisdom leave the Preacher in the end? Again, even though there are ways of wisdom that make for some meaning in life when followed, when all is said and done, the Preacher found only meaninglessness. However, he recognizes that the problem is not God or from God (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Thus, in Ecclesiastes 8:1 he can say that though wisdom doesn't provide the explanation of things, because it is from God after all, wisdom and the way of wisdom “makes his face shine” and ameliorates against the hardness of the way of man which, ultimately, leads only to meaninglessness and destruction (See Proverbs 14:12). It seems, then, that the Preacher is working hard to hold on to the center of meaning, which he continues to insist is found in God, despite the fact that he cannot reach that point through wisdom that comes solely from man. So, the Preacher keeps searching life through wisdom, arriving at meaninglessness only to reject it as the final end to his life's journey. There is thus no solace for the Preacher in knowledge, which is limited, or in people, who are foolish and evil; there is only fearing God (Ecclesiastes 7:18). To the believer, the good news is that we don't have to cling to God out of sheer desperation. Rather, we know that God has reached out to us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8), that God has literally become one of us in order to give us meaning and indeed, in order to save us (Romans 5:6-11, 17). And we know that God cares for us (I Peter 5:7), loves us (Romans 8:37-39), and has plans for us which, even though we don't know the details (I John 3:1-3), we can rely on because He is good (Psalm 107:1; Mark 10:18), He keeps His word (Numbers 23:19; Deuteronomy 7:9; II Timothy 2:13), and in Christ He is always with us (Matthew 28:20). Surely knowing these things should make our faces shine. (Ecclesiastes 8:1b)