11 Ways of the Wise: Ecclesiastes 7:1-14
I did not become a Christian until I was in college, in part because of the way that well meaning evangelicals tried to pique my curiosity in Christianity. With good intentions, they would ask questions like, “If you died tonight do you know where you would go?” Or they would tell me, “If you become a Christian you can go to heaven when you die.”
The only problem is, when you have not yet even seen twenty candles on your birthday cake you are more worried with figuring out your life than what happens when that life is over. The gospel pitch that I was repeatedly given was the same pitch you’d want to give to grandpa on his deathbed in the hospital. I figured in sixty or seventy years, when that day came, I’d answer their quirky question along with what kind of suit I wanted to be buried in and any song requests I had for the organist at my funeral.
I’ve since learned that Christianity is supposed to be a life lived with God that never ends. It begins now with daily, mundane, and practical matters and continues forever. It’s not just about the day you die, but about every day. According to the Bible, there are basically two kinds of people – the wise and the foolish. The crazy cultural context in which we live refuses to draw such hard lines between the wise and the foolish. Therefore, we end up with every lifestyle, perspective, ideology, and activity tolerated and eventually celebrated, which seems as though, culturally, the fools are winning. We all have at least a little fool in us, but the wise know this, dislike this, and work to correct this. In this section of Ecclesiastes, the person second only to Jesus Christ in wisdom shares with us 11 ways of the wise for today and every day.
11 Ways of the Wise
1. Seek to do the right thing everyday (7:1a)
For women, a good perfume is essential. The same goes for a man’s cologne. This is doubly true for those who are single and wanting to attract a spouse, by creating a pleasing and inviting environment. In Solomon’s comparison, a good reputation goes before us as the aroma of our character. Our reputation is built over time and can be lost at anytime. Therefore, just like a wall is built by stacking one brick at a time, so too our reputation is built by doing the right thing one day at a time as best we can by what we know.
2. Live every day for one day (7:1b-2)
Like a picture in a frame, death frames life. The average person has about 27,000 days to live their life on the earth. After that, our opportunities to learn, love, and leave an impact are gone. It is so easy to waste our life one hour and day at a time, so it is wise to start with the end in mind and work backward. Just as plugging a final destination into a navigation technology so that we are directed purposefully toward a desired end, likewise thinking about our last day and our funeral can be helpful and clarifying.
What do you want your last day to be like? Who do you want to be at your funeral? What do you want them to say? How do you want them to feel? What difference do you want to leave after you are gone?
Solomon reminds us that we can learn a lot about life by not just attending parties, but also funerals. For the Christian “the day you die is better than the day you are born”. Paul says the same thing in Philippians 1:21 that, “living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”
3. Learn to lament (7:3-4)
In our culture, we celebrate our wins publicly, and mourn our losses privately. This can lead to isolation, which causes depression. This also helps account for a very lonely, broken, and depressed condition in a world where people self medicate and/or medicate to cope with their emotional pain. In the Bible, lamenting is part of the public life of a person. The Eastern way of life had a set way for mourning that included a public period of time for people to express their grief. In the isolated West things are not this way, and social media increases the pressure to maintain a façade that “all is well and we are winning at life.” Conversely, in the Bible we have an entire book called Lamentations, a large grouping of Psalms that are laments, and large sections of other books (especially in the prophets) that are laments. Even the Lord Jesus lamented over Jerusalem and wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.
Sorrow lets us work through our grief. Sorrow lets us stop pretending that all is well. Sorrow welcomes others into that grief because that’s where friendships are forged.
Tragically, a fool thinks only about having a good time. A fool is easily exposed on the troubling days of life. When hardship, trial, suffering, difficulty, and strife come, what happens? Wise people mourn, but foolish people drink too much and do stupid things. That’s what they do. Fools drink, dance, and laugh through their problems, which is ultimately ignoring and avoiding their pain. Wise people embrace it and go through it, knowing that on the other side is God and opportunity for joy. Fools refuse to go through the hard stuff of life.
4. Keep one ear open and one ear closed (7:5-6)
Solomon rightly reminds us that both wise and foolish people are happy to tell us what they think. But, if we want good for our lives, we have to have one closed ear turned toward the fools, and one open ear turned toward the wise.
How do we know who the fools are? Solomon gives us a two-fold test. One, a fool treats everything with a levity that is unfitting. Not everything is funny, not everything is a joke, and not everything can be dealt with by a sense of humor. Fools tend to be shallow and unable to swim out into the deep waters of life. They splash around the shallow shore and treat real matters like they are simple and not worth fretting over. A fool can be fun in the good times, and downright annoying in the tough times. Two, a fool fades fast. Like a fire made with dried thorns, they burn hot and fast with a lot of passion and energy that is gone quickly. A fool will show a lot of emotion and make a lot of promises in a loud volume at the beginning of a lengthy trial but are gone before the real work even begins. Fools don’t really count the cost of walking with someone through a hard season, so they say a lot, do a little, and are nowhere to be found after the first trip to chemo or the divorce attorney.
5. Shortcuts are dead ends (7:5)
In life, when money is short and deadlines are tight, it can be tempting to cut corners, take a shortcut, and do things that are unethical if not illegal. A bribe is when we decide how much we are willing to sell our integrity for. When we take a bribe, if reveals that we are lovers of money and worshippers of money, which means at the bedrock of our soul is not a love of God and worship of God. In this way, money is a good way to gauge our soul. These “shortcuts” ultimately prove to be dead ends in God’s economy.
These bribes and dead ends can include fudging on our billable hours, overbilling, increasing our profit margins on an item, stealing from our employer (including time), and covering for others who are skimming the company in some way. We can make a lot of excuses for why we take what is not ours, or take more than we’ve got coming – but all such dealings “corrupt the heart”. Since the heart is the seat and center of our lives from which all of life flows, poisoning our soul for a few bucks is never a good return on investment in the eternal economy of God.
6. Make the last day the best day (7:8)
A proud person has a good start. A patient person has a good finish.
Every guy’s tough in boot camp. Every woman’s the perfect mother in her second trimester of pregnancy. Every guy is an unbelievable mate on his second date. It’s the end that counts. Wise people know that in the middle, there is going to be difficulty, sin, and consequence for sin, but that with wisdom, by God’s grace, they can navigate through to the end, where there’s something to show for it.
Even the not so godly Ahab had enough sense to point out the same thing, saying in 1 Kings 20:11, “A warrior putting on his sword for battle should not boast like a warrior who has already won.” If you do something, you don’t have to say anything because the results speak for themselves.
7. Be a good dog (7:9)
Growing up, I was a city kid and did not have a lot of animals or pets. Many years later as a dad, our kids wanted to get a family dog. So, we needed to have numerous discussions about what kind of dog we would get.
One on hand, I did not want a dog that was only and always nice. For our family, part of the dog’s job was to protect us when needed. They could not just roll over, show their belly, and wait to be scratched all the time because that’s not what a bad guy needs from the family dog.
On the other hand, I did not want a dog that was only and always mean. A mean dog is a danger to the kids. While you want a bad guy on your property to be greeted by a protective dog, the last thing you want is that same dog to intimidate or harm your children.
Thankfully, we found a good dog. A good dog knows that most of the time they are the family pet – happy with their tail waging. A good dog also knows that on rare occasions they need to put their fur up, show their teeth, and be the family protector.
God wants us to be a good dog. Not just a nice dog that never protects others from the bad guys. Not just a mean dog that always barks and bites for no reason.
8. You cannot move forward looking backward (7:10)
One of the first things you are told when you learn to drive is that if you want to go forward you have to look forward, and if you want to go backward you have to turn your head around and look backward. You cannot go forward while you look backward.
What is true physically is also true spiritually. You cannot move forward in your life with the Lord when you are looking backward. This is why Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back while walking away from a godless culture. This is also why Jesus says that life with God is like plowing a field and you cannot plow a straight line looking back over your shoulder.
Fools, Solomon says, talk a lot about the good old days. This can be through nostalgia when we remember an easier season of our life, like when the kids were little and easier to keep an eye on than when they got a drivers license. This can also be tradition where we just wish that the way things used to be would remain that way.
The problem with such thinking is that since the Fall in Genesis chapter 3, there have been only days filled with pain and struggle. Forward is God’s plan for the good days, and the good time really starts when this life ends.
9. Wisdom and wealth are wonderful (7:11-12)
To navigate the rough seas of life, two oars are particularly good to have in the boat – wealth and wisdom. Wealth can be a very good and helpful thing, as money can make some of life’s pains and problems go away. But, wisdom is even more valuable than wealth. In fact, wisdom can save your life. Unlike knowledge, which tells us what is true, wisdom also tells us what to do with that knowledge. Wisdom does not guarantee the absence of hardship in life, but it does guarantee a course through the hardship of this life.
Fools and wise people find their boat hitting the same waves and headed toward the same rocks. But, wise people figure out how to navigate around or through disaster, while fools shipwreck constantly.
10. God has two hands
God made this world perfect, good, and upright. Because of our sin, this world has been made imperfect, bad, and crooked. Living in this cursed and crooked world requires us to accept the fact that no one and nothing is perfect. Everyone and everything has a shadow side where there is brokenness and frustration looming.
Think of the journey through this life in terms of climbing a mountain. Anyone who has hiked can tell you that simply walking from the base of the mountain to the summit in one straight line is impossible. Instead, the only way up is on a course that meanders back and forth over the face of the mountain. Though exhausting with occasional backtracking, struggling, and overcoming, this is the only way to keep going up without getting stuck or falling off.
In life, there are also times where we are moving forward, and times we are moving backward. There are times of prosperity, and times of poverty. There are times of health, and time of sickness. Sometimes we want God to only give us a good flat clear path without ever backtracking, falling, or struggling. It is easy to sing God’s praises when times are wonderful, and much tougher when times are awful.
Solomon says that wisdom understands that God has two hands. One hand is God’s active hand, and the other is his passive hand. Sometimes God does good for us, and other times God allows difficult things to happen to us. But, we need to accept that both come from God.
Job has this same question in Job Chapter 2. He’s lost his children. He’s lost his wealth. He’s lost his health. The only thing he still has is his wife, which sadly wasn’t a blessing. She was not a particularly helpful woman. Her counsel was simply, “Curse God and die.” In response, Job says in 2:10, “ But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.”
This is what faith looks like in the face of pain. We do not see what God is doing, but we turn to him and trust him until we do. This eventually leads to our faith becoming sight, because in time, even if it’s in the kingdom, we see what God was doing from beginning to end.
11. Hold everything and everyone with an open hand, except God
Anyone and anything can be broken, taken, or forever changed in an instant. Knowing this leaves us with only a few options:
Option A – you get bitter when you lose who/what you enjoyed
Option B – enjoy nothing/no one so that you cannot get hurt
Option C – enjoy what you have for as long as you can and when it’s gone be grateful to God for what you had
Of course, the only person who has walked in perfect wisdom every day in every way is Jesus Christ. This is why the Bible calls him alone the one who is wiser than Solomon. In this way, his life lived by the power of the Holy Spirit is the life of a perfect Sage. A sage is the wise person who understands how life with God works, walks in it, and helps others to do the same. Thus, his wisdom allows our eternal life to begin today and continue everyday with him forever.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 7:1-14
- Do you tend to think of Christianity as more pertinent for this life or for after your death?
- In what practical areas of your life do you need to grow in wisdom right now? What can you do, and who can you ask to obtain that wisdom?
- Do the people in your life who speak into your decisions fit more in the category of wise or foolish?
- When people come to you for counsel, do you honestly believe you are a source of wise advice?
- Which of the 11 Ways of the Wise are you strongest at? Why?
- Which of the 11 Ways of the Wise are you weakest at? Why?