Remain Teachable and Detached from Approval (Ecclesiastes 4:16-19)

If youth is wasted on the young — an observation widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) — then wisdom is wasted on the old.

During our lives we experience innumerable events, good and bad, listen to or witness the trials and achievements of family and friends, read hundreds (thousands) of books and newspapers, watch countless movies and TV shows.  If we pay attention, if we analyze the content of these many influences over the years, if we learn from them, then we gain wisdom. 

Solomon recognizes that just because we grow old doesn’t necessarily mean we grow wiser.  He says, in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16…

13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

After we have seen with Solomon the sights of the oppressed (Eccl. 4:1–3), the envious (vv. 4–6), and the isolated (vv. 7–12), finally we come to the king (vv. 13–16). In the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” the chorus goes:

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

As the song progresses, the Beatles sing of the old maid Eleanor Rigby and the forgotten Father McKenzie. Like the song “Eleanor Rigby,” the final verses of this section of Ecclesiastes picture an alone and forgotten person. Yet it is not the commoner who is in view, but a seemingly unforgettable king!

You might wonder if this portion of Ecclesiastes is somewhat autobiographical.  Solomon sure fits the portrait of one who was wise in youth and foolish in his latter years.  Although all the details do not fit, he surely followed some of this pattern.  The prison to throne portion fits the story of Joseph.

Solomon begins with another comparison (see vv. 3, 6, 9).  The point of this closing comparison is that it is better to lead with a teachable spirit than to be too proud to let anyone teach us anything at all.

In reality not every youth is wise, nor is every old person foolish.  The key issue is whether a person is willing to maintain an open, teachable attitude throughout life.  Sometimes the older we get the more stubborn we become.  Really, we should be life-long learners.

The first statement is a principle: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.”  This is followed by an example from life, although we do not know who fits this description.

Real worth is determined, not by external attainments, but by solid usefulness.

Solomon knew the value of wisdom.  It is what he asked God for.  God offered several coveted gifts but Solomon chose wisdom.  A good definition of biblical wisdom comes from Kenneth Boa:

Wisdom is skill in the art of living life with each component under the dominion of God… Wisdom includes the ability to use the best means at the best time to accomplish the best ends.  It is not merely a matter of information or knowledge, but of skillful and practical application of the truth to the ordinary facets of life.

When a person has wisdom, according to Proverbs, they will be successful in relationships, responsibilities and resources.

The story’s transitions are somewhat hard to follow, but apparently what happened was this: a young man unexpectedly rose to power, taking the place of the king who ruled before him. Though he had been born in poverty, he rose to the highest office in the land.

Some scholars think that verse 14 refers to the old king in his younger days, but more likely it refers to the younger and better man who took his place.

This new king ruled over a vast empire; there seemed to be no end to the people who followed him.  Yet even the new king could not rule forever.  Taken literally, verse 15 refers to a second youth, whom some scholars take to be the new king’s eventual successor.  Whether this is the right way to read the verse or not, verse 16 makes it clear that one day this king and every king will be forgotten.

Part of the lesson here is that fame is fleeting.  No matter how popular a ruler is, the day will come when someone else takes his place and all his glory fades away.  In the end, everyone turns out to be expendable.  Thus, looking to fame and power for satisfaction is another dead end game.

The old king may be past his prime, but the young upstart will not live forever either.  According to Derek Kidner, the new king “has reached a pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there. It is yet another of our human anticlimaxes and ultimately empty achievements” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 52).  We are thus reminded not to put too much stock in earthly position — either our own or anyone else’s.  Our fame will not last; our positions of authority or power will not last.

Thomas Constable says…

What is in view is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace (cf. Jeroboam, Solomon, and Rehoboam).  The point is that even though a man may rise from the bottom of society—this youth had been in prison—to the top, not everyone will accept or appreciate him.  Therefore, since it is impossible to achieve full acceptance, it is foolish to spend one’s life seeking it.  It is better to stay poor and wise.  We might respond by saying that some acceptance by other people is better than none, but this is an evaluation of short-term advantage.  Solomon was thinking and speaking of ultimate long-term significance.

The final scene (v. 16) describes a vast multitude of subjects acclaiming their loyalty to the second young king who stood before them as their newest ruler.  Yet the ringing cheers serve only to sober Koheleth, knowing as he does that the next generations (those who come afterward”) will take no more joy in this king than his generation took in his predecessor.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 126)

Don Meredith used to say about quarterbacks: “Today you’re in the penthouse.  Tomorrow you’re in the doghouse.”

Solomon is telling us that our hunger to be popular, to be approved by others, is a slippery slope.  Much better to live to please God.  Solomon is implying that it is much better to live simply, trust God, do good and don’t worry about what others think.

If you take an “above the sun” perspective, a much better way to live is to do some things that matter for eternity.  Serve Christ for as long as you can, then die well.  Enjoy God and His good gifts in life.

Even kings rarely impact the future in significant ways, and the acclaim they receive from their subjects is often short lived.  This illustrates Ecclesiastes 1:11’s claim that “there is no remembrance of former things” (ESV).

Solomon is reinforcing a theme from the beginning of the book.  Earthly life in all its aspects is temporary.  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (1:4).  The problems of one age will become the problems of the next.  The hopes spawned by the arrival of a new leader will be quickly dashed.  The next king, jealous to protect his own power, will re-write history in his favor.  But even that doesn’t matter, for the next generation will forget him.

Solomon will return to this theme again in chapter 9, but puts it in a different context:

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. 

Even the fame of good deeds will pass from memory.  Fame and accolades do not produce lasting advantage, so they are hebel.  The fame fades, and today’s popular figure becomes a forgotten artifact.

But there is another lesson here that we should be sure not to miss.  Of all the contrasts between the two kings — youth versus age, poverty versus wealth, wisdom versus folly — the most important is their attitude toward advice.  The old king “no longer knew how to take advice” (Ecclesiastes 4:13).

The “foolish king” loses his grip on the throne when he no longer heeds advice that would keep him out of trouble.  “Be admonished” recurs in 12:12, where the teacher warns against the making of books.  It is a favorite word in Ezekiel where it describes both divine warnings, and the kinds of alarms sounded by alert watchmen (chaps. 3, 33).  The senile king’s foolishness lulled him to sleep at the switch, and he was too foolish to know it.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 125)

It seems that the young man once filled with true wisdom and born from the school of hard knocks (v. 13) grows up to become an out-of-touch king who has forgotten his roots (v. 14).  And he is replaced by someone of lowly background who also forgets (v. 15).  In short, power always corrupts and becomes in-grown.

The wise person is open to instruction and correction, while the fool resists advice.  Since the old king apparently once behaved wisely, this suggests that a person’s commitment to wisdom must be persisted in and practiced throughout life.  This commitment, like many other things in the life of faith, requires a “long obedience in the same direction,” according to Eugene Peterson.  The arrogance of the king made him ineffective and likely contributed to his being replaced by the younger and wiser man.

As Matthew Henry says, “Folly and willfulness commonly go together, and those that most need admonition can worst bear it…”

In our case here, it might even be prison which provided wisdom.  Through trials we learn humility, trusting God and how much we need and depend upon others.  Trials help us to be more grateful, to see our own sinfulness, to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice more and to yearn for heaven more.  In all these ways we grow in wisdom.

In earlier days he had listened to his advisors, but now he kept his own counsel, and for this reason he had ceased to be of any real use to his people.  This tragedy has been repeated many times in the history of nations (and also, sadly, in the ministry of the church) as old men cling to positions of power, refusing to let go.

This story stands as a warning to older Christians.  We usually think that gray hair brings wisdom, and often it does.  But whether they are young or old, the wisest Christians are the ones who listen to counsel and, if necessary, accept correction.  

At the same time, this verse is an encouragement to younger Christians.  Even someone young and poor can do valuable work for the kingdom of God.  The way to do such work is not by telling other people what to do or seeking a more prominent position.  The way to do it is by having the wisdom to say, “I still have a lot to learn about life and ministry, and when the time is right, God will give me the right place to serve.”

The wise young man, according to Proverbs, starts with the fear of the Lord—a deep respect for God—believing that He exists, that He knows everything about us and will hold us accountable; but it continues by being willing to listen to the counsel of our parents (Proverbs 1:8).  All throughout Proverbs we observe how valuable a teachable spirit is.

Proverbs 9:9 says, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”

Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.”

Proverbs 13:10 says, “By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.”

And Proverbs 13:18 says, “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.”

Proverbs 15:31 says, “The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.”

Peter addresses the need for a teachable spirit in 1 Peter 5:5, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.  Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The best way to gain this wisdom is by turning to Jesus Christ, the only King whose fame will last forever.  The life of the Reformer John Calvin illustrates this principle well.  When he described his conversion to faith in Christ, Calvin said that God subdued his mind and brought it to “a teachable frame” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms , Vol. 1, trans. Rev. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), p. xl).  The word “teachable” occurs with some regularity in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion .  A disciple is simply a teachable follower of Christ.

It may sound hokey, but the truth is that growth in wisdom is only possible when we are willing to adapt a teachable spirit.  That means having a passion to learn, possessing an intention to learn daily, and reflecting on what we’re learning to know how to apply it.

The end of Ecclesiastes 4 is really the story of Jesus and his humble, teachable spirit.  The Bible says that when he was a young boy, living in the home of Joseph and Mary, “Jesus increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).

He must have been willing to listen to his parents.  He certainly listened to his Heavenly Father because he followed his Father’s counsel all the way to the cross where he died for our sins.  Then, when the time was right, the Father raised Jesus up from the grave to be our King.  Thus, the man born in poverty and obscurity was exalted to the throne of everlasting glory.

Now there is no end to all the people that Jesus leads — people all through history, from all over the world.  If we are wise, we will follow his example and live by his grace.  We will ask God to give us a teachable heart, without which we will never be ready to lead or to be useful in any other way for the kingdom of God.

We learn to live in submission and trust in Jesus.  No matter who the human leader may be, we know that He is the only true leader and the only One who can make any real difference in our lives and in the world.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell concludes:

Here his climax is anticlimactic.  But we may leave on a cheerful note—not a deep, sad note that sings about our “ultimately empty achievements,” but a high and happy note that sings of our Savior King and his unforgettable acts of salvation.  Comfort, contentment, and community are the antidotes for oppression, envy, and isolation, and Christ is the answer to it all.

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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