Living from wisdom

Wisdom from King Solomon helps us to live better lives.  Here's a story about another ruler who seeks wisdom for living.

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Living from wisdom

July 21, 2013 – Proverbs 10:1-12


            The heading for the tenth chapter of Proverbs reads: “The wisdom of Solomon.”  It is a collection of wisdom sayings without a single theme.  Yet, like much of the rest of the book, the sayings concern the right way to live, how to treat other people, and how to conduct oneself. 

            I’d like to share a story I’ve told before.  It concerns another ruler who wants to know the answer to these questions.


            One day, it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never go wrong in any matter:

·         What is the best time to do each thing?

·         Who are the most important people to work with?

·         What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his empire announcing that whoever could answer these questions would receive a great reward.  Many who read the decree made their way to the palace and each person had a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks, and then follow the schedule to the letter.  Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put aside all vain amusements and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice.

Still another said that certain matters required immediate action and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked consensus.  One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians or warriors.

The third question similarly drew a variety of answers.  Some said science was the most important pursuit.  Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers and no reward was given.


After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man.  So, one day, he took off his crown.  He set his royal robes aside and put on the clothes of a beggar.  He went with his servants to the foot of the mountain but then proceeded up the steep slope by himself.

When at last he reached the holy man’s dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of the hut.  When the hermit saw the stranger, he smiled and nodded, but then resumed digging.  It was hard labor, but the old man continued on.

The emperor approached and said, “I have come to ask three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with?  What is the most important thing to do at all times?”

The hermit listened attentively, but then patted the emperor on the shoulder and went back to digging.  The emperor said, “You must be tired.  Let me give you a hand with that.”  The hermit thanked him, handed him the spade and then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, the emperor turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions.  The hermit still did not answer.  Instead he stood up and said, “Why don’t you rest?  I can take over again.”  But the emperor continued to dig and the hermit sat down.

An hour passed, then two.  The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, “I came here seeking answers to three questions.  If you cannot help me, please tell me so I can be on my way.”

Then the hermit lifted his head, pointed off in the distance, and said, “Do you hear something over there?”  The emperor turned his head.  They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods.  He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach.  The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning.

Opening the man’s clothing, the emperor and the hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash.  The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it.  The shirt was quickly soaked with blood, so he rinsed the shirt out and bandaged it a second time.  He continued to do so until the flow of blood stopped.

At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water.  The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water.  Because the sun had now set, the emperor and the hermit carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him down on the hermit’s bed.  There he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

The emperor himself was exhausted from a long day, climbing the mountain, digging the garden, and tending to the wounded man.  He leaned against the door of the hut and quickly fell asleep.  He didn’t awake until the sun had risen.  For a moment, he forgot where he was and why he had come there.  Then he saw the wounded man and it all came back to him.

The wounded man’s eyes were now open.  He stared at the emperor and said, in a faint whisper, “Your majesty, please forgive me.”

Now the emperor was confused again.  “But why?  What have you done that you need forgiveness from me?”

The man explained.  “You do not know me, but I know you.  During the last war, you killed my brother and seized my property.  I became your sworn enemy and vowed to seek revenge.  When I learned that you were coming to the mountain to meet the hermit, I decided to surprise you on your way back down and to kill you.  After waiting a long time for you, I left my ambush to seek you out.  Instead of finding you, I found your servants.  They recognized me and gave me this wound.  Luckily, I escaped and ran here.  If I hadn’t met you, I would surely be dead by now.  I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life.  I am ashamed and grateful beyond words.  If I survive, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life and bid my children and grandchildren to do the same.  Please, forgive me.”

The emperor was overjoyed to see how easily he was reconciled with a former enemy.  He not only forgave the man, but promised to return all his property.  He had his servants carry the man down off the mountain and take him home, along with his own physician to tend to his recovery.

At last the emperor went back up the mountain.  He wanted to ask his questions one more time.  He found the hermit sowing seeds in his newly dug garden.

Before he could open his mouth, the hermit said, “But your questions have already been answered.”

“How is that?” the emperor asked, puzzled.

The hermit explained.  “Yesterday if you had not taken pity on my age and give me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home.  Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me.  Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me.

“Later, when the wounded man ran u here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if he had died, you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him.  Likewise, he was the most important person and the most important pursuit was taking care of him.

“Remember that there is only one important time and that is Now.  The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.  The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future.  The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at your side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

The emporer bowed to the hermit and departed.  He returned to his palace where he ruled wisely and well for many years.