I assigned Ecclesiastes 1 to my Christian Learning Center class for homework. We’re discussing the four fundamental questions that every worldview must answer (Origin, Meaning, Morality, Destiny – thank you, Ravi Zacharias), and I thought Ecclesiastes would be a great place for us to begin on the Meaning question. They read it, and as we discussed it this morning, one of my students pointed out the last verse:
For with wisdom is much sorrow;
as knowledge increases, grief increases.
The student pointed out that when we’re young, we get to see the world through a limited lens, and thus we’re shielded from some of the great tragedy this is human existence. To wit, she pointed out that when her grandmother died, she didn’t know enough about death to really be sad; so when her family made a trip up to Canada for the funeral, she was super excited about getting to travel and see her cousins. That sounds crude, but from a kid’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: when you don’t know what you don’t know, not knowing it doesn’t bother you.
But once you know…it changes everything.
I think Solomon’s point with the statement wasn’t so much an appeal to ignorance (which would’ve been ironic) but an understanding of the burden of knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize that knowledge alone doesn’t solve anything; it’s what you do with that knowledge that really matters. Knowledge = Responsibility. But in our modern world, we can see that even those actions aren’t enough – we know what causes many of our societies gravest ills, and yet we still fall into them time and time again. Education helps to a degree, but education isn’t enough. Behavioral modification works to a degree, but as anyone who’s studied the recidivism rates amongst addicts and certain classes of criminals can tell you, changing behavior isn’t always enough. Brilliant minds have suggested countless improvements to the human species, but the one thing they’ve never been able to change is the depravity of the human heart. Knowledge, action, human effort never has and never will release us from the sin that saturates our souls.
We’re sort of doomed to being Icarus.
That is, we would be if not for something else, something beyond knowledge to which we can appeal. Or, more accurately, to Whom we can appeal. Solomon knew this. Being the wisest man in the world does proffer some benefit. At the end of Ecclesiastes, after taking his reader on a walk through the sheer insufficiency of human effort to satisfy the human soul, Solomon comes back to the One that gives this life its meaning, the One through whom we “all live and move and have our being.”
In the end, Solomon says:
When all has been heard, my son, be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body. When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.
We cannot save ourselves. Our brightest minds, our grandest notions, our best ideas are limited in their power to affect the change needed within the human heart. It’s why we see people running from one fad to the next, from one fix to the next – nothing we can do in and of ourselves will ever release us from our condition. And if anyone was in position to know the exhaustive nature of human gifts, it was Solomon. Having seen and thought and tasted it all, he came back to the truth of his childhood:
Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Only God gives this life meaning. Not money, not power, not sex, not success, not any of the numerous vanities that Solomon and our human race have tried and found wanting. Only in God, only in His Son, Jesus Christ, do we find the fulfillment of our hearts.