“In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.”
Does that verse seem strange to you? Honestly, it seems strange to me! After all, wisdom is a virtue, right? And if there’s one thing that nearly every American agrees on across party lines, it’s that more education is better for us. We devote the first two decades of our lives to learning more. We invest untold sums of money on education, even taking out enormous loans in order to increase our knowledge and wisdom.
And then King Solomon comes along and tells us that wisdom leads to grief, and knowledge leads to pain! How can he say such a thing? Is he suggesting that it’s better to remain ignorant and foolish?
And how can he even say that with a straight face, given that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived (1 Kings 4:29-34)?
If you’re feeling a bit nervous right now, wondering whether you wasted your money pursuing that graduate degree, rest easy. Solomon isn’t saying that wisdom and knowledge are worthless, but he is warning us that they have their limits.
Wisdom is a gift from God, but it isn’t God.
It is valuable, but not ultimate.
As a general principle, the Scripture is clear that wise people are better off than foolish people. A wise person is one who can gather knowledge and use it to live skillfully. At its best, wisdom helps us live in harmony with God and other people.
In the book of Proverbs, this same Solomon wrote, “Wisdom is better than jewels; and all desirable things cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 8:11). In Ecclesiastes 2:13, he says, “Wisdom is preferable to folly as light is preferable to darkness.” So Solomon is clearly not anti-wisdom. Given the choice between foolishness and wisdom, the Bible says to pick wisdom every time.
On average, wise people live longer (Ecclesiastes 7:12), find more success in life (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14), and know God better than foolish people (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Wisdom isn’t bad. In fact, wisdom is very, very good.
But wisdom isn’t the answer to everything.
For one thing, wisdom will never make us omniscient. We can never know everything. Think, for example, of your own profession. Imagine you’re a podiatrist. You’ve studied the human body for four years, and then you did a 3-year residency just to study feet and how to care for them. But still, you don’t know everything about feet, do you? There are still gaps in your knowledge, even in the area in which you’re an expert.
I have a master’s degree in theology, and I’ve studied the Bible for nearly 30 years now. But I’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to biblical and theological wisdom.
The danger of relying too much on our wisdom and our knowledge is that we can being to think that we do, in fact, know everything. As a result, we rely on our own wisdom instead of God’s wisdom. Even Solomon said that his own search for wisdom revealed that “what has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious” (Ecclesiastes 7:25). The wisest man in history still reached his limit.
Secondly, wisdom really can lead to pain. Sometimes the more you know, the more you hurt because of the brokenness and sin of the world. The more we learn about the world, the more frustrating it often becomes. There is injustice that will never be remedied. Wise and righteous people perish, which foolish and wicked people thrive.
Wise people can see that the world is full of pain and heartache, but they lack the power to fix it.
Finally, wisdom cannot overcome death. No matter how smart you are, how many advanced degrees you earn, or how wise you become, you’re still going to die. Death is the great equalizer, and it’s the primary problem that Solomon is wrestling with in the book of Ecclesiastes. The wise person and the foolish person will both end up six feet underground, even if the wise man takes a bit longer to get there.
Solomon isn’t saying that wisdom is bad, then. He’s challenging our belief that with enough education and knowledge, we can ensure a life that is safe from harm and free from evil. He’s pushing back against a concept that is all too familiar in our culture, the idea that education is the silver bullet that will fix the world’s problems and lead us to a future of harmony and prosperity.
So what is Solomon’s solution? What should we do instead, if wisdom and knowledge aren’t the answer to all of our problems?
The book of Ecclesiastes raises more questions than answers, really, but its conclusion is this: Our only hope is to trust in God (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge. He alone is all-knowing and all-powerful. Only God has both the understanding and the ability to lead us toward the life we’re longing for.
All wisdom ultimately comes from God, the “one Shepherd” who leads His people to the life and peace we desire (Ecc 12:11). Wisdom comes from God, but wisdom isn’t God. Education is a gift, but it isn’t the ultimate solution.
If we long for hope, for eternal life, and for an answer to the problem of death, we have to look to the One who created life. We have to look to the Savior who conquered death. And we have to trust that the only real answer to the problems of this broken world is to trust in the One who made it.