Ecclesiastes 1:18—Is wisdom the source of happiness, or the means of sorrow?

Problem: Solomon affirms here that “in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” However, Proverbs asserts that “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding” (Prov. 3:13). Does wisdom bring sorrow or happiness?

Solution: It all depends on the purpose for which wisdom or knowledge are sought. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is seeking wisdom “under the sun” (cf. 1:3), that is, apart from God, as the source of happiness. This he rightly concludes is “vanity and grasping for the wind” (1:14). However, if wisdom is viewed as based in “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:7), then it is the very means of obtaining true happiness. Indeed, Solomon came to this very conclusion in Ecclesiastes (see 8:12; 12:13). Also, the OT understanding of wisdom is not the accumulation of great amounts of knowledge. For Solomon, wisdom is first and foremost living a successful life of righteousness and peace in obedience to God. Knowledge alone does not bring wisdom. Indeed, the message of Ecclesiastes is that knowledge alone brings only sorrow. Wisdom is the accumulation of the right kind of knowledge coupled with a life that is in harmony with God’s commands and at peace with Him.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.