When the old Reformed theologians dealt with the attributes of God, they used to classify them in two groups: incommunicable and communicable.
In the first group, they put those qualities which highlight God’s transcendence and show how vastly different a being he is from us, his creatures. The usual list was-God’s independence (selfexistence and self-sufficiency); his immutability (entire freedom from change, leading to entire consistency in action); his infinity (freedom from all limits of time and space: that is, his eternity and omnipresence), and his simplicity (the fact that there are in him no elements that can conflict, so that, unlike us, he cannot be torn in different directions by divergent thoughts and desires). The theologians called these qualities incommunicable because they are characteristic of God alone; man, just because he is man and not God, does not and cannot share any of them.
In the second group, the theologians lumped together qualities like God’s spirituality, freedom and omnipotence, along with all his moral attributes-goodness, truth, holiness, righteousness and so on. What was the principle of classification here? It was this-that when God made man, he communicated to him qualities corresponding to all these. This is what the Bible means when it tells us that God made man in his own image (Gen 1:26-27)—namely, that God made man a free spiritual being, a responsible moral agent with powers of choice and action, able to commune with him and respond to him, and by nature good, truthful, holy, upright (Eccles 7:29): in a word, godly.
The moral qualities which belonged to the divine image were lost at the Fall; God’s image in man has been universally defaced, for all of humankind has in one way or another lapsed into ungodliness. But the Bible tells us that now, in fulfillment of his plan of redemption, God is at work in Christian believers to repair his ruined image by communicating these qualities to them afresh. This is what Scripture means when it says that Christians are being renewed in the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and of God (Col 3:10).
Among these communicable attributes, the theologians put wisdom. As God is wise in himself, so he imparts wisdom to his creatures.
The Bible has a great deal to say about the divine gift of wisdom. The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs are a single sustained exhortation to seek this gift. “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. . . Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life” (Prov 4:7, 13). Wisdom is personified and made to speak in her own cause: “Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For 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” (Prov 8:34-36).
As a hostess, wisdom summons the needy to her banquet: “Let all who are simple come in here!” (Prov 9:4). The emphasis throughout is upon God’s readiness to give wisdom (pictured as wisdom’s readiness to give herself) to all who desire the gift and will take the steps necessary to obtain it. Similar emphases appear in the New Testament. Wisdom is required of Christians: “Live—not as unwise but as wise. . . Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph 5:15-17); “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col 4:5). Prayer is made that wisdom may be supplied to them: “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom” (Col 1:9). And James in God’s name makes a promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God,. . . and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5).
Where can we find wisdom? What steps must a person take to lay hold of this gift? There are two prerequisites, according to Scripture.
First, we must learn to reverence God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10; Prov 9:10; compare Job 28:28; Prov 1:7; 15:33). Not till we have become humble and teachable, standing in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty (“the great and awesome God,” Neh 1:5; compare 4:14; 9:32; Deut 7:21; 10:17; Ps 99:3; Jer 20:11), acknowledging our own littleness, distrusting our own thoughts and willing to have our minds turned upside down, can divine wisdom become ours.
It is to be feared that many Christians spend all their lives in too unhumbled and conceited a frame of mind ever to gain wisdom from God at all. Not for nothing does Scripture say, “with the lowly is wisdom” (Prov 11:2 KJV).
Then second, we must learn to receive God’s word. Wisdom is divinely wrought in those, and those only, who apply themselves to God’s revelation. “Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,” declares the psalmist; “I have more insight than all my teachers”— why?—“for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99).
So Paul admonishes the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. . . with all wisdom” (Col 3:16). How are we of the twentieth century to do this? By soaking ourselves in the Scriptures, which, as Paul told Timothy (and he had in mind the Old Testament alone!), “are able to make you wise for salvation” through faith in Christ, and to make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17).
Again, it is to be feared that many today who profess to be Christ’s never learn wisdom, through failure to attend sufficiently to God’s written Word. Cranmer’s Prayer Book lectionary (which all Anglicans are meant to follow) will take one through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament twice, every year. William Gouge, the Puritan, read fifteen chapters regularly each day. The late Archdeacon T. C. Hammond used to read right through the Bible once a quarter. How long is it since you read right through the Bible? Do you spend as much time with the Bible each day as you do even with the newspaper? What fools some of us are!—and we remain fools all our lives, simply because we will not take the trouble to do what has to be done to receive the wisdom which is God’s free gift.
The old Reformed theologians put the attributes of God into two groups:
– Incommunicable Attributes and
– Communicable Attributes.
Group 1: Incommunicable Attributes
This group contained qualities that show God as being in a far superior class by Himself.
These qualities show how very different He is from us—His creatures.
The list of incommunicable attributes would include:
– God’s independence (He can exist by Himself and He can provide for Himself),
– His immutability or unchanging nature (He does not change, and so, He is always consistent in whatever He does),
– His infinity (Time does not limit Him; in other words He is eternal. Space does not limit Him; in other words He is present everywhere), and
– His simplicity (He does not have parts of Himself that can clash with each other. We on the other hand, are often pulled in different directions by different thoughts and desires).
Only God has these qualities, as He has not shared these qualities with us.
So, the theologians called these ‘incommunicable qualities.’
Human beings do not and cannot share any of these qualities, for the simple reason that they are human beings and not God,
Group 2: Communicable Attributes
This group contained qualities that God shared to some extent with human beings.
In this second group, the theologians put together qualities like—
– God’s spirituality,
– His freedom,
– His omnipotence (He is all powerful), and
– His moral attributes (such as goodness, truth, holiness, righteousness and so on).
What was the principle of classification here?
The principle was to include in this group the qualities that God shared to some extent with human beings when He created them in His image.
So, the theologians called these ‘communicable qualities.’
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. . . ” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.(Gen 1:27)
When the Bible tells us that God made man in His own image, it means that God made human beings as—
– free spiritual beings,
– responsible moral persons,
– persons with powers of choice and action,
– persons who are able to have intimate fellowship with God, who are able to respond to Him, and
– persons who are godly by nature (who are good, truthful, holy, and upright).
See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. (Eccl 7:29)
The moral qualities that belonged to the divine image in human beings were lost at the Fall, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God.
God’s image has been spoiled everywhere, because all of humankind has in one way or another become ungodly.
But the Bible tells us that now, according to God’s plan of redemption, God is working in Christian believers to repair His ruined image.
God repairs His image by communicating these qualities to human beings again.
This is what Scripture means when it says that Christians are being renewed in the image of Christ and of God.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. (Col 3:10)
The theologians put wisdom among these communicable attributes.
As God is wise in Himself, so He imparts wisdom to His creatures.
The Bible has a great deal to say about the divine gift of wisdom.
The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs are a single long appeal to search out this gift.
“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. . . Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life” (Prov 4:7, 13)
In the following scripture, wisdom is represented as a person who explains why it is important to look for her.
“Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For 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” (Prov 8:34-36)
And here, wisdom is represented by a hostess, who calls needy people to her banquet.
“Let all who are simple come in here!” (Prov 9:4)
In these verses we see the picture of the woman Wisdom with the readiness to give herself to those who look for her. This shows us that God is ready to give wisdom to all those who want the gift and are willing to take the needed steps to get it.
In the same way, the New Testament also teaches us that Christians need wisdom and that we can pray to God, who will give us wisdom when we ask Him.
“Live—not as unwise but as wise. . . Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph 5:15-17);
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col 4:5).
“asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom” (Col 1:9).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God,. . . and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5).
Where can we find wisdom?
What steps must a person take to get this gift for themselves?
Here are two conditions to get wisdom, according to Scripture:
First, the humble who reverence God and fear Him receive wisdom.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10)
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.(Prov 9:10)
And to man He said,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom . . .”(Job 28:28)
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction.(Prov 1:7)
The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom,
And before honor is humility.(Prov 15:33)
Divine wisdom can become ours only when we—
– Become humble and teachable,
– Stand in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty,
– Acknowledge our own littleness,
– Stop relying on our own thoughts, and
– Are willing to have our minds turned upside down.
And I said: “I pray, Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, (Neh 1:5)
And I looked, and arose and said to the nobles, to the leaders, and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.” (Neh 4:14)
“Now therefore, our God,
The great, the mighty, and awesome God,
Who keeps covenant and mercy:
Do not let all the trouble seem small before You
That has come upon us,
Our kings and our princes,
Our priests and our prophets,
Our fathers and on all Your people,
From the days of the kings of Assyria until this day. (Neh 9:32)
You shall not be terrified of them; for the Lord your God, the great and awesome God, is among you.(Deut 7:21)
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.(Deut 10:17)
Let them praise Your great and awesome name—,He is holy.(Ps 99:3)
But the Lord is with me as a mighty, awesome One. . .(Jer 20:11)
Many Christians spend all their lives, thinking too highly of themselves. They do not have the humble attitude that is needed to receive wisdom from God.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom. (Prov 11:2)
Second, God’s word gives wisdom to those who meditate on it.
We must learn to receive God’s word. God builds wisdom only in those who meditate on God’s revealed scriptures.
“Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
I have more insight than all my teachers”— why?—
“for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99)
So Paul admonishes the Colossians:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. . . with all wisdom” (Col 3:16)
How are we of the twentieth century to do this?
By soaking ourselves in the Scriptures.
This was the same advice that Paul gave Timothy, and that too at at a time when the New Testament was not even put together.
and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:15-17)
Sadly, many today who profess to be Christ’s never learn wisdom, because they do not pay enough attention to God’s written Word.
All Anglicans are meant to follow Cranmer’s Prayer Book lectionary every year. This book covers the Old Testament once every year and the New Testament twice.
William Gouge, the Puritan, read fifteen chapters regularly each day.
The late Archdeacon T. C. Hammond used to read right through the Bible once a quarter.
How long is it since you read right through the Bible?
Do you even spend as much time with the Bible each day as you do with the newspaper?
What fools some of us are!—
Wisdom is offered to us by God as a free gift, but we will not receive it, simply because we will not take the trouble to do what has to be done to receive this wisdom.
So, we remain fools all our lives.
What Wisdom Is Not
But what sort of thing is God’s gift of wisdom? What effect does it have on a person?
Here many go wrong. We can make clear the nature of their mistake by an illustration.
If you stand at the end of a platform at York Station, you can watch a constant succession of engine and train movements which, if you are a railway enthusiast, will greatly fascinate you. But you will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan in terms of which all these movements are being determined (the operational pattern set out in the working timetable, modified if need be on a minute-to-minute basis according to the actual running of the trains).
If, however, you are privileged enough to be taken by one of the higher-ups into the magnificent electrical signal-box that lies athwart platforms 7 and 8, you will see on the longest wall a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station, with little glowworm lights moving or stationary on the different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine and train is. At once you will be able to look at the whole situation through the eyes of those who control it: you will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signalled to a halt, and that one diverted from its normal running line, and that one parked temporarily in a siding. The why and the wherefore of all these movements becomes plain once you can see the overall position.
Now, the mistake that is commonly made is to suppose that this is an illustration of what God does when he bestows wisdom: to suppose, in other words, that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next. People feel that if they were really walking close to God, so that he could impart wisdom to them freely, then they would, so to speak, find themselves in the signal-box; they would discern the real purpose of everything that happened to them, and it would be clear to them every moment how God was making all things work together for good. Such people spend much time poring over the book of providence, wondering why God should have allowed this or that to take place, whether they should take it as a sign to stop doing one thing and start doing another, or what they should deduce from it. If they end up baffled, they put it down to their own lack of spirituality.
Christians suffering from depression, physical, mental or spiritual (note, these are three different things!) may drive themselves almost crazy with this kind of futile inquiry. For it is futile: make no mistake about that. It is true that when God has given us guidance by application of principles he will on occasion confirm it to us by unusual providences, which we will recognize at once as corroborative signs. But this is quite a different thing from trying to read a message about God’s secret purposes out of every unusual thing that happens to us. So far from the gift of wisdom consisting in the power to do this, the gift actually presupposes our conscious inability to do it, as we shall see in a moment.
But what is God’s gift of wisdom like?
What effect does it have on people?
If people had this wisdom, would they understand more about why God does things the way He does?
This is where people get it wrong. Hopefully, the following illustration will make it easier to explain what it is that people get wrong.
If you stand at the end of a platform at York Station, you can watch many engines and trains pass by one after the other. If you are a railway enthusiast, you will be fascinated by it all. But you will only be able to form a vague and general idea of the overall railway plans and processes involved. You will get a very basic idea that trains run according to train timetables. You might also realise that train do not always run exactly according to schedules and that working train timetable are modified, as needed, on a minute-to-minute basis according to the actual running of the trains.
But let’s say a railway officer takes you into the impressive electrical signal-box that lies across platforms 7 and 8, you will see a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station.
On this diagram, you will see innumerable trains represented by little glowworm lights moving or stationary on the different tracks.
The purpose of this diagram is to show signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine and train is.
If you studied this diagram, you would quickly get a good idea of the whole situation through the eyes of those who control it.
You will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signaled to a halt, and why that one diverted from its normal running line, and the other one parked temporarily on a siding track.
The reasons for all these train and engine movements becomes plain once you can see the overall position.
The gift of wisdom should not be compared to looking at the York signal box layout on the wall.
People think that when we are really walking close to God, He freely gives us wisdom.
And they think that when we get this wisdom, we would—
– have the kind of insight one gets from the York signal box in the railway station.
– have a deep insight into God’s workings in the events going on around us.
– have the ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next.
– discern the real purpose of everything that happens to us, and
– clearly know at every moment how God was making all things work together for good.
People who think like this spend much time replaying events in their minds again and again, wondering—
– why God would have allowed this or that to take place,
– whether they should take it as a sign to stop doing one thing and start doing another, or
– what they should conclude from it.
If they end up without answers and become confused, they decide that it is because of their own lack of spirituality.
Christians can suffer from—
– physical depression
– mental depression, or
– spiritual depression.
Which ever kind of depression they suffer from, they can drive themselves almost crazy with this kind of pointless questioning and speculation about what God’s reasons are for all that He allows in our lives.
For it is pointless beyond doubt.
The way God guides us is by expecting us to apply the principles He has taught us in His word.
God expects us to follow this guidance.
And when we do, He sometimes confirms it to us by some unusual happening in our lives. At such times, we immediately recognise the unusual happening as a sign that we are obeying God, and that we have rightly applied God’s word.
But this is quite different from trying to read a message about God’s secret purposes in every unusual thing that happens to us.
The gift of wisdom does not include the gift to read into God’s doings in this way.
In fact, the gift of wisdom actually assumes that we will not be able to read into God’s doings.
We will see more about this in a moment.
We ask again: what does it mean for God to give us wisdom? What kind of a gift is it?
If another transportation illustration may be permitted, it is like being taught to drive. What matters in driving is the speed and appropriateness of your reactions to things and the soundness of your judgment as to what scope a situation gives you. You do not ask yourself why the road should narrow or screw itself into a dogleg wiggle just where it does, nor why that van should be parked where it is, nor why the driver in front should hug the crown of the road so lovingly; you simply try to see and do the right thing in the actual situation that presents itself. The effect of divine wisdom is to enable you and me to do just that in the actual situations of everyday life.
To drive well, you have to keep your eyes skinned to notice exactly what is in front of you. To live wisely, you have to be clearsighted and realistic — ruthlessly so—in looking at life as it is. Wisdom will not go with comforting illusions, false sentiment, or the use of rose-colored glasses. Most of us live in a dream world, with our heads in the clouds and our feet off the ground; we never see the world, and our lives in it, as they really are. This deep-seated, sin-bred unrealism is one reason why there is so little wisdom among us—even the soundest and most orthodox of us. It takes more than sound doctrine to cure us of unrealism: There is, however, one book in Scripture that is expressly designed to turn us into realists, and that is the book of Ecclesiastes. We need to pay more heed to its message than we commonly do. Let us look at that message for a moment now.
So, let’s go back to the question again:
What does it mean for God to give us wisdom?
What kind of a gift is it?
We have just looked at an illustration about seeing the big picture about trains in and around York Station. We looked at this to explain what God’s gift of wisdom is not like.
Let us look at another transportation example to understand what God’s gift of wisdom is like.
When you are learning to drive—
– your speed is important,
– your reaction time to various situations on the road is important, or
– whether or not you are able to correctly interpret what you see on the road before you is important.
You are not asking yourself questions like—
Why is the road becoming so narrow?
Why does the road have such a sharp turn at this point?
Why is that van parked over there?
Why does the driver in front seem to love the centre line so much?
You are being taught how to drive, and at this time, whatever the situation on the road may be, your focus is simply to try to see and do the right thing.
The effect of divine wisdom is like that. It helps you and me in the actual situations of everyday life—to try to see and do the right thing.
To drive well, you have to keep your eyes fixed on the road, so that you see exactly what is in front of you.
In the same way, to live wisely, you have to be clearsighted and realistic.
In fact, you have to be ruthlessly realistic—seeing life as it is.
Wisdom does not go with—
comforting illusions (false beliefs, however comforting they may be to us),
false sentiment (exaggerated feelings), or
the use of rose-coloured glasses (giving a positive twist to everything).
Most of us live in a dream world, with our heads in the clouds and our feet off the ground.
We do not see the world, and our lives in it, as they really are.
This unrealism is very deep seated.
It is the result of our sinfulness.
This is why we do not find much wisdom even in the most devout and sensible person among us.
It takes more than sound doctrine to cure us of unrealism.
But one book in the Bible is clearly designed to make us realists.
This is the book of Ecclesiastes.
We need to pay more heed to its message than we usually do.
Let us look at that message for a moment now.
What Ecclesiastes Teaches
“Ecclesiastes” (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew title Qoheleth) means simply “the preacher”; and the book is a sermon, with a text (“vanity of vanities,” 1:2; 12:8 KJV), an exposition of its theme (chaps. 1—10) and an application (11:1-12:7). Much of the exposition is autobiographical. Qoheleth identifies himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). Whether this means that Solomon himself was the preacher, or that the preacher put his sermon into Solomon’s mouth as a didactic device, as scholars so conservative as Hengstenberg and E. J. Young have argued, need not concern us. The sermon is certainly Solomonic in the sense that it teaches lessons which Solomon had unique opportunities to learn.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” In what spirit, and for what purpose, does the preacher announce this text? Is it the confession of an embittered cynic, “a selfish and callous old man of the world who found at the end nothing but a dire disillusionment” (W. H. Elliot), now seeking to share with us his sense of the cheapness and nastiness of life? Or is he speaking as an evangelist, trying to bring home to the unbeliever the impossibility of finding happiness “under the sun” apart from God? The answer is neither, though the second suggestion is not so wide of the mark as the first.
The author speaks as a mature teacher giving a young disciple the fruits of his own long experience and reflection (11:9; 12:1,12). He wants to lead this young believer into true wisdom and to keep him from falling into the York signal-box mistake. Apparently the young man (like many since) was inclined to equate wisdom with wide knowledge and to suppose that one gains wisdom simply by assiduous book work (12:12). Clearly, he took it for granted that wisdom, when he gained it, would tell him the reasons for God’s various doings in the ordinary course of providence. What the preacher wants to show him is that the real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgment that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences “under the sun” bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all.
As the sermon itself shows, the text is intended as a warning against the misconceived quest for understanding, for it states the despairing conclusion to which this quest, if honestly and realistically pursued, must at length lead. We may formulate the message of the sermon as follows:
Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-colored glasses, rub your eyes and look at it long and hard. What do you see? You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature (1:4-7). You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control (3:1-8; 9:11-12). You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved (7:15; 8:8). Humans die like beasts (3:19-20), good ones like bad, wise ones like fools (2:14, 16; 9:2-3). You see evil running rampant (3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 8:11; 9:3); the wicked prosper, the good don’t (8:14). Seeing all this, you realize that God’s ordering of events is inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so (3:11; 7:13-14, 8:17 RV; 11:5). The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.
But once you conclude that there really is no rhyme or reason in things, what “profit”—value, gain, point, purpose—can you find in any sort of constructive endeavor? (1:3; 2:11, 22; 3:9; 5:16). If life is senseless, then it is valueless; and in that case, what use is it working to create things, to build a business, to make money, even to seek wisdom—for none of this can do you any obvious good (2:15-16, 22-23; 5:11); it will only make you an object of envy (4:4); you can’t take any of it with you (2:18-21; 4:8; 5:15-16); and what you leave behind will probably be mismanaged after you have gone (2:19). What point is there, then, in sweating and toiling at anything? Must not all our work be judged “vanity (emptiness, frustration) and a striving after wind” (1:14 RV)?—activity that we cannot justify as being either significant in itself or worthwhile to us?
It is to this pessimistic conclusion, says the preacher, that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you (1:17-18). And of course he is right. For the world we live in is in fact the sort of place that he has described. The God who rules it hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it at all. Often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.
Many of us need this admonition. For not only are we caught up with the York signal-box conception, or misconception, of what wisdom is; we feel that, for the honor of God (and also, though we do not say this, for. the sake of our own reputation as spiritual Christians), it is necessary for us to claim that we are, so to speak, already in the signal-box, here and now enjoying inside information as to the why and wherefore of God’s doings. This comforting pretense becomes part of us: we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future.
And then something very painful and quite inexplicable comes along, and our cheerful illusion of being in God’s secret councils is shattered. Our pride is wounded; we feel that God has slighted us; and unless at this point we repent and humble ourselves very thoroughly for our former presumption, our whole subsequent spiritual life may be blighted.
Among the seven deadly sins of medieval lore was sloth (acedia)—a state of hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit. There is a lot of it around today in Christian circles; the symptoms are personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians’ initiative and enterprise.
Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of God in providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experience that he didn’t. This is what happens when we do not heed the message of Ecclesiastes. For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all” (11.5 RV).
But what, in that case, is wisdom? The preacher has helped us to see what it is not; does he give us any guidance as to what it is? Indeed he does, in outline at any rate. “Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13); trust and obey him, reverence him, worship him, be humble before him, and never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to him (5:1-7); do good (3:12); remember that God will some day take account of you (11:9; 12:14), so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God’s assizes (12:14). Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly (7:14; 9:7-10; 11:9-10); present pleasures are God’s good gifts. Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy (7:4-6), he clearly has no time for the superspirituality which is too proud or too pious ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do (9:10), and enjoy your work as you do it (2:24; 3:12-13; 5:18-20, 8:15). Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (11:1- 6).
This is the way of wisdom. Clearly, it is just one facet of the life of faith. For what underlies and sustains it? Why, the conviction that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing, and “doeth all things well,” even if for the moment he hides his hand. We can trust him and rejoice in him, even when we cannot discern his path. Thus the preacher’s way of wisdom boils down to what was expressed by Richard Baxter:
Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing.
Take what He gives,
And praise Him still
Through good and ill
Who ever lives.
The Hebrew title of the book of Ecclesiastes is Qoheleth.
Qoheleth simply means “the preacher”.
(Ecclesiastes is the Greek word for Qoheleth.)
This books is a sermon with—
– a text, which is “vanity of vanities” (Eccl 1:2; 12:8),
– an explanation or exposition of the theme (Eccl 1-10), and
– an application (Eccl 11:1-12:7)
Much of what the author writes about is autobiographical. In other words, the author writes from his own life and experience.
See how Qoheleth identifies himself.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. (Eccl 1:1)
Some Bible scholars have felt that Solomon himself was Qoheleth the preacher.
Other Bible scholars, even conservative ones like like Hengstenberg and E. J. Young, have felt that the identity of the author was not Solomon, but someone else who wrote using Solomon’s name as a teaching method.
It does not matter whether Qoheleth was Solomon or not.
But clearly, the sermon teaches lessons that King Solomon would have had unique opportunities to learn.
The preacher announces the text of his sermon.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Eccl 1:2)
What is the preacher’s tone when he announces his text, and what is his intention?
Which of the following is it?
1. The tone of the preacher is cynical and bitter.
The preacher is a worldly old man who has lived a selfish and uncaring life.
Now, at the end of his life he feels deeply disillusioned about life.
He wants to tell us that life is nasty and not of much worth.
This is the opinion of some like W. H. Elliott, who was a Church of England clergyman and also a broadcaster on religious matters for the BBC.
2. The tone of the preacher is that of an evangelist.
The preacher is trying to make the unbeliever understand that it is impossible to find happiness “under the sun” without God.
Neither of the above suggestions is the correct one.
But the second suggestion is closer to being right than the first.
The tone is that of a mature teacher who is teaching a young disciple.
He is looking back at his long experience and sharing lessons from it.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.(Eccl 11:9)
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Eccl 12:1)
My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.(Eccl 12:12)
He wants to lead this young believer into true wisdom.
He does not want the young believer to fall into the York signal-box mistake.
It looks like the young believer thinks that wisdom was the same as knowing a lot. So, he thinks that he could get wisdom just by thorough and careful reading and study.(Eccl 12:12)
Clearly, he seems to assume that when he gained wisdom, he would know the reasons for all the different things that God was doing as part of His protective care of the world.
What the preacher wants to show him is that the real basis of wisdom is to frankly accept that much of what happens in this world—“under the sun”—
– is mysterious and difficult to understand
– is difficult to explain, and
– does not show any evidence of a rational, moral God ordering them at all.
As the sermon itself shows, the text is meant to be a warning against the idea that one must search after understanding and knowledge.
If someone actually searches after understanding honestly, it will turn out to be hopeless in the end. This is also stated in the text.
We may express the message of the sermon like this:
The preacher says:
Look at the sort of world we live in.
Take off your rose-colored glasses. In other words, stop giving a positive twist to everything, and be realistic.
Rub your eyes and look at the world properly.
What do you see?
You see that—
– The environment around us is made up of aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. (Eccl 1:4-7)
– We have no control over times and circumstances. (Eccl 3:1-8; 9:11-12)
– Death comes to everyone sooner or later.
– Death comes in a haphazard way and is not related to whether or not it is deserved. (Eccl 7:15; 8:8)
– Human beings die like animals. (Eccl 3:19-20)
– Good people die just like the bad people die. (Eccl 9:2-3)
– Wise people die just like fools die. (Eccl 2:14, 16)
– Evil is out of control (Eccl 3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 8:11; 9:3)
– The wicked prosper, the good don’t (Eccl 8:14)
Seeing all this, you realize that God’s ordering of events is impossible to understand.
As much as you want to understand how God orders events in this world, you cannot do so.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Eccl 3:11)
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl 7:13-14)
then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (Eccl 8:17)
As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. (Eccl 11:5)
The harder you try to understand why God controls the world the way He does—the more you notice how aimless everything seems to be—and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.
If you conclude that life is pointless—that things happen for no rhyme or reason—then you are faced with a very serious question.
What use is it if you try to do any kind of constructive work? What value or gain are you hoping to get out of it? What is the point?
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? (Eccl 1:3)
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Eccl 2:11)
What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? (Eccl 2:22)
What gain has the worker from his toil? (Eccl 3:9)
This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? (Eccl 5:16)
If life makes no sense, then it is has no value.
And in that case, what use is it to do any kind of creative work?
What use is it—
– to build a business,
– to make money, or even
– to search for wisdom
What use can any of this possibly be, if you cannot see anything good coming out of these things?
Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! (Eccl 2:15-16)
What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. (Eccl 2:22-23)
When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? (Eccl 5:11)
It will only make you an object of envy—What use is that to you?
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl 4:4)
You can’t take any of it with you when you die—What use is that?
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. (Eccl 2:18-21)
one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (Eccl 4:8)
As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? (Eccl 5:15-16)
What you leave behind will probably be mismanaged after you have gone—What is the point of your hard work then?
and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. (Eccl 2:19)
What point is there, then, in sweating and toiling at anything?
Would’nt we have to conclude that all the work that we do is useless?
Would’nt we have to describe our efforts with terms like Vanity—emptiness—frustration—and a striving after wind?
We will have to say that all our activity is not—
– significant in itself or
– worthwhile to us.
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl 1:14)
The preacher tells us that if you are optimistic about finding God’s purposes for everything He does, in the end, you will only reach this sad and pessimistic conclusion that all is vanity.
And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Eccl 1:17-18)
And of course he is right, because—
– the world we live in is actually the kind of place that he has described,
– the God who rules it hides Himself,
– most of the time, this world does not look as if a caring God is in charge,
– most of the time, this world does not look as if a rational power is behind it at all.
– often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes.
The preacher says: Be realistic—face these facts—see life as it is. You cannot have true wisdom till you do this.
Many of us need this warning, because we are caught up with the York signal-box misconception about what wisdom is.
So, we feel that, for God’s honour (and own reputation as spiritual Christians), we need to claim that we are already in the signal-box, as it were. And we need to keep up the pretense that we are enjoying inside information about God’s purposes about everything. This kind of pretending gives us a comforting feeling and has become a normal part of us. In fact, we have started believing that God has actually enabled us to understand all His ways with us and our circle of family and friends so far. We now take it for granted that even for anything that could happen to us in the future, we will be able to see all the reasons immediatly.
And then something very painful happens out of the blue for which we have no explanation.
What happens then to all that happy pretending?
What happens to the idea that God had been allowing us to understand His secret purposes?
All is shattered.
Our pride is wounded.
And we feel that God has insulted us.
At this stage we need to—
– humble ourselves,
– carefully understand where we went wrong—how we presumed to know God’s mind when we did not, and
– repent thoroughly.
If we do not repent, our future spiritual life will be affected.
In medieval times, it was believed that there were seven deadly sins, and this was the standard list: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and acedia. Acedia or sloth was a kind of joyless listlessness, where the person did not have any enthusiasm.
We see a lot of this in Christian circles today.
Those who suffer from this condition—
– show no change or growth in their personal spiritual lives,
– are critical and untrusting of churches, and
– are arrogant and resent the efforts of other Christians.
Often behind this sickly and listless condition is wounded pride. This person thought that they knew all about the ways of God in caring for His world. Then unexpectedly, they experienced suffering, and could not understand why this had happened to them. They realised because of this bitter and confusing experience that they didn’t understand the ways of God after all. This is what happens when we do not pay attention to the message of Ecclesiastes.
For the truth is that God, in His wisdom, has hidden almost everything that we would like to know—
– about how He guides and provides for the churches and
– about how He works out our own lives.
And why has He hidden these things from us?
He has done this—
– to make humble,
– to keep us humble, and
– to teach us to walk by faith.
“As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all.” (Eccl 11:5)
But what, in that case, is wisdom?
The preacher has helped us to see what wisdom is not.
Does he give us any guidance as to what it is?
Yes, he gives us an outline of what wisdom is.
|– Fear God and |
– Keep His commandments.
|The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl 12:13)|
|– Trust and obey Him|
– Reverence Him
– Worship Him
– Be humble before Him
– Never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to Him
|Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (Eccl 5:1-7)|
|– Do good||I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live (Eccl 3:12)|
|– Remember that God will some day ask you to give account of your actions.|
So avoid even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light in God’s court on that day
|Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Eccl 11:9)|
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:14)
|– Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly present pleasures are God’s good gifts.||In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl 7:14)|
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl 9:7-10)
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain[a] from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. (Eccl 11:9-10)
|– Do not be flippant. (Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy, he clearly has no time for the super-spirituality which is too proud or too pious ever to laugh and have fun.)||The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. (Eccl 7:4-6)|
|– Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do||Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl 9:10)|
|– Enjoy your work as you do it||There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. (Eccl 2:24)|
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Eccl 3:12-13)
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Eccl 5:18-20)
And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. (Eccl 8:15)
|– Leave its issues to God|
– Let Him measure its ultimate worth
– Do your part, which is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you
|Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. (Eccl 11:1- 6)|
This is the way of wisdom.
Clearly, wisdom is one of the qualities of those who live by faith.
This is because of what the foundation and basis of wisdom is.
What is it?
The foundation and basis of wisdom is faith—
It is the conviction that this mysterious God who cares for and controls this world is the wise and gracious God of both creation and redemption.
This is the great God who—
– made this marvelously complex world,
– carried out the great redemption of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and
– later carried out the even greater redemption from sin and Satan.
We can be sure that this great God knows what He is doing,
and that He “does all things well,”
even if for the moment He hides his hand.
We can always trust Him and rejoice in Him,
even when we He seems hidden and we cannot recognise Him.
The preacher’s way of wisdom is beautifully summed up by Richard Baxter:
Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing.
Take what He gives,
And praise Him still
Through good and ill
Who ever lives.
The Fruit Of Wisdom
Such, then, is the wisdom with which God makes us wise. And our analysis of it discloses to us still further the wisdom of the God who gives it. We have said that wisdom consists in choosing the best means to the best end. God’s work of giving wisdom is a means to his chosen end of restoring and perfecting the relationship between himself and human beings-the relationship for which he made them. For what is this wisdom that he gives? As we have seen, it is not a sharing in all his knowledge, but a disposition to confess that he is wise, and to cleave to him and live for him in the light of his Word through thick and thin.
Thus the effect of his gift of wisdom is to make us more humble, more joyful, more godly, more quick-sighted as to his will, more resolute in the doing of it and less troubled (not less sensitive, but less bewildered) than we were at the dark and painful things of which our life in this fallen world is full. The New Testament tells us that the fruit of wisdom is Christlikeness—peace, and humility, and love (Jas 3:17)—and the root of it is faith in Christ (1 Cor 3:18; 2 Tim 3:15) as the manifested wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24, 30).
Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits to give to those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.
Let us see to it, then, that our own quest for wisdom takes the form of a quest for these things, and that we do not frustrate the wise purpose of God by neglecting faith and faithfulness in order to pursue a kind of knowledge which in this world it is not given to us to have.
So, this is the wisdom that God gives us to make us wise.
And as we analyse this wisdom, we see even more of the wisdom of the God who gives it.
We have said that wisdom chooses the best way to reach the best goal.
What is God’s goal or end?
God’s goal is to restore and perfect the relationship between Himself and human beings. This relationship is the reason why God made human beings.
What is God’s way (means) of achieving this goal?
God’s way is to give us wisdom.
When He gives us wisdom, He does not share all His knowledge with us.
Instead, He gives us a nature and attitude that makes us confess that He is wise.
This wisdom that He gives us makes us cling to Him.
It makes us live for Him in the light of His word, through all circumstances.
The effect of God’s gift of wisdom is to make us—
– more humble
– more joyful
– more godly
– more quick to see God’s will
– more determined to do God’s will,
– less troubled (not less sensitive but less confused and afraid) about the dark and painful things in our lives. Our lives in this fallen world are full of dark and painful things.
The New Testament tells us that—
– the fruit of wisdom is Christlikeness. To be like Christ is to have peace, humility, and love.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)
The root of wisdom is faith in Christ, and Christ is the wisdom of God, who was seen.
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (1 Cor 3:18)
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (2 Tim 3:15)
but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:24)
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, (1 Cor 1:30)
So, the kind of wisdom that God waits to give to those who ask Him is
– a wisdom that will bind us to Himself
– a wisdom that will result in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.
Then, let us make sure that our search after wisdom is actually a searching after the right things. We do not want to search after the kind of knowledge (of the York Signal-box kind) which God does not mean for us to have in this world. If we go looking for this kind of knowledge instead of focusing on growing in faith and faithfulness, we would be frustrating God’s wise purposes.