The Words of the Wise

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

By: Ryan Hedrich

To conclude his book, the author of Ecclesiastes self-evaluated himself to be wise, having uprightly taught, weighed, studied, arranged, and written delightful words of truth that he then connects to practical obligations:

  • The words of the wise are like goads. (truth)

  • The collected sayings are like nails firmly fixed. (truth)

  • One Shepherd gives these words and/or collected sayings. (truth) 

My son, beware of anything beyond these. (obligation)

  • Of making many books, there is no end. (truth)

  • Much study is a weariness of the flesh. (truth)

  • This is the end of the matter. (truth)

Fear God and keep his commandments. (obligation)

  • This is the whole duty of man. (truth)

  • For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (truth)

The author analogizes wise words to goads, sharp points used to prod things such as cattle. Wise words are truths that spur those who listen to them into action. In time, these truths fix in listeners’ minds just as the truths of them are firmly fixed in the mind of the Shepherd who is ultimately responsible for revealing them.

One action the author expects of his listeners is to heed his following advice: “beware of anything beyond these [wise words given by the Shepherd].” There are endless books that could weary one who writes, reads, or studies too much of them. Whereas wise words can refresh a person, prolonged focus on unwise words can depress him. Whether one writes, reads, or studies, then, he should constantly keep in mind wise words given by the Shepherd.

To summarize his life’s investigations, the author states man’s sole duties as encompassed by fearing God and keeping His commandments. The practical reason for this conclusion is he believed God would bring every deed into judgment. Fear of God and His judgment is wise in that it encourages men to keep His commands.

The author warns man against anything beyond the words of the Shepherd yet also expresses that man’s duty is to fear God and keep His commandments. Clearly, then, the Shepherd must Himself be God. As the author is the son of David (Ecclesiastes 1:1), it is possible he drew inspiration from David himself in describing God as a Shepherd (Psalm 23).

This same author of Ecclesiastes may also have been the Solomon who opened his book of Proverbs in the same way as the former opened his book: each described himself as the son of David. The author of Ecclesiastes describes from what the fear of God comes: His enduring work (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Correspondingly, the author of Proverbs describes to what the fear of God leads: refreshment (Proverbs 3:8), confidence and life (14:26-27), riches and honor (22:4), moral character (16:6), and the beginning of knowledge (1:7) and wisdom (9:10). For both authors, understanding the fear of God and the treasuring of His commandments comes from receiving the wise words of Him and His messengers (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12; Proverbs 2:1-6). Both books and author[s] agree there is one ultimate source, God, from whom man receives any wisdom, so it is to His words we must listen if we are to be and live wisely. Two reactions to this are possible.

Firstly, for those who do not believe in God or do not believe these authors were wise, it may be understandable how they could find it puzzling that fear could lead to wisdom, knowledge, refreshment, confidence, life, riches, or honor. Further, perhaps fear of worldly punishment prevents worldly ideas of wrongdoing. In this case, however, it is also uncertain whether having right behaviors with dubious motivations amounts to improvement in moral character. Regardless, where such a person could think wisdom, knowledge, refreshment, et al. otherwise comes from, if not God, is questionable.

Secondly, for those who do believe these authors were wise and, therefore, do believe in God, they must think God will justly judge us all. Any reader who accepts this has obvious reason to be fearful of this God and try to live a life of obedience. As Jesus put it, “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:5). This too is God’s enduring work, and why fear of God would stem from facts such as these is, in this case, understandable.

Yet there is more to God’s enduring works than that. Fear of divine punishment is not something that should necessarily persist. Just as Solomon [and the author of Ecclesiastes] built on the word of God given to ancestors like David, future messengers of God built on divine revelation: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Certainly, fear does have to do with punishment. To the extent sinners will be justly punished by God, it can awaken people into the fearful awareness of the consequences for disobedience. This is a fruitful understanding that leads to knowledge and wisdom.

However, the reality and fearfulness of God’s justice is accompanied by His love for those who listen to His word. Realization of the need to obey God comes too late for sinners to do anything about their past sins. Resultant fear would lead to hopelessness rather than confidence, despair rather than refreshment, disgrace rather than honor, death rather than life… were it not for divine love.

Whereas the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, Paul, another messenger of God, wrote, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), and in Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). It is Christ and His loving work for His people communicated in God’s word that men must believe to be saved, confident, refreshed, and alive. He is our Shepherd, our Savior, and He told His people how they would recognize His words:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father  knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:14-15, 26-28)

Many men have written many words, made many speeches, and influenced many lives. Philosophers, scientists, historians, linguists, sociologists, doctors, politicians, psychologists, clergymen… have lived and died, their work eventually fading. Even as you read this, be constantly mindful of in whose words and work you look to find enduring wisdom. Many men can speak wise words, but these words come from one Shepherd. He is our God. There can be no clearer foundation for believing His words as Creator and Redeemer than the fact they are His words, and there can be no better foundation for loving others than to reflect His love for us:

We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:6-11)

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