For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.
1. MERE EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE IS UNSATISFACTORY IN ITS NATURE. Take as an illustration of this the field of creation. The knowledge of facts and laws can employ man's reason, but it cannot ultimately satisfy it., and still less can it soothe his soul, or meet the longings of his spirit.. Law everywhere cannot, permanently satisfy man without a Lawgiver; order, without a primordial reason; forms of skill and beauty, without a great Thinker, from whom they are emanations, and whom our own thoughts can touch, as they touch kindred souls, till we can say, "How precious are Thy thoughts unto me, O God!"
II. MERE EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE IS PAINFUL IN ITS CONTENTS. For an illustration of this, we may go from creation to history, from space to time. Take away our hope in God, and history becomes a sea of tumbling billows, dark and shoreless; nations rising only to fall; great souls shooting across the horizon like dying meteors; and all the spiritual longings of the past written down but to tell us of the vanity of our own efforts. History would be a dreary study when it had lost all the higher ends it might serve as a school of. training for immortal souls, and as the steps of a Divine Architect through the broken scaffolding and scattered stone-wreck upward to a finished structure. The very glimpse of this is reviving, but to give up at once Architect and end, and see human lives shattered and strewn across weary ages, and human hearts torn and bleeding, with no abiding result, this surely would fill a thoughtful mind with pain. The more of such history, the more of sorrow.
III. MERE EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE IS HOPELESS IN ITS ISSUE. For an illustration of this we may take the field of abstract thought. The ultimate object of man's search is to find the centre of knowledge which commands the whole field. The man who begins the search after truth is generally more satisfied with his progress than he who has been long in the course. Those things which, like the stem of a tree, seem simple and easily grasped, spread away beneath into interminable roots, where we can never count them all nor reach the end of any one. Let a man try to master a single subject, and he will find it so. The road becomes longer and the field wider as he proceeds. And if a man should feel impelled to go beyond the surface of things, and to inquire into the origin of being and the end of all things, without accepting a God, doubt and darkness would only gather at every step. With no lamp in the soul there is no light in the world. His own being and end become an increasing perplexity. He grows in unquietness and irresolution, which men do not feel who have not entered on such a search. As he enlarges the circumference of knowledge he enlarges the encircling darkness, and even the knowledge yields no ray of true satisfaction.
IV. MERE EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE IS DISCOURAGING IN ITS PERSONAL RESULTS. We may consider here the moral nature of man. Earthly science can do very much to improve man's external circumstances. It can occupy his reason, it can refine and gratify his taste; but there are greater wants that remain. If the man seeks something to fill and warm his heart, all the wisdom of this world is only a cold phosphorescence. He pursues its waters like thirsty Tantalus, and they touch his lips and flee from them. He must say with Goethe, "Alas that the yonder is never here!" The tree of knowledge never becomes the tree of life. If the man is desirous to have his own moral nature rise to a noble elevation, he must be equally disappointed with the result of bare knowledge; not merely with what is accomplished by it, for here we may all be sad enough, but with what is promised by it. It may have its negative value in occupying thought and time, which might be devoted to ignoble uses; but it cannot conquer passion, nor renew a nature that has felt the degradation of sin. The great heights of holiness may sometimes rise before such a man, and the sublime form of duty may gleam out and beckon him to the sun-lit summit of perfection; but there is no power, out of God, to help him do it, — "The depth said, It is not in me," and such an ideal, rising without the power or hope to reach it, can only fill the man with a more profound sadness.
V. MERE EARTHLY KNOWLEDGE HAS SO BRIEF A DURATION. Here we may contemplate life as a whole. If the thought of God be admitted, all real knowledge has the stamp of immortality. The happy seeker of truth is he who feels that in gaining it he is taking possession of a perpetual treasure, and beginning a quest which is to be enlarged by a new life in new worlds. But if there be nothing of this, "in one day all man's thoughts perish," — "The wise man dieth and the fool also." The sweeter truth is to the taste, the more bitter must be the thought of leaving the pursuit of it for ever. After all, it is a question which the head cannot answer without inquiring at the heart. It is this, can any progress of earthly science reconcile us to the loss of God and of the hope of immortality? and we feel assured that, with the immense mass of men, when their inner nature is truly consulted, the answer would be found here, — "The increase of knowledge is the increase of sorrow." Whatever we may come to know, if God be not, and earth be all, "Vanity of vanities" is the epitaph of life.
(John Ker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.