THE FOLLY OF WISDOM
When I was a kid, I was told the story of Solomon. When God offered anything that he wanted, Solomon chose wisdom. That story and the words of my father planted in me a strong desire to be wise. I had no idea what it meant to be wise. I did not know that it required a lot of hard work and sacrifice and keen observation of people and life. And most of all, I did not realize that wisdom comes with age, even though age is no guarantee of wisdom.
It is obvious that wisdom is better than foolishness. So many people pursue wisdom. Very few folks want to be fools. You never have heard a child answer the question “What do you what to be when you grow up?” with the words, ” I want to be a fool up.” So common sense tells us that it is better to be wise than to be foolish. Solomon thought so too. “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly.”
Solomon is returning to his original theme of seeking wisdom. He has tried pleasure and morality and found it to be dust in the wind. So, he goes back to the beginning to see what he might have missed. He is like us when we lose something. We search the house and when we do not find it, we go back the same places and look again. For me that is not a bad thing because I often look and do not see things. I call, BARBARA and she comes and embarrassingly it she points out that it was where I was looking. If the old saying, if it were a snake, it would have bit me is true, I would have died a thousand deaths.
Solomon agrees with us, it is better to be wise than foolish. The wise man has eyes in his head with which to see. The wise man can see things, he has clear vision while the foolish man is like one who walks in darkness. So he worked hard, studied, corresponded with wise people, had wise men in his courts. He knew it to be true, it is better to be wise than foolish. It is better to live one’s life as a wise man then to waste your life doing foolish things.
Well the thought was great while it lasted. But one day it dawned on him, the same ignoble fate that awaits the foolish man awaits the wise man; the wise man dies just like the fool. Ultimately, wisdom does us no good. It can’t stop death. It can’t even prepare us for death. Death is a terror to the foolish and to the wise. This thought seems to have plunged Solomon into a dark depression. He despaired of life. He hated life, not just his life but life itself. It is absurd, it is meaningless. It is what so many of today’s philosophers have concluded. We are miserable creatures. I have seen men whom I considered to be great, brilliant me who had accumulated great knowledge and wisdom, yet they died. And all that knowledge, understanding and wisdom died with them. I have thought to myself, what a waste and what is the point? We have all known some young person killed in an accident, such a bright future, so much potential and now it is gone as if he never existed.
In Solomon’s mind, the most that he could hope for was to be remembered for something after he is gone. But, how many of us will be remembered. We put granite tombstones on the graves of our loved ones and we write on them who they were, a loving Father or a Loving mother. But, in a generation or two, who will remember, who will know? We are aware of the great burial monuments called the Pyramids, but does anyone except a few scholars know who is buried in them? The romantic poet, Percy Shelly, wrote concerning the futility of human greatness and memory in the poem, Ozymandias.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal work, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias was the greatest apparently, but just for a moment. But, now, who remembers? Death levels the ground for all, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish, death humbles us and reminds that all is vanity.
Wisdom can’t stand against death. What do we do with old age and impending death? Do we give up and give in? Do we say, “it is coming, we can’t stop it, so we just sit and wait?” I know that death is something you cannot predict nor can you predict your own behavior in face of it. But we all must face it one day. I hate self pity, and self wanting. But like Solomon I am easily driven to despair and like him have, on more than one occasion, said I hate life. But I hope that when that time comes I will have matured and grown that I do not slip into despair. I have thought that I want to keep studying and learning something new as long as I can. I want to preach if anyone will listen and when I die I hope I am in the process of learning something new.
My view of this is dictated by the fact that I think life is a gift and we should live it as much as possible until our end comes. That is a totally different view than the one that Solomon presents. But I think it is one that he would agree to because, once again, I have skipped to the end of the book and read the ending. The wisdom that Solomon gives us is what we call common sense. It is the kind of stuff we might get from Ben Franklin or dear Abby or from Mark Twain. It is the knowledge we learn from experience. And as good as that kind of wisdom is, it cannot carry us to the very end. it is that very common sense wisdom that wakes up one day and says I hate life. I can live wisely until the day I die, but I die just as the fool who dies. Common sense cannot see past the dark veil of death. It cannot make life meaningful. In spite of common sense, in the end, all of life’s achievements, all of one’s knowledge is wasted in death, it is gone. So we can see why for Solomon, who highly prized wisdom, it suddenly becomes his enemy, his very source of depression.
If all we have is this secular, materialistic world, then we too will join Solomon in a chorus of I hate life itself. It is all futility and striving after wind. But we know there is more, one more element beyond our human efforts that makes all life glorious. God made us and all there is. We sinned brought the fall of all the world. But God did not leave us in that place. He redeemed us and is redeeming our world. It is he who gives us his life and his wisdom. His wisdom extends well beyond our own common sense, well beyond the evil darkness of the world and even the darkness of our hearts. God’s salvation makes everything valuable, including life that ends in death. Every minute is precious and ought to be used to the glory of God. But death is not the end, it is only the beginning.
We are helpless little creatures who ooze along life trying to make heads and tails out of things. God scoops us up into his arms and loves us. He restores us because we are loved by him. And if we are wise, godly wise, we will learn what Solomon says, we were made to love and obey God. We are fully human when we live in obedience to God