The Search is Over: “The Watermarks of Wisdom” – Ecclesiastes 8

We have all met them, and some of us live with them. Each of us has in our life someone who seemingly knows a great deal about health food, but even a cursory look at them shows they are unhealthy in their lifestyle. We may have a friend who can explain in detail the benefits of regular exercise, but they are grossly overweight and extremely undeveloped in the muscle department. Perhaps we have in our life someone who has incredible insight into raising children, but their own children seem like hellions. Another friend may offer tremendous advice on how to play a cello, but they cannot seem to hold the bow. There are people who know theory, and then there are people who have learned how to practice that theory consistently.

I mention this because in Biblical terms, there are people who know the theory of a godly lifestyle, but do not live consistently according to Biblical principles.

They get the idea of a walk with God, but they don’t consistently practice one – at least not according to the way God has expressed in His Word He wants them to practice it. They are not hard to find; they are all over the place in the Christian world. They can quote Scripture, but don’t seem to connect their bad habits and ungodly practices with violations of the very truths they memorize. Though we all have areas of life that are not consistently surrendered to God, that isn’t what I am talking about. For most of us, areas in which we struggle to surrender control are points of conviction. That is not true for these unwise friends. They appear satisfied that godliness is mere memorization, theological prowess and theory – whether or not it seems to be showing in their life choices. Solomon would call the unwise, and openly challenged that lifestyle as he explained the workings of godly wisdom in Ecclesiastes 8.

When we studied chapter 7 we noted that Solomon made clear two things were required to have wisdom: we must grab God’s Word and “take a knee” (or bow to worship Him). That was a great beginning point, but Solomon continued his message concerning a wise life. He made an important point that should separate the practical sheep from the theoretical goats.

Key Principle: Wisdom connects God’s direction to the normal choices of life.

Remember that Solomon was the third king of the United Kingdom of the confederate tribes made from the sons of Jacob. God presented him at the beginning of his reign the gift of a profound ability to connect truth to practice in life – what the Bible simply calls “wisdom.” Because God’s gift filled his life during the early days of his administration, it also filled his thinking and speech. Few Biblical writers spent as much time on the subject, because few had as much wisdom in their life as he did.

Though he later drifted far from it, Solomon began as a wise man, and became an avid student of wisdom.

He understood what wisdom is and how its practice helps enrich the lives of people. He knew why wisdom was and is essential. Since the whole of our discussion will be about the use of truth in life – let’s say it the way Solomon would as we study the Word of God written through his quill:

Wisdom is connecting truth to life. It is grasping the principles designed by our Creator and demonstrating their value in the practice of our daily life.

Pick up your Bible and look at how Solomon opened the discussion on seeing wisdom in practice. He posed the idea in a question:

Ecclesiastes 8:1a Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter?

He wasn’t asking an open-ended query; he was making a point. We all need wise people in life when trouble comes. How do we know when we found one? Solomon’s point was that when you see a wise man or woman, you will know that is what they are. Wisdom isn’t a mist, it is discernible. It is both practical and practiced. Let’s face it, when you need to reach out to someone you feel you can trust, how will you be able to discern if they are wise? Solomon used the question to hook us, but went on in his speech to answer the question. Read the rest of the verse:

Ecclesiastes 8:1b …A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.

The king first counseled that you take a discerning gaze at the face of your “would be” counselor in the tumultuous moment. He made the point that wisdom changes the countenance of the wise. It offers deep satisfaction to its possessor and a certain confidence you need for troubled times and hard advice in the difficult moments. When we don’t know what to do, panic often shows on our face. When we have the confidence of practiced truth that has bridged this gulf before, we show peace on our face in spite of the storm all around us.

That is one way to identify the wise, but it is not the only way to discern one in whom wisdom is operating well. In addition to the countenance, Solomon took the time to make clear in the rest of his message that because wisdom is the practice of truth, it can be clearly demonstrated in behavior consistent with God’s revealed facts about life.

Since wisdom is living according to God’s design, it is best revealed in (at least) six important “marking” behaviors.

Solomon asserted that wisdom can be seen. If we are following God’s direction, people will be able to tell by watching our behavior. What should they look for?

First, wisdom directs proper respect of authority

Entitled and disrespectful people have not connected God’s Word to their life properly. The very first behavior that revealed a wise person mentioned by Solomon was in relation to how they act under authority – perhaps because it is one of the first lessons we learn in life from our parents at home. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:2 I say, “Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases.” 4 Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.

When the king discussed respect, he did it in terms of royal authority – though it applies to all authority. Solomon’s view in this equation was admittedly from the top (as he was the king of his land), but he is careful to explain both the defining characteristics of respect and the ways in which respect for authority shows wisdom.

When our society was more rooted in Biblical ideals, people were taught to respect an office because of the office. Today, people openly reveal that no one is entitled to their respect if the office holder does not “earn” it. In fact, you will hear people espouse the idea that “I respect myself too much to offer allegiance to someone simply because they hold an office or position. They have to convince me of the value of respecting them.”

That may sound reasonable to you, but it isn’t Biblical. It isn’t moral. It isn’t wise. In the end, a society that requires every individual to earn your respect will give you unending opportunities to disregard authority while they are busy trying to convince you of the value of doing what you are told. Teachers in such a society become beholden to complaining students and absent parents. Police officers get arguments instead of compliance. Bosses get under performing and over-expecting workers.

No one is arguing that public servants and people in charge don’t need to behave well. That is a separate issue. The issue is this: the mark of wisdom is clear when we show respect for those in authority over us. Look at the verses again more slowly:

Solomon began with the notion that wisdom directs respect as an acknowledgement of God’s control and placement of those who are over us (8:2). Did you notice how linked human authority was with that of Divine authority? Ultimately, lack of respect for human authority structures is rooted in an expression of rebellion against the God Who appointed the authority over you. For this reason, it is difficult for anyone to really understand the coherent logic of respect without a firm belief in God. When the Scripture argues the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, this is a significant part of what such an ideal entails. Consider this:

The book Family and Civilization was the obvious magnum opus of Carle C. Zimmerman, a distinguished sociologist who taught for many years at Harvard University. Zimmerman demonstrated the connections between the rise and fall of the nuclear family and the rise and fall of their respective civilizations, with particular attention to ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and modern Europe, and then finally the United States. He traced the family structure from tribes and clans to modern nuclear families and then to the broken families of the twentieth century. (The book was published in 1947). He showed the consequences of each family structure for the bearing and rearing of children; for religion, law, and everyday life; and for the fate of civilization itself.

That may not sound interesting, but the compelling analysis predicted many of today’s cultural and social controversies and trends, including youth violence and depression, abortion and homosexuality, the demographic collapse of Europe and of the West more generally, and the displacement of peoples. One magazine lifted a quote from the book as follows:

“…Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied: Marriage loses its sacredness…is frequently broken by divorce; traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost; feminist movements abound; there is increased public disrespect for parents and authority in general; an acceleration of juvenile delinquency, promiscuity and rebellion occurs; there is refusal of people with traditional marriages to accept family responsibilities; a growing desire for, and acceptance of, adultery is evident; there is increasing interest in, and spread of, sexual perversions and sex-related crimes.” – Confident Living (author unknown), November 1987, p. 34

Don’t get lost in the verbiage; his point is clear. Zimmerman showed the lessons of the family are what bring respect or rebellion to the public square. The cohesiveness of the training at home has everything to do with the crime rate, the social conscience and the public sense of respect for one another.

Solomon went on to note that respectful observers of authority stand by the one appointed by God and are not willing to abandon or betray them easily (8:3). Loyalty is a treasured commodity by those who learn respect. People who learn to show rightful respect to those in charge will reap the benefits of that knowledge.

Jerry Jenkins wrote a book that I read and used many times about twenty years ago, called Twelve Things I Want My Children to Remember Forever. The book was reprinted many times, and captures some basic lessons the author felt were essential as his children grew up. One chapter was entitled: “Some people have the right to be wrong.” In that part of the book, Jenkins made clear those in authority do not have the right to hurt you, nor to press you to do something that is illegal, immoral or ungodly – but they DO possess the right to tell you how to do the work they have hired you to do – because they are the boss. The coach has the right to call the play – even if you think you know better. The employer has the right to demand that you arrange the tasks he or she gives you according to their priorities, even if they don’t make sense to you. Respect demands that we not need to be fully consulted to be wholly compliant to those in authority.

Wisdom connects the value of respect for authority to the practice of daily living. Godly people take every opportunity to show respect… but that isn’t all…

Wisdom also informs timing, and as have been said, “Timing is everything.”

Wisdom separates play time from work time. It teaches balance between work and leisure and informs us what is essential for that moment. Solomon wrote it this way:

Ecclesiastes 8:6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight, though a man’s trouble is heavy upon him. 7 If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?

The king noted that even in the midst of heavy times, there is a moment when relaxation, laughter and release are appropriate. Because we don’t know what is about to happen, we must learn to govern our sternness and our intensity for the long haul. Reckless people play when they should be working. Unwise people take no breaks. Wisdom reminds us we can’t expend all our energy in the first quarter of the game. Timing and careful execution of both our work and our play show we have gained wisdom. But there is more related to this idea…

Wisdom reminds us of our limitations.

Fools fight battles they cannot win. Wise is the person who recognizes the right place to expend their energy. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:8 No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.

This proverb is dense with idea. The beginning of verse eight reminds us that we don’t have unlimited power, and we aren’t in charge of our own finish line. If you keep reading, the verse reminds us there are evils of the world that break into our life and we cannot control their assault, nor rebuff the need to drop everything we are doing and march in resistance to their evil.

Ask those who were drafted and they will tell you they understand this concept well. They didn’t go to war because they knew the people that were disrupting the peace of the world community. They went because we sent them. They didn’t know the enemy, and they didn’t care. They were living life until they were conscripted to fight – and there was nothing they could do to stop the dramatic changes that were about to happen to them. From haircut to wardrobe to training – it was out of their control. They went from freedom to being told when to eat and where to sleep.

Wisdom reminds us there are things in life that we will not have the strength, the intelligence or the latitude to adjust. We will be told, and we will comply. At the height of our personal strength, we are still weak and subject to authorities and forces bigger than ourselves. Solomon would say: “Don’t get too big for your britches!”

One of the noticeable traits of people who are entitled is they believe they offer greater wisdom than their life experience would normally afford. Another one is they feel deeply valuable, even when they have actually produced much in life. It is easy for the unwise to believe they know and can do almost anything – but wisdom teaches us some of our limitations. The candidate can make sweeping changes the elected official may not be able to pull off. Wisdom teaches us this often through powerful life experiences.

Wisdom reminds us of the difference between real faith and public piety.

While we are learning about limitations, we also learn about what is REAL in life. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:10 So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility.

The king observed some who lived poorly but went to worship regularly. He noted the fact that little of them was remembered after their life ended. Wisdom teaches that a good life is about impact on your life to others – not simply your attendance in places where good things are taught.

Solomon would ask: “Do you want to have an impact even after you are gone?” The answer to having one is not how many hours you spent in Bible studies and worship meetings – it is in how much you DO for people. You know the hours you spend learning and preparing. Others only know the hours you spend serving and doing. Wisdom reminds us to get out of the chair and get busy in the lives of people.

I believe the reason many believers struggle to serve is they get lost in the preparation. They know their own inner weakness and don’t trust themselves to be fully ready to serve others. They wrestle, year in and year out, with private sin and personal failures, and use these as an excuse to spend more time in preparation, and little time in serving. Sadly, they don’t realize that it is ONLY in serving that people are changed.

If making an impact is important to you – I urge you to begin to measure your life by how much you are serving others. Wisdom teaches that servants change others while students focus on themselves. We must go past preparation and into service to do what will be remembered.

By mid-chapter Solomon changed tempo in the narrative. The second half is still about wisdom, but it added a dimension. The king wasn’t only concerned with the application of wisdom to individuals as the first half of the chapter demonstrated, but also to public society. The remaining verses concern how wisdom plays out in the public square. After all, he was a king.

Wisdom instructs a community to offer swift judgment to deter crime.

Solomon began with wisdom concerning judgment of those who have been unwise. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.

The point of the text is clear: Timely and reliable jurisprudence are marks of a wise society. An erratic court leaves justice wanting. A long held judgment that isn’t carried out becomes a joke. Solomon wasn’t pressing for a lynch mob to deal with criminals, but he made clear that a system with unending appeals is not a system that will deter people from crime. Years ago, when I was living in the Middle East, one of my European friends made a comment that stuck with me. He said: “The truth is if you were going to murder someone, the best place to do it is in America. You have more ways out of judgment than any justice system I can think of.” I am not sure if he was right, but I know there are many times I feel that way when looking at the cases that roll past me on the news ticker.

In our system, we have several grounds on which one may appeal for a reduced sentence or even acquittal that have nothing to do with whether or not they committed the crime. Out of compassion, we allow for mitigation of punishment based on what we perceive to be the mental state of the criminal, the passionate motivation for the crime, and a host of other conditions. While we have grown more compassionate in our judicial system, we may also be unwittingly creating more criminal incentive by offering so many ways out of taking full responsibility for our public actions. Solomon’s concern was not the swiftness of the proceedings to prove a man or woman guilty – but rather the length of time between a guilt finding and the execution of a sentence. In other words, wisdom says that twenty years on death row encourages more crime.

In the modern legal world, the idea of deterrence is generally not held in high regard. Biblical wisdom directs that when we have passed judgment on a criminal, their sentence should be swiftly executed in order to signal to others the seriousness of the crime and the certainty of the judgment.

Move for a moment from the county court room to your own living room. Most of us learned how serious Mom was about what she commanded by watching our siblings. She would tell our brother to take out the trash, and he would say, “In a minute, mom!” We would hear her voice change and her command become more shrill. “Get this trash out.” We would watch to see how far our dear brother could push the situation before they obeyed. If Mom walked in and said, “Take the trash out in the next minute or you are grounded for one week” you would recognize the swift result for ignoring obedience. How would that change the way you responded to mom next time she spoke?

Despite what some will tell you, deterrence and example should be part of the formula for a just society. Wisdom makes clear that while the guilty are being handled, the “not yet criminal” eyes are watching intently.

Wisdom reminds us of real justice and what truly works in the end.

Solomon offered another word on justice that is worth recalling as well:

Ecclesiastes 8:12 Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. 13 But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. 14 There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility.

Solomon knew some would do wrong and seem to get away with it. Some would even profit from their misdeeds in the short run. Even for those who appeared to gain longer life and richer bank accounts, they weren’t really getting ahead. Their life was a mirage of richness – because they were facing God’s wrath in the end.

Solomon made an astute observation about our life on earth: If you try to judge fairness in life while you journey here – you will be left depressed. It is true! Sometimes the bad guy defeats the good guy here. Sometimes the good guy goes through great difficulty and dies at the hands of his enemy while the crime boss lives in luxury and dies in his bed peacefully. Here is the catch: the whole story doesn’t happen here. Death is just the beginning of another unending experience. What is unfair on earth will be made right after life here.

Remember the theme of the book? Life under the sun doesn’t make sense because the answers aren’t found in the material world. The cosmos doesn’t hold the meaning of it all, God does.

It doesn’t matter how many plays end badly, how many movies proclaim falsehood and how many songs try to convince you otherwise – evil will not win. Hate, murder, lies and injustice will be made right before the face of the Perfect One. If I didn’t know that, I would lean toward agreement with the radical skeptics and Nihilists – none of this appears to make much sense. Thank God for His Word! We have not been left here without a way to put a sense of burning injustice to rest.

Wisdom offered conclusions on priorities.

Solomon drew two important conclusions about the world by looking through the prism of God-given wisdom. They are worth sharing, and God let us have them in His Word.

First, he noted that enjoying life as a walk with God in every step of life made time here a blessing.

He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:15 So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

Life is not a curse, though we live in a fallen world. Over and over again, Solomon made clear that God provided life under the sun. God assigned our task of work. God offers moments of fulfillment – a full belly, an unstoppable “tears running down your face” time of laughter, an inner sense of deep satisfaction in a job well done. Each of these moments is to be treasured, and must never be taken for granted.

Dear ones, we have each other for a very short time. All our life here is the mere vapor of only a few moments. We have the joys of a beautiful sunrise and the stunning vista full of colors of sunset for a few more days to enjoy. If we choose, we can waste our life raging at what we don’t like about living in an incomplete and fallen world, but that is like spitting into the wind: We won’t change the world very much and we will get ourselves all wet and more miserable in the process.

Look very closely to the words of Solomon. He “commended” pleasure. The word is “shabach” which is literally “to praise.” In short, Solomon congratulated pleasure. He said, “You are good, and I am glad I have you in my life!” I am sad to say that many believers find that hard to believe. They seem to feel the godliness is glum at its core. I want to say this in such a way that it cannot be misunderstood. God gave you the pleasures of life. The fact that there are hedonists in this world is no excuse for you to see all pleasure as secret sin. God INTENDED you to enjoy your life – IF you would keep Him at the center of your joy, fulfillment and happiness. A God-centered life is the only kind God counts as a fulfilled life.

Let’s say it this way: God wants you to have a party, but only if He is invited!

He doesn’t want the party to become more important than our walk with Him. He must become our chief joy, or we have settled for something less than we could have. He gave us much to celebrate along the journey, but wants it to be the best it can be for us – and He IS the best for us.

Solomon offered a second observation. He wrote, “Don’t think you will ever make sense of all of life – you won’t.”

Ecclesiastes 8:16 When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night – lit. “see no sleep in his eyes”), 17 and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, “I know,” he cannot discover.

There is no command of God for you to figure everything out in life. You are to know Him and listen to His Word. In fact, godly wisdom only comes to one who is open to receive God’s Word. Musical notes fall to the floor without meaning if the audience is deaf. So it is with the wisdom from God.

It is also important to remember that a journey with wisdom truly is the road less traveled. Kent Lenard wrote a few years ago:

In a recent NCAA cross-country championship held in Riverside, California, 123 of the 128 runners missed a turn. One competitor, Mike Delcavo, stayed on the 10,000 meter course and began waving for fellow runners to follow him. Delcavo was able to convince only four other runners to go with him. Asked what his competitors thought of his mid-race decision not to follow the crowd, Delcavo responded, “They thought it was funny that I went the right way.” Delcavo was one who ran correctly.

Wisdom is practicing God’s truths in life. It is what you earn after decades of listening to God’s Word when you wanted to talk and give Him your insight and counsel. If you would have it, you must travel a different path. You can’t afford to simply memorize and get theoretical. Wisdom makes you act. It gives you strength to stand when no one else will.

Wisdom can be observed. It isn’t a mysterious ethereal concept locked in theoretical sophistry. It is practical. It is daily. It connects God’s direction to the normal choices of life.

Who was United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a “Mr. Nobody.” No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience. Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand. Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross’. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president “deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.” The word immediately went out that his vote was “shaky.” Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to “come to his senses.” The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four “guilties” had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’ vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?” Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Then, the answer came — unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted. A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.” The “open grave” vision had become a reality. Ross’ political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home. One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow…though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.” It was a prophetic declaration. Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment. Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved our country from crisis and division. Jon Johnston, Courage – You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear, 1990, SP Publications, pp. 56-58)