The Problem with Wisdom

Week of March 17, 2019

The Point: Wisdom is grounded in trust in God.

The Vanity of Living Wisely: Ecclesiastes 2:12-17.

[12] So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. [13] Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. [14] The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. [15] Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. [16] For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! [17] So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. [ESV]

“Wisdom and Mad Folly [2:12-17].  With the goal of understanding, the Preacher tells us that he turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly [2:12]. Madness and folly go together. The Preacher is not describing three different categories but only two. On the one hand there is wisdom, which is used here in its most general sense to refer to human thinking at its very best. Wisdom in this sense is not the deep spiritual understanding that begins and ends with the fear of the Lord, but simply good, moral, practical advice for daily life. On the other hand, there is madness and folly. What the Preacher is telling us is that after pursuing pleasure, he reconsidered the claims of wisdom and mad folly. He wanted to compare the two, studying the difference between the right way and the wrong way to life, and then see if that would help him understand the purpose of life. His reason for reconsidering is to make sure that life has been considered from every conceivable angle. The Preacher wanted to write the last word about the meaning of life. Thus he desired to make his quest as comprehensive as possible, a desire that comes through in what he says next: For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done [2:12]. When he speaks of the person who comes after the king, he is looking ahead to the future and is wondering who else will have the same questions that he has about human existence. With those people in mind, he wants to write a definitive statement about wisdom and mad folly. As the wisest and wealthiest king, he is in a unique position to do this. Who could ever add anything to the experience of someone like Solomon? He is the ultimate test case. If he cannot find the meaning of life, who can? What hope is there for anyone to answer these questions? But if the Preacher-King is able to understand the purpose of our existence, then what he says about the meaning of life will stand. After announcing the goal of his quest, he proceeds to tell us what he discovered: Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness [2:13]. Until now, everything has been vanity and striving after wind. But here, as the Preacher-King praises the relative values of wisdom, we see some progression in his thought. Perhaps it is true that wisdom is unable to straighten out what is crooked or to count what is missing. It may well be the case that having more wisdom increases vexation and sorrow. But all other things being equal, having wisdom is still better than the alternative. Earlier Qoheleth said there is nothing to be gained in life, but here he admits that wisdom is at least somewhat advantageous. Though limited, its value is legitimate, for it is better to be a wise person than a mad fool! Qoheleth expresses the contrast between wisdom and folly in terms of light and darkness. It is better to be in the light than to be in the dark. Then the Preacher extends his comparison by saying, The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness [2:14]. The value of wisdom is not simply that it gives light, but that it enables us to see. It gives vision, not just illumination. To say that the wise person has eyes in his head means that he can actually see what he is doing and where he is going. He has a useful perception of life. By contrast, the fool does not have eyes at all but walks in darkness. This darkness is not just around him but inside him because he has no eyes with which to see. So far, so good; but then the Solomon of Ecclesiastes has a troubling thought. This is typical of him. Never content simply to accept the conventional wisdom he always wants to press an issue. Here the Preacher explores wisdom and folly to the absolute value, pushing them all the way to the edge of life: And yet I perceive that the same event happens to all of them [2:14]. This verse may simply mean that the wise and the foolish experience the same ups and downs in life. Whether we live by wisdom or by mad folly, we will get caught up in many of the same events, including the same calamities and catastrophes. Yet when he talks about the same event, the Preacher seems to have something more specific in mind. He is talking about the one thing that happens to everyone – death. This becomes perfectly clear in verse 16, where he says that the wise dies just like the fool. As we go through life, it is better to be wise than foolish. But what will happen to us in the end? We will all die anyway. So what really is the use of being wise? Once we are dead, our wisdom will not do us any good. Whatever advantage we gain from wisdom is strictly temporary. Whether we are wise or foolish, either way we will soon be dead, and who will remember us then? Death is the great equalizer. This tragic absurdity frustrates all of our efforts to find meaning in life. We go through life desperately trying to deny the reality of our mortality; yet we are haunted by death just the same. When the Preacher confronted his mortality, he talked to himself in the privacy of his innermost soul [2:15]. Sooner or later everyone comes to the same shocking realization that one day they will die. This painful reality makes the wise man wonder how wise it really is to pursue wisdom. In view of his impending demise, figuring out the meaning of life now seems like a lot of wasted effort. There is a further problem with death, and again it is a problem that afflicts the wise every bit as much as the foolish: death has the power to erase the very memory of our existence. Sometimes people try to overcome this problem by earthly achievement, but death still wins out in the end. Whether we are rich or poor, death will bring an end to every advantage we have in life. So Qoheleth’s quest has failed again. A fresh investigation has come up with the same old findings. Human wisdom cannot overcome death, and therefore it cannot solve the problem of meaning in life. Death brings everything to a halt. By this point in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher’s refrain is all too familiar. The equalizing power of death leads him to conclude – yet once more – that life is only vanity. But this time his attitude seems much more negative. The repeated failure of his ongoing quest is in danger of embittering his heart: So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind [2:17]. It is one thing to be disappointed with life and all its frustrations, but hating life is another thing entirely. The Solomon of Ecclesiastes seems to be spiraling down into absolute despair. It is not just his life that he hates but life in general – the whole enterprise of human existence. What his experience shows, maybe more clearly than anything else in the Bible, is the reality of life without God. Remember that we are still looking at things from a merely human perspective, based on the worldly wisdom of people living under the sun. From that perspective, life is so pointless that eventually it leads to despair. The Preacher hated life because of the certainty of death and the absurdity of losing all his wisdom as a result.”  [Ryken, pp. 57-65].

The Contrast of Wisdom and Folly: Ecclesiastes 7:23-29.

[23] All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. [24] That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? [25] I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. [26] And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. [27] Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things– [28] which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. [29] See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. [ESV]

“The Search for Wisdom [7:23-29]. It is hard to be wise in the use of our words. In fact, no sooner has the Preacher spoken about wisdom’s strength than he tells us how hard wisdom is to find. Here was a man who had dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of wisdom, who had searched long and hard for the meaning of life. Notice the active verbs he uses to describe his quest: tested [7:23], turned … know … search … seek [7:25]. As the Preacher describes his quest for knowledge, he is not just talking about the many things that he investigated in chapter 7 – the value of a good name, the way adversity brings more wisdom than prosperity, how to accept what God has made crooked, and so forth. His words actually apply to everything that he has investigated since the beginning of Ecclesiastes, when he said, I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven [1:13]. Has any man ever made a more serious attempt to understand the meaning of life than the Solomon of Ecclesiastes? Over the course of many years he tried everything to learn the secrets of wisdom. Yet at the end of all his questing he had to admit – very reluctantly – that he had failed to find the wisdom he had been seeking all his life. It was far from me, he lamented. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep, who can find it out? ]7:23-24]. At this point it almost seems as if the whole book of Ecclesiastes may end in failure. Qoheleth is looking for wisdom that he cannot find. His quest has failed. He is unable to explain the purpose of life, or explain why everything matters. Sooner or later almost everyone has the same questions, with the same doubts. What is the meaning of my existence, if there is any meaning at all? I have searched hard for wisdom, digging deep for the purpose of life. Yet I still have not found what I am looking for. So what do I do next? At this point there are two main choices. One is to give up completely and give in to despair. But Qoheleth never did that, and neither should we. The best alternative is to admit that we do not have all the answers, but also to believe that God still does, and then to wait for whatever wisdom He provides. This is the way of humility and faith – what Calvin called a “learned ignorance.” We should try as hard as we can to understand the meaning of life. But we should also be content to confess that there are some mysteries we do not understand. Knowing the limits of wisdom is part of wisdom. The more we know, the more we should realize how little we know, and that whatever wisdom we gain comes as a gift from God. As frustrating as it was to fail to find the meaning of life, what the Preacher found next was even more discouraging. In verse 24 he announced that wisdom was too deep for anyone to get to the bottom of it. Verse 25 tells us that he kept looking anyway, trying to understand the difference between the wise way and the foolish way to live. Yet what he discovered was the darkest mystery and the deepest problem of all – the depravity of the human heart. In one way of another, the troubles of life always come back to the problem of sin. As disappointed as the Preacher was with life in general, his biggest disappointment was with other people. By way of example, Qoheleth describes one kind of woman that it would be wise to avoid in verse 26. The Preacher-King compares this woman’s heart to a trap, like the kind of net or snare that a fowler would lay for a bird. But who was she? The Preacher seems to have someone in mind; a woman from his past? He is not saying that all women are like this, but some of them are, and a wise person will heed his warning to flee from their temptations. The warning is open-ended enough that it could apply to many situations in life, but one obvious way to apply it is by turning away from the seductions of sexual sin. When temptation comes, rather than getting lured in by sinful desire, remind your heart that the seductive woman is a trap. Know this: there is a way to escape. Ecclesiastes says that although the rebellious sinner will be trapped by the temptress, the person who pleases God will find a way to flee. Never say that you cannot stop sinning; always believe that by the power of God the Holy Spirit there is a way to run away from temptation. Believe the gospel. Take your sin straight to the cross and confess it. Grow in the knowledge of God through the ministry of His Word. Pray for holiness, and ask a friend to help you pray. Get the shepherding help of a pastor or elder in the church. Seek the pleasure of God, and by His grace He will deliver you from the power of sin. Theologians have long recognized Ecclesiastes 7:29 as an important verse for Christian doctrine, a verse that teaches us about both Creation and the Fall. It begins at the beginning, with the way that God made us in the first place. Many people try to blame God for everything that is wrong with the world, but He is not the one to blame! According to this verse, God made man upright. This is the Biblical doctrine of original righteousness. In his created condition, Adam was perfectly righteous. But Adam chose to eat the forbidden fruit, and in making that choice he doomed all of his children to depravity. This is the Biblical doctrine of original sin, which proves that God is not to blame for the sin of our race. By virtue of the sin that we have inherited from Adam, what Ecclesiastes says is true of all of us: we have sought out many schemes. This may not have been the answer that the Preacher was hoping to find when he started looking for the meaning of life, but it is essential to knowing true wisdom. One of the first things we need to understand is the human condition. What doctrine has greater explanatory power than the doctrine of total depravity, which teaches that the problem with the world is not God but us and our sin? This is as far as Ecclesiastes 7 can take us, but not as far as we should go. If we stop with the doctrine of sin, we stop short of salvation, and all will be lost. Thank God that the Bible does not stop with Creation and the Fall but goes on to teach redemption by grace. The first Adam is not the only Adam. There is also the Last Adam [1 Cor. 15:45], which is one of the noble titles that the Bible gives to Jesus Christ. Seeing that the first Adam failed to remain upright, we should turn to the Last Adam for our salvation, asking Him to help us stand firm at the final judgment. Jesus Christ is the only man who ever remained totally upright and never fell into sin. By virtue of His perfect life and atoning death, He offers to forgive us for all our wicked schemes. Although it is true that many died through one man’s trespass, it is also true that those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ [Rom. 5:15,17]. Even if we do not have the wisdom to solve all the deep mysteries of life or to figure out everything there is to know about our place in the universe, we should at least be wise enough to see the deadly sin in our own hearts and to ask Jesus to be our Savior.”  [Ryken, pp. 171-180].

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Qoheleth confronts us with certain questions in 2:12-17. Are you afraid of death? Do you hate life? Do you ever worry that you will be forgotten? Are you discouraged by the vanity of your existence? Do you feel like you have been striving after the wind? What answers to these type questions does Paul give us in Colossians 3:1-4? Where is your focus in life?
  2. According to these two passages, how can we grow in wisdom?
  3. What theological truths does 7:29 teach? How is this helpful in our quest for wisdom?


Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts