Good News for Losers: Ecclesiastes 9:11-10:7
Winning is a tremendous motivation. The hope of winning causes us to press forward and give our all. And, we are told as kids that if we play by the rules and give it our all we can be winners.
As kids, we are read stories where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. We are told stories about hardworking athletes who overcame long odds to be a champion. We are told that the poor humble peasant girl who acts with integrity always becomes the princess. We are told that the outcast and downcast young men who conduct themselves with honor and valor eventually become a prince and get to marry the princess.
Then, we get older only to realize that life does not work like this. Unlike the fantasy world, in the real world smart people work for dumb people, honest people get ripped off by evil people, and being a humble, hard working, kind person makes you an easy mark to get used and abused.
Admittedly, this leads a lot of people to despair and even depression. But, as we learn this week, it is also an opportunity to learn that every day life provides us opportunities to grow in wisdom. In this way, God is shifting our focus from being winners to being wise. We cannot all be winners but we can all be wise. This is the good news for losers as he explores in Ecclesiastes 9:11-12.
We all have on our phone, in our notebook, or in our mind a plan for how tomorrow will go and what we will do. This helps us to feel that life is manageable, under control, and works according to a predictable pattern.
But, if we are honest, this is all an illusion.
We can influence our lives, but we do not control our lives. There are circumstances beyond our control that we remain completely unaware of until they blindside us.
Solomon rightly observes this fact about life. Sometimes the fast runner gets the bronze medal and the slow runner gets the gold medal. Sometimes the guy who goes to the gym everyday mastering his MMA skills gets knocked out at the bar by the out of shape drunk guy who landed a lucky punch. Sometimes the gal with the degree does not get the job she worked her whole life for because the boss hired his girlfriend instead.
From our perspective under the sun, without God’s view of things, it can easily appear that life is ruled by happenstance and chance rather than God’s providence.
I was recently driving around Arizona with the top off my Jeep in the hot sun, and out of nowhere, clouds quickly rolled in. They dropped so much water that it looked like God flipped a lake upside down just to see what would happen. Life is like that. Storms of tragedy and misery roll in unannounced and we are unprepared. Like a fish having a fine day until they swim into a net, or a bird out for a snack until they wander into a trap, we find ourselves quickly ruined.
In recent weeks I’ve talked to people who were shocked to be served divorce papers, attend their child’s funeral, and lost their life savings without so much as a courtesy call to notify them that the bottom was about to drop out of their life. When this happens, we are left with only two options. We can either respond foolishly or wisely.
The world we live in is a foolish one. We don’t like to put people into clean categories like male/female, Christian/non-Christian, or wise/foolish. But, the God of Bible doesn’t seem to care about his poll numbers and frequently divides humanity into two groups – the wise and the foolish. Today, the rallying cry for tolerance and diversity can include the celebration of folly, which only causes misery. Solomon’s point is that while we cannot control our future, we can control our response. By God’s grace we can choose wisdom over folly, even in the midst of tragedy.
You Can Choose Obedience
Ecclesiastes was originally written in the Hebrew language some two thousand years ago. Chapter 9:13-18 is some of the most complicated Hebrew in all of the Old Testament. And there’s a debate as to the meaning of this particular story that Solomon tells with two basic views. I’ll provide them both because they each have good insights.
The story is kind of like a parable about a small town filled with a handful of people who were up against a powerful king and his massive army. Barring a miracle, these people were going to be absolutely destroyed, decimated, and devastated. This, all the commentators agree on.
We are then introduced to a simple man who happens to be poor – think of a normal working stiff that nobody really pays any attention to. Some think that the city failed to heed his advice and, because of that, it was destroyed. Others think that the city heeded his advice and were saved, but quickly forgot all about him and his wisdom, resulting in their return to foolish and sinful patterns that had gotten them in trouble in the first place. I would submit to you that the point, the moral of the story, is the same either way. Fools never listen. Fools never learn. And even if wisdom is available to them, they do not avail themselves to it.
He’s telling us wisdom is available to us, but some of us neglect it. Most of us don’t need more information. We don’t need more insight. We don’t need more facts, trivia, and data. What we need is to do what we already know is the right thing to do. James says, “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” That’s what he’s talking about. Here, the story has a wise man who could save the day, but nobody’s listening. Nobody’s paying any attention. The amount of minutia, trivia, facts, and information in our day is overwhelming and staggering, but what we’re lacking is wisdom. We’re not lacking facts. We’re not lacking information. We’re not lacking conjecture or perspective. We desperately need wisdom. And the bit of wisdom that we do have, we have to sift through all the noise and clutter, receive that wisdom, and act upon it as quickly as we possibly can. How many of you, right now, the biggest problems in your life are things that you already know what to do, you just don’t do any of it? That is the point of the story. He then shifts to remind us that we can choose wisdom (10:1-4).
When Solomon says that one dead fly in a bottle of perfume ruins the whole bottle, his analogy is that wisdom creates a pleasant environment but that a little folly stinks up the whole house. This is what someone means when they say that “life stinks”. Folly is hiding somewhere and stinking up the house. Just like taking the trash out of our home, we need to take the folly out of our lives.
We must pursue wisdom, and pursue life with wise people. We can pray for and serve people who are foolish. But, we should not marry them, go into business with them, or in any way tie up our life and fate with theirs.
Solomon reminds us that sometimes a fool is easy to see coming. Jesus tells us that man looks at the outward but that God looks at the heart. His point is that you cannot always judge a person by what you see because God sees aspects of them that we do not see. But, this does not mean that it is impossible to be discerning.
Shifting to wisdom at work, there is a difference between sins and mistakes. Sins are morally evil, mistakes are simply aspects of our humanity. The problem with mistakes, however, is that they can cause as much pain and frustration as sins. For example, on the job, your boss will at some point get angry because of your mistakes. While it is sometimes a good idea to quit your job, wisdom recommends that you not rush to such a drastic decision. Instead, owning it, apologizing for it, correcting your mistakes diligently, and quietly learning from your mistakes is often the best course of action. When someone is upset with us, we become nervous. When we become nervous, we can get chatty trying to make things better with words. The only problem is that when someone is inflamed with anger, more words are like more logs on a fire and only make it burn hotter and longer.
Solomon reminds us that in this life wise people are not always honored (10:5-7). One day, in God’s eternal kingdom, the wise will be honored and the foolish will not. Until then, this world in all its folly often operates according to opposite values. In God’s eyes, someone who is wise is like a prince or princess, whereas in the world’s eyes they are disregarded and discarded. Solomon’s point is this, if you are looking for wisdom, don’t look to the pretty people, the rich people, the famous people, or the powerful people. Some of them are just fools with nice cars, great attorneys, and smart PR firms running their social media accounts.
Wisdom is not intellect. Some people are very smart but not very godly or wise. You can be a fool with a high I.Q.
Wisdom is not success. You can accomplish a lot being a fool, including celebrities who make a good living doing things that any sane person would never dream up.
Wisdom is not education. It is possible to go to college and have more degrees than Fahrenheit and still be a fool.
Wisdom is not knowledge. You can know a lot of things that are factual and true but never act on them. In this way wisdom includes knowing but takes it further by doing. Perhaps a functional definition of wisdom will help? Wisdom is thinking what God thinks, feeling what God feels, and doing what God says with a humble heart by the Spirit’s power. As one of my favorite theologians, Charles H. Spurgeon, brilliantly puts it, “Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise.”
Wisdom starts in the head, with a mind saturated in Scripture that thinks God’s thoughts after him. Wisdom moves to the heart, with an emotional capacity to feel what God feels about people and circumstances. Wisdom continues to the hands, obeying what God commands by doing what is right. Wisdom is something that can only be received by those who pursue humility by the grace of God. None of us can ever say that we are humble, but wise people pursue humility because it makes them teachable and changeable like clay in God’s hands. Lastly, wisdom is only imparted and obeyed by the presence and power of the person of the Holy Spirit in and through us. This is why Ephesians 1:17 refers to the Holy Spirit as, “the Spirit of wisdom.
Solomon, who writes Ecclesiastes for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the second wisest person in the history of the world. The wisest person is Jesus Christ. If we want to know what a wise life looks like we must look to Jesus Christ. Not once did he set foot on the path of folly. Instead, every day in every way he walked wisely. How did he do this? By the power of the Holy Spirit! This is why Isaiah 11:2-3 prophesied some 700 years before his entrance into human history through the womb of Mary that, “…the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. He will delight in obeying the LORD.”
The wise life of Jesus Christ is not merely one to be appreciated, but also one to be experienced. By the power of the Holy Spirit, all of us who are fools because of sin can become wise through him. There has been much ink spilled and wars shed over what it means to be Spirit filled and Spirit lead, but looking to Jesus brings it all into clarity. To be filled with the Spirit is to have Jesus living in us and through us, and to by lead by the Spirit is to be walking in wisdom throughout life with Jesus. This wisdom and new life in the Spirit is available through Jesus Christ to everyone – rich and poor, educated and uneducated, male and female, young and old, powerful and powerless, brilliant and simple, successful and failure. The big idea this week is this – you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it, what you learn from it, and who you become because of it.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 9:11-10:7
- How motivated are you, honestly, by winning? Are you as zealous for wisdom as you are for winning?
- What is your honest gut level response to hearing that you cannot control your future?
- What wisdom has God already given you that you simply need to act upon and obey?
- Can you think of one foolish decision you made that stunk up your whole life?
- How is your personal relationship with the Holy Spirit?
- What are some very practical things you can do to seek wisdom for your life?
How motivated are you, honestly, by winning? Are you as zealous for wisdom as you are for winning?