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The Woman I Found Not

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29) Spoken on: September 18, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: Ecclesiastes, 传道书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Title: The Woman I Found Not
Date: 18 Sep 2016
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

The book of Ecclesiastes is about the life story of a man. Throughout the book, this man had talked about and raised many diverse issues, and told you his thoughts on these matters. But on a fundamental level, you need to remember that he was actually sharing about his personal journey in life. You cannot separate the journey from the man. So, what is this journey about? From what I’ve gathered so far, this is a search for wisdom. The guy was trying to make sense of the world. (From the preceding sermon: 智慧:透视力,应对的能力,视野) But, why was he doing this? Is it in order to make the right decisions? Is it to end up with a fruitful life? At this point, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe that’s just who he was. He wasn’t trying to derive any product or outcome from his search, and there’s no need for a motive beyond Wisdom itself. Figuring out the ways of the world could be a goal in itself. [1]

As a sermon preacher, I had to listen intently to this man. It was as if he poured out his life story to me, and I had to write his biography for him to you: the life story of his search for wisdom. And as I listened to his story, chapter by chapter, I felt deeply for this man. In a way, this journey had been tough going. Remember, this was a thorough and honest life explorer. He accepted the reality openly and wholeheartedly. In the words of Pastor Tiong Ann last week: 他照单全收. [2] He confessed, 23 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”—but this was beyond me. 24 Whatever exists is far off and most profound— who can discover it? This man was disturbed by what he observed in reality. He was unable to grasp the ultimate wisdom that would make sense of everything. Though from the past few months, through our sermons, we can see that he had figured out many things. But since he was also a thorough and honest life explorer, he admitted, there were still many things beyond him.

Why is this so? Pastor Tiong Ann covered this extensively in the previous sermon on the preceding passage. Many things in life are paradoxical and nothing can be taken to the extremes, whether it is joy (v.3) or wealth (v.12) or even righteousness (v.15). If you think that there is one principle or one dogma to solve everything, you cannot be more misguided. In fact, the more you wish to hold on to something, the more you will realize how transient it is. That’s the other realization in this journey to pursue wisdom: you discover your limitations in time. You cannot make sense of anything beyond death, and when you look into the future, it stretches to eternity.

But perhaps you might ask: In our call to worship today, didn’t we read Proverbs 9:1-6? Isn’t the house of Wisdom an open invitation to everyone? Why is it so elusive at the same time?
Proverbs 9: Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.
2 She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,
4 “Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
5 “Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
6 Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of insight.”

To add on to the previous sermon, there is another reason why Wisdom remains elusive. And this answer is the problem of wickedness and folly. In the search for wisdom, this was how the man described his process of understanding:
25 I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.
What happens when you want to seek wisdom? Let me tell you, Folly is right there as well. This is how Folly was described in Proverbs 9.
13 Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.
14 She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
15 calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way,
16 “Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
17 “Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
18 But little do they know that the dead are there,
that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

When you compare the descriptions of the two women, Wisdom and Folly, it is not so easy to distinguish them. And I think that is partly the point of Proverbs 9. Both Wisdom and Folly are calling out their invitations from the highest points in the city and they sound the same: “Let all who are simple come to my house!” They both claim to offer delicious food to our satisfaction. The only difference is the end result: one leads to life, the other to death. This is perhaps the greatest peril in the journey for Wisdom, how do you know that it’s not Folly? The difficulty of finding ultimate wisdom lies in the dangers of this other woman. The man shared his investigation:
26 I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains.
The man was obviously describing Folly.

With everything that this man had experienced and his thoughts about his life journey, I began to see that this might be his biggest struggle. It is difficult enough to find true wisdom, given that reality is so multi-faceted; yet this pursuit is made truly torturous by the traps and snares of wickedness and Folly. That is the most horrible part of the journey. Let us return to the context of this man’s life journey. Let’s assume this man was a king. The king needs wisdom to govern the country. Making the right decisions in itself is already a tough mission, whether it is foreign policy or home affairs. In the days of Solomon, domestically you were dealing with 12 tribes, and looking outwards, you were surrounded by foreigners whether land or sea. In today’s context, one of the most difficult decisions is how to tackle the effects of globalization. You need to open your country to trade and diplomacy, but the lives of the people can be impacted negatively by the uneven distribution of wealth. This wisdom is still beyond the world leaders and top economists today. Yet if you are a good and responsible king, you still have to pursue true wisdom. You want find the best solution for your people, somehow to be open to free trade and influence, and yet protect your people’s jobs and preserve their culture. Wisdom is hard to find. However, imagine wickedness and Folly muddling the situation, that’s the ultimate frustration. Wickedness can come in the form of corruption, and that affects your leaders. Wickedness could also come in the form of selfish desires, and that ugliness is reflected in referendums. We have repeatedly talked about Wickedness in the past few sermons, from deceptive car companies, to 1MDB, to Brexit, and racist politicians, so I think that’s already well covered.

Today, I want to focus on Folly, the woman masquerading as Wisdom. Folly is a woman who pretends deceptively to be Wisdom. But what exactly is this deception about? In the passage today, the man used a Hebrew pun, two similar sounding words but with opposite meanings.
25 So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:
“Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—
29 This only have I found:
God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes.”

The man was looking for Wisdom: the scheme of things, the way things work and also how God works. That was what mankind was created to do. But many in the end found schemes instead. Schemes are Folly pretending to be Wisdom. Schemes also reveal how things work, but they are short-cuts to the real problems. They are not true solutions. They are satisfying in the short term, but that is the road to death. In Proverbs, it could mean personal damage, but it could also mean harm to others and the society. They look like nuggets of wisdom, but they are just fool’s gold. [3] We can observe this in everyday life. People giving you advice on how to handle people. “Don’t let them trample all over you.” Colleagues who tell you how to game the system. “No need to file this, the boss won’t know anyway.” Politicians promising you easy answers for your vote. “Just kick out the foreigners.” If this man were a king looking for wisdom to govern well, I’m sure he has heard tons of short term schemes that work the other way. That is the worry I have for the world today. For votes and popularity, many politicians settle for Folly, instead of searching for true Wisdom.

Therefore, I believe there is much we can learn from this man and his pursuit of wisdom. With great honesty and humility, he admitted, lady Wisdom was far away from him. But that was no shame for the man in the arena. [4] He remained upright because he refused to settle for schemes. In avoiding Folly, he hoped to bring life to himself, and if you believe he was a king, he brought life to his people. There is a crucial verse about lady Folly. 26 The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare. Who is the man who pleases God? That is addressed in chapter 5, the one who acknowledges his presence before God, the one who treats God as God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, and that’s how you escape the clutches of Folly.

But brothers and sisters, the story of the man revealed that this pursuit of wisdom might be a lonely one. There is a verse I found most poignant of all.
28 while I was still searching but not finding— I found one man among a thousand, but not one woman among them all. [5]
What was he talking about, the one man in a thousand, and the woman he found not? I believe the man was still talking about his search for wisdom, and how hard it was to find it. He could perhaps find one worthy wise man out of a thousand, but to find the true Lady Wisdom, even among thousands, he couldn’t find that one woman at all.

I also believe, that the man was describing himself. He was the one man in a thousand. It really describes the loneliness, when you often feel like that you are the only person still persistent in finding wisdom. It is as if in a world of drunkenness, you are the only sober one, 众人皆醉我独醒. There is a story渔父about 屈原 that goes like this:
Qu Yuan, previously exiled, toured by the rivers and ponds. As he strolled, singing about the flat banks of the pond, his complexion grew haggard and his shape grew thin. The fisherman saw and asked him, “Are you not of the three royal families of the Chu State? For what reason did you come here?” Qu Yuan replied, “On all the earth everything is muddy; I alone am clear. Among the multitude, everyone is drunk; I alone am sober. For this reason, I have been exiled.” The fisherman said, “The sages have said that we should not be inflexible and it is possible to follow the world in its transformation.
If all the people on earth were dirty, why not stir up waves with the mud?
If all the multitude were drunk, why not eat the dredges and gulped down the wine?
Why think too deeply and acting highly, have you made into exile?”
Qu Yuan replied, “I have heard this: that a person who washes his hair anew must hit the dust off his hat; that a person who washes his body anew must shake off the dust from his clothes. How can someone with a body that is clean and fine accept something that is dirty and filthy? I would rather jump into the Xiang River be buried inside the stomach of a fish from the river. How can someone with the whiteness of brightness and cleanliness be dirtied by the dust and soil of the mundane world?”
The fisherman only smiled beamingly and laughed. He turned the helm, left, and then sung,
“If the waters of the ocean waves are clean, I can wash my hat-string.
If the waters of the ocean waves are muddy, I can wash my feet.”
In the end, he left and did not speak any further. [6]
(for original Chinese version, see link in endnotes: [7])

This story is about a debate between Qu Yuan and the fisherman. Qu Yuan was upset that he was the only clear-headed person in a corrupted society. He refused to roll in the mud with the rest. The fisherman felt that he should be flexible to take advantage of the situation. If it is clear water, you can wash your hat. But if it is muddy water, you can still use it to wash your feet. Why be so hard up about your purity or clarity? What do you think? Who is right?

I stand with Qu Yuan. He might have ended up feeling lonely in his pursuit, but he was right to insist on clear water. He was right to stay clear in his head. The man in Ecclesiastes is quite similar to Qu Yuan. He was determined to find true Wisdom. Like many others before, he tried to discover the scheme of things, to have true perspective on how the world works. That discovery process cannot be divorced from knowing God, for God created this world. But the journey is not easy, just like life decisions are never easy. How do you go on in your work when all achievements are transient in the end? Why should you stay good when evil people can possibly have a better life? And when we cannot understand God’s timing, the Fool says in his heart, “there’s no God.” (Ps. 14:1) These are the road blocks that made many people opt for schemes that would bring short term satisfaction, like telling a lie and hoping that you won’t get caught. As the fisherman said, “Never mind lah, dirty water also can be used.” You may think you are being clever. But those are actually the snares of Folly. By fearing God, this man escaped them. He acknowledged the reality of mud in the water, and he was troubled by it. Yet, he refused to roll in the muddy water or to join the drunkenness. And so, he didn’t give up the pursuit to find true Wisdom. She was the woman he found not. But in never giving up and settling for less, perhaps that’s the greatest wisdom of all. I hope the life story of this man can be an inspiration to you and the many difficult decisions you must make in your journey in life. Let your life be a search for the ultimate truth, and in doing so, to God be the honor and glory.

[1] What I can confirm is that this guy knows that he is such an inquisitive person, and that awareness has something to do with God. He said that God put this “burden” in his heart (3:10-11). I’m hesitant to say “God made him that way”, just in case some of you might conclude that “oh, God didn’t made me that way”, so I don’t have to think obsessively about wisdom like this guy. It could very well be that God made all mankind, not just this man, to be thinkers and wonderers about the world.
[5] This is the original Hebrew, it shouldn’t be linked to “upright” in the next verse.