The week before last I was helping a group called Agape do questionnaires with the students at University of Limerick. One of the questions we asked people was, ‘what is humankind’s greatest problem?’ Suggested answers included ‘greed’ and ‘ego’. It struck me that no one claimed that humankind didn’t have a problem. We can see that society doesn’t behave as it ought.
However, if the question had been, ‘what is your greatest problem?’ with suggestions such as ‘greed’ and ‘ego’, I could imagine that people would get defensive. If we had asked, ‘are you a good person? I imagine most people would have answered ‘yes!’
But isn’t that inconsistent? We are happy to admit there is a problem with humanity, but we are not willing to accept that this problem includes us.
This morning’s passage tells us what humanity’s problem is: ‘God created humankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes’ (29). We read of the fall of humankind in the opening chapters of Genesis. We are now by nature rebels. And humanity’s problem is our problem: ‘there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one does what is right and never sins’ (20).
Solomon tells us of ‘the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly’ (25). We are stupid. The issue is not about how clever we are, but that we don’t know how to please and enjoy God. We put ourselves at the centre of our considerations, and so make terrible choices. We act in ways that lead to present and eternal regret.
But God has rescued his people from this stupidity. When he lovingly takes hold of a person, he changes our affections. He renews our thinking. He shows us the wisdom of centring our lives on him. He gives us a desire to live for his pleasure. He enables us to act in ways that are for our present and eternal good.
God’s wisdom us power (19-22)
‘Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city’ (19).
The foolish person only thinks in terms of ‘what would I like to do?’ ‘What is the easiest thing course of action?’ ‘What would benefit me right now?’ The wise person thinks more carefully. Wisdom involves seeing things from God’s perspective, and asks, ‘what would God have me do?’ ‘Where does God’s Word lead me?’ ‘What would Jesus do if he was in this situation?’
But what makes a wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city? One thing that makes a wise person powerful is that the wise person looks to God to help them control their tongue. Our words often get us into trouble. Foolish words damage our witness and our good name. The Proverbs tells us that ‘a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1).
Be carefully of speaking impulsively. Think before you open your mouth. Take a deep breath before you respond. You don’t need to have the last word. Some things are better left unsaid. Often it is better to lose an argument than lose a friend. Be quick to say sorry. Don’t talk too much. Solomon has already told us that ‘many words mark the speech of a fool’ (5:3).
Sadly, even those that God has given his wisdom to are aware that we often say foolish things. ‘Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—but you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others’ (21-22). Before we are too hard on those whose words are foolish, remember that we have said many foolish things ourselves.
By the way, do you really want to know what everyone thinks of you? It might not be pleasant to find out who we irritate! We may even feel that their assessment of you is a little harsh. But have we never made a harsh assessment of others? Have we never criticised someone in a way that we later regret? Maybe you were frustrated at the time, and you actually do like them. You would be embarrassed if they were to find out what you said. Others may feel the same about their criticisms of us!
Solomon teaching highlights our tendency to see ourselves as victims and not villains. We are quick to remember what someone said against us, but not so keen to recall the evil that we have said about others. We have been let down, and we have let down. We are called to forgive, as we have been forgiven. The wise person let’s love cover over a multitude of sins.
God’s wisdom gives us pleasure (23-29)
Isn’t it amazing that we can please God? God takes pleasure in the obedience of his children. While everything we do is stained by our self-centredness and ego, God makes our good works perfect. He breathes his grace over our acts of service and turns those weeds of deeds into the most fragrant of roses. At night climb into bed and review the day. There will be plenty to say sorry for, so confess and receive his forgiveness. But also think of the positive. There will have been times where he gave you the desire and power to resist temptation, and he is pleased with you. There will have been occasions when he showed you and enabled you to do the right thing, and he rejoiced.
Solomon mentions the issue of sexual temptation. We are fools when we allow lust to lead us. We feel embarrassment and regret when we check out that jogger as we drive along the road. We are messing with fire when we flirt with our co-worker. We experience disgust when we look at pornography. We damage our soul as we watch an inappropriate movie. The Christian cannot be happy when we act in a way that grieves our loving God.
God’s teaching on sex is such an example of his wisdom. God doesn’t restrict sex to marriage to be a killjoy, but because sex outside of marriage leaves emotional scars. Sex is too intimate to share with someone who will not commit to a lifelong covenant relationship with you. It is too precious to be treated as a cheap thrill.
Solomon says that the man who pleases God will escape seduction (26). How do we escape the enticement of lust? One way is to fight pleasure with pleasure. Fight the cheap pleasure of a cheap thrill, with the lasting pleasure of knowing God’s delight. Confess your failings and celebrate your victories. When you avert your eyes from a tempting image, rejoice. When you change the channel or close your lap-top, rejoice. Rejoice that God is delighting in your actions!
Before we finish, notice that Solomon claims that he only found one upright man among a thousand and not one upright woman among them all (28). Doesn’t that sound a little sexist? The Old Testament has too many female heroes for this to be a sexist book. It may actually be a reflection on Solomon himself. Solomon knew godly men like the prophet Nathan, but he always chased after ungodly women who actually turned his heart to idolatry. Indeed, he is an example of the danger marrying people who do not share your love for God.
Solomon concludes that, ‘God created humankind upright, but they have gone is search of many schemes’ (29). This human problem is our problem: ‘there is no-one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins’ (20). There is stupidity is wickedness and madness in folly (25). But Jesus died to make us wise. He has taking the punishment for our madness. He has given us a new heart, and desires to please our Heavenly Father. So let us not play the fool. Let us ask him to give us wisdom every day. That we would know and do and delight in his will.