|16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know revelry and folly. I perceived that this also is just an attempt to herd the wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much worry,
The book of Ecclesiastes is in the genre of literature called “wisdom literature.” In the Old Testament the wisdom books are the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Yet here Qohelet says that wisdom leads to worry and pain. He says that he has acquired great wisdom, but that has been like trying to “herd the wind.”
It seems odd that a person takes Solomon as his role model is now telling us that wisdom is not all that it’s cracked up to be. But perhaps it is good to understand that wisdom has its limits.
When I was in college I had many, many question as I read and tried to understand the Bible. I finally decided that if I could learn the original language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, I would have a better understanding of the text. So I took a course in Greek, only to find that reading the Bible in Greek just raised even more questions!
Sometimes wisdom or knowledge is like peeling an onion. There is always just one more layer to go.
It is said that ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it seems it would just be easier if we stayed in little hollow worlds, not questioning, and not even learning about the wider around us. We hear the news and learn what is going on in the world, and it makes us depressed. We diligently study the Bible and find it often raises more questions than it answers (especially in the book of Ecclesiastes!) We study the lives of our heroes and find they have questionable parts of their character, and are disappointed that they are not the people we thought them to be. As a politician once said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.
However the correct quote is not “Ignorance is bliss.” The full quote, from Thomas Gray’s poem, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, is “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”
Qohelet is not telling us to hide our heads in the sand. He is just warning us that seeing the world as it really is, that trying to be wise, is not always fun and games. Wisdom comes at a price, and the price is sometimes our blissful innocence. If we don’t know something, we can feel that we are not responsible for it. Once we have knowledge, we are responsible for what we know. If we are unaware of the problems in the world, we can blissfully and ignorantly ignore them. But once we learn about them, our ignoring is no longer a blissful option.
Thoughts and Questions
- Can you think of a time when you learned something that you would have rather not known? How did you deal with the unpleasant knowledge you had?
- Do you think Qohelet is speaking against knowing too much, or he is just warning of the consequences?
- Most wisdom literature encourages us to become more wise by warning us against folly. The Proverbs, for example, is almost totally about how to be more wise. Do you think that Qohelet is merely offering an opposing view of wisdom, or do you think he is just totally soured on it?