In Ecclesiastes 7 Solomon has been promoting a call to discernment. Sometimes we have to discern between things that are good and things that are bad; other times we discern between the good and the best. Solomon has used the form “better than” throughout Ecclesiastes 7:1-11 to encourage us to choose the best out of life.
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. 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 bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–14).
In all of these varied exhortations about life and death, about wisdom and folly, about waiting patiently to see what God will do, the Preacher is teaching us the right way to live and to look at life.
He ends these exhortations by restating the value of wisdom, which he says
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
A fool squanders his birthright (cf. Luke 15:11–32), but wisdom is good with an inheritance and enables one to make good use of it. Wisdom is similar to money in that both offer the possessor some real protection against the misfortunes of life. A point in favor of wisdom, however, is that it preserves the life of him who has it. As a general rule, living wisely receives God’s blessing, including long life, even if it cannot provide eternal life.
Prosperity is a good thing, especially if one has wisdom. This allows him or her to deal with adversity.
Money is indeed a shadow. It “brings many new friends” (Prov. 19:4), protects from foes, and secures many external blessings. Thus “the rich man’s wealth is his strong city. The ransom of a man’s life are his riches.” (Prov. 10:15; 13:8.) But they “profit not in the day of wrath.” (Prov. 10:2.)
But the value of wisdom is greater.
What’s so valuable about wisdom?
First, wisdom enriches. A wise father once said to his sons, “I give you good precepts” (Proverbs 4:2). If the father gave boring precepts, or useless precepts, then the son may have a reason not to listen. But the wise instruction of the father is valuable. We hear of the richness of wisdom in Proverbs 3:13-14 which says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Would you turn down a bag full of silver and gold? I don’t think I would! But if I had a bag full of silver and a bag full of wisdom. Which would you choose? Get wisdom.
Wisdom not only enriches, it protects. “Do not forsake her (wisdom), and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you” (Proverbs 4:6). Wisdom is not only like money, it’s also like a fortress. And we need a fortress. We need sound words to shield us from worldly propaganda, the temptation of the devil, and dumb ideas that rise up right out of our own flesh. If you get wisdom, you can stand against the enemy. He will fire those arrows at you and you’ll deflect them all day! Oh, how dreadful it will be for those who laugh at the teaching of wisdom’s protection when they find themselves face to face with the most vicious enemy they’ve ever seen.
Third, wisdom exalts. “Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you” (Proverbs 4:8). Wisdom always lifts up. You can count on it. The person who gets wisdom will do what is honorable and in the end be esteemed for it. On the other hand, the pursuit of fame and stardom is the distortion of this principle. Those who lust after the glory that comes from man forsake the pursuit of wisdom. And in the end, such people will be sitting in the worst seats at the table.
Along with exalting, wisdom beautifies. “She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:9). Wisdom will bring marvelous realities into your life. If you don’t get wisdom then your life will be dull, drab, and dreary. If you get wisdom, your life will be full of the opposite. You will look upon glorious, splendid, and magnificent things. If this son gets wisdom, if he holds fast to it, he will be able to sit down at the end of his life and say to God, “You have done glorious things.”
Here’s a summary of the value of wisdom. The wise father says, “Keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4). Live an enriched life. Live a protected life. Live an honorable life. Live a beautiful life. (The preceding five paragraphs are from Jared Longshore’s article at https://founders.org/2018/05/01/the-value-of-wisdom/)
Verse 12 continues the comparison between wisdom and money.
12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
Both can protect a person. The Preacher knows all too well that money does not last forever. But as long as we have it, money is useful in providing some protection against the practical difficulties of everyday life. Money, after all, buys food, clothing and shelter.
If you have money, when adversity strikes—the loss of a job, a sputtering economy, a natural disaster—you have some shelter and security. The word protection here is more literally translated “shade.”
Monetary savings is a protection on many fronts. For example, it protects against a reversal such as sickness or job loss. Money can also work as a sort of protection against foolishness. It might allow us time to reflect and pursue understanding.
Similarly, wisdom is a protection for the soul. It helps us deal with the reality of death. It guards us against the folly of rash anger. It helps us take a long-term view of what God is doing in the world. Wisdom may even save our souls, for the Preacher claims that it “preserves the life of him who has it” (Ecclesiastes 7:12). That the wise normally live longer than the foolish is a theme of the Scriptures (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:3).
A wise man can save a city of few people from a powerful king (9:13-15). Wisdom protects against bodily injury (10:8). Wisdom produces energy and makes one resourceful (4:5). Wisdom helps a person get along with people, especially with those in high positions (7:9). Wisdom makes for needed follow-through in tackling tough challenges (7:8). In ways far too numerous to mention, wisdom gives and preserves a person’s life.
True spiritual wisdom gives us spiritual vitality as long as we live, and when it comes time for us to die, it will lead us to everlasting life.
Of course, wisdom is personified as the person of Christ and “in him was life” (John 1:4). The gift of everlasting life has now been earned for those who trust in Jesus by the incarnation, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who rightly declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
The point is not to set wisdom on the same plane with material possessions. These riches (vv 11a, 12a) are used to enhance the value of wisdom. Wisdom is consistently pegged higher than gold or silver in the tradition (Prov 3:14; 8:19; 16:16). The profit (יתר yōtēr, יתרון yitrôn, vv 11b, 12b) is life. Both wisdom (Prov 31:10–31) and money (Prov 13:8) keep their owner alive, although no one can escape death.
It is clear in the book of Ecclesiastes, as in Proverbs, that it is good for a person to be wise, whether he be rich or poor. And it is bad to lack wisdom, to be a fool, no matter how rich a fool he might be.
Money can protect us from a lot of things in this life, but it can’t protect us as well as wisdom.
The optimum is to have wisdom and money. Like Abraham and Job in the end (Job 42), he has been immeasurably blessed materially, but more importantly, he has the God-given wisdom of trusting in God which keeps everything in its proper perspective, allowing him to enjoy the gifts of God without being corrupted by wealth in the process (Eccles. 7:7).
Charles Ward had this kind of wisdom. Ward served in the Union Army as a sergeant with the 32nd Massachusetts Volunteers. In one of his last letters home, he wrote, “I hope I may come home again but life here is uncertain.” The soldier was right about the uncertainties of life and death because a few days later he was mortally wounded in the bloody wheat field at Gettysburg. Although he lingered for a little while, Ward died within the week. In his last letter home he wrote, “Dear Mother, I may not again see you but do not fear for your tired soldier boy. Death has no fears for me. My hope is still firm in Jesus. Meet me and Father in Heaven with all my dear friends. I have no special message to send you but bid you all a happy farewell. Your affectionate and soldier son, Charles Ward.” (quoted in Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking–Penguin, 2006), p. 237)
Wisdom is able to help us when life doesn’t turn out the way we expected. That’s what the next two verses are about.
13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Our wisdom is limited. We cannot figure out everything that God does. Some things will always be a mystery to us. “Through wisdom they can analyze their problems, verbalize them, learn to cope with them, and even gain a measure of protection from them, so that their lives are preserved (7:12). However, when it comes to analyzing many intractable problems and actually fixing them, even the wisest of people are powerless. They cannot change their crooked circumstances, which persist as facts of life in this sinful world” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 254).
In fact, we cannot even change our own moral or physical crookedness. Solutions can only come from outside of ourselves, from God Himself.
True God-fearing wisdom looks at what God has done, or is doing, and lets God be God. As James Bollhagen reminds us, “Recognizing the limitations of human wisdom may be the wisest thing a person can ever do” (Ecclesiastes, p. 254).
When the Preacher talks about something “crooked,” he is not referring to something that is morally out of line, as if God could ever be the author of evil. Instead, he is talking about some trouble or difficulty in life we wish we could change but cannot alter. Physical disabilities, relational conflicts, even death lie in view here.
Verse 14 affirms the reality we all know: There will be good days and bad days. There will be days straight as an arrow and days that are as crooked as a mountain road. We live in a fallen world of twists and turns that cause our heads to spin and our stomachs to churn.
But God is sovereign over both. He made both of them. The Preacher is telling us that whether things seem crooked or straight, we need to see our situation in terms of the sovereignty of God. According to the Puritan theologian Thomas Boston, if God is the one who made the crook in our lot, then we need to see that crook as the work of God, which it is vain for us to try to change.
This statement in v. 13 is somewhat different from a very similar statement in chapter 1. There, in Ecclesiastes 1:15, Solomon had said: “What is crooked cannot be made straight.” There is no mention of God at all. But here in chapter 7 he brings God back into the picture. He is looking at the world from God’s viewpoint, what we might call “above the sun” thinking. He is categorizing both the straight and the crooked things in life under God’s divine sovereignty.
We cannot change God’s determined plans. We don’t have the power to change His plans. But far from driving us to despair, the sovereignty of God gives us hope through all the trials of life.
He is “working all things together for our good” according to Paul in Romans 8:28. That does not mean that everything that happens in our life is good, but that He is able to take both the good and the bad and weave it together for a good purpose—to conform us to the image of His Son Jesus Christ.
Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God helps us know how to respond to all the joys and trials of life. Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, there is always a way for us to glorify God. The Preacher says, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
Some think that Solomon is sinking back down into despair here, but I think Solomon is just telling us how to respond rightly to the ups and downs of life.
By saying this, Qoheleth puts today and every day under the sovereignty of God. Some days are full of prosperity. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all is right with the world. There is food on the table and money in the bank. If there is work to do, it is the kind of work that we enjoy doing. If we are taking the day off, we get to spend it the way we want to spend it, with the people we love. Every such day is a gift from God that calls us to be joyful.
That is our job. That is our role—to enjoy and appreciate the good things that God brings into our lives.
Here the Preacher celebrates the kind of meaningful hedonism that he has talked about several times already. Every fine day, every good meal, every financial windfall, every meaningful conversation, every pleasurable experience, every success in ministry — every blessing of any kind at all — is another reason to return praise and thanks to God.
Our primary purpose, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, is to “glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” He is our primary, unchanging joy.
But we are also to enjoy all things for His sake, for His glory. Whenever we encounter God’s goodness through the good gifts that He provides, we are to rejoice and enjoy them fully.
But not every day is like that. Some days are full of trouble, some months and years are full of trouble. In this case the sun is dark, the birds are dumb, and everything seems wrong with the world. Work is a chore, vacation is boring, and we may feel as if we do not have even one single friend in the world.
Yet this also comes from the hand of God, who has literally everything under His control. While we may not be able to be joyful on such a difficult day, we can remember that this too is from God. We can rest in the fact that He has it all under control and that nothing thwarts His plans.
“Shall we receive good from God,” Job asked on the day of his adversity, “and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). We should acknowledge that both the good days and the bad days come from the hand of God.
And realize that Solomon is not saying that the righteous experience all the good things and wicked people experience the troublesome times. No, good times come to both the righteous and wicked in God’s common grace, and bad times afflict both the righteous and the wicked.
Warren Wiersbe explains: “”God balances our lives by giving us enough blessings to keep us happy and enough burdens to keep us humble.”
It is impossible for us to predict what will happen in the coming days. As the Preacher says, “man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). We have no way of knowing whether the coming days will bring us greater prosperity or more adversity.
Living with this kind of uncertainty need not cause us anxiety or despair; rather, it should teach us to leave our future in the hands of God, to trust Him with everything.
Most of us would prefer to control our own destiny. But don’t miss the blessing by trying to change what cannot be changed. Instead, we should entrust our lives to the loving care of our sovereign God. If we do this, we will be well prepared for both the good days and the bad days. In his comments on this verse, Martin Luther gave the following pastoral advice: “Enjoy the things that are present in such a way that you do not base your confidence on them, as though they were going to last forever . . . but reserve part of our heart for God, so that with it we can bear the day of adversity.”