Take a look at this poor, wise man: reflecting on Ecclesiastes 9

The Poor Man who Saved the City by Evelyn de Morgan (1901)

Like Qoheleth I am rather taken by the poor man in the city. It was a small city with only a few inhabitants. It was besieged but there was one man, a poor and wise man, who, by his wisdom delivered the city.

Not a lot of people know this man. He’s not someone I’ve ever noticed before, but he is there, highlighted in one of the less read books of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 9:14f. He doesn’t have a name. His story is told in not so many words:

There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city.

Like Qoheleth (the Teacher), I want to honour this man and the poor, wise men and women like him, who save their cities (our cities) from destruction by greed, speed and countless other destabilising and dehumanising forces. They are the salt of the earth, far removed from what we refer to as the typical “city gent”. We know he is not well-heeled and we know that he is care-worn (because his wisdom is forged from the attention and care he gives – and that is demanded of him in the challenge of just managing). These are the people we can turn to in times of trouble. They will hear us out, they will offer their wisdom. They become the heart (anagram of earth) of our communities and the springboards to trust and confidence.

But they are so often overlooked. This man reminds me of R.S.Thomas’s “friend”, Iago Prytherch – another man who would have gone unnoticed were it not for Thomas drawing him to our attention. Prytherch is down to earth, hard-working, more peasant than citizen, with an earthly wisdom. Thomas writes in Green Categories:

You never heard of Kant, did you Prytherch?
A strange man! What would he have said
Of your life here, free from the remote
War of antinomies: free also
From mind’s uncertainty faced with a world
Of its own making?
Here all is sure:
Things exist rooted in the flesh,
Stone, tree and flower. Even while you sleep
In your low room, the dark moor exerts
Its pressures on the timbers. Space and time
Are not the mathematics that your will
Imposes, but a green calendar
Your hearts observes; how else could you
Find your way home or know when to die
With the slow patience of the men who raised
This landmark in the moor’s deep tides?

His logic would have failed; your mind too.
Exposed suddenly to the cold wind
Of genius, faltered. Yet at night together
In your small garden, fenced from the wild moor’s
Constant aggression, you could have been at one
Sharing your faith over a star’s blue fire.

I don’t want to say that this man is Christ (because that might prevent us celebrating the ordinary people in ordinary places using their hard won wisdom for the welfare of the city), but I do want to say that man is Christ-like, and that Jesus too was poor and saves the city.

These are the people who are blessed. That is not an idle saying of Jesus (Luke 6:20). The blessing has substance and content, including wisdom that bears so much fruit. These are the people we hear praying in the Psalms. I think Isaiah is talking of a similar poor man in the city when he writes:

He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:2f)

I want to remember that poor man and those men and women like him. Qoheleth writes, “No one remembered that poor man … the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.” He continues,

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouting of a ruler among fools (Ecclesiastes 9:17)

But that is the world’s way – to be taken in by the vanities of the rich and powerful. We remember them (we name estates and prizes after them) and forget the poor (and the wisdom of their deep knowledge) – that’s if we ever notice them in the first place.

The Poor Man who Saved the City by Evelyn de Morgan is © De Morgan Collection, courtesy of the De Morgan Foundation, www.demorgan.org.uk