Ecclesiastes and Vanity of Life, Part 5
16 I thought to myself,
“I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem;
I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
17 So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas;
however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind!
18 For with great wisdom comes great frustration;
whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache.
The above verses – Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 – highlight more of Solomon’s thinking and his quest for understanding. Again, at first glance, it appears to be rather depressing because it seems to end in utter frustration, but I think that is because we miss what Solomon is attempting to say here.
In reality, Solomon is placing himself in the role of the common person and how people constantly pursue various things all in an effort to rise above their circumstances to find the very elusive inner peace. To that end, Solomon says that he is more qualified than the average person to lend himself to such pursuits and no one should doubt his qualifications. As a king over Israel and someone who has an abundance of wisdom, he is/was in the unique position to “lower” himself in order to be involved in the average pursuits of the common person to discern whether or not there is any real value in what the common person pursues.
Verse 16 proves that he is in the vaunted position above all others to attempt to “discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas,” (verse 17). More than anyone, Solomon had the position, the power, the knowledge, and the wisdom to attempt to learn how using those things could help him overcome and set aside foolish behavior and ideas. In the end, he concluded that even this was “like trying to chase the wind!” Why is this the case?
Simply put, Solomon reveals that with the increase of wisdom comes a realization of more frustration. He is speaking of secular wisdom. There is no hint here that he is considering anything yet in the spiritual realm.
By the same token, those who have more knowledge experience greater heartache. Why is this the case? It is because greater knowledge can only point out the frailties, faults, and problems in and of humanity. While wisdom might be able to help overcome those difficulties, too often, it cannot because of the fallen nature of man. We are destined to fail when left to ourselves. That is the end result of man’s wisdom and knowledge.
Satan saw this flaw in humanity and capitalized on it until he was able to successfully cause first Eve, then Adam through Eve, to rebel against God. Satan helped our first parents come to realize that they were not at peace. He did so by creating within them a longing to have something they were told they could not have. In spite of the fact that they could enjoy every fruit, every vegetable, and everything else about the Garden of Eden, Satan caused them to focus on the one thing that ultimately brought about their demise. He successfully woke within them the unrelenting desire to pursue something they should not have pursued. It was their downfall and remember, this occurred before they officially fell from grace into sin through disobedience.
Solomon is telling us that he, above all people, was qualified to use his acquired wisdom and knowledge to discern how those things might be used to overcome foolish behavior and ideas. In the end, he testifies to us that these things were of no help at all. There is a very good reason for this, which he has not revealed yet, but he will.
Solomon is like the quintessential and well-versed lawyer who is presenting his case carefully, point-by-point to the jury. He is doing his best to help them realize that everything he is saying is true and unimpeachable. He will bring us to a point of actually asking the question, “Then what good is life itself?!” and he will then answer that question for us, very simply, very pointedly, very accurately…eventually.
Solomon wants us to share in his understanding. The smartest person alive will still be tempted (and succumb) to foolish behavior and stupid ideas. Why? Because it is a problem of our fallen nature that every person alive possesses.
Verse 18 sums up these few verses. The greater the wisdom, the greater the frustration. More knowledge simply creates more heartache. Ouch. It’s not looking too good at all for humanity. We are reminded of this daily, if we will but pay attention to the signs all around us.
Look at some of the people who are extremely bright, bordering on genius. These people – because of what they have provided society in the area of technology – are brilliant and worth millions. Yet, these same people make some of the most asinine statements in the political realm ever recorded! Having a certain amount of brilliance in one area does not mean that wisdom also exists in that person in the spiritual arena. Moreover, wisdom is limited by the amount of knowledge a person has and it is also limited by a person’s worldview. Secular people are far more limited than spiritual people. But even there, being “spiritual” does not necessarily mean anything if the target of a person’s spirituality is incorrectly placed.
It is also very important to realize that Solomon is speaking here of human knowledge and wisdom. So far, he has not mentioned God at all and he has excluded God for a reason. There are many people living today who do not believe in God. They give no acknowledgement of Him and if they do agree there is something beyond the grave, to them, it’s all ethereal and very impersonal. This alone is proof that human knowledge leading to any sort of wisdom can still fall woefully short of actual truth. There are brilliant scientists who achieved wonderful things, yet who also tell us that there is no God. Their knowledge and wisdom is severely limited. However, to them, they would say they see further than the average person. In certain things, yes. In spiritual areas, no. Theirs is secular knowledge leading to secular wisdom. In the end, this can really do nothing for us when compared with eternity. Secular knowledge and wisdom has no eternal value. Even though Solomon does not come out and say this, this is exactly what he is implying. We must read between the lines of his statements.
Are you following Solomon’s argument yet? He is – for the moment – leaving God out of the entire picture. He is simply focusing on the way the average person thinks. He starts off by making a sweeping generalization which is that “all is vanity.” That is his thesis statement. Solomon then sets out to prove it and in chapter one, he has done so by covering the following areas:
- futility seen in nature
- futility of accomplishments in the secular world
- futility of secular knowledge and wisdom
Again, I’d like to emphasize that Solomon has deliberately left God out of the picture for now because this is exactly what most people do. He has provided arguments purely from the humanistic or secular arena. He is trying to point out – without coming out and saying it yet – that nature, secular accomplishments, and knowledge and wisdom are all very limited. Yet, too often people put tremendous stock in them.
Are you one who does that? Do you place faith in the secular world? Solomon wants you to think bigger than that. Let’s continue to follow his line of reasoning to see where he leads us.
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