Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed important to me. There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one bungler destroys much good. -- Ecclesiastes 9:11-18 (NRSV)
Of all the books of the Bible in their various categories by type, Ecclesiastes is probably the one I learned the least about in Bible studies - except possibly Song of Solomon which was a bit too, well, indelicate for young dears despite its canonical acceptance, Ecclesiastes' fellow poetry/wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs (which I learned as "Song of Solomon") are a varied group, and it seems difficult to put them together in one group unless it was labeled "miscellaneous that won't really fit anywhere else." Psalms is familiar because the various songs are read so often, even the whiny, angry, God-punish-those-nasty-people-over-there-who-are-after-me-and-I'm-not-being-paranoid ones. Proverbs are sayings, often in the form of contrasting phrases that illustrate wise doings vs foolish ones. Job is familiar because of its story of bad things happening to a good person for no other reason than God giving the Adversary permission to test the strength of Job's faith in God. Song of Songs is definitely erotic, celebrating the love of two people but usually interpreted as an allegory of the love between Jesus and the church. Ecclesiastes, though, a series of wisdom sayings that have an edge to them - a bit of cynicism, perhaps - that, like Proverbs, contrast a life of wise choices vs a life of foolish ones, but with an underlying feeling that people are usually going to choose the foolish ones, no matter how sagacious the advice.
Reading the opening verses, it feels a bit obvious that life is definitely not fair. I think of a child who is denied something s/he wants and can't understand why. "That's not fair!" Things don't always happen the way we think they should, like wise people never being in want and the best athletes always being victorious. The British colonies in America in the 1700s took on the mother country, and despite being up against a better-trained, armed and organized force, used trees, hunting guns, and sheer determination to win the independence they so earnestly sought. I think it was a surprise to George III, and perhaps even to George Washington, but it just illustrated the point that Ecclesiastes' writer, known as Quoheleth, was making.
Looking at today, I see wise people speaking words that seem to be swept aside because what they are saying doesn't match what people want to hear. The prophetic voices that call for Biblical ethics Jesus himself taught are shouted down and booed when they call for care for the poor, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, medical care for the injured and the like. No, the interest seems to be in maintaining benefits for the rich and denying them to those who need them but can't afford it without help. People do make bad choices, but there are a lot of Job-like people in this world who have tried to do the right thing, live within their means, provide for their families and help others but who find themselves one paycheck or less away from homelessness. Quoheleth seems to have been able to see that and not had a lot of faith that things would come out right for them.
What would Quoheleth say if he saw educational programs that produce well-rounded and well-educated people are cut while multimillion-dollar corporations find loophole after loophole in the tax laws that enables them to pay far less than a fair share to support those educational programs? I've been watching America's place in world rankings in educational performance by students drop year after year. What happened to wanting to be the best? We say we want our kids to have the best education, but then why do we vote to cut classes, programs and opportunities to teach our children not to just regurgitate facts but to actually think and reason out answers? I know there are corporations that have refused to consider some places in our country as opportunities for expansion because the potential work-force isn't well-educated enough. Wisdom seems to be a luxury we can't afford.
What I gain from Quoheleth in this passage is that even though people may follow a wise person for a time, when it is expedient, they usually wander away to a flashier, more glib-tongued one who promises that they and only they only can make things better. I think that's why I (and others) have such a hard time reading the Prophets; they don't promise sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. They weren't foretelling the future like a crystal ball gazer or reader of cards or sticks, they were looking about them, seeing what was happening and commenting on the potential consequences of such a course. Quoheleth simply took a pithier way of pointing out that same kind of thing. Despite the brevity, I fear that the wisdom in this passage is doomed to be often overlooked or pooh-poohed away in favor of a silver tongue or a hundred of them promising quick fixes without either understanding the depth of the problem or the actual "Christian" values they claim to represent. It's a lot easier for them to try to legislate morality than it is to balance a budget in a way that is fair and equitable. It's easier to court the rich than serve the poor.
I have a feeling I need to delve more deeply into the wisdom of Quoheleth. Perhaps in his words I can see my own cynicism and perhaps find a better way to see and react to the world around me. I wouldn't mind being a wise person for a change.
Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, June 13, 2012.