This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Wisdom and its counterfeits

I’ve been thinking about Solomon a lot over the past few months. He asked God for wisdom, and God gave him not only wisdom, but prosperity and popularity. Possibly the last two were as much of a test of his character as they were a reward for his desire for God’s wisdom. At any rate, they were what took Solomon under. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a rare glimpse into this process.

In this post, I would to explore some of this a little.

First of all, we don’t have to look at Solomon and envy his gift of wisdom. God has made us the same offer. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV). But he also gives us a warning along with this offer, in the next verses. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8, ESV).

There is lots of evidence in the Bible that God answered Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. For instance, study Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, in 2 Chronicles 6. However, later in his life, Solomon gave in to a series of counterfeits that led to his downfall.

As I look at churches like the conservative Anabaptists, I see some of the same processes at work. That is the burden of my thoughts in these posts. Will we trade the true wisdom that comes from above for the counterfeits offered by this world? The temptation is great sometimes, both for individuals and for groups.

Counterfeit 1: Knowledge

Trading wisdom for knowledge is a great temptation, especially for people with brilliant minds. Solomon definitely had a lot of knowledge. In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes he talks about the water cycle, and wind patterns. Where he got this knowledge, I’m not sure. It may have been from his own observations. But he became intrigued by knowledge. In Eccl. 1:13, he said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” If you read this entire chapter, you will see that he sought this knowledge as an antidote for the seeming meaningless that he saw in life. He felt that nature and man were caught in a mindless spiral of uselessness and vanity.

The antidote didn’t cure the poison, however. In verse 18 of the same chapter, he stated, “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Seeking knowledge simply highlights the vexations of life, and Solomon soon saw right through that.

This thirst for knowledge is often evident in talented individuals. They gather books together, they learn the language and intricacies of various intellectual disciplines, and they immerse themselves in learning. But at the end of it all, they will look back at life like Solomon did and realize that knowledge doesn’t have the ability to bring satisfaction.

John Howard Yoder is an unfortunate example of someone who sought fulfillment in the study of theology and history. His immoral conduct showed clearly that his vast knowledge of history and the Bible, and thoughts about God and the Bible didn’t satisfy him. He excused his immorality as a part of his intellectual pursuits, but it seems likely that, like Solomon, he died a frustrated and unfulfilled person.

The contrary side of this can be a similar trap. In too many of the plainer groups today, ignorance is viewed as an answer to this problem. We take out children out of school after 10th grade, and get them to work learning “useful trades.” While this isn’t all wrong, the assumption too often is that “book learning” is a necessary evil but that working with our hands is somehow more “godly.”

The results of this response to the worship of knowledge has led to a dearth of people who can take the Bible and really study it and teach it. So many of the topics given by our people and the Bible studies taught by our people are simply shallow regurgitations of things that they have heard someone else say, and which they don’t really understand themselves.

Both the worship of knowledge and the worship of ignorance are definite counterfeits to the wisdom that is from above. Read 1 Cor. 1:17-31 for Paul’s input into this.

Counterfeit 2: Materialism and pleasure

In Eccl. 2:1, Solomon made a momentous decision. He said to himself,“Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” He tried wine first. He also built houses and planted vineyards for himself. He made gardens and parks, and planted orchards. He set up irrigation systems to water his horticultural masterpieces.

Along with all of this, he bought slaves and herds and flocks of animals — more than any other king in Jerusalem ever had. He hoarded together silver and gold, and other treasures. He even collected singers and concubines. He concludes his list like this: “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure…” (Eccl. 2:10a, ESV)

But even though Solomon was experimenting with pleasure and materialism in his search for meaning in life, his earlier wisdom hadn’t totally left him yet (see 2:9). He stepped back from all of this and took a look at the results of his experiment. Verse 11 of this same chapter is very enlightening: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Have you ever felt that way? I have. I can remember various times that I wanted something that I really didn’t need. I struggled with it and struggled with it until finally I found a “good” reason for buying what I wanted. The joy of my new possession seldom lasted more than a day or two, and often I wished I had my money back. We do well to heed Paul’s teaching: “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:6-8, ESV). (Read the context as well.)

I don’t think it is wrong to be frugal, and save for a rainy day. But too many Mennonite people (and other Christians) seem to have followed Solomon’s example of gathering possessions in order to find fulfillment in life. Many have even made it a pious occupation — insisting that their success is God’s blessing on them for being good Christians. Or if they don’t come out and say that, they feel that way inside.

Solomon’s example should show us the fallacy of that feeling.

Counterfeit 3: Work

Solomon seems to have been a real workaholic. But even his work drove him to despair because he realized that he was growing older and would die someday. Then what would become of the possessions and improvements that he had labored for? Why someone who hadn’t done any work for them would inherit them and use them in whatever way he wanted to. This frustrated Solomon, since he seemed sure that the next king would probably abuse this privilege. In Eccl. 2:18 and 19, he makes this interesting observation: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (ESV)

This is mine, Solomon is saying. Why should my son enjoy the benefits of what I have worked for? I want the joy myself! This seems like a selfish attitude, but in reality what bothered Solomon was the unfairness of it all. He had worked a lifetime, and now all the benefits were being snatched from him. So what fulfillment did work offer, if he couldn’t benefit from it? This seems to be the thrust of verses 20-22: “Sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

This frustrated Solomon so much that he actually insinuated that you might as well eat, drink and be merry with the fruit of your labor because if you don’t some else will. It would be better for you to enjoy what you have, than to leave it to someone who won’t appreciate it anyway.

This kind of philosophy is shocking to God-honoring, hard-working Mennonites. In many churches, it is a point of honor for you to take the material things you have and increase them. You might give them to the church when you die, or use them to start your children off in life — either is usually acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is if you are a parasite and can’t pay your own way in life, and need to depend on the church or the government to live.

Yet there is a sense in which Solomon is right. You will not find fulfillment in life by working, even if you are successful. He was the most successful “worker” of all time, yet in the end he reaped only vanity and frustration. If we could boil the message of Ecclesiastes down to one central complaint it would be this one, because Solomon keeps returning to it, over and over again.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Eccl. 6:1-2, ESV).

Counterfeit 4: Popularity

The Queen of Sheba summarized the world’s opinion of Solomon in 1 Kings 10:1-10 and 2 Chron. 9:1-9. The Bible says that “When the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon…, there was no more breath in her” (2 Chron. 9:3-4, ESV). The entire passages that cover her visit and their context are worth reading, just to get the complete impression. It would be very interesting to read the rest of the life story of Solomon, which was apparently recorded in books written by Nathan the prophet, Ahijah the Shilonite, and Iddo the seer. However, these writings have been lost, so we can only guess at the rest of the story.

Yet Solomon summarized his own popularity by giving the account of a poor wise man who was very popular for a little bit. “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. 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” (Eccl. 9:14-15, ESV).

Popularity is one of the most fleeting of life’s pleasures. Jesus said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). Unfortunately, plain people have gotten used to being highly thought of in today’s world. This is on the verge of becoming a trap for them, I fear. Normally the people who flatter you the most are the first to turn against you.

Popularity becomes a great trap for us if we depend on it for our fulfillment in life. There are times in life when we need to take a stand against the crowd in order to remain faithful to God. This becomes very hard to do, if we are accustomed to being popular and have grown to enjoy it. In fact, Jesus warned his apostles, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19, ESV). Sooner or later this hatred surfaces if we are following Christ.

Popularity is perhaps the most treacherous of the counterfeits that we are looking at here. Solomon lost his popularity at the end of his life, in spite of his efforts to maintain it by marrying the daughters of the rulers of the worldly kingdoms around him. While God didn’t remove him from the throne, because of his promise to David, he took most of the kingdom from Solomon’s son, however, and Israel never regained the glory it had once possessed under Solomon.

Counterfeit 5: Knowing about God rather than knowing God

This last counterfeit is one that probably traps more “Christians” than any other. The Bible speaks of those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5, ESV).

Many people know about God and think that this means that they are Christians. Solomon knew what God expected and was able to give good advice. The last verses in Ecclesiastes 11 and most of Ecclesiastes 12 are good teaching for all of us. However, there is really no indication that Solomon understood that pleasing God required more than a blind obedience to God’s law, and an intellectual assent to his plan.

When Solomon was young and saw his need of God, God came to him. God blessed him and offered his lifelong friendship. But Solomon’s eyes wandered away from God and his desire for intellectual and physical fulfillment in life led him away from the spiritual fulfillment that God offered him. In essence, you can’t really have both, and Solomon lost sight of that.

What is my passion in life? I think this is an indicator of whether we are finding fulfillment in genuine wisdom from above. Is my service to God because of my duty — something I need to do to avoid hell fire? Or do I serve him because I love him? Does his spirit bear witness with my spirit that I am his child (see Rom. 8:16)?

I’m afraid that too many plain people and others are satisfied with an intellectual knowledge of God, rather than a relationship with him. Most of the church’s problems stem from this fact.

So, will you be satisfied with the counterfeits? Or will you seek the true wisdom which is from above? It’s the most important decision we will ever face.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (14) But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. (15) This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. (16) For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (17) But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (18) And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, ESV).

Lester Bauman was born into an Old Order Mennonite family in Ontario and attends a Western Conservative Mennonite Fellowship church near Stirling, Alta.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!