The joker in this "build to make a name for ourselves" card game of life is Death. It may appear that a person's life is linear and not cyclic, but Solomon's wisdom discerned that a man's life is but a single turn of a much larger cycle that is powered by birth and death. If there was no death, then life for the wealthy wanna-bes would consist of a perpetual cycle of either trying to outdo each other in the building of memorable works, or killing each other like thugs conducting drug wars to protect their turf and market share in the minds of later generations. That is, if a never-dying Nimrod ever decided to allow the Pharaohs, Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, or Hitler to get big enough to show him up. Like the Pharaoh who commanded the Hebrew baby boys to be chucked into the Nile, someone would eventually gain power who would rigorously institute the policy of "Nobody gets a free shot to take my gig away from me!" It was to forstall this situation that God ejected Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and barred the way to the tree of life that would allow sinners to live forever.
In Ecclesiastes 2:16, Solomon makes two observation. The first is that death is the reason why the accomplishments of men are forgotten. The second is that death is a great leveller, in that both the wise and the fool suffer the same fate.
In Ecclesiastes 3:18-21, Solomon makes the following grim observation:
18 I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. 19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. 20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
"Who knoweth?" indeed! Here is Ecclesiastes 9:2-6:
2 All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. 3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
There are denominations that base their doctrines on the state of the dead based this passage, but it is merely an admission of the observable facts of death from this side of death. The reason for King Saul's death was that he inquired of the dead by way of the witch of Endor (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). David observed that the living go to the place of death, but none return from there (2 Samuel 12:14-23).
Finding the Limits of Wisdom
It is here that Solomon, and we, discover the limits of wisdom: wisdom correctly processes only the knowledge that the wise one knows.
Those familiar with the use of computers and computer programming know this as the "GIGO" principle: garbage in, garbage out. For instance, there is no doubt that the browser you are using to read this page has bugs, but the fact that you are reading this page right now means that those bugs were not serious enough to prevent this page from being called up and rendered properly. However, if you entered "http://www.logotech.erg" rather than "http://www.logotech.org", then the browser will not render anything (at least, as of August, 2009). Only a willful fool would insist that the browser code itself was at fault for an inability to "properly" render a mis-typed URL. Only a willful fool would fault a wise man for a misdeduction based on lies fed to him. And only a wicked fool faults a wise man for not drawing a proper conclusion when the basic facts are unknown or inadequate. The fool faults the wise because, being themselves a fool, they have no first hand experience with the exercise of wisdom and what is required for it to yield results. Such would jeer at a bushman for not being able to drive a car or not knowing that it needs gasoline to run, blind to the fact that, if their roles were reversed, they would be equally beknighted.
An incident at the start of Solomon's reign probably set the stage for the confusion arising from the belief that "all that one needs is wisdom." This is the incident of the two harlots and the baby, recorded in 1 Kings 3:16-28:
16 Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him. 17 And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. 18 And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. 19 And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it. 20 And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. 21 And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear. 22 And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king. 23 Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living. 24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. 25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other. 26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. 27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof. 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.
We need to see what Solomon actually did: he understood, in verse 23, that the statements were contradictory, but discerned that one of the women had to be telling the truth and the other lying. However, he did not discern directly which one was actually telling the truth. We skip so quickly to the fact that Solomon actually uncovered the truth that we fail to see that what he actually did was set up a situation where the truth could be identified. In other words, Solomon did not use his wisdom to discern the truth, but used his wisdom to devise and set up an experiment, used his power and authority as king to threaten to conduct it, and deduced the truth from the ensuing statements of the harlots from their reaction, not to the baby himself or to being in a court of law, but to the experiment itself. One would be tempted to believe this to be a thought experiment, but Solomon's statement in verse 27 not to slay it implies that the experiment was in the process of being carried out. Certainly, the lying harlot's statement in verse 26 would not have been wrenched from her lips if she believed that the king was bluffing.
The peak of wisdom is to know that which one does not know. Wisdom is necessarily founded upon humility, which is that virtue that allows a man to admit their lack without regard to pride or the hunger for the praise of men. The best way to discern a fool in an argument is to see his reaction to his opponent's honest admission of ignorance. It may be a bit much to say that one who has the potential for wisdom would agree with the content of this very paragraph, while the fool would dismiss it.
But I doubt it.
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