Summary: 5th in a series from Ecclesiastes. wisdom has both advantages and limitations. So why should I pursue a life lived wisely?
We live in the most knowledgeable and technologically advanced society in the history of mankind. Most of us have more information on the hard drive of our computer than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries and access to an almost endless body of information through the internet. But what have we really gained from all this knowledge, invention and information?
We’ve made tremendous strides in the area of medicine, and yet, as I demonstrated a couple weeks ago, we have made only minimal progress in increasing the average life span, especially when measured against those people we read about in Genesis who lived much longer lives before the flood. We have learned about fat grams and fiber and exercise routines and yet we have the most obese nation in the world. We can travel all over the world in a matter of hours due to the invention of the jet plane. We have unsurpassed knowledge of history and of what is occurring all around the globe, but we still have terrorism and war on every continent. We have books and seminars and therapists to help us with our marriages and with raising our children and yet we have more broken families than ever before. We have more knowledgeable and experienced experts and consultants in the business world than we’ve ever had and yet the global economy is in shambles and more businesses are going out of business every day.
Even though Qoheleth probably couldn’t even imagine most of these advances, if he were here in our midst today, I don’t think he’d be very surprised about these obvious limitations on the value of man’s wisdom and knowledge. Let’s read what he had to say:
12 Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly; For what can the man do who succeeds the king? - Only what he has already done. 13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly As light excels darkness. 14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, But the fool walks in darkness. Yet I myself perceived That the same event happens to them all. 15 So I said in my heart, "As it happens to the fool, It also happens to me, And why was I then more wise?" Then I said in my heart, "This also is vanity." 16 For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, Since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come. And how does a wise man die? As the fool!
We’re still in the section that began all the way back in chapter 1 when Qoheleth asked this question:
What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:3 (NKJV)
We’ve seen Qoheleth’s journey to try and find the answer to that question. He began in chapter 1 with observing how man is completely incapable of changing the cycles that God has put into place in His creation, no matter how hard he tries.
Then he set out to find whether the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge provided any profit. But he discovered that wisdom and knowledge, apart from God, produce only grief and sorrow.
He next examined the pursuit of joy and pleasure to find out if that produced a profit or advantage. And once again, he concluded that there was no long-term advantage to those endeavors.
So once again Qoheleth returns to the concept of wisdom. When we read this passage, we get the idea that he has been so frustrated in his journey that he thinks maybe he has missed something along the way, so he comes back again to examine the value of wisdom. And he is certainly well qualified to do so. Once again, just as he did in chapter 1, the author points out the extent of his wisdom. If we were to paraphrase the end of verse 12, we might put it something like this:
If I, as the world’s wisest king, can’t figure this out, who else stands a chance?
It’s almost as if he’s saying, “I’ll give this one last look, but if I can’t figure it out, then certainly no one else is going to be able to do it.” But despite all his wisdom, Qoheleth comes to a conclusion that certainly appears on the surface to be quite contradictory. So we’re tempted to ask, “Is this the best the wisest man ever could come up with? It doesn’t make any sense.” But a more careful examination of his conclusion will reveal that Qoheleth does indeed make sense here and that there is much that we can learn from his examination.
In this passage, Qoheleth is really looking at two different sides of the same coin. On one side of the coin are the advantages that wisdom provides and on the other side of the coin are the limitations of wisdom. So let’s take a few minutes to examine each side of the coin.