Wisdom, Knowledge, or Wealth?

Growing up I had two favourite Bible characters (yes, I was raised in the church. Moving right along…), King David and his son, King Solomon. I was fascinated with the favour that David found with God (heard of the story of Bathsheba and Uriah? 2 Samuel 11), but King Solomon intrigued me even more. When told that he would be given whatever he asked, Solomon requested not silver or gold, not power or influence over the masses, but wisdom to lead them (1 Kings 3). He was also purported to be the author of my favourite book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes. I read it over and over again, wondering at Solomon’s conclusion that everything in life is meaningless without some relationship to God.

Jesus PieceNow, this isn’t a sermon. As with all reflections, the purpose is simply to pose a question: If you had to choose between wisdom, knowledge, or wealth, what would your choice be? Imagine that to pick one would not be to exclude the other – only to foreground it in your life. So a wealthy person would not necessarily lack knowledge or wisdom, and a wise person wouldn’t necessarily be poor.

Let’s unpack each of these terms. When I think of wisdom, as already noted in reference to King Solomon, I think of people who see beyond the material aspects of the world to something that is more foundational, basic and true. Sages, monks, yogis, Buddhas, prophets, even philosophers of the more radical kind, such as the Pythagoreans who thought everything could be reduced to numbers.

As an example of Solomon’s wisdom, below is the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:

1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

In other words: What’s the point of working so hard if it all returns to dust? Silver, gold, possessions. Everything returns to where it came from – nothing. Many “mystics” or people who live a deeply spiritual life tap into this kind of wisdom and become ascetics. If you were to choose wisdom to foreground your life, this may end up being the path you walk. Would this be a life worth living?

What about knowledge? When I think of people filled with knowledge I think of academics and teachers; pastors; financial advisors; hair and make-up “gurus”; life coaches; fitness trainers; “experts” in any field. These are people who know a lot about a given thing, and if they are lucky they can make a career out of it. They have a wealth of information, an encyclopedic brain or body, and all the answers to a very specific set of questions (because we can’t know it all). If you could choose a field in which to specialize, which would it be and why? And what if you spent 10, 15 years studying a particular phenomena, only to find out that when you reached the precipice of knowledge no fame or fortune awaited you? Would this be a life worth living?

The final life to consider is one of vast wealth. This is the one that I think is most tricky, and deceiving. It is one that many may end up choosing out of instinct (who wants to live a life of poverty?), but as an avid watcher of The Real Housewives of just about every city; Love and Hip-Hop; Basketball Wives; and Growing Up Hip-Hop (to name a few. “How does she find time to watch these shows?” Moving right along…), I doubt that things that appear shiny on the surface are really all that valuable. With all the wealth in the world you have access to everything – the good, the euphorically good, the bad, the really ugly. We’ve all heard stories of stars who have lost their lives to addictions… Would you have the internal fortitude to live a life in which you could have anything you like, at the snap of your fingers?

King Solomon is said to be the richest man to have ever lived (some say he would be a trillionaire by today’s standards). This means that he probably used his wisdom to both understand life and amass an incredible amount of wealth. But he also had 300 wives and 700 concubines, and the story goes that they turned his heart away from the God of his father, who had given him all that understanding in the first place. He started worshipping idols, fell out of favour, and the kingdom was stripped from him (1 Kings 11).

If you had a choice between the three, which would you choose? Wisdom, knowledge, or wealth?

 

T. M. G.

Image Credit: https://au.pinterest.com/explore/jesus-piece/