Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Wisdom is Better than Strength -- A Sermon

Wisdom Is Better Than Strength
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 4, 2011


"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?'

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand."

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle


Who can be compared with the wise man?
Who else knows the meaning of things?
A person’s wisdom lights up his face
and the grimness of his appearance is transformed.

When I gave my full attention to the study of wisdom,
taking note of all the happenings that occur on earth,
I saw that though a man sleep neither day nor night
in his search to understand all the “works of God,”
he cannot find out what it is that God has done on the earth.
However diligently a man may seek, he will not find out.
Not even the sage who claims to know can find it out.

So to all of this I directed my full attention
seeking an explanation for it all.
People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not.
as it is with the good man, so it is with the evil-doer,
as with him who swears an oath, so with the one afraid to swear.
This is what is wrong with everything that happens in the world.
The same fate comes to all.

But I also saw something else in this world—
an example of wisdom that greatly impressed me.
Once a small city, with only a few people in it, was attacked
by a powerful king who surrounded it and built huge
siegeworks against it. Now it happened that in that city lived
a poor but wise man, and he could have saved the city by his
wisdom. Yet nobody remembered that poor man!
Still, I say, “Wisdom is better than strength”
even though the poor man’s wisdom was despised
and his words went unheeded.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the ranting of a master of fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

So go and eat your food with gladness,
And drink your wine with a joyful heart,
For Nature has already given approval for you to do this.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 8:1; 8:16-9:3a; 9:13-18; 9:7.


What is wisdom?

Where is it to be found?
Is it worth the effort of the search?

We have been working our way through the book of Ecclesiastes this summer. Our guide has been Presbyterian minister and scholar, Lloyd Geering, who has provided for us a fresh translation of the text and a book in the form of a dialogue with the author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth. The book is available in our library and is called Such is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes.

So far in this sermon series we have taken on some of the big questions:

Who is Qoheleth?
What does Qoheleth mean when he speaks of God?
Is God another word for Nature?
Is life fair?
Is death the end of us?
Is life the result of chance or purpose?

Underneath all of these questions is the one that is most urgent: “How then shall we live?

Qoheleth himself according to the text sought for meaning by looking outward.

So I devoted myself to research,
To the rational understanding of everything
That happens on the face of the earth.
Ah, what an evil burden Nature has given
To the human race to busy itself with!

I studied all human activities,
Everything that happens to people on the face of the earth,
And what have I found?
They are all as futile as chasing after the wind…”

He devoted himself to the search for wisdom and concluded

With the increase of wisdom comes the increase of grief;
For the more we know, the greater our sorrow.

So far, not so good. Then he decided to live for pleasure. But again, he writes:


What did I find? It too is short-lived.

Then he thought he would go for the wine, but decided that wasn’t such a good plan:

My mind was still guiding me into wisdom,
And not yet captivating me with foolishness.

He then decided to strut his stuff and become successful and powerful.

I did things on a grand scale.
I built myself mansions and I planted myself vineyards.
I laid out for myself gardens and parks
And planted in them every kind of fruit tree….

….And so I grew great, surpassing all who had lived before me in
Jerusalem….

….and yet, (since my wisdom remained with me_
When I surveyed all that my hands had done,
All that I had struggled to achieve,
Everything was as futile as chasing after the wind.
I had made no gain at all in this world.

Then he turns back to wisdom and was disappointed…

Since the fate of the fool will be my fate also,
Then for what purpose have I become extremely wise?
Thus I concluded that even the pursuit of wisdom is futile.
For in the long run the wise man
Is no more remembered than the fool,
Since everything will be forgotten as the future stretches on ahead.

After all of this he gets depressed.

So I came to hate life…
I turned about and fell into despair
At the thought of all my futile labor in this world.

I like Ecclesiastes.
He is so delightfully depressing.

He is refreshingly honest.

He isn’t depressed because he hasn’t done anything. He has lived a whole life. If there is any reality to his autobiographical sketch, he has done it all. He has lived a life anyone might envy. This is what he is bummed about:

So I turned about and fell into despair
At the thought of all my futile labor in this world,
For it can happen that a man works hard,
Displaying wisdom, knowledge, and skill,
And yet have to leave his resulting assets
To a man who has not labored for them at all.
This is not only meaningless, but utterly wrong.

He is bummed because it doesn’t last. You can’t take it with you. Not only that, but you won’t ultimately be remembered. It all becomes vapor. What Qoheleth finds absurd and wrong is impermanence.

Qoheleth searched outward for meaning. If he could have followed the path of the Buddha, who also searched for wisdom and meaning three centuries earlier, Qoheleth might have found meaning and wisdom by searching within.

The Buddha started with the absurdity of impermanence. His realization was that impermanence went all the way down even to the self. His release, his liberation came from developing the skill to quench the desire for permanence, even the permanence of self which he realized is illusory.

In a sense, even as Qoheleth’s search is outward and he finds that it all lacks meaning and purpose, he does decide to follow a similar ethic that the Buddha advocated. It comes, it seems as kind of a surprise.

We read along and Qoheleth gets more and more depressing. He writes about the poor schmuck who works and works:

For all their days bring pain and grief;
Even at night their minds get no rest. This too is futile.

Then he finally has a moment. Finally, he appears to find something of value. He writes:

The best that any of us can do
Is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.
This too, I realized, is from the hand of Nature;
For if it were not for her, who could eat or who could have any enjoyment?

I think it would be wrong here to confuse this as a quest for pleasure. We are familiar with the phrase, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” He already did that, and he found that futile. This is something deeper. This is a realization of what is real. It is being present to the present.

We spend much of our time, and I know this from personal experience, living in the un-real. That is we spend our time worrying and feeling guilt, shame, or nostalgia for the past. The past is gone. No amount of shame or guilt or beating up on ourselves will change it. And we spend a corresponding amount of time anxious about what will come. We worry over what will or could happen. We rehearse scenes of imagined encounters. None of it is real.

What Qoheleth found is that life is lived when our minds are somewhere else. Qoheleth comes back to this refrain several times. Bring your awareness to what you are doing. Bring your mind to your life. Eating, drinking, being with those with whom you are eating and drinking and being present to the work you are doing is the path of wisdom.

What is wisdom?

For Qoheleth it includes knowledge. He speaks about how he devoted himself to learning everything he could about the world but couldn’t. He couldn’t learn it all.

I saw that though a man sleep neither day nor night
in his search to understand all the “works of God,”
he cannot find out what it is that God has done on the earth.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much he knows, because he cannot know it all and his fate is the same as the fool who knows nothing. He isn’t saying the pursuit of knowledge is bad or worthless, it just doesn’t give him permanence.

He also recognizes that knowledge and wisdom are not quite the same thing. Knowledge is power. We can know many things and not be wise. The rich and powerful have a great deal of knowledge but not always wisdom. He illustrates this with a parable.

But I also saw something else in this world—
an example of wisdom that greatly impressed me.
Once a small city, with only a few people in it, was attacked
by a powerful king who surrounded it and built huge
siegeworks against it. Now it happened that in that city lived
a poor but wise man, and he could have saved the city by his
wisdom. Yet nobody remembered that poor man!
Still, I say, “Wisdom is better than strength”
even though the poor man’s wisdom was despised
and his words went unheeded.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the ranting of a master of fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

Typical of Ecclesiastes, his parable is a negative one. The people did not listen to the wise but poor man. So they lost their city. So my push back on Qoheleth is how do you justify your statement that “wisdom is better than strength?”
  • Does the poor but wise man always lose?
  • Is wisdom always unheeded in the face of strength, weapons, and power?
  • If wisdom always loses to strength than why is wisdom better than strength?
  • Why should we heed the quiet words of the wise more than the ranting of a master of fools if people always listen to the fool?
  • Why is wisdom better than weapons of war if no one listens?
I think the hope that Qoheleth holds is that despite evidence to the contrary, it is possible that wisdom will be heeded. People might not always listen to the master of fools. People might not always choose weapons of war over wisdom. People might realize now and then that wisdom is better than strength.

We all know that it is ultimately unwise to destroy the mountains, streams, and forests of Appalachia to get to the coal underneath. In the long run at least it must be obvious to everyone that it is not wise to destroy something more permanent to get something less permanent.

To maintain an unsustainable lifestyle for the short term, we will destroy our habitat for the long term. In this case wisdom is up against the strong and the powerful.


There is no question in my mind that the poor, wise ones who fight for our mountains will be shown to have been right. Hopefully, not everything will be destroyed before all of us realize that.

One thing that I admire about this congregation is that it is filled with people who fight for the underdog. That can be discouraging work. But it is good work. It is wise work. It is work that is worth it. It is work that we are given to enjoy.

If it is true that somewhere along the line your search for wisdom led you to be an advocate for the underdog, for wisdom over strength, then perhaps someone else is on that same quest and you will be a teacher.


Qoheleth doesn’t spell it out. Maybe he didn’t have the words or the concept. I believe there is such a thing as a ball of merit that lasts beyond our individual lives. There is something about goodness and wisdom that transcends those who are good or wise. In other words the good and wise things that are done are not ultimately lost, but take other forms beyond anything we can predict.

Another image for this wisdom is a flame, that despite rain and wind and all the things that threaten it, still it shines. In the Gospel of John this wisdom is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. It is the same light that Jesus saw all around him in the poor and wise ones he called disciples.

He told them:

You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine.

Let us in turn remind each other:

You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine.

1 comment:

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Good stuff. "I think the hope that Qoheleth holds is that despite evidence to the contrary, it is possible that wisdom will be heeded"

The definition of "faith" is knowing that we make a difference, even in the face of no evidence, or evidence to the contrary . . .