Embracing Our Finitude
“I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (v. 17).- Ecclesiastes 8:16–17
From the very beginning, human beings have not been content to embrace their finitude. Not wanting to operate within the boundaries God set for them in Eden, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit so that they could be like their Creator in His knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1–7). Whether one reads history books or passes by the shop owned by the neighborhood “psychic,” humanity has displayed an insatiable hunger for the occult because of its desire to know things that only the Lord knows, such as the future and what deceased loved ones are doing right now. The rise of modern technology has brought incalculable benefits to the world, but scientists, out of their desire to know more and more, continue to press ethical limits in cloning , fetal stem cell research, and so forth.
Ecclesiastes 8:16–17 has a key word for our ever-continuing quest to peer into what only God knows—stop. We draw this lesson from what the Preacher says about the pursuit of knowledge, namely, that despite our diligent inquiries, we “cannot find out the work [of God] that is done under the sun.” Try as we might, we will never know things as God knows them, and some mysteries of His providential rule we will never solve.
The Preacher’s point is not to make us think that the quest for knowledge is futile. God did, in fact, create us with a desire to learn about Him and His world. We run into problems only when we want to go beyond what is appropriate for us to know, when we are not content with our finitude but want to master areas that the Lord has said are off limits. When in our quest for knowledge we go past the ethical boundaries God has established in His Word, we are to cease our investigation and heed the divine warning to “go no further.”
Moreover, being discontented with our finitude is foolish because there are some things that we simply cannot know as creatures. The pursuit of knowledge that we are not capable of learning is bound only to lead to frustration. Here the specific example that the Preacher gives is the work of God in creation. He is not speaking about everything our Creator does in His world; rather, he refers specifically to divine providence. Because God often acts in ways that we do not expect, His ways are past finding out (Rom. 11:33). Attempting to read providence when the Lord has not revealed His purpose clearly can be a dangerous thing. That is why all of our decisions should be made according to the principles He has revealed in Scripture.
Scripture does not say it is impossible for us to know anything. Instead, the emphasis is on pursuing knowledge within the boundaries of God’s revelation. Special revelation—sacred Scripture—must guide even our study of “non- religious” matters such as science, philosophy, history, and so forth. Since God is the author of truth and we are made in His image, we can know truth. We just have to be content to stop our pursuit of understanding where He tells us to stop.
Passages for Further Study