If our theology starts from anywhere except the world as it is, then it’s never going to help us to build the world as it should be.
‘Life is tough. Then you die.’
That seems to be the stoical ‘wisdom’ at the heart of these chapters. No amount of effort can satisfy our longings – however hard we work for food, for comfort, for wealth, there is always more to be desired. There’s always a new iPhone, Christmas must-have or car that would be a bit better than anything we’ve got so far.
Even learning is never complete – in fact the more we learn, the more we usually realise how little we understand. It’s understandable for the preacher to feel frustrated.
Perhaps part of wisdom is to face squarely the difficulty of life for most people. If our theology starts from anywhere except the world as it is, then it’s never going to help us to build the world as it should be. For most people, life is not easy. It brings frustration and disappointment, unfulfilled ambition or desire.
It’s no bad thing to live by the wisdom of the book of Proverbs – but 7:15f points to the reality that ‘do good and life will be good’ doesn’t always work in a messed-up world. I’m not sure that the preacher’s answer is the best – ‘do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise…do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool’. I’m not convinced that a middle course is the right one here, unless we’re talking about self- righteous behaviour, which ‘act too wise’ might suggest. It’s as if the preacher is saying that in the face of the frustrations of life, it’s best not to try too hard.
There’s a change of perspective in the last few verses of this reading, though.
When I applied my mind to know wisdom…then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out. (9:16-17)
Like Job, the preacher falls back on the unsearchable wisdom of God. It’s not an answer to his existential angst. But perhaps it redefines the question in a more useful way – to point us beyond the immediate to seeking after God’s wisdom and purpose.