A New Year begins… We all want to start off the year well, don’t we? Some of us have been reminded to make use of January 1 to hit the “reset” button and try to change some things about ourselves. Perhaps a diet change is necessary. Maybe we will start to head to the gym a few times each week. Some people will make resolutions to change some aspect of their life beginning today. The website Statistics Brain offered some idea of the numbers of people who make and attempt to follow through on resolutions, based on 2015 numbers:
• Percent of Americans who usually make New Year’s Resolutions 45 %
• Percent of Americans who infrequently make New Year’s Resolutions 17 %
• Percent of Americans who absolutely never make New Year’s Resolutions 38 %
• Percent of people who are successful in achieving their resolution 8 %
• Percent who have infrequent success 49 %
• Percent who never succeed and fail on their resolution each year 24 %
Their final analysis was this: People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.
When we read that only 8% of the people who make such self-promising resolutions will attain that goal, we are tempted to discount the whole process. Yet, there is more behind the numbers. We mustn’t laugh at people longing for self-change – goal stating like this can help us identify areas in which we are secretly disappointed in our everyday choices. January 1 seems to afford us a moment to look introspectively at our life, recount the last twelve months and try to start anew. The truth is, in order to truly make a change in our behavior we must first see the value in a new behavior and then follow through on the change. If we don’t see real value in the change, we won’t take action and be consistent in making things happen. If we don’t work to follow through, change will be a short-lived idea.
Consider this: Jesus followers gather together regularly to consider a selection from the Bible for that same purpose – to examine our daily walk through life and evaluate the need to make changes. In addition to giving us the way to “find God,” the Bible offers teachings of wisdom that help us see the value of connecting specific life choices to the outcomes of life. Each passage of God’s Word either offers us a reason to walk as God instructs, or a method to do so. In the Biblical text, wisdom is not an abstract idea; it is the ability to take the principles of the Creator and apply them to the normal situations of life. Biblically speaking, therefore, it is impossible to really be “wise” in that sense without knowing God and recognizing His authority as well as understanding the specifics of His instructions. Let’s say it the way King Solomon did in Ecclesiastes 7…
Key Principle: You cannot learn wisdom without both grasping God’s Word and intentionally submitting to God’s rightful place in your life.
The short way to say this is: “Grab a Bible and take a knee.” We have to grasp the teachings of the Word and then bow before the Author.
The problem with some people is they will not take the time to listen to the Word. For those who DO avail themselves of its teaching, they face a second problem: human pride. We are simply tempted to resist doing what God instructs – either because we don’t see the value or we don’t revere Him sufficiently to make change. Some time ago, Bible teacher and Christian philosopher Dr. Ravi Zacharias reminded his readers that many simply don’t think they truly need God’s instructions in life. They choose to live as though they can “pull off life” designed by the Creator without a word from Him. They think themselves intelligent, effective and complete without His instruction. He used this little story to help us understand them. He wrote:
There is a story told about one-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Ali was flying to one of his engagements and during the flight the aircraft ran into foul weather. Moderate turbulence began to toss the plane about. Of course, all nervous fliers well know that when a pilot signals “moderate turbulence,” he is implying, “If you have any religious beliefs, it is time to start expressing them.” The passengers were instructed to fasten their seatbelts immediately, and all complied but Ali. So the flight attendant approached him and requested that he observe the captain’s order, only to hear Ali audaciously respond, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The flight attendant, however, did not miss a beat but quickly fired in reply, “Superman don’t need no airplane either!”
The truth is that some think academic or material advancements confer wisdom without God. According to God’s definition, that is not so. It is because of such arrogance that many of us seem willing to easily cast aside Biblical standards and prohibitions without considering how unwise that is. Zacharias noted: “G.K. Chesterton aptly advised that before pulling any fences down, we should always pause long enough to find out why it was put there in the first place.”
The Bible’s recipe for wisdom begins with reverence of the Lord (Ps. 111:10). It celebrates every word that connects the Creator’s grand purposes to our daily choices. Think of how this ideal is framed in Proverbs 3:
Proverbs 3:13 How blessed is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding. 14 For her profit is better than the profit of silver, and her gain better than fine gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels; and nothing you desire compares 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, and happy are all who hold her fast. 19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. 20 By His knowledge the deeps were broken up and the skies drip with dew.
If you look closely, you will note the writer included:
• The marvelous result of wisdom – it brings happiness.
• The incredible value of wisdom – it is more precious than jewels.
• The lasting promise of wisdom – it offers long life, riches, honor and peace.
• The remarkable heritage of wisdom – the world was founded on it.
• The wonderful Author of wisdom – truly God created all things based on foundational principles He has willingly revealed!
God’s instruction in practice is wisdom, and it reveals the essential underlying principle of “how things were designed to work.”
Solomon knew the value of living truth in practical ways. He also wisely understood what it took to make changes that matter in life. As we turn back to consider carefully Ecclesiastes 7, we find a record of his commitment to making wisdom known, and citing its value. The passage contains two kinds of statements:
• Proverbs about the value of wisdom – to help us see the value of making changes to live in line with the Creator’s purposes.
• Practical instructions, both negative and positive, on how to live wisely.
Because proverbial writing often sounds like a group of people reading individual fortune cookies around a table in the local Chinese restaurant, we need to re-shuffle the order of the verses and group them by theme to build Solomon’s case. This is a common technique when studying this type of Biblical literature.
Note that Solomon first reminds us of the value of wisdom throughout the passage. He shared in this portion reminders that wisdom offers three critical advantages in life:
It offers protection – It is valuable to preserve life right now – not just helps us at some future time!
Ecclesiastes 7:11 Wisdom along with an inheritance is good And an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.
Solomon notes that saving up and leaving something to your children is a good thing, but not nearly as helpful as leaving them with the tools to practice wise living. Because assets can make future things possible, they are valuable. Because people can make things happen, they must know how to act prudently with those assets. Consider this:
• Money can assist you in living a healthy life, but doing so will require deliberate healthy choices.
• Wealth may help you build a layer of protection against unwanted intrusion, but you will still need to be shrewd in your life choices with friends.
• All the security money can buy won’t help someone under guard who unwisely “ducks” their security detail to go off for some fun unprotected.
For reasons such as these, teaching our children to connect what God says about life to their daily choices isn’t designed to hinder them – but to help them. Lessons in wisdom aren’t designed to keep them from having fun; but to provide the means for a long and satisfied life without the guilt they would otherwise face for making poor choices.
Wisdom connects us to the manual of the Maker – and we function more safely when performing according to and within our design limitations.
In addition to protection, wisdom offers direction reminding us who we are and who we are NOT. Solomon wrote:
Ecclesiastes 7:19 Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.
There is power – political, military and popular – and then there is one who knows how to live as God intended. Of the two, the latter is greater in real power. It is important to remember that wisdom offers a path when simple displays of power may not. Real strength comes from knowing the specifics of what God says will work.
At the same time, almost in the same breath, Solomon noted in verse twenty a humbling truth: “No one does right all the time!” Though we must not use this as an excuse for our lax behaviors, we have to admit that we will never get everything right – and that should humble us. We will constantly war inside ourselves. We will always fight the flesh within, the influence of the world without, and the powers of darkness around us. Even though God has given us the wisdom to gain victory, it is likely few, if any of us, will master the complete empowering of God to stand consistently on the Lord’s side. We just have to be honest – and in doing so we will remain rightly humbled. That will help to season our speech with grace.
Wisdom offers valuable direction, but doesn’t guarantee success in flawed beings like us.
Beyond protection and direction, wisdom offers warning of dangerous people and situations!
Ecclesiastes 7:23 I tested all this with wisdom, and I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it? 25 I directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness. 26 And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her. 27 “Behold, I have discovered this,” says the Preacher, “adding one thing to another to find an explanation, 28 which I am still seeking but have not found. I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all these. 29 Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”
Solomon acknowledged that learning truth isn’t easy. He worked at separating truth from ridiculous theory. During his search, he found himself particularly tempted to trip in the area of self-control in relation to his sensuality. In his life, he recognized his libido often overcame his common sense. This was a forecast of the downfall of his life that would one day become obvious. He knew he was weak in this area. Time proved that to be true. He discovered along the path of life a handful of men who were able to see past his wealth and power and walk in integrity before him. In all that time, none of the women he met did so.
The text doesn’t attempt to paint all women in a bad light, though it is understandable how one could conclude that. The insights of Solomon regarding women are set in a specific context. First, he admits that he is tempted to see them in a wrong way – looking through the filter of physical beauty and sensuality. Second, he faced the fact that as King, women approached him with their own agenda and some knowledge of his weakness. Many men were equally crafty, but lacked the attraction to which Solomon was susceptible. Because of the pressure many believers feel to conform to the world’s views today, even some Bible teachers will hedge on the truth found here – but we must not. Solomon offered an important insight: Women who met him seemed intuitive about his weakness for them – and many attempted to play into that weakness. If you follow his story to the end, you will find that Solomon had little chance to meet a woman who reflected integrity – not because they didn’t exist – but because they couldn’t get access to him.
In the end, wisdom is designed to trumpet dangers ahead. If Solomon had listened to his own words and understood how perilous God said our hungers can be to our success in life – his story may have ended very differently.
He possessed wisdom until he allowed want to drive it out. He allowed passion to dull the stabbing pains of warning. How many believers walk this same tragic path!
The passage highlighted the fact that wisdom offers clear benefits. The remainder of the passage addressed how to walk in wisdom.
Let’s spend a few minutes in the rest of Ecclesiastes 7. You may note that some of the instruction was expressed in negative terms. Look closely at the recurrence of the words “do not” in verses nine, ten, sixteen, seventeen and twenty-one. Others are given in affirmation, positive truths in places like verse thirteen and fourteen where the writer calls us to “consider” something. In all, Solomon offered seven instructions on living wisely. He told us to:
Live deliberately: Do not allow emotions to control your life choices.
Ecclesiastes 7:9 Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, For anger resides in the bosom of fools.
If you let your anger and other negative emotions drive your life, you will disconnect from God’s way to live. The two characteristics that most show a Christian life are giving and forgiving – and angry people don’t do much of either.
Whether you believe it or not, control of your heart is most often by consent of your will.
Despite what you may have heard, you don’t “fall in love” – you want something and choose a way to get it…
Along the same line, when you blow up, you LET anger control you. Can I prove it? Have you ever been in a very angry discussion with someone and the phone rang. You went from stern, perhaps even loud and hostile, to a disarming “Hello!” in one moment! The outburst of anger was quelled in a second, when you decided it was appropriate to speak kindly!
Guy Glass wrote a classic story about anger. The story is told of a young boy was driving a big hayrack down the road and it turned over right in front of a farmer’s house. The farmer came out and saw the young boy crying and said, “Son, don’t worry about this, we can fix it. Right now lunch is ready. Why don’t you come in and eat with us and then I’ll help you put the hay back on the rack.” The boy said, “No, I can’t. My father is going to be very angry with me.” The farmer said, “Now don’t argue, just come in and have some lunch and you’ll feel better.” The boy said, “I’m just afraid my father is going to be very angry with me.” The farmer and the young boy went inside and had dinner. Afterwards, as they walked outside to the hayrack, the farmer said, “Well, don’t you feel better now?” The boy said, “Yes, but I just know that my father will be very angry with me.” The farmer said, “Nonsense. Where is your father anyway?” The boy said, “He’s under that pile of hay.”
Well, maybe that story is more about bad judgment, but who could resist telling it? The serious point beneath the words of Solomon: “anger resides in the bosom of fools” should not be quickly passed by. In the Bible, though not exclusive, the common use of the word “fool” is used in association with a person who does not know God, or has concluded that God does not exist. In places like Psalm 14:1
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.
Just as wisdom is “the connection to God and the principles by which He had built our world” – so a fool is person who attempts to live a fulfilling life in a willful state of disconnection from God. Sadly, many in the world are what the Bible referred to as “fools.” Add that idea to what Solomon shared in Ecclesiastes 7:9. He may well have been saying that those who choose to live a disconnected life from God can become a natural harbor for anger. The astounding thing is that Solomon offered this observation long before social media! If one looks only at the comments section of any religious forum, this appears to be a serious problem. Anger and disconnection appear to be related in the same way that psychologists identify angry youths from poorly “bonded” children.
Here then is wisdom: Walk closely to God and be open to forgiveness of others. The two will work together, and they will help you live in peace.
Live presently: Living in the past is terribly unwise and grossly unhealthy.
Ecclesiastes 7:10 Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.
We should appreciate our past, but not worship it or try to dwell too long in it. Yesterday is gone. The sights and smells, the people and the places – they are all the stuff of memory. They can be precious, and they can draw us to tears. At the same time, we should be warned… Our memories can play tricks on us. We don’t necessarily recall the past the way it truly was. We can be tempted to recall the good and not the bad or vice versa.
We should celebrate the past and be grateful for God’s faithfulness that brought us through it. I recently heard a story that I thought celebrated well.
I sat with an old woman of many years, as she stared downward at her wrinkled and misshapen hands. She asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at your hands, I mean really looked at your hands?’ I looked down. I slowly opened both hands and studied them. I turned them over, palms up and then palms down. Honestly, I had never really looked at my hands closely, and I listened intently to her words:
“Stop and reflect for a moment about your hands and how they have served you throughout your years. My hands are now wrinkled, shriveled and weak – but they have been the chief tools I have used all my life to reach out, grab and embrace life. They caught my fall as a toddler, when I crashed to the floor, unsteady on my feet. They put daily food in my mouth and pulled the clothes upon my back. My mother folded them the first time and taught me to pray. They tied my shoes and pulled on my boots. They held my husband’s rough hands tightly but wiped my tears gently when he went off to war. They have been dirty one day and bleached with cleaners the next. They have been softened by creams at times and scraped and raw on others. They have been covered with warm gloves, as well as swollen and bent. They were adorned with a wedding band and held my precious newborn son. These hands wrote countless letters to my wonderful husband and trembled and shook endlessly when I buried my parents and then later my spouse. They have held my grandchildren, consoled my neighbors, covered my face, combed my hair, and washed and cleansed the rest of my body. These hands are the mark of where I’ve been in the journey of the ruggedness of life. But more importantly, it will be these hands that God will snatch up and lift me to His side someday soon.”
There is a woman who knows how to celebrate her life without trying to stay in the past of it.
Wisdom says: “Live now. Yesterday is a memory. Make new ones today for tomorrow!”
Live sensibly: Keep a balance between the serious and the silly.
You may be surprised to hear that Solomon has a sense of humor. Some of you may be surprised to hear that ANY preacher has a sense of humor! Solomon wrote:
Ecclesiastes 7:15 I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness. 16 Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? 17 Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
On first glance, this doesn’t sound Biblical – even if it is in the Bible! If the words took you by surprise, look more closely at them. Solomon said:
Some people take every moment too seriously. They press endlessly as if every decision will bring some catastrophic result. They don’t seem to connect the fact that some things seem to “just happen.” Good people do the right thing and it doesn’t always work out. He pleaded: “Don’t make every step like it is monumental. Which breakfast cereal you choose probably has no eternal consequence.” On the other hand, he made clear that we shouldn’t frolic through life taking nothing seriously – because idiocy often results in physical harm. See YouTube where you can watch people do incredibly dumb things that land them in the emergency room.
Here is wisdom: Be careful, but fastidious. Be healthy, but not a hypochondriac. Be fun, but not careless. Balance your life between the fun and the serious – and learn to time the two appropriately! Remember: a bow always bent is easy to break.
Live graciously: Don’t take everything people say to heart.
Along with learning when to take something seriously, Solomon added a note about the words of others…
Ecclesiastes 7:21 Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. 22 For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.
Learning to be gracious to others when they hurt you is a watermark of maturity in your faith walk. Those who need justice forget there is a God Who cares for that. We aren’t here to right every wrong – though you cannot tell by the way we so freely express what is “wrong” with our neighbor. Teach those God has given you to teach and offer to the rest a public grace.
Along the same line, remember that people don’t always mean what they say. Sometimes they say something badly. Sometimes they are hurt, lash out and later regret what they said. Often they express a feeling that holds a stronger reaction than they actually feel once the moment has passed. Solomon reminds: “You have done that, and so have they. Don’t make too much of it. You will end up bearing wounds that a gracious thick skin will keep from you.
So often it seems the man who offers an insult writes it in sand, but the man who receives it, sees it chiseled in bronze. Gracious hearing is also a standard of maturity, and cultivating thicker skin will make you doubly a promoter of peace.
Live soberly: Recognize that you can’t fix everything and everyone.
Solomon offered a simple word to the fixers among us:
Ecclesiastes 7:13 Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent?
What a good word! There are things we are to work at and try to fix in ourselves. There are also things we cannot fix.
We cannot fix all that is broken in life. We should always be compassionate, but we cannot take responsibility for all the troubles of another. If we have no limit to our help, the recipient will learn to do nothing for themselves.
We can’t fix other people, either.
We can’t change someone who doesn’t see any issue in their own behavior. We also need to be very careful to recognize that HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE. Over the years I have noticed that some broken people who continually refuse to seek necessary help turn to break those around them. Compassion can leave a soft vulnerability that allows us to be deeply wounded. Ask anyone with an addict in their life.
It is also worth noting that sometimes the most broken people busy themselves fixing everyone else, because they see no way to fix themselves. They spot the splinter in another looking past the log in their own eye. They demand from the people in their life what they cannot summon from within themselves. They remain broken no matter how much you give them, how many hours you hold them, and how many rescues you offer them. We must love them – but that doesn’t always translate into doing what they want done. In Solomon’s words: “We have to leave room for God to work in people and situations.”
Live thankfully: There will be good and bad days, but every day is still a gift.
Ecclesiastes 7:14 In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.
Here is a great word from a wise man and the Spirit of our Creator: Don’t lose your head in the day of prosperity anticipating that every day will be like that one. You won’t win every day. Not every day is harvest day. The long hours of plowing may well pay off – but don’t live like every day is payday. At the same time, remember that hard times help you appreciate easy ones. It isn’t God’s plan for you to know that everything will always work out. That may be offensive to you, but that is the truth.
There is one last piece of wisdom Solomon offered…
Live expansively: Live and learn! Grow your life and expand your horizons – don’t be stuck in a rut.
He wrote it this way:
Ecclesiastes 7:18 It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.
Learn to grow. Build what you are learning now on what God has taken you through in the past. See all of life as God’s opportunity to show you new things.
Instead of throwing up your hands in troubled times and shouting “Why, God?” we should say something else. How about “What am I supposed to be learning, God?” We should seek to see HIM in the clouds of trouble. He is faithful, and if we pass into the cloud, it is only that we will learn to trust what we cannot see in Him.
In front of you is a new year. You can grow, or you can ruminate on the things you have already been and experienced. Wisdom says: “Hold on to what God taught you and GROW!”
You cannot learn wisdom without grasping God’s Word and intentionally submitting to God’s rightful place in your life. Grab a Bible and take a knee.
Let me close with a simple word about the days ahead. “Five frogs were sitting on a log. Two decided to jump off the log. How many were left? Actually there were five left. Just because two decided to do something doesn’t mean that actually did it. Your plans aren’t what will change the coming year; your action is.
In the 1920s an African-American youth growing up in Cleveland met the world famous runner Charlie Paddock, who came to his school to speak words of inspiration to the student body. Paddock was considered “the fastest human being alive” in his day. He encouraged the children to dream big! That young boy decided he too wanted to an accomplished runner. He took his dream to the track coach of his school. His coach told him, “It’s great to have a dream, but to attain your dream you must build a ladder to it. Here is the ladder to your dreams. The first wrung is determination! And the second wrung is dedication! The third wrung is discipline! And the fourth wrung is attitude!” The result of all that motivation is that he went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He won the 100 meter dash and broke the Olympic and world records for the 200 meter. His broad jump record lasted for twenty-four years. His name was Jesse Owens. He had more than a dream. He put things in order in his life to make the dream become reality.