Ecclesiastes 8. The Only Way to Go

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. –Ecclesiastes 9:17

We have all seen the wall plaque that says, in a strong German accent, “Ve grow too soon oldt, und too late schmart.” Many people would agree that age increases faster than wisdom. By the time you learn what you need to know it is already too late to use it!

But in the book of Ecclesiastes we learn that this common experience is not a necessary one. It is possible to learn before it is too late the wisdom necessary to guide you through life.

Wisdom, however, will not help you avoid the pain of life. Many people make the mistake of thinking that wisdom will deliver them from all pressure and struggle. It will not. We learn in this book that struggle, pain, pressure, and sorrow all are part of the learning process. But by discovering and obeying the wisdom of God, life will not be rendered bitter, angry, or resentful. You will not find yourself plunged into a morass of self-pity and depression. You will not find your life ravaged and torn apart, with all your dreams collapsed at your feet.

The wisdom of God will lead you into fullness and liberty and inward peace in the midst of the pressures and dangers of life. That is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes, as it is the message of the whole Bible.

Beginning in chapter 9, verse 11, the Searcher tells us that the first and probably most difficult lesson of all is that natural gifts in themselves are not enough to handle life; natural abilities and diligent effort will not lead us into truly successful living.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them (9:11-12).

Many have had experiences that confirm this. All our carefully laid plans have fallen apart; all our hopes that we had what it took to succeed crumbled, and we could not understand why. We had to learn, as this text says, that “the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.” That is often true in athletics. In the early part of this century Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the Olympic Games. He stood before the king of Sweden and was publicly acknowledged as the greatest athlete of his time. Yet those medals and honors had to be given back when it was learned that years earlier he had played professional baseball for five dollars a season, which rendered him no longer an amateur. Only recently were his medals restored, posthumously.

It is not always the strong, the mighty, the able, and the gifted who win in politics, either. We have often seen men and women whom everyone considered a cinch to win public office, defeated, and unable to fulfill their dreams. The battle is not always to the strong, though many strong men and women have sought the awards and the prizes of men.

The Nobel Prize was given a few years ago to a little woman in India, Mother Teresa, who ministered to the needs of the poor around her. And though Hollywood does its best to impress the American public, the picture that was named Best Motion Picture of 1982 was Chariots of Fire, the story of a Christian athlete. Solomon clearly tells us that natural gifts are never enough in themselves.

Other factors really make the difference. “Time and chance happen to them all.” What does he mean by that? We often hear, “You have to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time.” It takes more than raw ability. All the elements of rightness must come together before someone can reach his goal. The Searcher is saying, of course, that life is not really in our control.

The illusion that the secular media constantly presses upon us is that we can arrange life by our choices. “It’s your life! You can live it the way you please.” So the television commercials proclaim. But Solomon says it cannot be done that way. “Time and chance happen to them all.” Just when you think you have something under control it can all fall apart. Disasters come when least expected: “As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare.” Everything can suddenly and unexpectedly disintegrate. Every one of us has had some experience of that.

But his point is that there is a wisdom which can handle that, too. Even though disaster may strike, it can be turned into victory. He gives us an example in verses 13-16:

I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

There is no record of this event elsewhere in Scripture. Perhaps Solomon, the greatest king of his day, heard this story from a foreign delegation. It may be that he was confused about an incident, recorded in 2 Samuel chapter 20. When Solomon was still a boy, King David sent his general, Joab, to capture a traitor named Sheba, who had taken refuge in a small city in northern Israel. Joab set his army around the city, built siegeworks against it, and was ready to knock down the walls and capture the city when a wise woman called out to him from the walls and suggested that the leaders of the city throw the traitor’s head out to Joab. They did so, and thus saved the city. Perhaps that is the event Solomon refers to here.

In any case, God’s wisdom can turn what looks like sure defeat into victory, although that wisdom may not even be remembered; it may even be popularly rejected. That is what verse 16 implies: “I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.” Popular rejection is no sign that something is wrong or ineffective.

We must remember today that the world will never applaud the basic truths of the Christian faith. Why? Because Christianity judges the world, points out its error, and exposes its illusions. It humbles it. The world cannot take that. So we can expect that God-given wisdom will not necessarily be popular. Nevertheless it is that which can deliver, that which can free.

I have seen in various metropolitan newspapers a full page ad that had been placed by a Christian group. One paragraph stated:

God promised a Messiah, a deliverer, a problem solver. And if there is anything more difficult than the fact of sin, it’s the idea that God solves our problems. But He can! lie can make us want peace, give us hearts to care about one another, relieve guilt, mend broken homes, give meaning to our lives and diminish the din of the Twentieth Century with the music of His love.

That eloquently expresses the message of the Searcher. How humbling it is to lean on the wisdom of God!

What is this wisdom we are talking about? All through this book we have been looking at wisdom versus foolishness, and in the current section a great contrast is drawn between them. What does the Bible mean when it uses those terms?

It should be clear to us by now that true wisdom acts upon the revelation of reality that the Scriptures give us. Wisdom leads to actions that are controlled by the revelation of God. In Romans 12:2 Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world [do not run after all the attractive, illusive dreams shouted at you constantly by the world], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Think Christianly about life! Look at what you are going through, not from the standpoint of what seems right–the Scriptures everywhere warn about that–but upon what is right, according to the word of God. Here is true wisdom: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). The opposite, of course, is foolishness, to adopt the secular mind, the spirit of the age, to run after the advice of those devoid of insight from the Word of God.

There follows in this next section a tremendous contrast between wisdom and foolishness, which I would like to illustrate at a very pragmatic level. We recently learned that there are at least twenty-three couples at our church who are either contemplating or actually involved in divorce. That reflects a running after the spirit of the age, the wisdom of the world, rather than following the wisdom of God.

We need to remember what Solomon himself warned us about earlier in this book. He said, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it” (5:4). Married couples have taken sacred vows before God and human witnesses, that they would stay together “for better or for worse” until death shall part them. That is the wisdom of God. That is what preserves a society. If anything can arrest the fragmentation of life around us, this breakdown of morals, and all the other terrible things that are happening in our day, it must come from Christians who will stand against the spirit of the age, who will refuse to go along with corrupt suggestions on every side.

Solomon goes on to warn, “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger [the representative of God], ‘My vow was a mistake’ [That is what many are saying today, ‘I made a mistake!’]. Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” (5:5-6).

He is not painting God as a killjoy, as a heartless avenger who visits severe judgment upon people. It rather recalls that God has set the rules of life, and He does not change them. To forgive us does not mean He relinquishes the penalty of our misdeeds; it means that He goes through it with us, He strengthens us in the midst of it. But the agony and the hurt is all there.

I want to express the deep sense of sympathy I personally have, as do all the elders and pastors of our church, with couples who are struggling with their marriages. This is not at all uncommon. Almost all married couples go through pain and struggle. I remember how hopeless things looked at times in the early years of my own marriage, how difficult it was to relate to one another, how easy it would have been to walk away, forget the whole thing, and start over. But that is why marriage vows exist. They help us face up to a situation that will result in tremendous learning about ourselves.

The problem with every threatened marriage is the people involved in the marriage–both of them! They need to know something about themselves; that is what we have seen from the Scriptures. We do not realize that we are mysteries to ourselves. Conflict in marriage helps us discover what we are contributing to every situation. To flee the marriage is but to flee into another set of problems and paths that are usually worse than the ones you are running from. Many testify that the divorce they thought was such a simple solution to a mistake they felt they had made, only introduced them into a more painful situation, and one that continued in many ways for the rest of their lives.

My counsel to those who are struggling in this area is to call off the legal dogs and seek counsel and help from those who are able to help you through these difficult times. Look to the Lord, look to your God, for help in solving the problems of life. That is why Jesus came, to give us hearts to care about one another, to relieve our guilt, and to mend our broken homes.

With that situation in mind, let us look at the verses that follow:

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (9:17).

That simply says that the insights of Scripture–heard in the inner self, quietly, before God alone–are more effective in solving problems than worldly rhetoric or propaganda, better than the ideas of a prominent opinion maker who says things that are popular but are contrary to Scripture. In the Bible, rulers are not always governors and kings; they are opinion makers, shapers of the minds of men. Yet what they say is often only what foolish people around them want to hear.

The word of God’s wisdom, heard in quiet, are much more effective than such empty propaganda. He goes on.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor (9:18-10:1).

This first axiom is true of actual battles that nations have fought. Oftentimes quiet, biblical principles have overcome the power of force. Look at the civil rights movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who based his actions and leadership upon scriptural principles of nonviolent protest. That is a vivid example of how powerful such a movement can be in overcoming injustice and outright physical abuse. It can set things right better than can warfare.

This is true in an individual’s or in a couple’s life as well. Wisdom is better than war, better than fighting.

But a warning is included here: one sinner is like a dead fly that fouls the perfumer’s ointment. One person, insisting on following the world’s philosophy, can often harm, arrest, or even destroy the healing work of wisdom.

The Searcher says: The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is (10:2-3).

God’s wisdom provides a safer guide through life than the impulsive actions of those who follow whatever views happen to be popular. Even when a fool does take the right course, he often makes it clear that he does not understand why; he reveals his ignorance when he talks. Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer used to say at Dallas Seminary, “It is much better to keep silent and let everybody think you are a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!”

The Searcher is saying that even when fools take the right course and do the right thing, the way they explain or describe it reveals how wrong they are. It is like the man who jumped into the water to save another who was drowning. Asked why he did so, he said, “I had to; he had my watch on!” So even when a fool walks on the road he lacks sense, and says to everyone that he is a fool.

Then the fourth contrast–wisdom is better than running away:

If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest (10:4).

At times running away looks like the best thing to do, but this text warns us that it isn’t. It is much wiser to give a soft answer that turns away wrath, or to show deference–which means to acknowledge another person’s feelings instead of your own–to someone who may be offended. Even a ruler or a king can be placated by deference.

Then in verses 5 through 7 we have the opposite of this, the hurt that foolish thinking can cause:

There is an evil i have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.

An error that those in authority often make is to appoint their incompetent friends to office; they put the wrong people in the right place. People who have no ability are exalted and put in high places, while those with great ability are treated like slaves and have no opportunity. Favoritism, this is called.

A Time magazine article focused on the way political appointments have diminished the authority and prestige of the Supreme Court of California. This is the very problem this verse talks about.

In the next section, verses 8 through 11, the Searcher describes the kinds of insights that wisdom will embrace. First, he counsels about avoiding dangers, understanding that certain situations have inherent dangers:

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may he injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them (10:8).

Very few of us will ever be heavily involved in digging pits, breaking down walls, quarrying stones, or splitting logs. But these verses go beyond physical situations; they also describe the things we do to each other. Did you ever dig a pit for someone–lay a trap to embarrass him, to make him look bad or injure him in some way–only to find that you yourself were trapped by the situation you had designed? Wisdom understands that when you dig a pit you too are in danger. You may fall into it yourself.

Wisdom also understands that when you try to break down some wall of obstruction that keeps you from getting at someone or something, you are in danger, for hidden in that wall may be a serpent that will strike you. Many a person has discovered that in heavy-handedly trying to break down someone’s resistance, he has triggered a serpent within that flashes up in anger and leads to hurtful, destructive consequences. He has been bitten through his own folly.

“Whoever quarries stones”–he who tries to remove something of value, to dig out something for himself that will be of great use and profit–must realize that he can be hurt by that. He may get what he wants, but it will be the worst thing that could happen to him. Psalm 106:15 says of the Israelites in the wilderness, “He (God] gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them.”

“Whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.” Here is the same principle. The idea is that care must be taken in all these attempts to do things, since they may endanger you as well.

The next two verses offer examples of the ways wisdom enlists help in time. First:

If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success (10:10).

If you do not think through what you are going to do, and sharpen the edge of your approaches by pondering carefully how you are going to go about something, you will only expend a lot of effort and find yourself worn out in the process. But the wise man, understanding the need for sharpness and clarity, will whet the edge of his thought before he tries something, and will thus succeed.


If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer (10:11).

The damage is already done. Do not go seeking counsel or help to remedy a situation after it has happened. Go for help before it is needed. Seek the counsel of one who can defuse the situation, one who can calm the serpent which is within all of us, before you get into trouble. That is the point of wisdom. How practical this is! The passage closes with verses 12 through 15, where the Searcher sets forth the dangers of foolish talking:

Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips (10:12).

When, without thinking, we follow the secular wisdom around us (wisdom that looks good and feels right but nevertheless is foolish), we will end up hurting ourselves by what we say. How tragically this has been illustrated in the lives of those who fling overboard the wisdom of the Word and speak according to the mind of the world. They end up broken and hurting, wretched and miserable, defiled and debauched, or empty and lonely. The increasing misery and anguish of life that we see around us is the result of a deliberate turning away from the wisdom of the mind of God. That sort of mindset consumes, it destroys.

Furthermore, it escalates:

At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness (10:13).

Read the papers tomorrow morning and you will see several illustrations of people who started out trying to express themselves in a simple way, but the situation escalated until they resorted to violence, even murder. This is the power of foolish speaking. Such talk is often effusive:

The fool multiplies words. No one knows what is coming–who can tell him what will happen after him? (10:14).

One of the marks of foolish counsel is the prolixity of it, of saying things for the sake of being heard. I am reminded of the man who said, “All my wife ever does is talk, talk, talk!” His friend asked, “What does she talk about?” He replied, “I don’t know; she won’t say!” Words devoid of content–this is characteristic of our time. There never was such a day in which people were bombarded with so many words, so much literature, so much spouting of words through the media. Yet much of it is thoroughly empty, unsatisfying, arid misleading in the extreme.

So the Searcher closes the section:

A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town (10:15).

The fool doesn’t know how to proceed, he is confused, weary, empty. So much of what we hear today leaves us like that. You run after these things and find they do not fulfill you. You do not feel strengthened. You spend hours looking at television, reading magazines, novels, or newspapers, yet you are not fed; you are not satisfied, strengthened, or helped. You feel empty lonely, and depressed.

Worse than that, you are confused. Many are saying, “I don’t know what to do about this problem; I don’t know what steps to take.” But the Scriptures tell you that in every situation where you need guidance there is a step to take, something you can do that is right. If you do the right, another step will open, then another, and soon you recognize that a Divine Hand is guiding you step by step through the situation. Instead of breaking up, ruining, and damaging your life, gradually the situation unfolds and leads to a solution. You experience a sense of joy and satisfaction that God has worked out the problem.

I have deliberately set this passage in the context of marriage, even though it applies to many other situations. If are someone who is struggling with your marriage, I want you to know that God understands, He sympathizes, He knows it is difficult. But you are making a sad and sorry mistake if you resort to divorce. That is the world’s way out, and it ends in pain and further confusion.

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