Sunday, September 20, 2009

Empty Wisdom

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18


Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.
The preacher lays out some pretty negative thoughts in regard to wisdom. Twice in this short passage he acknowledges that pain and grief come with increased wisdom and knowledge. Should this be our attitude toward wisdom?


The Preacher begins his "lesson" by letting us know that more wisdom has simply brought the knowledge of more pain. As he seeks out answers, he simply finds more devastation. Persecution, oppression, injustice, disease, heartache, pain and death. These are the things the Preacher finds when he looks more closely at life. This pursuit only brings grief.

In fact, the Preacher feels it is grievous--the Hebrew word suggest a tone of evil or bad--task given by God that weighs down and burdens man. It is our fate to seek out the answers to these things, but what a miserable fate it is. For as the Preacher explores these issues, he finds that he really has very little control over the events of his life, or the life of anyone else. That which is crooked cannot be straightened; he cannot really change the course of anything before him. He sought wisdom and found it, and at the end of that frontier he found pain and misery.

Is Wisdom Really Vanity?

The report of the Preacher seems so contrary to the perspective of wisdom from Proverbs 3:7-26:
Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your body And refreshment to your bones. Honor the LORD from your wealth And from the first of all your produce; So your barns will be filled with plenty And your vats will overflow with new wine. My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD Or loathe His reproof, For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father {corrects} the son in whom he delights. How blessed is the man who finds wisdom And the man who gains understanding. For her profit is better than the profit of silver And her gain better than fine gold. She is more precious than jewels; And nothing you desire compares with her. Long life is in her right hand; In her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways And all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who hold her fast. The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, By understanding He established the heavens. By His knowledge the deeps were broken up And the skies drip with dew. My son, let them not vanish from your sight; Keep sound wisdom and discretion, So they will be life to your soul And adornment to your neck. Then you will walk in your way securely And your foot will not stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid; When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden fear Nor of the onslaught of the wicked when it comes; For the LORD will be your confidence And will keep your foot from being caught.
We do not see pain and grief as the result of wisdom, according to this Proverb. In stead, we see healing for the body, prosperity, and blessing. Wisdom is regarded as better than silver, fine gold and precious jewels. Happiness and long life are found in wisdom.

We know that wisdom and understanding cannot be bad things, for this Proverb reminds us that God created the heavens and the earth through His great wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

Therefore, the Proverb tells us to guard wisdom and keep it close. We should highly value it for it will serve to protect us.

What is the critical distinction between this Proverb and the Preacher? First, consider two of the most famous verses from Proverbs 3:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. (5-6)
In Proverbs 3, wisdom is set with God forever in view. God established the creation by wisdom. Wisdom is not housed within ourselves, but is granted by God. Real wisdom is to find our confidence ultimately in the Heavenly Father.

However, the words of the Preacher do not consider this. Yes, He acknowledges that God calls man to seek wisdom, but He does not seem to find a desirable God in this process. In stead, He sees God almost cruelly setting this out as our task.

I also believe the phrases under heaven (13) and under the sun (14) speak to the Preacher's perspective. While many commentators will diminish the value of these statements, believing them to simply be a common phrase used in the era to mean "everything," I believe they carry more significance. I believe the Preacher is telling us the scope of His search. He has looked from a horizontal perspective only. He is not considering eternity. He is not considering the heavenlies and that God may have a greater purpose or perspective. He is only considering the world from his own eyes, with that which he can see.

In fact, it appears that if the Preacher is going to consider God, it is only in that He may help him gain wisdom. God becomes a means to gaining the wisdom the Preacher seeks, instead of God being the end of wisdom. Consider Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD."
Twice in this passage, Paul makes it very clear that Christ is not a means to you gaining wisdom, but that Christ Himself is Wisdom. Therefore, we understand that the pursuit of wisdom is not futility for the pursuit of true wisdom is actually the pursuit of Christ. We do not Christ as a tool in our quest for wisdom, to help us gain a bit further understanding, for wisdom's sake. No, we seek wisdom because in it, we find and know Christ more deeply. Through the glory of the gospel, we find that true wisdom transcends beyond "under the sun" and "under heaven" and becomes the One who is seated at the right hand of the Father.


Wisdom is not intended to be a grievous task. However, if the pursuit of wisdom is restricted to simply seeking out things we see on this side of eternity and are removed from the pursuit of Christ, then such wisdom will only bring grief and pain. This sort of wisdom will only reveal to us the pain in the world and our helplessness to do anything about it. However, when we seek Christ, we see the One who came and lived within our pain, who became the Man of Sorrow, so that we may be set from from only considering the here and now. Instead, we find great hope, for the pursuit of true wisdom leads us to the foot of the cross, where we see our Savior becoming a curse for us, so we would not have to endure the grief of this world alone. Instead, we rest in the day that is coming when all such grief will be done away with!

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