The Vanity of Human Wisdom

This past week I was in Bentonville, AR conducting a teacher in-service for Life Way Christian School.  While my wife and I were there, we had the privilege to go through the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  It was a wonderful experience to tour this beautiful complex and see the amazing art collection.

Even though all of the works of art were fascinating, I was drawn to one particular painting that was done in the 1990s.  This work was done by American painter, Mark Tansey.  It’s title is simply Landscape – 1994.  At first it seems like a piece that depicts a pile of rubble out in some sort of desert wasteland.  However, on closer look one finds some very recognizable figures portrayed.


This pile of ruble include visages of Mayan kings, Egyptian pharaohs, the Sphinx, Roman emperors, and a host of other past world leaders.  One can find likenesses of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and other leaders of past dictatorships included in this painting.  I even recognized the faces of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln and other leaders from US history.

As I stood and contemplated this unique painting, my mind went to several passages of scripture that reminded me that God has been and is in total control of human history.  We are told that He raises up and tears down kingdoms.  In the OT, we read how God used pagan rulers to accomplish His will as He dealt with Israel.

When we study human history, we see what happens when man thinks he is all wise and all powerful.  Once leaders became powerful and built mighty empires, they thought that they were invincible.  They did not have to depend on God because they believed that human knowledge and wisdom had allowed them to become so powerful.  Human reasoning and power were the keys to success and world domination.

All of these political rulers eventually faced ruin and the painter suggests that in the end their human ingenuity and wisdom got them to the same place.  They are all relics of bygone dynasties that are now on the pile of ruble found in annals of history.

I found myself asking why such men as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were also on the same rubble pile as those who denied God’s existence and thought they could rule the world.  Then I realized that we are not guaranteed of God’s continued blessing just because many of our Founding Fathers believed in God and tried to live in line with His Word.

Our country will end up in the same place as these other past dynasties if we forget God and believe that human wisdom and ingenuity will lead us to success.  This will be the eventual outcome if Christians continue to send their children into secular educational programs.  This is because secular education denies the existence of God and teaches that human knowledge and reason is the only way to true success.

We must admit that we have become a secular society already.  I believe that this is a direct result of decades of secular education that is based on self-realization, self-esteem and self-actualization.  Man can become whatever he wants to be if he simply tries hard enough.

So when I consider this painting, I come away with some questions.  Could this picture be prophetic in where the US will be in the near future?  Will we go from being one of the world’s superpowers to one of little, if any, influence?  What will we need to do if we want to avoid finding our society becoming simply a “relic” of a once powerful nation?  What do you think?  Share your ideas about this painting by leaving a comment below.

Glen Schultz

Author Glen Schultz

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Jeff says:

    Very thought provoking!

  • Kimberly Park says:

    As Christians, we should be knowledgeable about our role in the political scene of our country. However, our main focus should always be sharing the gospel with those around us. This includes sharing it inside the walls of our Christian school. Our morality as Christians cannot save others. Only the message of Jesus’ salvation can change our society. I am challenged by this painting. With whom will I share the gospel today?

  • Jamie Covell says:

    Your conclusions were the same as mine, but you expressed the thoughts more completely.

  • Mark Kennedy says:

    If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

    Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,

    Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

    Or lesser breeds without the Law—

    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

    For heathen heart that puts her trust

    In reeking tube and iron shard,

    All valiant dust that builds on dust,

    And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,

    For frantic boast and foolish word—

    Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

  • Gary Mounce says:

    Glen, as always I enjoyed where the Lord took your thoughts as you took in the artwork. As much as I appreciate the faith of those God clearly used to frame America and make this a great United States; as stated, He causes nations / rulers to rise and fall. I understand them to be in the painting because though their lives were shaped and lead by the truth / principles of God’s word (obviously this is a good thing) their pursuits ultimately were focused on endeavors (though they shaped the world in a biblical light; again a good thing and God’s design) which were meant for this world. This is why the implementation and pursuit of Kingdom Education is so important. Yes, we as educators seek to educate the next generation but if we only give them worldly knowledge what have we given them. If we only give them worldly knowledge wrapped up in solid biblical truths / principles, have we given them enough. The education legacy we leave has to have, not only the solid biblical truths / principles but the gospel must be the central focus. Our students must know it is more about His kingdom to come and less about this world. Kingdom Education is gospel focused and I appreciate how God has used you Glen to emphasize this message over the past several decades. For me, America will continue to be a tool in God’s overall plan. Though (this would be sad and difficult (especially as I think about generations to come)) I fear it may not be a positive one. If so, I know it will serve His purpose and plans. Old things will pass; all things will become new. Just my humble thoughts.

    • Glen Schultz says:

      Gary, thanks for your thoughtful comments. No matter where culture will take our country, we must remain faithful and obedient to His will and instruction. The knowledge we pour into our students must lead to wisdom and understanding or it has no eternal impact. Keep up the good work.

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