The Quest for Wisdom

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

Solomon (a..k.a. Koheleth) sets out his great quest for wisdom in these verses, but all of the wisdom that the wisest man of all time managed to collect, wasn’t worth very much. Here’s an example:

Suppose you went to the movies, and when you got to the front of the ticket line you said, “One please,” and then handed the cashier your American Express card.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier says, “But we don’t take American Express. We accept cash, VISA, MasterCard and Discover.”

“But I only have American Express,” you reply…

Guess who isn’t going to the movies today?

Like an American Express card, human wisdom is nice to have; certainly wisdom beats stupidity any day, but it doesn’t get you into heaven, nor will it bring you into God’s presence. That simply is not something human wisdom can do for you.

Solomon notes that after seeing all of the things that go on under the sun, none of them are much good for anything. Again the NIV uses the word “meaningless.” Again I can’t help but think “meaningless” isn’t quite strong enough, “futility” seems more on the mark here to me… or just plain “worthless.”

Take particular note of verse 15:

What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

Do you see the construction here? Notice the two poetic clauses separated by a semicolon? This is called a Hebrew parallelism, and it is very important in interpretation. Those two clauses are parallel which means that they mean the same thing, and this is quite handy to keep in mind if one or the other isn’t quite clear. The first of these is simple enough at first glance: “What is crooked cannot be straightened” except for the fact that “crooked” is rather ambiguous, don’t you think? Crooked in what sense? Does he mean that it’s curved somehow, or maybe he means corrupt… or maybe its curve signifies corruption… or who knows what he means?

Since these clauses are parallel, we can look at the second one: “what is lacking cannot be counted” and here we find a little riddle we can solve easily. If something is lacking, then it isn’t there, so you can’t count what is lacking, since it isn’t there. If you have $20.00 in your hand, then you can’t count $30.00 since the other $10.00 aren’t in your hand. Thus, we can see that he means that “you can’t straighten what is crooked” means that it just isn’t straight, say a stick of wood, and you can’t make it straight with all of the wisdom in the world, because it is what it is: crooked. Now that we have the parallelism figured out, go back to verse 14:

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

To explain the totality of the meaning of this verse, the author used the parallelism in verse 15, and when you put these together here’s what you have:

After examining everything that is done in this world apart from God, all of them are meaningless, futile, vain, of no account… and nothing is going to change that.

(Pretty cool, don’t you think? These Hebrew parallelisms are found throughout the poetic books; Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the prophets)

In the remaining verses of our text, the author uses this same technique again to tell us that not only is all of the activity he found “under the sun” meaningless, but so is the pursuit of wisdom itself.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief. (1:18)

The wiser he became, the more he realized that none of this mattered, and that made him even more miserable than ever.

As the next chapter begins, our Teacher examines the pleasures of life; what will we discover there? Much pleasure, or maybe much folly!

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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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11 Responses to The Quest for Wisdom

  1. Pete says:

    How do you answer people who come at your with all their book-learned human wisdom of the Bible and are so off the mark it’s pathetic? I have a good friend who keeps coming back at me with the Calvanstic approach – since God knows the beginning from the end, we really have no free will. Whatever happens happens, so what’s the use of trying. There are many more examples, but that”s the one he’s stuck on now. I know that we must apply Spiritual wisdom to the scripture, not human wisdom. But how do you make that a valid argument to someone who has a theology degree? And suggestions?

    • Don Merritt says:

      I’ve learned over the years that many arguments and “discussions” aren’t worth having; the person just isn’t ready to hear… and besides, no debate ever persuaded the debater, only the audience.The sad truth is that a bible college degree is often a significant obstacle to relationship, training that often makes the one who has a victim of their training… and I am a Theology Professor.

      If I were inclined to debate such a person, I would carefully bring hi to a point where he had to explain why a righteous God would have forced Adam to sin, so that he could also explain why and how a righteous God would thus force sin into the world. Then I would carefully guide him to a place where he had to explain that the Great Commission was pointless, since grace is irresistible for those who are chosen, and unattainable for those who are not. Yet you must recognize that would destroy your relationship with your friend, who would likely call you an infidel…

      A better approach might be to pray for your friend, and let him see Christ’s love working in your life over time.

    • brcelano says:

      I feel that if we prayed that they receive the gift of the Discernment of Scripture from the Holy Spirit it would bless them the most. They speak not from knowledge of Scripture or Relationship with God but from the learning of Dogma. I have found it best not to counter their concepts but to discuss with them from within their own paradigms, they listen best when not threatened.

  2. Russ Palumbo says:

    Parallelism? Hmmm? I never knew those were in the bible but now that I do it will make my bible reading even more interesting. Thanks.

  3. Re. the Calvinist friend. I have found that people who argue the same thing no matter what you say have a hidden agenda that is not being expressed or answered and that they do not even realize themselves. For example, whenever someone tells me God does not exist, instead of going into all the proofs, I just say, “What happened?” They know exactly what I mean because it is pointed at their hidden agenda. So they say, “My sister was killed in a car accident,” or some other tragedy, “and where was God then?”. How do I answer? I usually mention two things: (1) God gave us free will, and a drunk driver was using his free will wrong; and (2) Satan exists too. He is the one who causes bad to happen, not God.

    So, rather than argue with your friend with the facts, help him get to the bottom of his frustration. Take his last phrase and repeat it as a question. “So, what’s the use?” He will pick up on that (because you are repeating his own phrase) and go a step deeper. If he ends with, “I tried, but couldn’t get it done,” you ask, “Couldn’t get it done?” Help him go deeper until he eventually answers his own question.

    Keep us informed. We care.

  4. Pingback: The Quest for Wisdom | The Life Project | franciscansonthemountains

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