Part 5: The Lesser of Two… Evils

By October 10, 2013 Meaningless No Comments

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meaningless 5 from New Covenant Fellowship on Vimeo.

 

Part 5 – the lesser of two…evils?

Let’s open our Bibles to Ecc 2.

 

We have been walking through the book of Ecclesiastes, verse by verse.  So far, we have seen that the Teacher who was King over Israel in Jerusalem devoted himself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  He observed the maddening monotony of toil under the sun, then the frustrating fact that some things are crooked but cannot be straightened, some things are lacking and cannot be counted, that much of what is done under the sun is a chasing after the wind.  He applied himself to the understanding of wisdom and also of madness and folly.  In aiming to understand wisdom, he draws a preliminary conclusion that with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge the more grief.  In the pursuit of understanding madness and folly, he tested his heart with pleasure to find out what is good, what exactly is worthwhile for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.  One of the observations of the Teacher is that the pursuit of pleasure also returns void, that it is a chasing after the wind.  Living for self leaves one empty.

 

These are simply observations of the realities of life that the teacher shares.  These are things that we all know to some degree; these are things that to some extent, we have observed for ourselves.  As we move through the book we will see that these observations work together and they build upon one another to formulate some of his preliminary conclusions and at the very end of the book, he says this is the conclusion of the matter.  And I’m not going to spoil that for you, but at this point, I want to note the importance of context.

 

In order to really grasp what the Teacher is communicating in Ecclesiastes, the book must be considered as a whole, but a 12 hour long sermon would be a little difficult to pull off, so we are taking it bit by bit, drawing out some application along the way.  But as we do so, we have to be careful in our assessment of these bits and pieces.

 

Simply taking parts of Ecclesiastes in isolation apart from the greater context is likely to lead us to wrong conclusions.  Thus, as we move forward, we must maintain an effort to see the book as a whole and not only that, but see it in the greater context of all of the wisdom literature and especially in comparison to the book of proverbs, and ultimately within the context of the whole Bible.

 

We have to continually zoom out in order to see the big picture; the Teacher is painting a picture here.

 

Did you ever watch Bob Ross when you were a kid (or an adult for some of you)?  The dude on TV with the afro that did amazing paintings.  If you were to walk up to one of those paintings until your eyeball was an inch away you would say that the painting consisted simply of some abstract green and yellow brushstrokes.  Your perspective is limited because you are only looking at a little piece of the picture.  It’s not until you zoom out, step back and look at the picture as a whole that you see that those abstract yellow and green brushstrokes work together to paint a picture of a happy tree.  In fact, if you’re looking at the big picture you see that there are several happy trees in the midst of a happy forest.

 

So far, we have been looking at green and yellow brush strokes.  As we move forward, we are going to start to see some happy trees.  Let’s pick up in the text.

 

Ecc 2:12-16

12 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 have eyes in their heads,

   while the fool walks in the darkness;

but I came to realize

   that the same fate overtakes them both.

15 Then I said to myself,

“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.

   What then do I gain by being wise?”

I said to myself,

   “This too is meaningless.”

16 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;

   the days have already come when both have been forgotten.

Like the fool, the wise too must die!

Let’s unpack this.

12 Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.

This should sound familiar.  He has already said something similar.  He said in 1:17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness of folly.

So the Teacher has already shared his goal with his audience.  He applied himself to the understanding of wisdom and also of madness and folly.  Then he shared some observations.  Now, he reminds his audience of the objective, refocusing us on his task at hand in case we got lost in some of the details.  He turns his thoughts to consider wisdom and also madness and folly.  He is now going to offer some preliminary conclusions.

The verse continues: What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?

Without overcomplicating this, the second part of the verse is difficult to translate from the original and there are differing interpretations.  It literally reads, “but what [is] the man who cometh after the king? that which [is] already — they have done it!”  That is the YLT.  The most common interpretation among commentators is specific to the Teacher, the author, who was King over Israel in Jerusalem.  In this case if Solomon was the author it would refer to his son Rehoboam, who succeeded him as king.  It would carry the idea of, look at everything I have accomplished as King, everything I did from setting in order many proverbs (Ecc 12:9), increased in wisdom more than anyone who ruled over Jerusalem before, (Ecc 1:16), built houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, owned slaves, amassed silver and gold, men and women singers and a harem – I becamegreater than anyone in Jerusalem before me (Ecc 2:1-9).  I have done a lot.  What more could my successor possibly do after me?

He can’t do more than I did; I set the standard for the apex of accomplishment, and at the end of all my work I say in 2:11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

I have been there, done that.  Nobody who comes after me can accomplish more.  So if I stand at the pinnacle of performance and I can tell youthat in the end it comes up empty in the sense that it doesn’t satisfy the deepest longing in the human soul, then what will?

And in the assessment of life under the sun, he considered the two possible paths, one of wisdom and the other of madness and folly – and just for the record, he did so with his mind still guiding him with wisdom (v2:3).  In other words, he wasn’t pursuing folly with reckless abandon as does the fool.  He did so in the same fashion that a scientist would perform an experiment, carefully, objectively, and with a purpose.

So he explores these two possible paths of wisdom and folly.  And you know what he found?  V13  13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly,  just as light is better than darkness.  14 The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness;

While we have already heard from the teacher that there is a sense in which wisdom has its downfalls – nonetheless, wisdom is still better than folly.

Here is a perfect opportunity for us to employ context.  Two weeks ago we looked at Ecc 1:12-18 and one of the preliminary conclusions impliedthat wisdom isn’t all that.  With much wisdom comes much sorrow, the more knowledge the more grief.  If we were to simply take that by itself then all we can see are some abstract yellow and green brushstrokes.  We don’t see the happy tree, much less the happy forest.  Now, in 2:13 we see that even though it has its downfall, wisdom is better than folly.

Hopefully you have accepted my challenge to you, my encouragement to read one chapter in the book of proverbs everyday; on the first of the month read chapter one, on the second day, chapter two, etc.  If so, then you have indeed been blessed.  And on Tuesday through Friday, you would have been saturated in texts that upheld wisdom as morally beneficial, prosperous, and ultimately supreme.

Flip back with me to Proverbs 3 for a sampling.  Just to bolster the Teacher’s assessment of wisdom that it is better than folly, let’s breeze through a few verses.

Proverbs 3:13-18

13 Blessed are those who find wisdom,

   those who gain understanding,

14 for she is more profitable than silver

   and yields better returns than gold.

15 She is more precious than rubies;

   nothing you desire can compare with her.

16 Long life is in her right hand;

   in her left hand are riches and honor.

17 Her ways are pleasant ways,

   and all her paths are peace.

18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;

   those who hold her fast will be blessed.

We could continue reading on and on and on verse after verse throughout proverbs and see that wisdom is better than folly.

 

In fact, Solomon goes so far as to say in Proverbs 4:7 Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.  Though it cost you all you have (or whatever else you get) get understanding.

Additionally, there are several verses later in Ecclesiastes that sound like they could have come straight out of the book of Proverbs.

·         Ecclesiastes 7:5  It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.

·         Ecclesiastes 9:17  The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

·         Ecclesiastes 10:2  The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.

·         Ecclesiastes 10:12  Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.

So even if there is a sense in which more knowledge yields more grief, wisdom is far far far greater than folly.  Far greater to be wise than to be a fool.

 

So back to our verse: 13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.  14 The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness;

Here, the teacher gives us a metaphor to help us see the contrast between the benefits of wisdom against folly.  Light is better than darkness.  In the light, one can see clearly where he is going.  Wisdom, knowledge, understanding will help light one’s path and provide guidance to his ways.  Folly, on the other hand, is like trying to find your way in the darkness.  You can’t see where you’re going.  You bump into things, stub your toes, step on things, slip, and fall.  You know how it is when you get up early in the morning for work before anyone else is awake and you’re trying not to wake up your family.  But after work, you come home and the house is well lit, you can move about easily and safely, you see exactly what is before you.  The path is clear and you can travel quickly, safely, and proficiently.

 

The wise have eyes in their head, he says. Well, everybody has eyes in their heads literally, but what the Teacher is saying here is that the wise have the ability to actually see where they are going in life, as one walking in the light, whereas the fool walks aimlessly in darkness and foolishness.   He may step right into a trap or a pit and he wouldn’t see it coming.  He lacks the prudence, discretion, and caution of the wise.

 

So you get the picture, wisdom is better than folly and that’s not simply an arbitrary green or yellow brushstroke.  That’s a happy tree.  We step back and see that this is what the whole of scripture consistently teaches. But, remember that wisdom is not the end all be all, it doesn’t ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul and while it seeks to, it doesn’t answer all of the difficult questions concerning the enigma of the human experience under the sun.

 

And that is what he alludes to next.

 

13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly,  just as light is better than darkness.  14 The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness;

BUUUUUT! but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.

15 Then I said to myself,

“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.

   What then do I gain by being wise?”

I said to myself,  “This too is meaningless.”

16 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;

   the days have already come when both have been forgotten.

Like the fool, the wise too must die!

 

Death is a great equalizer.  Yes, while the wise man will be better off in his life on the earth, his life on the earth ends just like the fool’s life ends.  In the end, all will die.  And whether one was a fool or a wise person, he will not long be remembered.  So what does one gain by being wise?

A lot, according to the whole of Scripture, namely the wisdom literature, including Ecclesiastes, as we saw earlier.  But that which is gained is all lost in the grave.

SCROOGED

It’s as if the Teacher has been visited by the three ghosts of futility, much like Bill Murray in the classic Christmas movie, Scrooged.

 

The ghost of futility past comes in the form of a crusty scruffy cab driver with a cigar in his mouth; he takes you back and shows you that since the beginning, the sun has been rising and setting, the streams have been flowing, the wind has been blowing, that generations have come and gone and there is nothing new under the sun.  It was here long ago.  What has been in the past continues in the present and will continue in the future.

 

Then the ghost of futility present comes in the form of a ditsy ballerina fairy; she takes you and shows you what is.  You get a glimpse at the world through the lenses of both wisdom & folly and find that in a sense both are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  You first see that on the one hand with much wisdom comes much sorrow, the more knowledge the more grief.  Then you see that on the other hand folly and pleasures are meaningless and in the end nothing is truly gained under the sun.  So now you assess the situation and come to conclude that though both wisdom and folly have their downfalls, but wisdom is far better than folly.

 

But then the ghost of futility future comes; the grim reaper himself in his cold black hooded cape with a television screen for a face and heshows you that in the end, the future holds the same destination for both the wise man and the fool, namely, the grave. You can’t learn enough, you can’t attain enough wisdom or grow in knowledge to the point that you can cheat death.  Palpatine was lying.

 

Think about this.  This is one of the Teacher’s observations.  Call it gloomy or pessimistic if you want to, but this is reality.  You and I will die at some point.  If you live life with this in mind, it helps keep things in perspective.  The Teacher is going to elaborate on this fact more in the next section of our text and we will look at that next week, but for now, consider how this one observation can affect your life.

I have heard it said

There will be two dates on your tombstone and everyone will read them, but all that really matters is that little dash between them.

That dash represents your life, the time under the sun between your birthday and your deathbed.  What are we doing with our dashes?  As we move forward in the text, we are taking a couple of steps back from the painting in order to see the happy trees.  As we do, we are going to find that even though there will be a tombstone and there will be a date after the dash whether we are wise or foolish, and we probably will not be long remembered by many, the dash does matter.  What we do with the dash matters in our short time during this meaningless life under the sun.

While we won’t see the whole forest until we get to the last two verses, we are going to see some happy trees along the way.  Thus far, in the text, we have seen one happy tree.  We do know from the text and in light of the greater context that wisdom is better than folly.  Though the same fate that overtakes the fool will come upon the wise, though both paths end in the grave, it would behoove us to adorn our dash with wisdom.

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.  Whatever else we add to your dashes, let us add understanding, for it will be a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.