Smoke is incredibly hard to grab. Try it. You can see it, smell it, even taste it at times. But, you can never lay hold of it and keep it. This is why “the Preacher,” a man considered to be full of wisdom, used it to illustrate life’s pursuit of meaning apart from God (Ecc. 1:1).
“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” He asks (Ecc. 1:3). “A generation goes, and a generation comes,” the “sun rises, and the sun goes down,” the “wind blows to the south and goes around the north,” the “streams run to the sea but the sea is not full.” Meanwhile, the “eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecc. 1:3-8). In other words, everything in creation is moving without you. Nothing stops for you. Time will erase you and all you care about will be forgotten. Your life is a vapor of smoke.
The Preacher summarizes his chase for satisfaction in the second chapter. It reads like fast break down the court of worldly wisdom. He tries pleasure, “enjoy yourself,” he says (Ecc. 2:1). He tries happiness and laughter (Ecc. 2:2). He tries wine and drugs to “cheer my body” (Ecc. 2:3). Of which all of it he says, “What use is it?” (Ecc. 2:2). None of it is lasting nor satisfying.
Still seeking meaning, he turns to empire building. “I built houses and planted vineyards for myself” and “made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees” and pools from which to water the forest of growing trees” (Ecc. 2:4-6). He made cities, complete with water systems, extravagant gardens, lush forests, and immoderate green spaces. Still, nothing was satisfying him.
He “bought male and female slaves” who gave birth to more slaves in his house. He accumulated “great possessions of herds and flocks” (Ecc. 2:7). He also pursued money. He gathered “silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces,” but nothing satisfied. He “got singers, both men and women” to entertain him. And, he gathered to himself “many concubines” (Ecc. 2:8). Slaves and livestock ownership, endless finances, personal soundtracks, and endless sex. He withheld nothing from himself (Ecc. 2:9-11).
In the end, he felt just as empty as he did before he pursued life according to the wisdom of the world. He summarizes it all like this: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2). Everything is fleeting. Everything is temporary. Everything is like smoke. He could not lay hold of anything with true meaning and lasting satisfaction.
The result of his toil was so bleak that envied the dead. “I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive” (Ecc. 4:2). Even worse, “better than both” the living who have it all and the dead who have nothing “is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecc. 4:3). Life is a miserable journey. Then you die, and all the things you have worked for are given to people who won’t appreciate it and didn’t earn it (Ecc. 2:18-21).
In the first 10 verses of chapter two, the Preacher refers to himself in at least 40 instances emphasizing the self-centeredness of worldly wisdom. It is self-seeking, self-aggrandizing, and self-promoting, and it results in nothing but chaos, meaningless pursuits, and unending resentment. Sadly, this is how so many live their life, “striving after the wind,” as the Preacher puts it (Ecc. 2:11).
In James 3:13-18, we undergo an examination of our wisdom in order to determine the nature of our faith. The premise is this: those who possess true wisdom possess saving faith. This is developed in the Old Testament. God is the source of all true wisdom (Prov. 3:19-20; Prov. 8:22-31). And, God gives it exclusively to those who fear Him (Job 28:28). A life apart from God is lived pursuing things that are gone with the wind. This is the evidence of worldly wisdom.
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:14–16)
The Manifestation of Worldly Wisdom
A brief, but accurate, description of true wisdom is captured in the word “meekness” or humility (Ja. 3:13). Worldly wisdom is the opposite. “But,” says James, “if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” you possess a wisdom that comes from the world. It manifests itself in at least two ways: evil passion and egotistical desires.
The first of the two is rooted in the idea of heated passion or strong fervor. It is the word “zeal” in our English vocabulary. In an of itself, zeal is not evil. In fact, Paul praised the church in Corinth for their zealous attitudes toward his ministry (2 Cor. 7:7). At the same time, the word is also used to describe Paul’s diabolical enthusiasm to persecute Christians before he was saved (Phil. 3:6).
James qualifies the specific kind of zeal by attaching the word “bitter” denoting its evil intention. It is like adding acid in your energy drink. It makes a normally decent enthusiasm far too distasteful for God. It is a passion for wrong things with a wrong sense of burn in the soul. Therefore, it is a manifestation of worldly wisdom.
The second of the two descriptors refers to a inexorable contention to achieve extreme power. It was a word used to describe politicians and others who pursued positions of authority. “Selfish ambition” is an unrelenting quest for influence, notoriety, and personal gratification. People with worldly wisdom have no room for others, unless they lead to more promotion.
Both of these manifestations of worldly wisdom arise “in your hearts” (Ja. 3:14). They originate in the inner seat of our soul. Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder,” and a host of other sins (Matt. 15:19). Therefore, “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4;23). Everything we say, think, and do is the outpouring of the heart.
If you have evil passions and egotistical desires, then you possess worldly wisdom. So James concludes by saying “do not boast and be false to the truth” (Ja. 3:14). Don’t be foolish. Don’t be haughty. Don’t think too much of yourself and bear false witness. You are not as wise as you think. Your wisdom is worldly and false.
Do you long for earthly things that God has not given you? Do you fuss when you see how others prosper where you don’t? Do your ambitions involve the lifting of others or are you the hero of your own stories and conversations? Worldly wisdom manifests itself is seeking its own pleasure and power. It strives after its own benefit, often burning others in the process. This is not the wisdom of God.
The Character of Worldly Wisdom
I can’t remember where I first witnessed a man with his fists up saying, “Show me what you’re made of.” But, this is where James goes next. Worldly wisdom reveals itself in bitter jealousy and selfish ambition because it is made of ungodly things. To be clear, it “is not the wisdom that comes down from above” (Ja. 3;15). It does not find its source in God.
Instead, it is from the world. It is “earthly” (Ja. 3:15). It doesn’t have an eternal perspective. It is mindful of the earthly things only. Decisions are not made in light of eternity. Everything that matters is temporal. It is bound to earth, limited to time and space. It has no place for spiritual truth or reasoning. It is a closed system of wisdom made by man, limited to man, and for the purpose of man. Therefore, it is as good as a man can be and it dies with man who spawns it.
James is likely using words that convey a progressive downward spiral into the depths of worldly wisdom. The next descriptor “unspiritual” (Ja. 3:15) means fleshly, sensual, and “devoid of the Spirit of God” (Jude 19). It is not only bound to the earthly man, it is bound to the earthly man’s sinful appetites. Worldly wisdom is as corrupt as man’s fallen nature, altogether separate from God. Everything is assessed by one rule, “What can I gain from this?”
The final word James uses to describe the character of worldly wisdom is “demonic” (Ja. 3:15). That is to say, it comes from the devil. Although it arises from the heart of man, Satan is the source of worldly wisdom. In the garden, it was the serpent who planted the seed. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Paul, concerned about deception in the church wrote, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3-4). Worldly wisdom is like a water hose connected to Satan himself.
The Outcome of Worldly Wisdom
It’s not hard to imagine how worldly wisdom ends. James says, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (Ja. 3:16). The unbeliever in the book of James is often described as being unstable, restless, and double-minded. This is the idea behind “disorder” (Ja. 3:16). It is contrary to what God produces. “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). Worldly wisdom, on the other hand, is a wisdom of confusion, despair, resentment, and conflict.
The phrase “every evil practice” is often used in Scripture to contrast the works of true believers of God. For example, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 cor. 5:10). It simply means useless works, empty toiling. Worldly wisdom results in complete dissatisfaction. It strives for the wind. It works for what it cannot have. It grabs for what it cannot hold.
Do you not see the evidence of worldly wisdom all around you? You might see it in your home, at your job, among your friends. It is a real danger to your family, marriage, church. It produces bitterness, jealousy, envy, strife, resentment, and divorce. When you find it, guard yourself. Pray for your loved ones. Seek wisdom for yourself. “Ask God,” ask James says, “for he gives generously to all without reproach” (Ja. 1:5).