Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)
Ecclesiastes 7: 1-10 The Cost of Wisdom
1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
6 For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity.
7 Surely oppression makes the wise foolish, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.
9 Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
There is a joy that is a gift of God but that joy will not be present in every season and often it is the times of grief where wisdom is refined and tested. Ecclesiastes has no place for the masks of happiness that people often feel constrained to wear. Wisdom, we find here, does not drive the teacher to a life of prosperity, rich relationships, easy decisions or universal popularity. It is the road that is less traveled and engages the moments of joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, life and death.
There is a certain kind of wisdom that is only learned through the process of grief and loss and perhaps this is a part of what these proverbs that begin this section point to. Ecclesiastes’ search for wisdom is not a quest that only takes him to the places that are isolated from pain and suffering, instead wisdom often means wrestling with the more challenging parts of life and death. Even though the quest for a lasting legacy of name may be vanity they still seem better than the sweet smelling oils that spoil even more quickly. A person’s life can only begin to be measured at its completion for when the person is present we often take their contributions for granted and can easily focus upon their failures. There is also the hard wisdom of sitting Shiva with those who are mourning and the value that comes not from the cheap pithy sayings but in the long silence of presence. The wisdom that comes from inhabiting the house of mourning may not be a popular wisdom but it is wisdom nevertheless.
In our social media age where we can surround ourselves with an echo chamber of like-minded people we may find it almost impossible to hear the rebuke of the wise if they disagree with our opinions. Yet, that rebuke and cognitive dissonance is an essential part of wisdom. Wisdom and knowledge only grow when they are challenged and pulled. Too often we settle for the quick flash of the thorns which catch fire easily but produce little heat rather than the coals that actually can bring about warmth and can provide the heat needed for the essential task of transforming a dough into a cake or cooking the meat for a meal.
The gift (bribe), impatience, anger and nostalgia become the traps on the path of wisdom as well. Oppression was discussed in chapters four and five and it becomes one of the things that blocks our enjoyment of life and it can also be a roadblock to wisdom. There are certainly those who rise above what may seem impossible circumstances to phenomenal heights but most of those who are oppressed will remain trapped within that oppression. As Ellen Davis can state, “Evil must be remembered but never romanticized; every period of great oppression produces some heroism and much more madness among its victims.” (Davis, 2000, p. 201) The gift, or a bribe, which turns a person aside from the path of wisdom or justice is also a corruption of not only justice but the character of the person. When we change our actions for the sake of another person’s gift (and this may be something as simple as their approval) we have left the path of wisdom. The path of wisdom is not the quick or easy path, it is a path that needs patience. Anger may be an essential part of life and there is a time for righteous anger, but becoming quickly angered is the way of the foolish. Finally nostalgia tries to walk into the future looking backwards. There are gifts to be learned by the study of the past, but trying to recreate the past or romanticizing it often bankrupts both the present and the future. When our memories of the past become larger than our dreams for the future we become trapped in the pain of nostalgia rather than being open to the potential gift of today and tomorrow.
Ecclesiastes 7: 11-21 Wisdom and Ambiguity
11 Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.
12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.
13 Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?
14 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 mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.
15 In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. 16 Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? 17 Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.
19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise more than ten rulers that are in a city.
20 Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.
21 Do not give heed to everything that people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you; 22 your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.
Wisdom is better than foolishness and it may even provide some protection and advantage but one person’s wisdom cannot make everything crooked in the world straight. This passage about not being too righteous or too wicked might seem a little Machiavellian but wisdom knows that the complex world rarely falls into absolutes. Life can bring about many border situations where the line between what is right and what is wrong becomes blurred by the ambiguity of the situation. One can apply wisdom and knowledge to the best of one’s ability, one can attempt to be righteous but ultimately in the life lived before God what wisdom we have is incomplete and short lived. There may indeed be times where for the sake of another we might incur guilt or violate what we once believed to be absolutes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, written in the time when Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, struggles with many of these border situation and how ethically the Christian was to respond. Eventually his struggle would lead him to take a role within the resistance plot to assassinate Hitler. Shortly before his imprisonment in Christmas of 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.” (Bethge, 2000, p. 797)
Whether we live life in the position of authority having to use our wisdom on behalf of a community or whether in our private lives attempting to use wisdom in our relationship we never eradicate the evil in ourselves or in society. We live in the paradox of the ending of the Lord’s prayer. In the prayer we pray for the forgiveness of our sins as well as the ability to forgive the sins of others, that we would not be lead into temptation and that we would be delivered from evil. Even our best actions often have unintended harmful consequences and sometimes out of great evil some good can emerge. We are never completely the saint or irreconcilably the sinner and we cannot rely upon our own righteousness nor should we want to immerse ourselves completely into wickedness. We live in times of prosperity and adversity and both come from the same God.
Ecclesiastes 7: 23-29: The Loneliness of the Seeker
23 All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.
In Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11 the Teacher reflected on the benefit of companionship but here, in what may be a personal reflection, he reflects upon the loneliness of the seeker. Whether he was unsuccessful in love and in developing friendships we will never know, but the nature of the quest that he has embarked on is not one that is likely to endear him with those content with a less questioning existence. Perhaps, like many who perhaps are more introverted and reflective, he simply never mastered (and perhaps never cared to master) the social niceties and small talk that seem to come so easily to others. Perhaps he never moved beyond his quest where women and men, slaves and concubines and singers became anything more than delights of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 2: 8) There is a loneliness for a companion who is truly able to share in the seekers quest, to delight in the wisdom they can share together. Perhaps in his time, where women were not considered equal, he couldn’t see someone who could be his equal in conversation and reflection, yet even among men this is exceedingly rare. Humanity and the challenge of the human political game perhaps becomes the area where the seekers gifts in wisdom seemingly fail him and leave him unable to partake in the joy of true companionship.