Ecclesiastes: Wisdom and Despair
Published March 22, 2023
“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18
In the previous post, we considered the first part of Solomon’s own quest for gain. In this experiment, he pursued both pleasure (2:1-3) and greatness (2:4-10), but both were vanity, and there was no gain to be found (2:11). This conclusion was anticipated in the introduction to the quest in chapter one (1:12-18), especially in the proverb, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (1:15). This enigmatic statement, interpreted in light of the message of Ecclesiastes, means that the world has been irreparably broken by the fall, and no amount of human effort can change this fact. Therefore, all attempts to find lasting gain will fail.
After failing to find any lasting gain in worldly pursuits (2:1-11), Solomon now turns to consider wisdom (2:12-16). There are many definitions of wisdom, but this one from the 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary will suffice: “The right use or exercise of knowledge; the choice of laudable ends, and of the best means to accomplish them.” British journalist Miles Kington put it this way: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Given Ecclesiastes’ designation as one of the Bible’s wisdom books and its Solomonic authorship, it comes as no surprise that the topic of wisdom comes up early in the book and is one of its central themes. After all, Solomon wrote 3000 proverbs, along with most of the material in the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs, the excellencies of wisdom are extoled. Often personified as a woman, wisdom is more profitable than silver or gold (Prov. 3:15), more precious than jewels (Prov. 3:15), and sweeter than honey (Prov. 16:24). She is a tree of life (Prov. 3:18) and the host of a lavish banquet (Prov. 9:2), ready to bestow riches, honor, and long life on all who seek her (Prov 3:16). Ecclesiastes’ original readers, accustomed to hearing glowing praise of wisdom in their wisdom literature, would have been shocked to hear the following words from none other than Solomon himself: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge sorrow” (Eccl. 1:18). The same Solomon who heaped compliment after compliment on wisdom in the book of Proverbs now describes wisdom as the bringer of pain and sorrow, and in fact, several chapters of Ecclesiastes will expound upon wisdom’s limitations.
This does not mean that wisdom has no value, for Solomon acknowledges that wisdom is better than folly (2:13). He illustrates this truth through a colorful analogy: “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (2:14). There will also be several chapters in the book’s second half that explain the proper role of wisdom. However, even as Solomon discovers by experience the advantages of wisdom, he also discovers wisdom’s limitations. No matter how wise or foolish a man may be, one thing is certain: that man will die. Whatever temporary advantages are gained by wisdom, death is the great equalizer, and “it will make fools of us all” (David Gibson). We came into this world with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. Some take solace in leaving a legacy, and others in leaving something behind for their children, but neither solves the problem of vanity. Legacies are quickly forgotten (2:16), and who knows whether your children use their inheritance wisely or squander it like fools (2:19). During Solomon’s reign, the kingdom of Israel was at the height of her glory, yet the dirt on his grave was still fresh when his son and successor Rehoboam caused a rebellion that split the kingdom asunder. All the descriptions of wisdom in Proverbs hold true, but in Ecclesiastes, Solomon wants to rid us of any delusions that wisdom is a tool for controlling life. Both the wise man and the fool are still subject to the limitations that God has placed on him.
When the sage of sages, the wisest man who ever lived, discovered that even wisdom cannot produce lasting gain or overcome the vanity of this fallen world, he temporarily sunk into despair (2:20). This helps explain the meaning for the proverb in 1:18, that wisdom increases vexation and sorrow. Not only can wisdom not fix the brokenness of this world, but it makes one even more painfully of the brokenness. The fool buries his head in the sand, but the wise see reality as it is, which leads to sorrow. Thankfully, sorrow is not the final word. When we come to the place where we recognize the vanity of this world, the inability to find gain (manipulate life to our advantage) in pleasure, greatness, and even in wisdom, we are ready to hear what comes next. Despair is not the end of the story. Hope shines brightest on a dark canvass, and everything that has come so far in Ecclesiastes has been preparing us for the next passage. Keep reading!