Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 43 : A Grumpy World?
Eccles 4:13-16 Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind
There are times in Scripture when I feel I need to create a memo pad which I take with me to heaven and ask the writer exactly what he meant. Today’s verses would be on that memo pad. They start out fairly clearly but they go on to leave us wondering. Let’s try and unravel it. Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. Well that seems fairly straight forward. Solomon compares wisdom and folly and says it is better to be young and poor with wisdom, than old and a king without wisdom. Who has he in mind when he speaks of this ‘foolish king’? Himself? It couldn’t have been David, his father, for that description really didn’t fit him. Perhaps it was Saul the first king of Israel who failed to realise that God’s blessing had left him and died for it.
But look next what he says: The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. The implication is that the youth becomes a king and, further, if he has wisdom it doesn’t matter what his origin was – prison or poverty. Prison? Perhaps he was thinking back to the stories of Joseph. Poverty? Perhaps he was thinking of David as a shepherd boy when he was called by God.
But then he continues, I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. What is this about? He has in mind the youth who succeeded this (presumably) foolish old king. Did he see himself as that youth who came with wisdom and received more wisdom? Or was he foreseeing what would happen after him? That seems unlikely because his own son, Rehoboam, acted very foolishly and his opposition, Jeroboam who took over the northern tribes, also acted foolishly. No, it is unclear who Solomon is thinking of. Yet this youth seems to have a great following in the people – but not for long! But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. A week in politics is a long time, they say. After the honeymoon period is over this new young man in the place of ruler, no longer seems to win the hearts of the people.
So what is Solomon saying here? This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. He looks at the coming and going of leaders. Some are wise and some are not. Even when he looks at the example of a wise young man who becomes ruler, he sees that this young man’s popularity soon wanes. It seems that even wisdom doesn’t please the people for ever. Yes, that is the message here. We may not know who Solomon had in mind when he gave these examples, but the message is clear: it seems that wisdom is an elusive thing that can be lost, but even where there is wisdom that doesn’t always satisfy every one.
Perhaps another way we might express this is that in a Fallen World where every person is tainted by sin – that tendency to self-centred godlessness which leads to unrighteousness – it will always be going wrong. You can be as wise as you like, as good as you like, but still sinful people will get upset with you. Does that mean we just give up and become miserable, critical and cranky? No, of course not! We, those of us who are Christians especially, should get the grace God provides and seek to be salt and light to impact the world for good. So Solomon may be right, that without God all the coming and goings in high places are meaningless, but that shouldn’t stop us seeking to bring good to the situation.
Surely this must apply to every area of life. In the Fallen World where sin infects and Satan seeks to upset, there is always the potential for things to go wrong, for people to be nasty, for people to get upset, for people to be selfish and uncaring. Yes, all of this is true, but it doesn’t mean we have to go along with it; in fact Solomon’s declaration at the end should provoke us to change it. When he looks at this situation and declares it is pointless like chasing after the wind, our conclusion ought to be, well yes it is, so let’s not live like this, let’s not go along with this way of behaving, let’s work to be different, let’s work to bring peace and harmony to this world, let’s work to love people and accept them when they are less than perfect, let’s be there for them and bring blessing to them. Can we be that salt and light (Matt 5:13-16) that Jesus spoke of?