When the Pursuit of Wisdom Disappoints

I recently taught through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The class sparked lively discussion about life’s most troubling experiences and unsettling questions. When asked for their initial impression after listening to the book read aloud, people repeated the words: Confused, Frustrated…Disillusioned.

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Ecclesiastes’ sobering introduction decries, “Meaningless! Meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). When a teenager bursts out with similar sentiments we wonder if adolescent hormones are to blame. But when a seasoned sage declares it, we are deeply troubled. Ecclesiastes was written by an elder statesman — “the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” Traditional scholarship credits Solomon as its author.¹

God offered Solomon anything he wanted (2 Chronicles 1:7) and praised Solomon when he did not ask for wealth or honor. Instead, Solomon heeded the advice of his father, King David, who taught him, “My son…get wisdom… never forget wisdom… wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom! (Proverbs 4:1,5-7)

When Solomon asked for wisdom God gave it abundantly! Royal court officials and foreign dignitaries marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. “[Everyone] perceived that God’s wisdom was in him.” (1 Kings 3:28). Though Solomon never asked for wealth and honor; wisdom landed him on top of the world — financially, politically, and socially!

It’s remarkable that the person most qualified to sing Wisdom’s praises instead warned us about its limitations. Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business… a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17-18)

Wisdom’s limitations present unsettling news for hope seekers. I saw it on the faces of people in my class.

The mentors in my life taught me to get wisdom, just as David taught Solomon. I have enjoyed the benefits of pursuing wisdom as well as suffered the pain of ignoring it.

When I discovered wisdom offered me exceptionally valuable things, I’ve wrongly assumed certainty was part of the offer. Unfortunately living wisely will not guarantee: a healthy marriage, faithful children, financial security, vocational advancement, or good health. Those who confuse absolute guarantees with general principles are prone to misjudge the benefits of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:6 has paralyzed faithful parents with false shame after an adult child has gone off the rails. But Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart”) is not a guarantee. It is a proverb, not a law. It is generally true but there are exceptions. Many factors outside of bad parenting can cause people to ruin their lives.

When people ignore the limits of wisdom and grab for certainty, they cause wounds that even the best of intentions cannot salve. They will be exposed as naive, self-righteous or just plain wrong — like Job’s friends.

As a young adult, a few people tried to warn me about wisdom’s limitations. When they suggested my search for understanding might lead to frustrated uncertainty, I thought them jaded or faithless. But then life’s unexpected twists and turns led me to the precipice of my vain assurance and I fell to humbler ground. I realized I might never understand why certain bad things happen. Soon afterward, Solomon became my empathetic friend. He shared my sense of futility — “Meaningless, Meaningless…utterly meaningless!” 

Unexpected comfort comes when we realize the Bible doesn’t conveniently dismiss life’s most troubling dilemmas. In fact it often silences those offering easy answers to allow space for frustrated voices to wail. Even Jesus wailed, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ suffering and death proved there were no easy answers for life’s most disturbing troubles. The solutions we need could not be delivered through a book. But, they could be incarnated in a person. So God sent Jesus. He is the person of exceptional wisdom² who entered our troubled darkness, absorbed it, and conquered it. In Jesus, God crushed despair and meaninglessness and replaced it with resurrected hope!

Jesus may not explain your darkness away, but he has shared it. Eventually he will pierce it again and bring you into new light. Trust Him, even when your best efforts to understand things leave you disillusioned. Though frustration and despair rage, wait on him. He is powerful to deliver!

¹ Strictly speaking the writer of Ecclesiastes is anonymous since no personal name is attached, but the evidence strongly indicates Solomon is the author. 

² See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

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