The message, not the messenger!

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Ecclesiastes 9:13-16 (LEB), “I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a small city with few people in it. A great king came and besieged it, building great siege works against it. Now, a poor wise man was found in it, and he delivered the city by his wisdom. So I concluded that wisdom is better than might, yet the wisdom of the poor is despised, and his words are not heard.”

The teacher, in Ecclesiastes tells a story of a city besieged, which was delivered by the wisdom of a poor man. But when the danger passed, this poor man’s wisdom was forgotten.

In logic there is a fallacy known as the Genetic Fallacy. When this is committed one discredits or discounts an argument because of its source. It is related to the Ad Hominem, where a person’s argument is ignored, and the person is attacked instead. Though these fallacies are always poor practice in logic and the search for truth, they can be quite effective for inspiring agreement or action. Logical offenses can be some of the most effective rhetorical tools. The author of Ecclesiastes, in this passage, gives a negative example of this.

Humans are not creatures of logic and reason. We are creatures of emotion, and assumption. How common is it to assume that A happened after B, so A must have been the cause of B. This is itself a fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc). We saw an example of this when a popular Christian leader tried to blame the destruction of New Orleans on the debauchery of Mardi Gras. Logic makes it more likely that so much was destroyed because of the cities geography and topography (cities under sea level tend to get inundated when massive amounts of water is pushed their way).

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us about a poor man, whose wisdom was ignored and forgotten. Too often we decide whom to listen to, and whom to follow, not based on their words or the logic of their argument, but on what we see in them. It is easy to assume, “If he were truly wise, he’d be rich,” or “What does this poor man know about anything. This is a terrible assumption. The circumstance of the one coming up with the idea, devising the argument, or bearing the message says nothing about the argument itself. How many good preachers get no hearing because they don’t have impressive initials after their name? How many are discounted because their churches are small? “If he was truly worth listening to, he would have a larger church. Who wants to listen to him?”

If we were to learn from the lesson of the poor man in this chapter of Ecclesiastes we would not look at the person bringing the message, but would examine the wisdom of the message itself. If it is wise and the right choice, the poverty of the source is irrelevant.

The teacher points out that the city followed his advice when under siege. Under times of conflict, trouble and danger our aesthetics change. We are less interested in what makes us feel good, or what impresses and more concerned about what actually works. It is in times of plenty and prosperity that our values change and we care less about practical wisdom and more about the package or source of a statement. We are willing to ignore something that works, but feels uncomfortable, because we have room for error—and a comfortable error is always preferable to a painful truth. This, the teacher would call foolishness.

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