The Limitations of Wisdom

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 9:13–16 (ESV)

13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 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. 15 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. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.

Understanding and Applying the Word

How valuable is wisdom? How much difference does it really make in the end? Here we read the story of how a poor man with great wisdom saved a city from being captured by a more powerful enemy. This may seem to tell us that wisdom is of great value and that through it we can find meaning and purpose in life. However, we also read, “Yet no one remembered that poor man.” In the end the poor man was forgotten and his wisdom left nothing lasting for him.

It is true that wisdom does have its advantages in life. This is the point of verse 17. However, in the context of the entire book of Ecclesiastes, wisdom proves to be vanity in bringing lasting meaning and fulfillment to life. After all, just as the poor man in the story, we will all die and soon be forgotten, even if we are wise. There must be something else to give meaning or we have to admit that it is all meaningless. Thankfully, there is more and Jesus Christ gives us the answers to our search for meaning and purpose. God is there and the grave is not the end of the story. Want to know more? Grab a Bible and begin reading in one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) about the person of Jesus.


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We Never Know the Time

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 9:11–12 (ESV)

11 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 favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Life goes by quickly and we never know when it will end. We may think we have many years ahead, but that can change in the blink of the eye. It does not matter how smart one is, how fit, how strong, how wealthy, or anything else. Death can, and often does, come unexpectedly.

We must live our lives today. We cannot assume we have tomorrow because we may not. This means we need to love our families and friends today. If we have unresolved conflict, we should take care of it now. And we need to prepare today to stand before our Creator, who will judge each and every person. Live today as if it could be your last. One day it will be.


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Enjoy Your Life

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 9:7–10 (ESV)

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Understanding and Applying the Word

In light of the reality of death, which Solomon has been writing about previously, he encourages his readers to go out and enjoy life. He mentions that “God has already approved what you do.” This does not mean that God approves of whatever one may do, whether good or evil, but that God has already approved that we should enjoy the good gifts that he gives us. Solomon tells us that we should wear our finest clothing and anoint our heads with oil. Enjoy life because it will quickly come to an end. This is just reality.

This life is fleeting, but we must not forget that it is a gift from God to be enjoyed. There are many wonderful things we experience in our few years. We must take the time to smell the roses, eat good food, play with our children, enjoy our spouses, and give glory to God for it all. And as we are reminded of the goodness of life and the reality of death, let that point us to Jesus Christ who promises eternal life to all who will trust in him.


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The Certainty of Death

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 9:1–3 (ESV)

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Understanding and Applying the Word

No matter who you are. No matter what you have done. There is one thing that is true for every one of us. We are all going to die. The wicked and the righteous, the moral and the immoral, as well as the religious and the irreligious all face the same end. This all seems like vanity. How can we make any sense of life where death is the reality for all?

The clue is in the first verse. We are all in the hand of God. It is God that makes the difference. Yes, we will all face physical death, but because Jesus conquered the grave, those who trust in him are promised that the grave is not our final destination. There is resurrection and eternal life for all who believe and belong to Jesus. So, the true final destination is not the same for all. The wicked and rebellious will face eternal condemnation, while the righteous and those of faith will live in the presence of God in a new creation where sin and death are no more. All is not vanity in Christ.


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Some Things Are a Mystery

Shaped by the Word is a daily, Bible-reading devotional. I do not publish supplemental material on Sundays, but I do include a suggested Scripture reading. Please be sure to subscribe to this page to follow along every day. Thanks for reading!

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 8:16–17 (ESV)

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.

This Upside Down World

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 8:14–15 (ESV)

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

Understanding and Applying the Word

In verse 14, we read what has been stated earlier in Ecclesiastes. Life does not always give us the outcomes we expect. Sometimes the wicked live long and prosperous lives and sometimes the righteous live short and difficult lives. It all seems like vanity. Solomon’s conclusion is that we should simply seek to find joy in the days that we have.

The writer of Ecclesiastes seeks to find meaning and purpose and fulfillment in life from a naturalistic perspective. He speaks of his thinking as “life under the sun”. However, he also reminds us that life is more than this. He reminds us that our lives are given to us by God. It is because of God that we can find joy and contentment in this life that often seems unfair. It is because of God that we know that there is more and that the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be judged.


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Is Evil Rewarded?

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 8:10–13 (ESV)

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Today, we read of the seeming unfairness of life. The wicked die and are buried and receive dignified burials. Even though they do many evil things, they live long lives and justice does not come soon enough. It seems like complete vanity. Should not evil be judged and the wicked be cut off from life? They certainly should not be honored in their burials. Yet, this is not what we observe in life where evil seems to be rewarded.

The second half of the passage tells us that, while evil may seem to win for a time, we can be sure that those who fear God will see justice done. The wicked will be dealt with and judged by God. Scripture tells us that there is everlasting condemnation for those who are the enemies of God and everlasting life for those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus Christ. The final Judge will bring complete justice to all. We must live our lives according to this truth.


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The Sinful Heart

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 7:23–29 (ESV)
23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me.
24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness.
26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.
27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things—
28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.
29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Solomon starts these verses by saying, “All this I have tested by wisdom.” He is referring to all he has said previously. He has tried to understand life and its meaning and purpose. He has especially tried to reconcile the meaning of life with the reality of death. He tells us that he is unable to understand these things even though he has sought to do so. The answers are far from him and too deep to find.

After this opening statement Solomon goes on to tell us what he has learned about mankind. People are sinful. Our lives are filled with wickedness and foolishness. He speaks of women whose hearts are snares and nets. Before you think Solomon is anti-woman, he tells us that men are no better. He sought out to find an upright man and found only one in one thousand. Solomon’s point is that such a person is rare. God created mankind upright, but we have sought out many schemes. We have gone our own way and we are sinful.

Solomon’s observation about the sinfulness of mankind is echoed throughout Scripture. We are told that every one of us is a sinner and separated from God because of our sin. Our sin deserves punishment and condemnation, but God, who is merciful, has given his Son as a sacrifice for our sin. All who trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ will be saved and inherit eternal life. It is an amazing thing to look out at the world and see the evil of the hearts of mankind and then realize that God is at work to save us from our sin. That is the wisdom that we need and it comes through the message of the gospel.


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Pining for Yesterday

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 7:7–10 (ESV)
7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Understanding and Applying the Word

The four verses we read today tell us of the effects of four different types of trials. The first is oppression, which can cause even the wise to do things they normally would not, such as take a bribe. The second verse calls for patience, as the end of a thing is better than its beginning and patience is better than pride. The third tells us not to rush into anger. Doing so is the way of fools. And the fourth tells us not to wish for former days. To do so is unwise. Much like the Israelites who wished to be back in Egypt, pining for the past distracts us from living in the present and fulfilling the things we are called to do now.

Life is a constant challenge, but we must learn to live every day to the glory of God. Each day has its own set of difficulties and distractions, but with God’s help, we can live for him no matter what comes our way. We must always remember that God has placed us right where we are at this very time for his purposes. It is our proper response to live faithfully and proclaim the gospel so that Jesus Christ might be made known to the world. May we seek to live today and every day for the glory of God.


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Sorrow Is Better than Laughter

Reading the Word

Ecclesiastes 7:1–6 (ESV)
1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

Understanding and Applying the Word

We all want to live lives of comfort, ease, and happiness. Why does Solomon tell us that it is better to mourn than feast? Why does he tell us that sorrow is better than laughter? And why does he say that the heart of the wise is in the house of morning rather than the house of mirth?

The greatest lessons of life are learned in the struggles and difficulties. When things are going well, we hardly stop to consider the deeper matters of life. We do not ask what life is about or what the most important things in life are when we are laughing and having fun and it seems like things will continue on forever as they are. It is when our world is falling apart that we think long and hard about life. It is through sorrow and tears that we search for answers to life’s most important questions. The wise stop to consider these things and make sure they are focused on what is right and good and lasting. The fool, by contrast, seeks only pleasure.


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