When I was 17, as part of my punishment for a horribly tragic car accident, in which I was at fault, I did 150 hours of community service in a local hospital’s emergency room. There I saw some nasty wounds. The most difficult was an elderly woman who got a nasty gash on her forehead in a traffic accident. She was only semi-conscious as the ER surgeon was working to suture the wound, so she repeatedly attempted to reach up and touch the wound. The surgeon asked me to physically hold her arms down while he cleaned and dressed the cut, finally stitching it up. As you can imagine I had a very close-up view to an vivid process, and I often had to look away. While it clearly badly hurt the woman, especially, what the surgeon was doing was meant to heal. Wisdom and truth can be like that.
Truth is not always going to be easy to receive, warm, welcome, and comforting. In fact, as the saying goes, the truth hurts. Not always. But sometimes the truth really does hurt. And that’s exactly what the Teacher says next in our continuing study of Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.
Here is how my seminary Old Testament prof David Dorsey translates verses 11-12:
“11 The teachings of the wise are like goads, and their collected sayings are like sharp protrusions embedded in the goads. These goads are wielded by the divine Shepherd. 12 Beware, my son, of anything other than what wise people teach. There is no end to what has been written; and there is no end to what can be studied and learned.”
Ouch. I am not a fan of these two verses. The message in the verses are themselves good examples of what they are trying to say. The saying, “the truth hurts” is a saying that might hurt some of us. Why? Because we don’t like to be hurt. How many of us welcome correction, saying, “Bring on the confrontation, tell me how I am wrong, because I love to be confronted and I want to learn how I have screwed up!”??? And yet we know that it is good for us. Just like the Teacher illustrates from the world of shepherding. A shepherd’s goad is the ancient equivalent of a taser. It is a tool that is designed to corral or direct. To move people in a certain direction, and by force. Not by enticement, but by pain.
I am not a fan of that. I can’t stand it when the truth hurts, and therefore I hate conveying anything which I think will hurt someone else. I would much rather encourage them and speak supportively. I hate it when I have to confront. So with these verses, the Teacher is confronting me about my distaste of confrontation. He is saying that wisdom confronts. There is a necessary and good aspect to wisdom, that if communicated rightly, it might hurt, but we should desire it. Because that is part of love.
The Teacher is not saying that we should desire to be hurt by wisdom that is meant to maim or kill or destroy. No. The wisdom he is referring to is a more like the scalpel of a well-trained surgeon, who is making an incision to heal. On the one hand, any incision is painful and will do damage to the body, causing it bleed. But on the other hand, notice how a surgeon’s incision is different from an enemy’s incision. The enemy lunges his knife wildly, repeatedly, caring only to damage past the point of no return. The surgeon’s scalpel is wielded slowly, carefully, with pinpoint precision, making a wound that can heal, and furthermore the purpose of the surgeon’s incision is to remove a tumor, or fix a broken bone. The enemy wounds leading to death, and the surgeon wounds enhancing life.
Wisdom is like the surgeon, wounding us, to bring us life. This is right in line with the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:15, when he says, “Speak the truth in love.” That truth, like the shepherd’s goad, will often hurt, but it pushes us toward life. Imagine a shepherd watching his sheep getting closer and closer to a steep cliff, and, concerned that they will fall over the edge and die, he runs around to the edge of the cliff, pulls out his goad, and starts using it, even to the point of hitting some of the sheep with the pointy parts of the goad. That might sound mean or unkind, but what is worse…a temporary pain from the goad, or the finality of sheep falling over the cliff to their death?
We should seek wisdom, in other words, even wisdom that hurts. This requires us to take the posture of learners, teachable and humble. We must start at a place where our hearts and minds admit that we do not have life figured out, and we need confrontation, we need accountability, we need people in our lives who speak the truth in love to us. We show we are wise by seeking wisdom, even when it might hurt. That begs the question: What is this wisdom? Check back to the next post, as we’ll learn how the Teacher answers that question.