The Limits of Understanding (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

Disclaimer up front:  You know I love education and learning. You know I respect deep-thinking analyses of anything. I place no premium whatsoever upon ignorance. But advanced learning and knowledge is not the ultimate answer to the ills of this world. Serious education is a worthy pursuit, but so many people put all of their hopes in this basket; and though much good has come from scholarship and human advancement and understanding, it alone does not solve the ultimate problems of a crumbling, material world.

None was smarter than THE TEACHER, not even our local genius – most of you know who I’m talking about!  😊

Between my graduate educational years around some of the greatest minds ever in the Christian world (e.g. – exempli gratia – Charles Ryrie, of the Ryrie Study Bible), my two mega-genius half-brothers, and brilliant minds I’ve met through politics and Civil War scholarship, I have known some of the world’s smartest people. But I also know from them that being brilliant doesn’t solve life’s problems, in fact, it may make them worse.

Let me illustrate it this way: When you’re diagnosed with stage 5 melanoma, is there greater comfort in being an oncologist or a mere plumber?  Quoting Solomon’s finale sentence today: For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

I distinctly remember finishing high school and committing to attend college for a five-year, dual-degree program toward bachelor’s degrees in music and Bible. The 159 credit hours of education were charted on a single page that I studied over and over with amazement. I remember the exact spot where I was in my house as I shared this with my parents. It was a list of all the things that I would know EVERYTHING about after the five years were completed!  Wow, I was going to be so smart!

What rather soon amazed me once I began that education is that what I was learning factually was merely the basic material that rose to about the level of the tops of my feet!  The rest of it was “process” about how to continue to learn more and more over a lifetime of study and application.

I’ll illustrate that with discussing how to know about the Bible and its teachings. To understand the Scriptures deeply, you need to of course know all you can about the writer, the audience to whom he wrote, along with the historical context and occasion of his writing. That’s a lot to begin with.

But to really know the Bible deeply, you have to become a student of the original languages in which it was composed: Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic.  OK.  So, I began to study Greek, only to find out that there are different types of Greek at different ages (just as we have “Old English,” etc.).  And to really know Hebrew, one needs to also have some basis in understanding other “Semitic” languages like Akkadian, Ugaritic and Syriac.

And then to interpret the information correctly, one needs to understand the philosophies of theological interpretation that have colored all the above information over the millennia.

After a very short time in advanced education, you have indeed come to know a great deal more than you knew before. But at the same time, an even larger world of what you do not know is now opened to you. So rather than feeling smarter, you feel more ignorant… because now you know of the existence of a universe of even more stuff that you know nothing about!  What you learn is that you can never get to the bottom of much of anything. It is like trying to find the edge of the universe, it just keeps on going and growing.

The feeling is a lot like trying to chase the wind and somehow bottle it up for later use. What a great picture!  (credit: Solomon of Jerusalem)

At the end of great learning … sin remains, injustice remains, death remains, futility still rules.

The only answer is one that we will see has to come from beyond this world. But at this point of Solomon’s text, we’re still at the “meaningless” stage – his piling up of illustrations of the brevity and transitory nature of the material world. Feel the disillusionment building. Embrace it. There are bigger perspectives yet to come.

Ecclesiastes 1:12 – I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

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

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

1 thought on “The Limits of Understanding (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

  1. Let me humble myself to wade into this discussion, a terrain fraught with landmines…

    I’m not sure if Chris Wiles can still totally pass as a local, seeing as he lives multiple hours away. (OK you may have meant “local roots.”)

    We can get really messed up as we get intelligent. And is schooling such a great thing? Sometimes it merely bakes a wrong idea into one’s head. I don’t want to drop names, to drag people into discussions, but I’ve heard a couple people express a direct cautionary approach to buying into everything taught by a well-known Southern Theological Seminary. Another very smart blogger has written that a higher education actually kills intellectual curiosity.

    Solomon for all his wisdom couldn’t find it in himself to obey some direct commands laid out in scripture. He failed to meditate on and obey the word of the Lord.

    ” When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” …The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
    (Deut. 17:14-17 NIV)

    Solomon failed badly in each of these categories.He acquired many horses and chariots. He married many women, including many foreigners who worshiped other Gods. And of course his wealth was legendary, so much that the people got tired of the hard burdens that Solomon was putting on them.

    “Our problem is not so much the unanswered questions but the unquestioned answers out there.” We can often have unchallenged assumptions. In terms of the Bible and the word of God maybe we can be too literal and not get the truth. The crowd following Jesus freaked out when told they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. They also had some (long-term) correct idea that the Messiah would return with power and rule as a King. Messing up on the details they rejected the King and killed him.

    Other times we might be like the Sadducees who rejected the supernatural. We are going to mess up in some interpretations here or there.

    Old Testament commands might get transformed. Circumcision as Paul showed is now of the heart. A day of rest … is also a spiritual long-term one.

    Wise people can be wrong.

    19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”;
    20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”
    21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours,
    22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours,
    23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
    (1 Cor. 3:19-23 NIV)

    Here is what the educated Pharisees thought of the average folk who followed Jesus.
    48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him?
    49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law– there is a curse on them.” (Jn. 7:48-49 NIV)

    Here is what Jesus thought of the educated.
    At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. (Luke 10:21 NIV)

    And here in Ecclesiastes we have it written about how even the wise really don’t fully understand what is going on … at least all that deeply.

    No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it. (Eccl. 8:17 NIV)

    Think about it from many angles. The original church had the opportunity to hear from the Apostles. Yet even Paul prayed for the church that they would “understand the height and depth and width of God’s love.” Or from the NIV here it is.

    16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
    17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
    18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,
    19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
    (Eph. 3:16-19 NIV)

    If there is one thing the early church should have grasped it was the love of Christ. Yet there was Paul praying as if it is an ongoing process. Thing is we don’t even understand the basics. Even today, are we going around filled to the measure of all the fullness of God? Just saying we still need to pray about all this.

    I want to clarify. When I write “we don’t even understand the basics” there is a certain amount of milk or spiritual meat that we can handle. However if it isn’t really flowing around in our lives … we are still missing a lot. Jesus criticized the religion of the Pharisees and those who practice it as being “sons of hell.” We can be religious and still miss a lot of what Christ wants of us. We can think of ourselves in exalted terms since we are Christians … and become like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. I’m not trying to say that we are doing really pathetic or doing really well. Only God knows. I’m just saying let’s focus our eyes on Jesus because he is the rock … also our source of life.

    This is all too much to adequately even write about. Scripture is like gems and I’m just one person talking about how beautiful how they are. You might marvel at one facet, I turn the gem and see even other sparkles and colors. Yet this analogy too fails, because gems are things of this world, and the true spiritual riches found in Jesus and given to us are far more valuable than any earthly treasure.

    Speaking of prayer (writing somewhere above) that reminds me. … tonight? Maybe I can pray with some people tonight.

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