I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.–Ecclesiastes 9:13-16
Words matter. Words give life and words kill. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits (Proverbs 18:21). The tongue is often presented in scripture as the indicator of who is righteous and who is evil. Solomon’s wisdom literature has a great deal to say about words and how they are used.
In the little story copied above, we are not told exactly how the poor man saved the city, but the point of the passage is that quiet wisdom is better than might—better than shouting, better than weapons, but does not always win in life here under the sun. Apparently, the poor man spoke and the proper people heard him so that “by his wisdom delivered the city.” But not everyone thought so. In fact, some “despised” his wisdom “and his words [were] not heard.”
It’s a central feature of the Bible’s wisdom literature that wisdom involves knowing when to speak and how to speak in a community. The community can thrive where there is wise speech or be destroyed by just one foolish talker. How much of the Apostle Paul’s letters have to do with foolish talk, slander, and backbiting!
This community emphasis is much of what follows in this fourth and final section of Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is not merely a technical skill. Just because you can make the WIFI work or weld a muffler does not mean that you are wise. This , however, does not mean that human wisdom is without practical value, since it involves words spoken to others, and, thus, is inherently relational. That’s practical. Still, it must be acknowledged that wisdom is not some secret key that magically puts people in control, or even guarantees how wise words will be received.
A majority of the people may not appreciate wisdom. In the story above, “no one remembered that poor man.” He offered them life and salvation, but they were fools and despised him before forgetting him. Nevertheless, Solomon says, “I say that wisdom is better than might.” Just because it doesn’t always “work,” doesn’t mean there is a better alternative. Possession, power, and privilege aren’t the goals of the wise.
In other words, though you may get it right by wisdom, as the first verse of the next chapter in Ecclesiastes says, “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” In this vaporous life, there’s always the possibility of a fly in the ointment so that even true wisdom is vulnerable to just a little folly. “One sinner destroys much good.” A single, foolish act can do much damage to an otherwise wise man and tear a community to shreds.
Jesus as the wisdom and power of God turns this on its head, thankfully. Where our wisdom is liable to failure, His never fails. Where we tend to look to power for power, He showed how true power comes from weakness (that it may come from God!). And where “one sinner destroys much good,” with Jesus, one good man redeemed many sinners. And that’s the gospel.
Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.