Eccl. 9.11-10:20 – Wisdom & Folly

Note for a sermon preached on 15.02.09am

For ten long years the Greeks had been besieging the costal city of Troy. They’d tried everything, and thrown all the might and power at their disposal at it, but Troy had stood. It showed no sign of falling. Imagine the elation from the city walls the day they saw the army sailing away having abandoned their efforts. It must have been a glorious moment, relief beyond measure, but there was one thing that concerned them, something that had been left behind. Standing outside the city walls was a large wooden horse.

Stories differ as to what happened next. Some say that they decided to drag the horse into the city as a victory trophy. Others say that they found a Greek soldier cowering in the rocks where he had been abandoned by his retreating colleagues after a falling out. He told them that the horse was an offering to Athena.

Either way, the result is the same; the horse is brought into Troy.

They weren’t to know that the soldier left on the shore was in fact a plant…

They weren’t to know that inside the horse were a crack squad of Grecian warriors waiting to come out at night, slaughter the guards and open the city gates…

They weren’t to know that the retreating ships had in fact under cover of night turned around and returned to their shore…

An angel appears at a university faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behaviour, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.

“Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”

The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”

I remember seeing a stand up routine by one of my favourite comics Jasper Carrot. In it he remarked that in every survey of women asking what they looked for in men, that the top answer was a sense of humour. In true Carrott fashion, he then turns to the ladies in the audience, “OK, girls, imagine you walk into a pub and standing at the bar is Keven Spacey, not renowned for his sense of humour. Now, he’s standing next to Ken Dodd…”

What characteristics do you prize in a person – whether they are a public figure, a friend or partner? Good looks? Sense of humour? Caring nature? Willingness to listen? Athletic nature? Confidence? Ambition? To the teacher, the top quality is wisdom, almost always missing on our lists.

What is wisdom? It’s not a word we use very often today. We might talk about intelligence, but that isn’t the same thing. Wisdom is not how clever you are, but is to do with having the insight to live a good life. If we look at the proverbs that the Teacher uses in today’s passage, we can gain an image of what a wise person might be like:

• A wise person lives a quiet or humble life rather than a loud, domineering life (9:17)
• A wise person brings peace not destruction (9:18)
• A wise person is a calm person, not a hasty one (10:4)
• A wise person is gracious with their words rather than self promoting (10:12)
• A wise person thinks ahead instead of living just for the moment (10:14)
• A wise person is hardworking and is a good steward of what they’ve been given rather than being lazy of gluttonous (10:16-18)
• A wise person takes care not to antagonize other people needlessly, especially those in authority, instead of being quick to criticize (10:20)

Living a wise life fosters community, peaceful living, and prosperity (in holistic sense). In contrast living a foolish life destroys community through its self-promoting and self-centred actions. Such a life brings destruction.

Funny when you see it put like this that wisdom isn’t valued more than it is.
When the wooden horse was wheeled into Troy, I am sure there was someone in the city who was wise enough to call out – ‘it’s a trap!’ But as always this cry was ignored in favour of the value of the prize or the prestige it brought. The Teacher tells another story about a siege. In this siege a small city is being besieged by a powerful king. There is no way that they can survive. No way can they keep the invaders out. The numbers and machinery of their opponents are just too large and sophisticated. But that doesn’t take into account wisdom. In the city there is one wise man, and he has the insight to overcome the enemies pounding at the gate and to keep them out. Wisdom can’t take away the troubles of the world, but it can help us cope! And yet what happens afterwards? Is this hero celebrated? Is he given a reward and held up as a shining example? No. he is forgotten…

Why isn’t wisdom valued?

Wisdom doesn’t draw attention to itself. In fact points away to others. Wisdom isn’t glamorous or sexy. Wisdom is learnt; you can’t get it in a jar like instant coffee or buy it at Lakeside. In a debate, so often the person that shouts loudest gets heard, even though their point of view might be wrong or unhelpful. At a party, people will navigate towards the attractive ones, without even realising what they might miss out on by not spotting others. Doors will open to someone with money or who knows the right people, but not so well to someone who is unknown who might have something valuable to offer.

It will also come as no surprise to you to realise that being wise won’t give you an easy life – remember back in chapter 2 the Teacher pursues wisdom, but realises that the same fate awaits the wise person as the fool.

But wisdom does have its rewards. What did he say back in Ecclesiastes 8:1? ‘Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance.’ Why is this?

Wisdom may not solve the problems of life, or take them away, but it does enable us to face them, to deal with them. Wisdom breeds peace and relationships. Wisdom stresses grace over judgement. Wisdom looks to others not ones self. These are the qualities that we need to live as part of an imperfect world.

Think of the list of the qualities we drew up to describe wisdom earlier? A wise person lives a quiet or humble life, brings peace, is a calm person, is gracious with their words, thinks ahead, is hardworking and is a good steward of what they’ve been given, and takes care not to antagonize others needlessly.

Does that sound familiar to you? It reminds me of the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I guess this isn’t surprising really when you remember what Solomon says elsewhere about wisdom – ‘the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and disciple’ (Proverbs 1:7).

To seek to be wise is to seek to be like Christ; this is good thing. To seek to be wise, we need to cultivate openness to God, praying for the Spirit to mould us into God’s image, listening to his prompting and direction. It is God who makes us wise, but we can help that process through seeking after him.

Of course we shouldn’t be surprised that when we try and live wise lives that we may get walked over and forgotten like the man in the siege – isn’t that what happened to Jesus? People might think it odd that we seek to live this way rather than putting other more glamorous objectives first. But when this happens, take courage from Christ. The world said that the way he lived was foolish. It wondered why he didn’t fight back or demand power. It was scandalised when he washed people’s feet and ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors. To die on the cross was to suffer defeat. And yet through this foolishness we are saved, just as the inhabitants of that city were rescued by the wise man inside its gates.

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)

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