A Sorry State of Wisdom–Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

The electric bill comes in the mail toward the end of a long, hot July. You know that the number on that bill is going to look like the national debt of Costa Rica, and you know that you spent far too much money on fireworks and meat to throw on the grill. As you hold the envelope in your hand, it feels heavier than a couple pieces of paper could possibly be.

I no longer get bills in the mailbox, and I haven’t had a budgetary crisis like that one for many years, but I’ve been to that place, holding that envelope. And what did I do with that beastly thing? I threw it into a pile of other unopened mail. If I didn’t open it, then somehow it wasn’t quite real. If I didn’t open it, then I could pretend that it wasn’t about to be a budget implosion for me.

That scenario is what comes to mind when I read the remainder of Ecclesiastes 1:

I said to myself, “See, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind.
    For with much wisdom is much sorrow;
    as knowledge increases, grief increases. –Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

Wasn’t it Solomon who said so many good things about wisdom? We’re supposed to gather wisdom and make it our constant companion. So what has happened to this guy? How does he go from saying that gaining wisdom should be job one to associating wisdom with sorrow. How is this not a colossal contradiction that once and for all proves that the Bible is just a pile of nonsense that needn’t be taken seriously?

To answer that question, we have to look at Ecclesiastes in a manner quite unlike the piecemeal approach that I’m taking. We have to consider the entire context of the book and then broaden out even more to see the broader context of the book within the canon of scripture.

Would it be painful for the recipient of that inflated electric bill to open the envelope? Of course it would. But is that person better off living in ignorance of the unhappy truth of his debt? Of course not.

Similarly, can it be painful to possess great amounts of wisdom and knowledge? Indeed it can. In fact, just yesterday, my wife and I became aware of some knowledge that brought us pain. And our understanding of God’s wisdom made that knowledge painful when people who didn’t possess that wisdom would have brushed off the information. So wisdom and knowledge bring pain, but are we better off not having those things?

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve opted for knowledge and “wisdom” by listening to the serpent. Their route to knowledge bypassed–in fact ran against–God. Similarly for us, wisdom and knowledge gained in the absence of God are indeed sorrowful “achievements.”

Seeking God’s kingdom first, means placing the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom second or below. Only then can it be a blessing.