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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
Title:The Futility of Wisdom
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:12-18;2:12-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

12 I, the Teacher,was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.C)">(C) What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

15 What is twisted cannot be straightened;
    what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.

2: 12-16

Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
    and also madness and folly.
What more can the king’s successor do
    than what has already been done?
13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
    just as light is better than darkness.
14 The wise man has eyes in his head,
    while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
    that the same fate overtakes them both.


15 Then I thought in my heart,

“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
    What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said in my heart,
    “This too is meaningless.”
16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
    in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!I)">

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

The Futility of Wisdom

Ecclesiastes 1.12-18; 2.12-16

Preached by Rev. Keith Davis at Lynwood URC on 1-22-12 (Songs:  304, 232, 214, 276)


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, last week Sunday morning I explained how the Preacher, the writer of Ecclesiastes presents himself to us as part explorer, part scientist, and part philosopher.  He sets out on various missions and excursions into the world in search of answers.   


Here, he tells how he devoted himself to study and explore wisdom, all with the goal of seeing if there was any real purpose, if there was any real meaning or satisfaction to be found in gaining wisdom and knowledge.  Now, one would think that for Solomon, the man whom the Lord gave more wisdom and knowledge than anyone in the world before him or after him, that he would have found great satisfaction in this particular quest; that this would have been right up his alley so to speak – like a kid in a candy store.


Yet, Solomon finds only emptiness.  He speaks of the meaninglessness, the futility of wisdom.  And quite frankly, that should come as a shock to us.  For we hear that knowledge is power; and wisdom is knowledge rightly applied, and everybody wants (pursues) wisdom and knowledge!


So why does Solomon speak so negatively, so critically about it?  It’s because Solomon sees the limitations, the shortcomings, the failures of earthly wisdom and earthly knowledge.  He sees that knowledge and wisdom -- by themselves -- will not lead us to “Way Everlasting”; they will not teach us the truth that we really need to know; they will not bring us the salvation that we (and all men) so desperately need.  That is why Solomon writes what he does.  Here, Solomon Exposes the Futility of earthly wisdom and knowledge. 

1)      The Earthly Problem

2)      The Heavenly Solution    


1) The Earthly Problem:       In the first verse of our text, verse 12, we read: I the Teacher was king in Jerusalem, and I devoted myself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. Notice first of all, the great prize of wisdom and knowledge doesn’t come easy does it?  It doesn’t come naturally; it does not come magically.  It takes great effort.


Solomon devoted himself to do what boys and girls?  He devoted himself to study and explore.  Now, if you recall, this is what Solomon asked for from God.  When he became king, the Lord came to Solomon and offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.  “Ask for whatever you want, and it will be granted”, God said.  What did Solomon request?  Not wealth, not honor, not fame, not the death of his enemies, and not long life. 


No. Solomon asked for wisdom and knowledge that he might rightly lead and govern God’s people.  And as a result of Solomon’s humble and noble request, the Lord gave Solomon not only the wisdom and knowledge he asked for, but also wealth and fame and honor (which proves what Jesus said – Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you).


But from what we read here, this wisdom and knowledge didn’t just drop from the sky.  Granted, I believe the Lord does bless certain people with a greater capacity for knowledge and wisdom, but God also works through means.  So when it says that Solomon devoted himself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven, we’re to understand that this was the way -- the means by which God bestowed on him such wisdom.


God gave Solomon a desire and a capacity to learn, to study, to absorb all this knowledge as well as the ability to apply it to life.  That ability to apply knowledge is essential because there are people who have great knowledge, but they lack the ability to convert it, to carry it over into real life -- to put it into practice.  Like a super-computer without any practical applications. 


But Solomon had it all.  And as a special blessing, God gave Solomon (and the nation of Israel) a time of peace during his reign. He didn’t have to waste him time dealing with the chaos and distraction of political unrest and war.  So he had time to devote himself to gaining knowledge.


Matthew Henry states this about Solomon’s pursuit of wisdom: he made it his business to acquaint himself with all the things that are done under the sun, that are done by the providence of God or by the art and prudence of man. He set himself to get all the insight he could into philosophy and mathematics, into husbandry and trade, merchandise and mechanics, into the history of former ages and the present state of other kingdoms, their laws, customs, and policies, into men’s different tempers, capacities, and projects, and the methods of managing them; he set himself not only to seek, but to search, to pry into, that which is most intricate, and which requires the closes application of mind and the most vigorous and constant prosecution….and this he did, not merely to gratify his own genius, but to qualify himself for the service of God.  


And as to the difficulty and frustration of this task, Solomon states: What a heavy burden God has laid on me!  Another translation calls this endeavor a sore travail; others translate this to read -- what an unhappy business God has given to the children of man to be busy with.  In the same way that the ground was cursed because of man so that it was toilsome labor to sow and to reap, so too, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom was hard work, it was a tedious undertaking.


We can be sure that Solomon wasn’t satisfied with just a little knowledge of everything. He would have pursued a thorough knowledge of everything.  And anyone who has ever put his or her mind to mastering a certain subject knows what that requires. It’s hard work.  It’s toilsome. We find that out in college, in seminary, in nursing school, in law school, or when we study farming.  It’s a heavy burden.


And there’s more to that burden than just the hard work of study.  The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is also burdensome, an unhappy business because we realize two things: the more we know and learn, the more we realize how little we actually know; and the more we know, the more we realize that there are some things in this world that just can’t be figured out.


There are some things in life that cannot be fully known; and sometimes the harder we try to figure something out, the more frustrated -- the more unhappy and burdened we become.  In a commentary on this chapter, I found this quote by modernist poet Ezra Pound.  He wrote: All my life I believed I knew something. But then one strange day came when I realized that I knew nothing; yes I knew nothing.  As we grow older, life has a way of humbling us and showing us just how small, how simple, how foolish and ignorant we really are.


But that’s not all.  Solomon discovered that there are also limitations to what all this knowledge and wisdom can do.  Look at verse 14.  Solomon says I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. We wonder, what would make him say that?  What would make a man who had so valued knowledge and wisdom, and who was so full of knowledge and wisdom, reach such a desperate and hopeless conclusion?

He tells us why in verse 15.  What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.  Simply put, even if it were possible for us to absorb and possess all the knowledge and wisdom in this world in the universe, still that knowledge couldn’t fix all of life’s problems; it couldn’t mend all that is broken, it couldn’t straighten everything that is bent out of shape – there are some things in life that are simply beyond repair.


(Sort of like the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumptyall the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again).  He was beyond repair.  Every where we look in life (out there and in our own personal life) we see the brokenness, the crookedness, the things that are twisted and bent out of shape (that are beyond making straight). 


There are relationships within the family, within the church, in the workplace that are bent out of shape, and try as we might -- with all our knowledge of what is right and fair and reasonable, we can’t seem to make it straight.  These are hard realities that we live with every day.


There are mistakes and errors in judgment made by those in authority at every level, even at the highest level in the land.  The Supreme Court allows for the legalization of abortion – and since that ruling on January 22, 1973, 39 years to the day, over 50 million unborn or partially born babies have paid the price for that miserable freedom (people say “the system is broken”, etc).   


That’s something that knowledge and wisdom cannot straighten.  Besides that, each person has his or her own moral failings to deal with.  People know better than to cuss and swear, we know better than to abuse our wife, we know that we shouldn’t get drunk, we know we shouldn’t have sex before marriage; we know we shouldn’t talk back to our parents…but does that stop us?


Things are twisted all over.  People everywhere have problems; some live in poverty; some battle diseases or disabilities.  The list goes on and on. These are things that we just can’t straighten on our own, we can’t fix them or correct them – no matter how much knowledge we have.   


Solomon also says: that which is lacking cannot be counted.  That could refer to our lack of overall knowledge: “that which we lack in terms of knowledge cannot even be calculated.”  But I think it gets more at this idea: that which is missing from life cannot even be measured.


In other words, life is like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing so many pieces.  Try as we might, we can’t make everything fit together; we can’t complete the puzzle to our own satisfaction.  There will always be missing pieces, and it drives us mad.  Man cannot make life perfect again.  


So that’s one problem.  But there are other limitations of knowledge.  In verses 17-18 Solomon says he not only gave himself to the study of knowledge, but he even tried to understand madness and folly.  Based upon what we know of his life, he probably studied this a bit too well. 


He gave himself over to folly and madness as he married hundreds of ungodly women and they turned his heart away from God.  They led him into years of folly.  But, in the end, what did he conclude.  He is irritated, vexed, and frustrated by it all. 


With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.  That so true!  The more we know about this world, the more we know about the people in this world, about politics, about government, about things in general, the more we are weighed down by grief and sorrow.


Newscasts like CNN and CNBC and FOX are dedicated to bringing us around the clock coverage of the Italian Cruise ship that sank, of a math teacher in Montana who was killed, of military personal killed in action in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings in Iraq, civil unrest in Syria, or they interview their economic experts to talk about the woeful American economy, the unemployment ratings, the ever weakening dollar.


It’s understandable that someone who sits glued to their TV, watching the news for hours, would feel down and depressed all day.  It’s just too much bad news to absorb; it’s too much knowledge to process – the amount of pain, and loss, and hardship and grief in this world.       


But to a degree, the same thing happens to us on a personal level. The more people we know, the more we care for them and get involved in their lives, the more pain we will experience.  Yes, we also find great joy and pleasure in getting to know people, but we also learn more about their problems, we share in their disappointments, in their failures, in their heartaches.


We know this as parents -- we suffer through the same pain and disappointment and rejection that our children experience.  And any elder or pastor who truly knows his flock, or his district feels this way as he ministers to the needs of God’s people.  The more you come to know their situation, the more you quite literally feel their pain and suffering and grief. 


You feel sympathy for their losses, sadness for their setbacks, and you feel helpless to do anything in the face of their ever weakening condition.  The more you know, the more you feel grief and sorrow.  When I read this verse I couldn’t help but call to mind that little proverb we use every now and then – ignorance is bliss. How true that is.


NOT knowing something is a kind of blessing.  It’s a built-in safe-guard against all the pain, sorrow, grief and anxiety that comes with knowledge.  Some people prefer NOT to know all the evil and pain that is going on around them.  They want to remain blissfully unaware of it all.    


There’s is a third problem with knowledge and wisdom. That is found in chapter 2: 16.  Solomon points out that in the end, both wise and the foolish share the same fate.  They travel very different paths, but they reach the same destination.  How maddening.  How unfair.  Both wise and foolish will die, and in the days to come, neither will be remembered for long. 


So, Solomon asks, what’s the point of it all?  A wise man endeavors to maximize his learning potential, to be a good steward of all the time and energy and talent God gives him, but in the end, Solomon concludes that a wise and learned man is really no better off, no further along than a couch potato, or someone who spends all his time sitting at a bar, or shooting pool, or playing video games with his friends day and night.  It’s all meaningless, it’s pure futility.


2) The Heavenly Solution                 So what are we to make of all this?  If the purpose of this passage was to make us feel worse about life than we did before, then it’s mission accomplished, right?  That’s the way we feel as we read through many of the passages in Ecclesiastes.  The deeper we go into this book, the darker and more desperate and the more hopeless he seems.


But we don’t have to deny that feeling of hopelessness, for this is exactly what the preacher wants us to see and feel.  Remember, he’s showing us the world from an earthly perspective.  In chapter one, he showed us what life looks life from this side of eternity -- the coming and going of generations, the endless succession of days, the wind blowing every direction, the streams ever flowing from the sea, and back again, he shows us the daily grind of everyday life. 


And from earth’s perspective, it’s sheer madness and futility and meaninglessness.  No one gets ahead, nothing is ever new, no one can discern a reason or a goal to life, or a direction or destination for that matter.  It’s like all humanity is running on a treadmill, going no where fast!


Here, the Preacher shows us where the best thinkers in the world can get us.  He’s showing us how far man’s quest for knowledge and wisdom and understanding can take us.  To be sure, we have earth’s best scientists on this project.  Man has a genius (an astrophysicist) like Stephen Hawking studying the universe, peering out into the stars, searching for answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe. 


Yet it is the very genius who said that this universe (in which our earth is but a tiny speck of sand), came into being by chance and that many other universes can come into being the same way.  He also said that heaven was just a fairy (story) tale for people afraid of the dark.


That’s how far the earth’s best thinkers can take us.  They take us to a universe, to a world, to an existence where God has no part, where life has no meaning, where man is nothing more than an advanced breed of monkey who will one day be replaced as the top of the evolutionary chain.  That’s the approach Solomon takes. 


He plays the role of the secular professor, the secular scientists, the godless philosopher, and he shows us how empty the world is, how meaningless life is without God.  He shows us how helpless man is not just to solve the world’s problems, but even to face the world’s problems on his own terms. 


He shows us how hopeless man is without God.  Man cannot even help himself!  For, the truth is, we can take every available class in philosophy and psychology and behavioral science, we can research every world religion possible, and we can sign up for every personal improvement class possible, our government can pass new health care laws, and try to create more agencies to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and provide jobs for the jobless, but it will not fix man’s problem.


That will end in frustration and futility as well.  For while science and knowledge and technology can take us to some pretty cool places and accomplish some pretty amazing things, and while government programs can try to address some dire social needs, the fact is, it, no amount of technology or government help never bring us what we really need; they can never solve man’s most vexing problems – they cannot save us from our final fate: death. 


Man needs God for that. Man needs God and His divine wisdom, and His supreme knowledge.  And this is why God’s Word makes a distinction between earthly wisdom and the wisdom that is from above.  Jeremiah 9:23-24 says:  This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.


And in the New Testament God goes even further.  In I Corinthians 1, the Apostle Paul quotes Isaiah 29, saying “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?


Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon does exactly that – he destroys the wisdom of the wise; he tears it down; he strips away the thin veneer of man’s so called wisdom and he exposes what lies beneath -- the empty, prideful boasting of man.  Man may be wise in his own eyes, but everything about his life proves that he is a fool.


For all men are fools who seek to gain knowledge and understanding about this world, without first coming to believe in God who is the Architect and Builder of this world; who is Himself the fountain and source of all knowledge and wisdom and understanding.  For this reason Solomon wrote in Proverbs 1, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.  What that means is that man cannot truly know anything in this world without first truly knowing God.  For all truth is God’s truth; all knowledge belongs to God; all wisdom and understanding begin and end in God.


For whether man is searching out the greatest mysteries of the universe or simply seeking enough knowledge and wisdom to make through the day tomorrow, man must begin with God.  And the Good News is, our God does not leave us in despair.

God has revealed to us His own Son, Jesus Christ. He is none other than the wisdom of God.  It is this Wisdom of God who cries out in the book of Proverbs for all men to listen; for all men to leave behind the wisdom of this world, for the wisdom of God is more precious than rubies.


It is the wisdom of God who declares: whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD.  But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.  God calls all mankind to forsake the wisdom of this world, and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and then God will fill us with the knowledge of Himself, and then God will make us truly wise.


For all of us who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives a knowledge about this world that fills us with joy and satisfaction and contentment.  For we know, we understand, we realize and accept that on this side of heaven life there is always going to be those things that are crooked, that are bent out of shape, that don’t make sense, that defy reason and logic.


And we Christians don’t have to deny that, or act as if believing in Jesus makes everything perfect in our life and world; we don’t claim to have all the answers to why people do what they do; to why things happen the way they do.  But we do have Jesus Christ, and we have the grace of God which gives us strength and patience to endure all things that are out of place; we have the grace and power to forgive others who at times are bent out of shape and wrong us.


And we have the peace which passes all understanding, which guards our hearts and minds against anxiety and worry, and panic and fear.  And we also have godly contentment to deal with life’s mysteries, to deal with the unexpected twists and turns, when the pieces of the puzzle seem to be missing, and we don’t know what God is trying to do or say. 


We need not fear knowing and loving each other deeply, for we have comfort from God to comfort one another as we suffer loss, as we endure pain and misery.  We can encourage one another one another with the hope of everlasting life, with the promise of Christ’s return, with the knowledge that very soon, this world – and all its weakness and foolishness will pass away.  So you see, our faith in Christ delivers us from all fear and panic, from pain and death. Our faith in Christ delivers us from the foolishness of this world gives us hope for the blessed life to come!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2012, Pastor Keith Davis

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