The Sorrow of Wisdom – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18


I am getting in way over my head in our theme for this evening. But, as you know, that is not particularly unusual; I do that quite often. As God’s wise man often does, Solomon is going to talk to us about wisdom. Am I qualified to comment on the wisdom of Solomon? Certainly not in myself. On the other hand, should I never preach about subjects about which I am not a personal expert? Should I never condemn adultery since I have never committed adultery? The fact is, I can address that subject because I have in my hands the unadulterated Word of God. When what I say about adultery comes from the Bible, I can speak with authority, even though I’m not speaking out of experience. And like the subject of adultery, or drug abuse, or murder, I’m speaking this evening about something about which I’ve only read a few things, now and then. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Remember that WHEN Solomon says this, he’s speaking as man out of fellowship with God. That does not mean he can’t be lead of the Spirit, and speaking the mind of God. But personally, he is only coming back to the Lord, whom he left for a period of sin. Now, he has one eye on heaven and the other on earth, but the heavenly eye has some sand in it. He’s in the middle of the lake; his outboard motor is down and he has only one oar. He just keeps going around in circles, despite all his effort to get to shore.

But unlike some of us he definitely acquainted with the subjects of secular knowledge and divine wisdom. One of his first acts after ascending to the throne of his father David was to visit the Gibeon and offer a thousand burnt offerings. That night he was visited by the Lord and was offered a blank check. Instead of power or wealth, Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom enough to be a good ruler. God was greatly pleased and gave him great wisdom – along with honor and wealth. I Kings tells us that the wrote 3,000 proverbs and over a thousand songs. So he was also a poet and religious philosopher. Not only that but Solomon was a scientific botonist and zoologist as well, studying and writing on the things he personally observed. There is little doubt but that the man was a true genius, by the grace of God. More importantly, at times he was used as a prophet of God. But like Elijah and others, there were also periods in his life, when despite the gift of wisdom, he was a sinful, foolishly carnal and spiritually stupid man. And as he was recovering from this backslidden period, he said, “In much wisdom is much grief.” There is both wisdom and foolishness in that statement – both insight and error.

Let’s begin by thinking just a little bit about grief and sorrow.

According to Strong, the “grief” to which he refers is the aggravating, vexing variety. It is not the grief experienced at the funeral of a loved one. Rather, it is the way we feel when we’ve done something really stupid and regretful. It is “the bash our heads into the bars of our cell” sort of grief. That particular Hebrew word is also translated “sorrow,” but it is not the same word we find at the end of the verse.

Now, let me try to show you how appropriate this Book of Ecclesiastes is for the 21st Century. People around us are climbing all over themselves looking for ways to escape sorrow and grief. And more often than not, their search produces more sorrow and grief than it eliminates. For example, they don’t want to feel bad, so they refuse to accept the responsibility for their sins and crimes. “Sure I am an alcoholic, but its because my father was an alcoholic, and it is in my DNA.” “I confess that I beat my wife, but it is because I was beaten as a child.” So many people fill their veins, lungs and hearts with drugs trying to escape what they find in their minds. If is a reflection of our corrupt society that we have to have ten doses of sick, sinful humor for every dose of helpful information. And why do sports occupy so much of our society? Isn’t it because people want to escape their own mundane lives, trying to live vicariously through their sports heros? But it is a good thing there is a constant succession of seasonal sports, because 9 out of 10 sports fans end up disappointed in their current heros and they have to move on.

Sorrow is unavoidable in many ways. If you love someone then there is a very good likelihood that your relationship will end in sorrow. For thousands of years, marriages have been ending in death, and they will until Jesus comes. The more you love, the greater your loss will be when the death angel visits.

But how is it that WISDOM can bring sorrow?

Well, first of all, for nearly all of us, knowledge and wisdom take effort. As much as school kids have been praying for years, no one has yet invented a smart pill. In Proverbs 2 this same Solomon likens the search for wisdom to the search for silver or gold. That prospector of old, studies the streams and the gravel in those streams. He plods his way up the valley where a good stream and trail of gold has been found. He looks over the hillsides and usually with a lot of error begins to dig into rock or rocky soil. He labors, sweats, toils, digs, shores, sifts, digs, braces, digs and filters, looking for a little color. And sometimes he comes home rich, but more often than not he is all the more poor. The search for secular wisdom is usually a hard, difficult and sometime lonesome effort.

Think of wisdom like the sound of a well-played violin. Who is your favorite violinist? Hillary Hahn, Jascha Heifitz, Yehudi Menuin, Yitzat Pearlman? I’d have to choose Pearlman, because he has had to deal with crippling polio and still became one of the best violinists of all time. Pearlman did not just pick up a cheap fiddle and in two weeks played at Carnegy Hall. Like every master of his instrument, he has spent years with the chin rest of that violin under his jaw. Again, and again, and again, he has practiced and practiced until he began to be proficient. And then he played at Carnegy Hall; he played before Queen Elizabeth at the White House; and he played the national anthem at baseball games. Take any field of knowledge, from embryology to angeology, expertness takes labor and sorrow before there can be proficiency.

One morning the young, new president of the bank made an appointment to see his retiring predecessor. “Sir, as you well know, I lack a great deal of the qualifications you have had for this job. You have been very successful so I was wondering if you could give me some advice. What are the keys to your success?” The old man looked at him with a stare and replied, “Young man, two words: GOOD DECISIONS.” “Thank you very much sir, but how does one come to know how to make good decisions?” “One word, young man: EXPERIENCE.” “But how does one get experience?” “Two words, young man, BAD DECISIONS.”

In other words, success often comes through some degree of trouble and sorrow. But what if the knowledge is merely useless information and not real wisdom? Then it will not be worth the sorrow. Suppose some doctoral candidate decides to calculate the distance across the rings of Saturn. He studies the photographs from several observatories and compares them with Hubble pictures. He compares known distances to the estimates of others. He calculates the speed of light, the refraction of light, the various kinds of light he might use. He writes his thesis, declaring his conclusions trying to prove them to his judges. And then he stands before those same judges to go through the grueling oral exam. Does it matter how far it is across the rings of Saturn? And especially does it matter, if he doesn’t ever come to know the God who created those rings? In the increase of knowledge is sorrow, so you’d better make sure that there is a point to your study.

Then there is sorrow, because the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know enough. The mountain climber stands at the foot of the hill and sees the peak of his target. And once he gets to the top he realizes that there are higher peaks behind it. The child looks at the sky and thinks that he knows what he sees. But after a while he finds out that with each one of those specks of light is another solar system. The more that he knows the more he realizes that he knows almost nothing about those stars. Sir Isaac Newton said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then with a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.”

Newton reminds us that the man with true wisdom will never be arrogant or assume infallibility. When you find a man conceited about what he knows, he is just proving that he doesn’t know enough. When we realize we aren’t as wise today as we thought we were yesterday, we are actually wiser today. “Can any man by searching find out God?” The more we know of Jehovah, the larger He becomes to us. The increase of knowledge increases sorrow because with that knowledge often comes a thirst for more. Ask any four-year-old child – thirst can be a painful thing.

Sometimes the acquisition of knowledge can bring sorrow and pain, because it makes others jealous. Galileo and Copernicus were early scientists who were hated for their discoveries. Edward Jenner observed that people exposed to cowpox, would not succumb to smallpox. When he tried to innoculate people with cowpox germs, he was nearly killed. Here is a Baptist who walks into a meeting of Roman Catholics and says: “I know, based upon God’s Word, that I am a Christian and soon to be in Heaven with my Saviour.” The poor man may be stoned on the spot. There can be pain in the accumulation of knowledge because people may be afraid of what you’ve learned.

Furthermore, an increase of knowledge increases sorrow, because with knowledge comes responsibility. A little boy has seen a small fire behind the barn, and he toddles off to tell someone. But no one will pay any attention to the lad, because he’s just a little boy. He knows that the fire will soon destroy the barn, the horses inside and who knows what else. He has to tell someone, but no one will listen. Before long all he can do is cry. And here is a young lady, upon whose heart the Lord has been impressing the judgments of Hell. Oh, she is a Christian and safe from the fire and brimstone, but what about her friends and relatives? The more she hears and the more she knows, the greater the pain in her soul for the people she loves. To that is the added knowledge of the soon return of the Saviour. Don’t tell me that you truly understand God’s judgment if you don’t feel the pain of that judgment. Paul said, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” With knowledge comes responsibility and the pain of neglected responsibilities.

And furthermore, the more we know of ourselves, the more we know how evil we are. Have you ever read the biography of John Newton or John Bunyan? Those men and thousands of others, learned bits of truth from God, long before they knew the Lord. Reading their stories is like listening to a child screaming in pain. Before they met the Lord they were as miserable as men on fire. Because they had begun to learn who they really were.

I hope that you can see what Solomon is saying here about this increase of knowledge.

But I hope at the same time, you recognize that like Newton and Bunyan, going on in our search for knowledge and taking that knowledge in the right direction brings joy after the sorrow. That sorrow may become a doorway into the blessings of the Lord. Repentance is not the same thing as sorrow, but sorrow is often a part of repentance. And without repentance sinners cannot properly approach the Saviour. The sorrow which accompanies repentance is the doorway to eternal bliss. If what we are learning brings us closer to the Lord Jesus, then it is worth twice the pain.

Wouldn’t it be great if at the close of Solomon’s life we had the opportunity for a brief interview? If we asked that great man, at the very end of all his labors, do you believe that the search for wisdom is a waste of time, he’d deny it. When he finally got his head on straight, he’d say that he’d endure some of that pain again. God places no premium on ignorance. But the key is, “Seek the wisdom which cometh from above.” Secular knowledge and human wisdom are ultimately a waste. But the wisdom which God gives means eternal life.

If the knowledge we seek is desired for the glory of God, the sorrow felt in obtaining it will become painless. Can the knowledge of accounting, electricity, finance or astronomy be used for God’s glory? Yes they can, if they are kept in proper perspective. But they are not the summit of knowledge and wisdom. The queen of all knowledge is theology. But even THAT knowledge is not to be compared with the wisdom which comes with the new birth.

Remember that knowledge of God, true wisdom, is the doorway to unfailing joy.