The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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