We all think we have enough until we start to search our pockets.
There was an inconvenient time when vending machines had no dollar bill acceptors, let alone credit card readers. You needed to collect a little pile of change to get that coveted Mountain Dew. Remember the anticipation of putting coins one by one in the slot, hearing them tinkle down inside the machine? And the aggravation when one of them fell into the coin return? You’d retrieve it, and put it back into the slot with a little extra desperation. But it would come out again, and you’d start to panic because if you were a kid, you had begged, borrowed, and stolen every coin you could find to get a treat. That errant nickel had to work.
So you took a closer look at it and realized it was Canadian. Rats. Maybe if you were like me, you rubbed it on your shirt, hoping static electricity would coax the machine into swallowing foreign currency. But it didn’t. In a last-ditch effort, I sometimes actually spat on the coin, hoping that something wet might interact better with the internal gadgetry. Nope. Though it was roughly shaped like an American coin and was legal tender somewhere in the world, the machine wasn’t counting it.
Most of the human race assumes that if something looks like wisdom, that means it ought to count as wisdom or at least substitute for it. We assume we are wise, including those of us who have been in and out of jail multiple times, or married multiple times, or bankrupted repeatedly. No matter how foolish we are, we’re proud of whatever we’ve got in our pocket, and we’ll enumerate it for you, too—all our accomplishments. We’ll count the times we accidentally did smart things. We’ll even throw a smart spin on the stupid things we did. In our own eyes, we have what it takes.
But when we don’t recognize our own wisdom deficit, that can be a problem. For sure, bad things can happen to anyone out of the blue, whether to the wise or unwise. But you have a wisdom deficit when, on a regular basis, you get in your own way. That means when you wander into the same old trap repeatedly, and you’re reaping worse and worse consequences all the time.
Wisdom is indispensable in a book like Ecclesiastes. You can’t do without it and live well.
In fact, you can’t even mix it with a little bit of foolishness.
Ecclesiastes 10:1 says,
“Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench.”
A perfumer was an ancient artisan, who created fragrant substances. Sometimes through carelessness, he or she would allow flies and gnats to get into the perfume. That made it a hard sell. Who would want to purchase and apply to their skin an ointment with bugs in it? And if someone burned it as incense, the insects in it would burn as well, producing a nasty smell much like singed hair.
Solomon adds that in the same manner, “a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” You can pay a lot of attention to developing wisdom while being completely oblivious to little things that contradict it. I recently learned about a man who was hired as a worship leader at a big church. He said his first Sunday there was amazing. The worship team did a great job of assisting the congregation to come into the Lord’s presence. Between services, he went behind the building to hang out with the band. He was shocked to find a night and day difference. The members of the team were smoking cigarettes, obsessing over sports rankings, discussing girls in the church, and telling dirty jokes. It didn’t invalidate the worship experience inside the building earlier, but for this new observer, it did add a certain stench to their perfume.
There are a lot of attempts in our world to mix, or even substitute foolishness for righteousness—an idea that dominates the rest of this chapter.
Behavior instead of Wisdom
“A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and says to everyone that he is a fool” (vv. 2-3). Given time, a well-behaved fool always eventually exposes himself. He can manage to look good in the beginning because he knows how to ape good behavior, but eventually, the truth will come out.
It’s like the newscaster interviewing a man and saying, “Tell us about how you rushed into your neighbor’s burning house and saved him.” The man says, “Yeah, well, he owed me twenty dollars, and I wanted to make sure I got it back.” That doesn’t invalidate the fact that the man saved somebody’s life, but his story stops being one purely of heroism and easily turns into a viral internet joke. Mimicked behavior resembles the coin of wisdom, but it’s only a metal slug.
Reactions instead of Wisdom
“If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place. Calmness will lay great offenses to rest” (v. 4). Somebody in charge will eventually disagree with you, and perhaps with anger. That’s life. Maybe it’s right for you to resign, or quit. On the other hand, maybe you’re just a hothead, scared, or too proud to take correction. There is wisdom in calmness and the taming of reactions.
Solomon adds further perspective in verses 5-7, “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.” These words aren’t meant to advance social inequity, but only to point out that the rulers of this world create kingdoms of foolishness. They promote what shouldn’t be lifted up, and demote what ought to be elevated.
Don’t be surprised when these same people in charge have problems with you. Many hardly have any sense, to begin with. Beware of your own response to them. You might end up a fool who has had twenty-five jobs in two years, with the excuse that it was always the boss’s fault. From a distance, an impressive knee-jerk reaction might resemble the coin of wisdom, but it’s just a Rolaid.
Work instead of Wisdom
“He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed” (vv. 9-10).
Nothing is worse than a person without wisdom going at something with all his might. Energy and busyness are his boast. But work without wisdom means you’ll get hurt more than you ought, and you’ll work harder than you ought. Work might resemble the coin of wisdom, but upon closer inspection, it’s just monopoly money.
Gaming instead of Wisdom
“If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer” (v. 11). Gaming doesn’t mean video gaming, but playing the game of life— “dancing close to the fire,” some call it. Like the charmer, an entertainer who controls snakes through the use of music or movement. As soon as the snake appears, he should immediately begin applying his skills, but if he delays, perhaps for the sake of getting some kicks, he may get bitten. Once bitten, it doesn’t matter if the guy had all the wisdom in the world.
I saw a news report about a man who was in front of a large crowd in Southeast Asia. He was going to charm a King Cobra, the largest poisonous snake in the world. The cobra came up out of the basket with the hood open, but rather than the man using his wisdom, he decided to entertain his audience. He reached out and smacked the snake on the head. At first, the cobra didn’t do anything. When the man struck it again, the snake retaliated by biting him on the face. He was humiliated, and rather than call an ambulance, he nonchalantly sauntered off, as though it was no big deal. The video reported that he later died at home.
It doesn’t matter if you have all the wisdom in the world if you don’t apply it. It’s like the man going on an extended business trip, who removes his wedding ring. He tells himself he’s not planning to commit adultery. He only wants to enjoy the sense of excitement. He assures himself that he knows better, that he’d stop it before it went too far. But these guys always get bitten. They “game” far too much.
We Christians have wisdom written down in plain words, along with a church community that reinforces the wisdom. We know. But we’re shown in the gospels Jesus, at His return, rebuking one of his servants who had failed to apply wisdom, calling him foolish, and telling him, “You knew.” All the wisdom heard in a thousand church meetings, and memorized in a thousand verses, doesn’t mean much when you don’t apply it. Savvy gamesmanship might resemble the coin of wisdom, but it’s just a loose button.
Words instead of Wisdom
“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness. A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him? The toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city” (vv. 12-15)
Yes, some people can talk ninety-to-nothing and shut everybody else down. If you ever give the floor to a fool and ask him to share what he believes, he’ll start off with something dumb, and end with something horrid. Even he can’t apply his own unwise ideas. He wants everybody else to implement them, though. Solomon says this guy can’t find his way to the city. In other words, he lives in Columbus, but can’t find Columbus. That means he has no clue how to carry out simple moral and ethical responsibilities right under his nose but feels comfortable laying out a roadmap for the rest of the world, or society, or culture. Though a torrent of words might resemble the coin of wisdom, it’s only a bottle cap.
Extravagance instead of Wisdom
“Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness! Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything” (vv. 16-19).
A self-indulgent lifestyle suggests that someone has done something wise, otherwise how could they manage to live such a way? Yet, when people, especially leaders, forget the basic realities of life and live to gratify their every drive, the infrastructure of life basically falls apart. Their prevailing philosophy is captured in the sarcastic observation that “money answers everything.” But again, though extravagance might have the approximate shape of the coin of wisdom, it’s just an Oreo.
Candor instead of Wisdom
“Even in your thoughts do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature will tell the matter” (v. 20). A popular attitude today says, “Sorry, but I tell it like it is,” as though we’re supposed to bow and give this statement a free pass. Such “honest” words always manage to make their way back to the wrong person. Coworkers, for instance, are like birds—not sparrows, but parrots. They listen to you, and then repeat what you said, during the time you were “just being honest.” This typically doesn’t turn out well.
Actually, social media across all platforms has become a glut of candor without wisdom. I’m including everyone from the top, all the way down to the angry dude at his keyboard. Candor might shine like the coin of wisdom, but it’s really just a piece of tinfoil.
In fact, there’s no substitute for Godly wisdom. And here’s a major newsflash—wisdom is not a part of your natural makeup at all. You’ve got to locate it someplace other than your own pocket.
Just ask the Queen of Sheba. This ancient ruler kept hearing about the wisdom of Solomon until she went to seek it for herself. In Jerusalem, she saw the way Solomon conducted himself, heard the things he had to teach, the judgments that he made, and saw his kingdom. “And she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard” (1 Kings 10:6-7).
Jesus took this account and turned it into a prophecy: “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Mt. 12:42). She will probably say, “I was head of state, and yet I cleared my schedule, humbled myself, then inconvenienced myself to go and hear the wisdom of Solomon. You had something greater in the Person of Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, and you were too busy for Him? You weren’t convinced? You weren’t impressed? You have no excuse!”
We are all now living in the time of something greater than Solomon. Consider the way the Apostle Paul prayed for us: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of Glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17). God hasn’t asked any of us to be brilliant, but simply to come to Christ and get to know Him. This is where genuine wisdom originates.
Imagine yourself on that day when the queen stands up for testimony against an unbelieving generation. Ask yourself if you would like to be rebuked along with everybody else because you wasted your life, and your time on things other than the Greater Solomon. If your answer is no, then reverse-engineer from that point back to now, and do something different.
Make changes today.