May 25, 2016

The Religion of Fools or the Wise

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher lays out and contrasts the life of wisdom with that of folly. Both lifestyles are in fact thoroughly religious, and in the end, we will live in relation to God as either covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers. 

One of my favorite books of Scripture is Ecclesiastes. It is marvellously profound yet down to earth and practical, coming to the heart of the human condition in light of the Fall of man. The book sets up a radical antithesis between the religion of fools and that of the wise; between the covenant keeper and the covenant breaker; between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of men. As the ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’ comes to the very end of his thought and brings his penetrating discourse to a conclusion, we are told that he has taught us knowledge (Eccl. 12:9) and has also arranged this Solomonic wisdom in many Proverbs with great care. He has offered words of delight and in uprightness served us words of truth (Eccl. 12:10).

We are also given a potent images of the function of God’s wisdom for life. True wisdom is like a goad – a long spiked stick that guides cattle and prevents them wandering –, or like nails firmly fixed that hold firm in the face of all the weight, duress and pressures of life. This supernatural wisdom comes from one divine Shepherd (Eccl. 12:11) and it was to a lifelong sharing of this wisdom that the Teacher gave his scholarly time and effort, both in what is written down in the Solomonic wisdom literature, but also in his many oral discourses. We read of these interactions in 1 Kings 4:32-34:

 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.

We notice in this text that the covenantal treasure of wisdom, some of which the Teacher has shared with us from all that God gave him in the midst of his diverse experience of life, is not narrow and limited to a ‘sacred’ or so-called ‘religious’ realm of personal piety. Rather, it deals with and touches every area of life. As Michael Kelley has so ably stated it:

The words of Ecclesiastes address the problem of man on a civilizational level. They speak to men as kingdom builders of one sort or another, as workers either on behalf of God’s kingdom or man’s kingdom. Each kingdom perspective is founded on a philosophy of life, on a word of wisdom that clarifies both the starting-point and the goal to be achieved. Man in his rebellion has proudly looked to self-generated wisdom ideals to erect his paradise on earth. He confidently believes himself to be in possession of the correct agenda for life and culture. He steadfastly denies that his civilizational endeavors must conform to what God says. It is the purpose of Ecclesiastes to expose as false the self-sufficiency of humanist man’s ideals.… It is tragic that many Christians in our own day have found that living in obedience solely to God’s word, while useful perhaps for personal and subjective interests, is quite unacceptable for the total program of culture. Across the spectrum of the Christian community a growing acceptance of the humanistic wisdom can be disturbingly observed.[i]

The age in which the Teacher taught was, like our own, one in which the covenant people were being led astray by the siren song of pagan cultural ideals so that their obedience to the word-revelation of God was being undermined. The potent message of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes therefore urges a faithful adherence to the way of wisdom – even when it is unpopular, despised, or seems fruitless at the time. Covenantal wisdom in Scripture is something that must be planted deep into our being so that it might become all-pervasive and bear its fruit over the long-term. Thus, Solomon’s objective in Ecclesiastes is not merely to teach a few profound truths in a creative or pithy format, but to make the remembrance of our creator and his covenant a daily and living reality in each area of life (Eccl. 12:1).

The Teacher therefore reminds us that his wisdom constitutes words of truth from one shepherd (Eccl. 12:10-11) to keep us on the right path with the goads of God. This shepherd is the Lord of the covenant who brings every secret thing into judgment (Eccl. 12:14). This word of truth, the word of God, is not simply a collection of words to be analyzed and scrutinized by theologians (or anyone else for that matter), it is something much deeper than that – and the whole biblical view of wisdom leads us toward this deeper understanding – the word of truth is the driving, illuminating, and directing principle and power of our entire life.

This understanding is what is so often missing among Christians today (as it often has been in times past). We are all too anxious to accommodate scriptural revelation about its own nature, place and role in our lives, to inherited Greek (humanistic philosophical) ways of thinking, so that it loses its radical grip upon us. Yet in Scripture we read that God’s word opens our hearts and lives to see the entire human situation in terms of the ground motive of God’s kingdom – the Creation, Fall and Redemption in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. In this way the word of God directs the religious centre of our being to God where it is concentrated on whole-hearted service to him in the totality of our lives. The late Christian thinker Evan Runner is therefore right to conclude:

Thus we arrive at the insight that our whole life is religion. And that not only for Christian believers (true religion), but also for unbelievers. For unbelief is not described in Scripture as absence of belief, but as mis-directed belief. Religion…is man’s ineradicable situation: he has been created “before God” (coram Deo) and must render an account of his doings and ways. It is the role of the Word that comes from God to illumine our hearts and direct our goings. But likewise, men who lack this light and direction are prompted, by reason of their (now perverted) religious nature to do for themselves what the word of God ought to do for them…; fallen man, being a religious being (who must have a word that reveals the order and structure of things), never just ‘accepts the facts’ but rather invents, finds a way to put the facts so that he will be safe without God. In this way, apostate man appropriates to his own heathen pistical phantasy the role that the word of God really has, and thus from the beginning places himself in a world where the relations are (imagined) other than they really are. He lives the lie. Human analysis takes place within the context of the lie or of the truth.[ii]

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher shows us that all of life is indeed religion – we live by wisdom or folly for all of life! All analysis of life in every sphere and in every aspect must therefore take place in the context of the truth for the Christian. This is where God’s wisdom and human wisdom radically depart from one another. And it is for this reason that the Teacher tells us, “My son, beware of anything beyond these…; of making many books there is no end (Eccl. 12:12).” Covenantal wisdom is concerned with reverencing God (constant awareness of our covenantal relationship to him) and obeying God as our whole duty (Eccl. 12:13) – not merely a narrowly-conceived ‘sacred’ or religious duty for a small part of my private life. The Teacher’s words are therefore words of truth (Eccl. 12:10) and so our analysis of all human thought and action must take place in the context of the truth of God’s wisdom or be, intrinsically, analysis based upon the lie.

Happily, the wisdom of God comes to us, not in a great philosophical system, but in word and power, by the Holy Spirit. The apostle John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and by his Spirit his Word abides in us (John 15:7). Critically, in its inscripturated form, God’s word is not a philosophical treatise.

Ecclesiastes certainly gives us a God-centred philosophy of life, but it comes to us in testimony, proverb, parable and principle, speaking to our hearts with power – not as a philosophical theory. God’s word does not contain theories, but God’s foundational wisdom that made all things and is redeeming all things. By the Holy Spirit, every believer has access to God’s wisdom in Jesus Christ. We will either live by this in every sphere of life as those who truly love wisdom – that is with a Christian or scriptural philosophy (lit. love of wisdom) – or we will live the lie and partake in the religion of fools.


[i] Michael Kelley, The Burden of God: Studies in Wisdom and Civilization from the book of Ecclesiastes (Minneapolis: Contra Mundum, 1993), 150.

[ii] Evan Runner, Walking in the Way of the Word: The Collected Writings of H. Evan Runner (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2009), 180-181.


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