Wisdom Guards in the Way of Spiritual Reflection

Previous article in this series: August 2016, p. 443.

Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city. For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. Ecclesiastes 7:19-22

The Word of God is a light in a world of darkness and sin. The knowledge of that Word, directing us to God Himself, also shines on the works of God in creation, providence, and the life of the world around us. It gives wisdom as a spiritual gift, which serves as a guide through the temptations of pride and the lusts of the flesh. The internal principle of wisdom is the fear of God, that humble reverence of faith, which seeks to walk after the will of God. It is thus that “. . .he that feareth God shall come forth of them all” (Eccl. 7:18). The path of life is fraught with many temptations; through them wisdom is a guide.

“Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city” (Eccl. 7:19). The wise man strengthened by wisdom is one who fears God and holds the light of His Word by faith. It is the wisdomimparting Word that makes one spiritually strong. The text uses a comparison of ten men in a city, ten being the natural number of completeness. The ten men are mighty earthly rulers. The idea of the text implies that they make the city strong by protecting it from the enemy without and maintaining order within. A city blessed with such mighty men is safe and secure, well-founded, and rightly governed in the world.

Wisdom from God, however, gives a greater strength, for it affords a spiritual foundation beyond the life of the world: a guide through the dangers of sin and temptation. It keeps one from the way of pride and folly. It governs the spirit with humility and discernment. It, in effect, stands beside the one who is wise, making him stronger than the mere earthly power of the ten mighty men in a city.

The reason for this, and the need of it at the same time, are found in the explanation given: “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Eccl. 7:20). A man righteous before God, whose walk is upright and godly, is yet a sinner. He is just in his dealings “upon earth” and does good. Solomon himself, in his judgment on the throne, was such a man. He ruled with wisdom and ordered the coming and going of his kingdom likewise, so that the Queen of Sheba stood in wonder at the wisdom and order of his kingdom. In this too, Solomon was a type of Christ.

For all that—and our text is an indirect confession on Solomon’s part—he was still a sinner. For all the glory of his kingdom and wisdom, Solomon had many sins, particularly his heathen wives, his condoning of their idolatry, and, as he grew older, the stubbornness of his temper. Wisdom gives strength to see one’s own sin and humble one’s pride before God in repentance. It leads to a spiritual reflection on one’s own sin and weakness.

Wisdom is a means to restrain, to guard and to guide in the way, but grace alone in Christ takes away sin. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 44, Q&A 114 mirrors the idea of the text in connection with the law of God:

But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments? No, but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

Wisdom strengthens the man who is a sinner to keep him from the folly of his own sinful human nature. It guards him in the way from the corruptions of the flesh and works a sober reflection on his own infirmity after the flesh. This is Solomon’s own reflection, which shapes his conclusion at the end of the Ecclesiastes: “. . .Fear God and keep his commandments. . . . For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl. 12:13, 14).

It is in the light of that reality of man’s sin and depravity by nature that Solomon then illustrates the value of wisdom and the reflection it occasions by directing us to the sin against the ninth commandment into which we also fall: “Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others” (Eccl. 7:21, 22).

The illustration is well chosen, for this sin is found in everyone. Often, it lies hidden in the mind and heart. Rather than pointing to a great or manifest gross sin, he points to one close to home. Solomon’s palace and court were filled with many servants going about their business. Sins of pride, frustration, and anger were a constant reality in such an environment, much like a corporate office with a large staff today. Today, we would also have to add email and other means of communication such as social media.

Walking those halls of the palace, Solomon would hear his servants’ voices, speaking to themselves under their breath, murmuring to one another, complaining, sometimes openly venting their anger, sometimes speaking softly in frustrated bitterness. There were times when, indeed, they cursed him over things small or great. The echo of their voices reached him down the corridors. He heard or sensed what was being said, alone or in the group down the hall. The way of wisdom, was to “pay no heed unto all the words that are spoken.”

The way of wisdom was to pass by without turning his attention to it, “lest thou hear thy servant curse thee.” Love exercised in wisdom covers a multitude of such sins, while pride seeks a confrontation and one’s own glory.

The reason given is rooted in the spiritual reflection and, therefore, restraint that wisdom gives as a guard against the self-willed impulses that cause one to seek his own glory. Wisdom leads one rather to search his own heart, to recognize the root of sinful infirmity that likewise lies in one’s own flesh. “For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.” That knowledge, the self-knowledge of the heart, is the fruit of discernment wrought by wisdom as a grace of God.

The servant and his master are both alike sinners, and sin arising from within comes out of our mouth. To our shame, the mouth of a fool is often found with us. The counsel here is not to ignore sin when it is serious, but to take to heart, first of all, our own infirmity, when we see the weaknesses of others, such that we confess our own need of grace and forgiveness and walk in patience, meekness, and forgiveness with others.

It is a sober reflection that “there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Eccl. 7:20).