Saturday, October 26, 2019

Time and Chance (7)

Last week I pointed out that Ecclesiastes 2 divides neatly into three sections, observing that the phrase “so I turned” marks the transition from one subject to the next. In the first section, the Preacher considers the emptiness of hedonism as a philosophy. This is not a position with which most of our readers are likely to disagree.

This second section, however, deals with the shortcomings of wisdom as a be-all and end-all. That may not be quite so obvious. However, as we will shortly see, even living wisely has its downside.

Three Kinds of Wisdom

The New Testament teaches there are three kinds of wisdom: natural, godly and demonic. The apostle Paul distinguishes the first two throughout 1 Corinthians, contrasting God’s wisdom (which the world considers foolishness and which is epitomized in the life and person of Jesus Christ) with natural wisdom (which is characterized by eloquent, persuasive language, and which God is said to have “made foolish”). James also speaks of a third sort of wisdom, demonic in character, characterized by jealousy, ambition, disorder and vile practices. This is not the sort of “wisdom” of which Paul is speaking, nor is it the “wisdom” the Preacher is considering in Ecclesiastes.

The “wisdom” the Preacher refers to in Ecclesiastes might best be defined as the outer limits of man’s natural understanding in the absence of divine revelation. This earthly, worldly wisdom is not essentially wicked in character so much as it is based on faulty, limited premises. It is not intentionally deceptive or demonic; it is simply insufficient. It needs God to do a bit of fine tuning to its fundamental assumptions.

The Shortcomings of Human Wisdom

As he often does, the Preacher begins well:
“So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.”
This is a sensible conclusion. There are upper limits on human wisdom, and it doesn’t always take us where we hoped to go. It cannot, for example, account for the “unknowns” in life. A strategy that proved successful ten times out of ten in the past may not work today because suddenly there is an additional variable in the mix we did not and could not possibly account for.

Still, in the absence of direct instruction from God, it is better to move forward having thought through a problem and proceeded intelligently based on sound logic and previous experience, rather than throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Oh, we can’t really KNOW anything anyway!” and promptly retreating into a bottle.

Defeatism and nihilism are not terribly useful things.

Same Thing, Same Way, Every Day ...

Human wisdom is also not especially creative. It tends to follow established patterns. The man who followed King Solomon on the throne of Israel, for instance, had little chance of leaving his mark on the pages of history for being wiser than his father: “For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.” On his best day, Rehoboam could only hope not to have made anything in his kingdom significantly worse than it was under his dad.

This may be frustrating for those who are desperate to have their names remembered and for those who value novelty above all else, but common-sense choices have the weight of tradition to commend them. There is value in the study of human history, if only in that it can occasionally help us avoid the errors of the past.

In the end, says the Preacher, “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly.” If we must choose between the two, wisdom is the better course every time.

The Big Hitch

There is, however, a catch. There is one eventuality that makes the wise man despair of the value of his greatest tool:
“And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them.”
The big catch is death. Death happens to all men at some point. The fool may die faster or more unpleasantly than the wise man, but for all his wisdom, the wise man too will one day shuffle off this mortal coil, often too soon for his own taste.

This prospect does not appeal to the Preacher:
“Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
“Just like the fool,” he says. What a disappointing outcome.

The Natural Man in Mourning

Now, it is not that Solomon’s Preacher personally rejects the concepts of resurrection, judgment and even (perhaps) reward. We will see this in chapter 12. However, he offers no evidence for these beliefs in Ecclesiastes; he simply assumes them. He is looking at the world through the lens of the natural man, and the natural man cannot tell you with any certainty what happens after we die.

You will see the natural man at funerals. He hopes for the best, but he doesn’t really know for sure. He puts his friends and relatives into the ground and thinks, “Well, I may see you again someday,” but he has no abiding personal conviction to buoy him up. Then of course there are others who simply despair.

From the evidence of our eyes at least, this life is all there is and the wise man meets the same end as the fool.

A Lost Legacy

Worse, says the Preacher, once enough time has elapsed, nobody living will be able to distinguish the dead wise man from the dead fool: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.” We may get five years, or ten, or twenty in the memories of the living after we pass into eternity, but eventually we will all be forgotten. Our names may linger, written or engraved here and there. Today there may even be pictures to go with them. But our actions, if they are remembered at all, will be interpreted differently by some than others. History may regard us favorably or unfavorably, and in either case may do so inaccurately.

I did not know my grandparents. They died while I was still very young. I think about them very little, not because they were bad people, but because I had built no emotional connections to them as a child. I can tell you what my mother and father thought of them, but I have been able to form no independent opinion. My own children will not consistently remember their names; they would need to look them up if asked.

This is how the world works, and the Preacher finds it appalling. It points to a deficiency in the human condition that desperately needs to be addressed. “I hated life,” he says.

The Will Has No Will

Wisdom does not reliably extend the life of a wise man, and its memory does not reliably survive his death. He and his ways are soon forgotten. But it gets worse:
“I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.”
Wisdom also cannot be passed reliably from individual to individual. This is a sad reality about which parents everywhere despair. One child observes the failed example of his father and takes a different and better road in life. Another lines up right behind dad and charges straight into a living hell of his own making. One child notes her mother’s good qualities and seeks to emulate them in her own parenting. Another inverts everything her mother did and stood for, then wonders why the cake doesn’t rise, the house is a mess, drinking at 10:00 a.m. gives her a headache and her own children are rebellious and ungrateful.

Her old mum could have told her, of course, but she’s gone now. The things granny learned, did and lived by have passed on with her. Our desire to communicate wisdom to our children does not translate into the ability to do so effectively, nor does it make them better recipients of it.

In Summary

For all these reasons, then, human wisdom reliably falls short of the mark. It is a good (but not perfect) tool in life. It is better to use a spade than to reject tools in principle and break all your fingernails trying to dig a hole with your hands, but a spade is still not a backhoe, and even a backhoe needs a competent driver.

Once again, the Preacher is disappointed.

1 comment :

  1. Hmm, talking about wisdom and philosophy, it definitely looks like the preacher in those days did not yet do exponential math. If he did, this would really have blown his mind.

    The following estimates have been made -

    The number of people that have so far ever been alive on planet Earth: 108 billion.

    The number of people that would be alive today if no one had ever died and procreated with 2 children per family:
    - about 10^2400.

    "For comparison, the universe has only been around for
    4.35 *10^17 seconds."

    This means there would have been 2383 as many more people on planet Earth as there are seconds since the big bang.

    Hence, the fact that people including young children can and do die early preserves life for the survivors on planet Earth or population growth would be dangerous.