by John W. Ritenbaugh
January 21, 2015
Among the characteristics of God that we are to strive for, wisdom has an extremely high value, as Proverbs 4:7 attests: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.” Pay attention to the word “principal” here. Spelled in this manner—ending in p-a-l, not p-l-e—the term, according to The American Heritage College Dictionary, means “first, highest, foremost in importance, rank, worth or degree; chief.” It does not mean “a broad general rule” but “a quality or characteristic of the highest order.” The verse is saying, then, that wisdom is of the highest rank among those qualities under consideration, “therefore get wisdom.” The New International Version (NIV) translates this phrase, “Wisdom is supreme.”
Further study on this verse reveals that it is in reality an expansion on verse 5: “Get wisdom! Get understanding! Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of My mouth.” Thus, verse 7 exhorts the reader to make every effort in life to pursue and obtain wisdom. In a practical sense, it is as though there is nothing more important in life.
Recall the definition we are using in these articles for biblical wisdom. Whereas the world associates wisdom with a rather abstract, philosophical dimension of life, the Bible’s wisdom consists of a package of spiritual attributes that are deliberately shaped into a practical skill in living God’s way.
The use of the phrase “deliberately shaped” is purposeful. Wisdom does not just magically appear. It is thoughtfully developed and used in the practical circumstances of everyday life. Its elements consist of such qualities as knowledge of God, understanding, discernment, judgment, prudence, equity, the fear of God, and more. As these elements are blended, shaped, and used, they become a spiritual sagacity combined with practical, useful skills in applying the teachings of God’s way of life as exemplified by Jesus Christ.
We will build upon Ecclesiastes 7:8-10 as we proceed through multiple comparisons between wisdom and characteristics of attitudes and conduct that often accompany the unfolding of life’s activities:
The end of a thing is better than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools. Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
Each comparison shows wisdom’s significance to a successful life. We are learning that the best way to perceive the counsel in Ecclesiastes is to recognize that it is written to God’s converted children, not to the world. Solomon’s thoughts, then, tie directly into instructions and commands in other parts of God’s Word. Much of this is counsel to endure the trials of life patiently and meekly because God is directly involved in them right alongside us. Hence, over the long haul, our trials will have a positive result. Consequently, we are urged not to fall into the trap of unreasoning haste to “just get rid of the problem,” as it were. Knowing that Ecclesiastes is aimed at God’s converted children, we grasp that the willfulness involved in haste is really nothing more than an expression of carnal pride.
Verse 8 bears explaining more thoroughly because it relates to a pertinent fact about these comparisons. Recall that they are not to be understood as absolutes but are useful helps according to the circumstances of life’s trials. Each trial may present different nuances that we must think through. Though verse 8 seems to say otherwise, we know that the end of everything is most definitely, absolutely not always better than its beginning.
A clear example is sin. Sin almost invariably begins pleasantly, even pleasurably. As with Eve, the fruit undoubtedly tasted good to her, but God kicked her and Adam out of the Garden, and they died. Judas, too, was undoubtedly pleased with his thirty pieces of silver, but then he hanged himself. These examples are so clear: Sin never, never, never ends well.
Circumstances and projects can end well only when they begin with a good purpose right from the start. Yet, even so, they may not end well. Luke 11:24-26 provides a serious example from Jesus of a good project ending badly:
When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, “I will return to my house from which I came,” and when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
II Peter 2:20-22 provides vivid illustrations of how sin entering a project destroys the idea of the end being better than the beginning:
For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
Thus, we can see that even good projects must continue in the right way for the end to be better than its beginning, showing that these comparisons are not intended to be absolutes.
Why Progress Ceases
In Luke 11:24-26, Jesus uses the illustration of an empty house. When we walk through an empty house, we may see possibilities for it, but because it is empty, it is not a warm, accepting, and welcoming place. Would not making the house a fine place to live be a fine project? However, it is also possible that such a project might produce a number of potential pitfalls. Ecclesiastes 7:8-10 lists some of the reasons why a project, good at the beginning, might not be carried through to its finish.
The context of Jesus’ and Peter’s counsel assumes the individual is called, forgiven, and changing, which are good. Jesus terms it being “swept clean”; Peter calls it as having “escaped the pollutions of the world.” But in their conclusions, the individual’s vision, devotion, and discipline appear to be weak. The person regresses and becomes entangled again in his pre-conversion ways. Thus, weak character prevents a good ending. Recall that Jesus curses the fig tree that produced no figs, and in the Parable of the Talents, the man who buried his money is rejected. In other words, they showed no positive use of their gifts.
Solomon names four possibilities as to why progress ceases. They are pride, impatience, anger, and discouragement. Pride is in reality the father—the generator—of the other three. A person who can control his willfulness, as expressed by the examples of impatience, anger, and discouragement, controls them because he sees a far greater benefit to himself in what he is being asked to endure. Because he, by faith, perceives God to be involved in his trials, a Christian concludes that they are positive preparation for the Kingdom of God.
We can sometimes learn from our children what we may be like in our relationships with God. This scenario has unfolded for many of us: As a long trip begins, the family piles into the car. Invariably, it is not long before one of the children asks in a whining voice, “Are we there yet?” “When will we get there?” “How much longer will it be?” They do this because young children have little or no concept of time and distance. Their mental clocks move much faster than those of older folks because they have not had the experience to teach them such things.
In our trials as Christians, our lack of experience may be working against us in relation to God and His purposes. That is why we must come to know God and see matters from His longer, broader perspective. These verses in Ecclesiastes 7, then, really compare patient endurance with pride and its fruits of impatience, hasty frustration, and discouragement.
This section, beginning in verse 7, contains a muted suggestion that the long way is frequently superior to the quick-and-easy way that the immature almost invariably seek. We often do things hurriedly just to get them done, without being all that concerned about how well those jobs are done.
In both Jesus’ and Peter’s illustrations, God is clearly not satisfied with the partial solutions the carnal mind so easily considers acceptable. God desires that we overcome the flaws in our character, not merely cover them. In the midst of our relationship trials with God, we must remember that He is the Creator, not us, and He knows what He wants to accomplish.
Thus, Solomon compares patience and hasty anger. We become frustrated very easily and frequently. Often, doing a good job is superior simply because it has been done well and does not have to be inspected by someone else to check and double-check the quality of workmanship. How often does a person’s temper feed into the way and the quality of the job? God is clearly suggesting that a person’s temperament has a distinct effect on the quality and consistency of his workmanship.
Does an angry person make a good spouse? Does an angry person make a good employee? Does an impatient person make a good employee? Does an angry person make a good church member? Does a driver burning with road rage make a good driver? Most of the time, anger is not wisdom. Anger can be good if it is used at the right time, is controlled, is directed toward the right ends, and is not simply an expression of personal, willful frustration because things are not going as expected. Notice how the following verses confirm anger’s ability to hinder good:
» Proverbs 14:17: “A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of wicked intentions is hated.”
» Proverbs 14:29: “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly.”
» Proverbs 16:32: “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”
» James 1:19-20: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Solomon expressly states in Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Anger resides in the bosom of fools.” He describes an anger ready to burst out at even slight irritations because a person’s pride convinces him that even slight irritations simply should not happen to such a wonderful person as he is. He explodes because of his impatience.
From impatience, it is often but a short step to bribery, which Solomon mentions in verse 7. A bribe is often given or taken because the individual wants to hurry the process of achieving his goal. The recipient convinces himself it is merely a shortcut. It is a means of getting the job done quicker. However, in reality the bribe is a trap that binds him by indebtedness to another and ultimately, to shame.
Do not be misled by the word “end” in verse 8. It does not necessarily suggest a job that is finished. Rather, Solomon is thinking of the outcome, the fruit produced, or the quality achieved. Some things that do not seem to start well actually become quite productive. There is a saying: “All’s well that ends well,” which is the sort of end Solomon means, one that is quite important to growing and overcoming.
Many times, we fear becoming involved with even the first small steps of overcoming a character flaw to improve our conduct, so we procrastinate. We often find, however, that once involved in disciplining ourselves and taking some small hesitant steps, we are encouraged because more good is happening than we ever thought possible. Some insignificant beginnings have endings of major consequence.
A clear example is found in the fact that Jesus Christ was born as a babe, in a second-rate, occupied, and enslaved nation and into an insignificant family—but that “project” will end in the awesome things written in Revelation 22 with billions of glorified, immortal persons gathered into one awesome Family. This illustration feeds into this principle and the overall thoughts about how we think about life now that we are in the midst of our calling and have a much clearer view of how things are going on Planet Earth.
Are the Good Old Days Really Good?
Ecclesiastes 7:10 contains a thought often heard these days: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” The times we live in are indeed becoming steadily more difficult. Christian values are consistently being attacked. Under such circumstances, a person is apt to say what Solomon warns us against saying. It is easy for us to let ourselves become “down.” But we need to be careful because discouragement is a child of impatience. In difficult situations, we want the trouble to pass quickly. However, be aware that in such times it is easy to allow one’s carnality to take the bribe of doing a “quick and dirty,” less-than-good job in order to make life less stressful and tiring.
To take a quick and easy approach is understandable these days because conditions in this nation give no sign of positive change. It seems that those governing us are delivering us into the hands of the nation’s enemies. Others who are illegally invading us are dragging us into the gutter, and at the same time, much of the nation’s wealth is flowing into the hands of the few. Jobs are becoming scarcer.
All of those things are indeed true to some degree, but we have to resist allowing this influence to get a firm grip on us, as it indicates that our focus is too much on carnal men and all their self-centered flaws rather than on what God is accomplishing to fulfill His promises. Yes, living is growing less comfortable, but He is telling us to look ahead and focus on what He will accomplish in the future. God wants us to evaluate honestly what we have received by virtue of His calling.
Consider an interesting aspect of the mindset of father Abraham. Genesis 13:2 describes him as very rich in livestock, silver, and gold. Hebrews 11:10 reports that despite all that wealth, he looked for a city whose Builder is God. We know that Abraham was wealthy enough to put together an army of over 300 men, but in this way, God shows us what dominated his mind.
What lay in the future, not the present, motivated his life. Abraham bought no land to call his own, and Hebrews 11:9 records that this very wealthy man lived in tents. A tent is a symbol of temporariness, as well as lack of wealth and status. The wealthy live in solid homes; the poor live in tents because they can afford nothing better. Yet, Abraham was not merely wealthy but very wealthy.
Abraham was certainly aware of the riches of the world around him. He came from Ur of the Chaldees, a very prosperous city. He visited Egypt, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest nation at that time. Pyramids cannot be built without wealth. Movies like The Ten Commandments attempt to depict the splendor. What Hebrews 11:9 does not say is that, all the while he lived in what appears to be a lowly status, he was heir of the world (Romans 4:13)! To a person of faith that means a great deal.
Some may perhaps mistakenly think that everybody lived in tents in Abraham’s time, so the way he lived was the way every wealthy person lived. This assumption leads one to conclude there is nothing unusual in the Bible pointing these things out. Not so. The way Abraham lived reflected where his heart was, a glimpse into his faith, vision, and humility. Archeologists have compiled and recorded a great deal of evidence about the time Abraham lived. The people of that day built fine houses and huge buildings. The cultures were highly developed, and their building projects were grand and extensive.
It has been said that the “good old days” are the result of bad memory and good imagination. We old folks have a proclivity to look back and say, “The old was better.” That is true sometimes. Solomon’s advice is trying to help us understand that, though we must look back to learn, the future must nonetheless dominate our minds. If one is looking over his shoulder while trying to move forward at the same time, he is likely either to crash into something or to trip and fall over some impediment. Jesus cautions in Luke 9:62, “No one, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Solomon is urging us, the called, to move on with life and its problems by looking and working toward the future. In context, then, the “former days” refers to the time before we were converted, not some earlier time in the history of our culture. This makes this warning more individual and potent.
Being called creates new difficulties, but it is especially difficult now because we are living in nations that are simultaneously losing both their moral and economic powers. Thus, what we are experiencing can create feelings of despair that keep us focused on just merely making it.
This kind of attitude is not good. God warns us in verse 10 that it is not wise to hold a strong opinion that former days were better. He wants us to keep our minds on His sovereign power and purpose while accepting His governing judgment as to the circumstances of our times. We do not want to be guilty of calling Him into account, but that is exactly what we would be doing. We must never forget that He rules—constantly! His oversight of what is occurring in this world is not merely an occasional giving of His attention. Therefore, He is pleased to give us the world as it is without our calling Him into account.
Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 provides this counsel:
Wisdom is good with an inheritance, and profitable to those who see the sun. For wisdom is a defense as money is a defense, but the excellence of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to those who have it.
These verses briefly examine one of the properties that wisdom and money share. The key word is “share.” Notice that the term “better” does not appear in the context. The reason is that wisdom is so superior to wealth that it derives no additional glory from it. If a person has both, that is of course good. However, if they are personified, one must conclude that wisdom could do better without wealth than wealth could do without wisdom.
The attribute that they share is the power to protect, to be a defense or a shade, as some translations say, against life’s difficulties. Even in regard to this quality, the comparison reveals that wisdom is of greater value. The comparison shows that wisdom is like a wall of protection whereas wealth is merely a hedge. In adversity, wisdom provides reserves of strength to the person who possesses it. Wealth, though, continues to feed a person’s self-importance and lusts, and so it may even be detrimental to progress.
What does Solomon mean by “Wisdom is good with an inheritance”? This translation is vague and difficult. In its translation, The Revised English Bible reinserts “better” into the thought: “Wisdom is better than possessions and an advantage to all who see the sun.” The NIV reads, “Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.” The Jewish Soncino commentary makes two suggestions: “Wisdom is good when it is an inheritance” and “Wisdom is good when there is an inheritance together with it.” Solomon seems to be saying that, even as receiving a family inheritance is an advantage, so also is receiving family wisdom an advantage. It thus becomes an admonishment to young people to learn from their parents.
The Soncino commentary catches the essence of what Solomon is saying. Biblical wisdom always gives a person an advantage regardless of age, and the younger the person is when he begins using what he learned from his family the better.
The counsel in the last phrase of this verse—“Wisdom is . . . profitable to those who see the sun”—can be taken in two ways. “Those who see the sun” may be taken generally, thus including all humanity. But it may be directed specifically toward those who truly see God as part of their lives, that is, he refers to “over the sun,” converted people. In this way, verse 11 carries strong counsel to those who have God-given wisdom that enables them to “see” God. Such a person’s wisdom imparts even better judgment for facing the difficulty of the times with a much steadier walk and broader, deeper sagacity.
At the same time, in order to be realistic, some events may affect our lives that neither wisdom nor wealth can protect us from, such as a national economic cataclysm or a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake that one cannot be physically prepared for. Except for those extraordinary situations, from what does wisdom defend a person? It protects individuals who have this wisdom derived from a relationship with God from the ordinary trials of the times, whatever their time in history.
The Strength of Wisdom
Proverbs 8:1-11, 32-36 provides an understandable overview of the importance of wisdom, spelling out why it is superior to wealth:
Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice? She takes her stand on the top of the high hill, beside the way, where the paths meet. She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entrance of the doors: to you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men. O you simple ones, understand prudence, and you fools, be of an understanding heart. Listen, for I will speak of excellent things, and from the opening of my lips will come right things; for my mouth will speak truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are with righteousness; nothing crooked or perverse is in them. They are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge. Receive my instruction, and not silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her. . . .
Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not disdain it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death.
Jesus teaches in Matthew 13:22, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.” Wealth has a way of deceiving a person. Anyone is susceptible. When a person is poor, he can be deceived into imagining that, if he were rich, he would be happy. When he is rich, he deludes himself that, if he were only richer, he would be content.
The problem is not the wealth. The problem is in the heart because of what we have been taught by our culture about wealth’s protective capacity. That belief is often a delusion, since the common understanding regarding wealth is not from God. This delusion really has no end because human nature, without God’s help, is insatiable. In contrast, godly wisdom is perfectly balanced and feeds the heart with the right thoughts.
There is no doubt that people of sufficient wealth use it to protect themselves from much of the unpleasantness of life in the world. They tend to eat more nutritious food, which often costs more. They may be careful where they shop; they may make their homes into virtual fortresses; they may travel about only at certain times; they may not make an ostentatious display of their wealth, but they may surround themselves with guards for protection. Wealth is indeed a symbol of strength.
The last statement in Ecclesiastes 7:12 says that “wisdom gives life to those who have it.” What a gift! At this point, its superiority over wealth becomes very apparent. Wealth can shelter a person from certain classes of physical evils, but it can do nothing against the far more formidable and dangerous spiritual and moral evils that endanger the continuation of life.
Wealth may even promote involvement in the temptations of moral evil. It cannot protect one from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life, which may open the door to destroying the person’s life. Wealth cannot purchase entrance into the Kingdom of God. God’s wisdom arms His people against those foes of eternal life. God-given wisdom can motivate an individual to give himself to God in humble submission. Conversely, wealth may prove an obstacle because it opens a door to spending it for one’s own pleasures.
Wisdom is a greater strength because this kind of wisdom is a gift from the Creator, who expects it be used spiritually to enhance the relationship with Him through prayer, study, obedience, and service. If one cooperates by living by faith, God adds what we as individuals lack by giving more gifts. He can even defend us from illness, which money cannot. Can money protect one from the satanic spirits responsible for the moral breakdowns of life? In times like these, if we are living within God-given wisdom, we have the greatest, strongest, and only reliable defense available.
Wisdom gives life. In contrast, Proverbs 8:36 declares starkly, “Those who hate wisdom love death.”
Some Things Are Unavoidable
Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 adds other ways in which wisdom is a defense:
Consider the work of God; for who can make straight what He has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him.
As good a shelter as God’s wisdom is, it cannot shield us from every possible event we might consider a calamity. Everybody faces such situations. Wisdom will aid us to resign ourselves to the circumstances of those times. “Resignation” is too often understood to have the sense of throwing up our hands and giving up, thus quitting under fire. It indeed can have that connotation, but not always, and such is not the implication here. The wisdom in this case is that we are to submit to the fact that there are times that nothing can be done to avoid certain situations.
This verse marks the third time such counsel is dealt with, and this is just the seventh chapter. It is important because we are dealing with the Sovereign of this entire creation. There are things that He is doing that He absolutely will not change for us. Similar instruction appears in chapter 3.
Therefore, we have to discern those times, resign ourselves to them, and gracefully and humbly accept them, allowing Him to work out His purpose without constant complaining from us. Job 12:13-16 makes this point clearly:
With Him are wisdom and strength, He has counsel and understanding. If He breaks a thing down, it cannot be rebuilt; if He imprisons a man, there can be no release. If He withholds the waters, they dry up; if He sends them out, they overwhelm the earth. With Him are strength and prudence. The deceived and the deceiver are His.
If one tries to fight God, there is no possibility of winning. To do so is stupid beyond the bounds of reason, but mankind constantly attempts it. This concerns us on a daily basis because we live in this world too. What is going on in the world is not pleasant to experience or even to contemplate, so our becoming angry, depressed, and weary with the entire matter is a likely possibility. Nevertheless, the situation will not go away because God has willed it for the present.
Wisdom, in this case, is to be resigned to it. We must think this reality through and accept what is impossible for us to change. All too often, though, we allow it to depress us and dominate our lives to such an extent that we do virtually nothing positive about the things we can change. That is when Satan wins because, having put ourselves into a weakened attitude, we more readily cave to his devices.
Verse 14 contains further wisdom to defend against those difficult times when it seems that nothing can be changed. Solomon essentially counsels us to learn to “roll with the punches.” We must make careful efforts to make the best of the situation, understanding that God has seemingly withdrawn Himself for our good. God is love; He is neither forgetful nor a harsh taskmaster. We have a hard time seeing that the level of difficulty we are experiencing is good for our growth. He is not doing it to smother us but to benefit us in the end.
The last phrase of verse 14 tells us that God, from His sovereign height, has determined to keep man somewhat off-balance for His purposes. God has commanded that we must live by faith. Thus, trying to figure out the precise reasons for a situation is not only often impossible, but also a huge waste of time and energy. This counsel may not satisfy some people because of its simplicity, but it is right: Trust Him!