The Sorrow That Attends Knowledge
“I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (vv. 17–18).- Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
“Ignorance is bliss.” That well-worn saying is not a piece of divinely inspired wisdom, but it certainly captures an important element of biblical truth. In fact, Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 expresses much of the same sentiment when it tells us that there is “much vexation” to be found in much wisdom and that to increase knowledge is to increase sorrow.
That growing in knowledge can cause one to grow in sorrow is clear from Scripture. After all, sin and sorrow entered the world when Adam and Eve grasped for knowledge that God said they should not have (Gen. 3). We also find warnings in the Bible about knowing too much about evil, about becoming expert practitioners of sin (1 Cor. 14:20).
As important as the notion is that the sinful chasing after knowledge brings sorrow, this is not the kind of knowledge-seeking that the Preacher is talking about in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18. Instead, today’s passage is speaking of the right acquisition of knowledge, the effort to learn righteous wisdom and to increase in one’s understanding of persons, places, and things. Scripture frequently commends the search for wisdom and calls us to make every effort to find and possess truth and understanding (Prov. 23:23).
Paradoxically, the search for wisdom does bring sorrow in some ways. Matthew Henry helpfully comments on today’s passage that “the more we know the more we see there is to be known, and consequently we perceive with greater clearness that our work is without end, and the more we see of our former mistakes and blunders, which occasions much grief.” We do not really understand how much we do not know until we start to learn and come to know ourselves and the world around us. However, the more we know ourselves and the world around us, the more we realize that we do not know very much at all, that there is a seemingly infinite amount of information that must be mastered, and that we will never attain all the knowledge we seek. As we grow in knowledge, we also come to understand how much our ignorance has caused—and continues to cause—problems for ourselves and others. That brings sorrow.
Furthermore, as we know others better, we see just how deeply sin affects them and us. That brings great sadness, especially when we have to deal with situations so complex that the most righteous course of action is by no means clear. At such times, it can seem as if there is no good solution, which is a sorrowing realization indeed.
Coming to understand the limitations of our knowledge and wisdom can be deeply sorrowing. At the same time, however, there are senses in which it can be liberating. First, knowing the limits of our own understanding forces us to flee for refuge to Christ and to recognize that we are ever-dependent on the grace of His wisdom. Furthermore, knowing that our wisdom is limited frees us from the burden of feeling like we must be an expert in all areas of life and knowledge.
Passages for Further Study