Saturday, July 04, 2020

Time and Chance (43)

The so-called “golden rule of Bible interpretation” is this: When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I have heard this line attributed to a few different people, so let’s give credit both to whoever came up with it and to those who have helpfully passed it on.

We often find this principle provoking heartfelt agreement among Bible teachers. It is slightly more unusual to find expositors following it with consistency.

Ecclesiastes 9:13-15 — What is Really Important
“I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man.”
The Little City That Could

More than a few sermons have been preached and commentaries written which compare this poor, wise man to Christ. For example, John Gill makes the poor man into Jesus and the city into the church. I remain unconvinced that this is a reasonable or spiritually profitable way to approach the passage. The Bible is full of much more accurate and poignant pictures of the work of Christ in saving men, all of them in one measure or another intentional. To the extent that the Lord Jesus was poor, wise and delivered something, I suppose there are limited grounds for comparing the two, but I very much doubt that is the primary message to which the Holy Spirit is drawing our attention. For one thing, the poor man went unremembered, while the Lord Jesus remains arguably the most famous and singularly divisive figure in human history, not only commemorated immediately after the time of his ascension in the first century, but exalted by his Father to the highest place in the universe and still worshiped by millions who go out of our way to remember him twenty centuries later. This point alone annihilates any serious comparison.

Commentators also cannot seem to direct us toward any historical scenario familiar to Solomon which might have inspired his anecdote. That doesn’t mean it is a parable. Thomas Coke thought this was the case, but the words “I have also seen” appear to rule this out. Regardless, all the commentators can do for us is point to similar situations which occurred centuries after the Preacher’s time: Anaximenes in Lampsacum, Archimedes in Syracuse, or even Elisha in Samaria. So the example is not completely improbable: similar situations really do occur, and the collective amnesia with respect to the poor man’s solution rings true for those of us who pay attention to human nature. However, in this case the actual events are so vaguely described as to be almost useless for purposes of historical identification. This is probably intentional.

Three Kinds of Greatness

We are also not given even the slightest hint as to the poor man’s wise tactical solution. Did he negotiate? Did he devise some clever way to repel the invaders? Did he manage to draw away the great king’s soldiers with some clever ruse? Did he counsel the defenders of the little city to fight in such a way that one man was the equivalent of ten? We have no way to know, and it is not important. The Preacher is giving us only the briefest overview of the situation so as not to distract us from his main point, which is that possessing wisdom is preferable to the greatest reputation or the most powerful armed forces.

There are three “greats” in these three verses, and all of them are the same Hebrew word. That is probably not accidental, since numerous other adjectives might have been supplied here and there to provide variety, which any writer will tell you is probably a good idea — unless you are trying to make a deliberate point by repeating yourself. So we have a “great” king who builds “great” siegeworks, and a “great” example of wisdom.

There is the greatness of reputation and grandeur in the form of the king. There is the greatness of size, impressiveness and intimidation in the form of the siegeworks. And there is true greatness — the thing which the Preacher is trying to impress on us as genuinely important — in the form of the wisdom of the poor man, who delivered the city with neither fanfare nor reward. The poor man won, the king and his siegeworks failed, and the question of which was truly great is settled for us.

The next three verses reinforce this point.

Ecclesiastes 9:16 — Losing with Dignity
“But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.”
Wisdom is better than might. Not, perhaps, better for the reputation, better for the pocketbook, or better for the immediate prospects, but more desirable — and more worthy of our desire — all the same. It is good to be wise, the Preacher says, even if wisdom does not work out very well for us, and even if nobody pays attention to us at all. This poor man’s words were heard, and the little city saved, but even if the poor man had been utterly ignored and the city lost, it is still better to be wise than mighty. That’s a powerful statement: to be in the right and lose is better than to be wrong and prosper.

It is powerful, but not difficult to understand: better to have tools and not use them than not have them at all. The day may still come when they are appreciated. Likewise, it is better that wisdom exists even if its advice is not followed. This summarizes much of the nation of Israel’s history: lose until you are willing to listen. Thankfully, the prophetic voice was always there to be heard, and when Israel would hear and obey the voice of God, no power, however great, was able to defeat them. Wisdom was always better than might.

That’s not to say we should get ever enamored with losing. That can be a trap. Picturing oneself as the lonely, tragic figure on the craggy mountaintop crying out rejected truth to an uncaring world can be alluring to certain personality types, but there is no value in losing for losing’s sake or in order to perpetuate one’s preferred self-image. Modern conservatives seem to take such a perverse delight in ceding mile after mile of political ground with scrupulous politeness and copious hand-wringing that we have to wonder if they don’t prefer complaining to governing. We and they would be better served by looking for solutions that combine wisdom with winning.

In any case, wisdom is better than the might of the greatest of human kings.

Ecclesiastes 9:17-18 — Slowly Built, Speedily Destroyed
“The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”
Verses 17 and 18 are almost a restatement of verse 16. Again, wisdom is said to be “better” than something, in this case the “weapons of war” which our story also refers to as great. But here we are offered another possibility: that the words of the wise may actually be heard and attended to. When that happens, it is of great benefit to the few who quietly listen. By way of contrast, a ruler may make his voice heard for good or ill, but if he is speaking to men who cannot understand him or follow his advice, it does not matter how powerful he may be, or how important the message he is shouting at them. One obvious takeaway is that we are unwise to surround ourselves with people who are willfully incapable of hearing and practicing the truth. Our Lord’s counsel to the disciples under such circumstances was to shake the dust off their feet and leave the foolishness of the fools to testify against them in eternity.

Indeed, the Preacher finishes with this: one sinner destroys much good. The building or edification process that comes by way of wisdom is slow and sometimes tedious, but necessary. Sometimes it takes many good men repeating the same thing for years in different ways before people will implement it and benefit from it. Some of the more important things I have learned took me half a lifetime to really absorb and practice.

Sin, on the other hand, may take root quickly and spread uncontrollably if not ruthlessly managed, as we have seen in the past few weeks with the riots in hundreds of U.S. cities. Incalculable damage has been done almost overnight by a massive, evil response to a single sinful trigger event.

Good things are hard to build and far too easy to destroy.

1 comment :

  1. Unfortunate, but it seems that intelligence (high IQ) does not necessarily correlate with Wisdom. Would be nice if Wisdom could be discovered and utilized that easily.

    Here is a proof of God made by a genius illustrating that point.