I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.…
Solomon has made serious allegations concerning human life, and he now proceeds to substantiate them. He has declared that it yields no permanent results, that it is tedious beyond expression, and that it is soon overtaken by oblivion. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" The monotony of things in the natural world - the permanence of the earth in contrast with the changes in human life, the mechanical routine of sunrise and sunset, the ceaseless agitation of the atmosphere, the constant course of rivers to the sea, and so on - had not been the sole ground for his conclusions. He had considered also "all the works that are done under the sun," the whole range of human action, and found in them evidence justifying his allegations. Both in natural phenomena and in human efforts and attainments he found that all was vanity and vexation of spirit. He had, he tells us (ver. 12), all the resources of a great monarch at his command - riches, authority, capacity, and leisure; and he applied himself, - he gave his heart to discover, by the aid of wisdom, the nature of earthly pursuits, and found that they were fruitless. He concentrated all his mental energy upon the course of investigation, and continued in it until the conclusion was forced upon him that "in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." So different is the estimate of wisdom and knowledge formed by the Jewish king from that held by other great philosophers and sages, that it is worth while to inquire into the cause of the difference. The explanation is to be found in ver. 15, "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." It was a practical end that Solomon had in view - to remedy evils and to supply deficiencies. He did not engage in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge for the sake of the pleasure yielded by intellectual activity. In the case of ordinary philosophers and scientists the aim is a different one. "A truth, once known, falls into comparative insignificance. It is now prized, less on its own account than as opening up new ways to new activity, new suspense, new hopes, new discoveries, new self-gratulation - it is not knowledge, it is not truth, that the votary of science principally seeks; he seeks the exercise of his faculties and feelings. Absolute certainty and absolute completion would be the paralysis of any study; and the last worst calamity that could befall man, as he is at present constituted, would be that full and final possession of speculative truth which he now vainly anticipates as the consummation of his intellectual happiness. And what is true of science is true, indeed, of all human activity. It is ever the contest that pleases us, and not the victory. Thus it is in play; thus it is in hunting; thus it is in the search of truth; thus it is in life. The past does not interest, the present does not satisfy; the future alone is the object which engages us. 'It is not the goal, but the course, that makes us happy,' says Richter" (Hamilton, 'Metaphysics'). But in the case before us we find that the pleasure afforded by intellectual activity is not regarded by the Preacher as an end sufficient in itself to engage his energies. It is a practical end he has in view; and when he finds that earthly pursuits cannot alter destinies, cannot change the conditions under which we live, cannot set right that which is wrong, or supply that which is wanting for human happiness, he loathes them altogether. The very wisdom and knowledge which he had acquired in his investigations seem to him useless lumber. He wanted to find in life an adequate aim and end, something in which man could find repose. He found it not. "The light which the wisdom he had learned cast on human destiny only exhibited to him the illusions of life, but did not show him one perfect object on which he might rest as a final aim of existence. And therefore he says that 'he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,' since he only thus perceives more and more illusions, whilst nothing is the result, and nihilism is only sorrow of heart" (vide Martensen, 'Christian Ethics'). The Preacher then says about the pursuit of wisdom, that though it is implanted by God in the heart of man (ver. 13), it is
(1) a severe and laborious task, and
(2) the results it yields are grief and sorrow.
I. In the first place, then, HE DESCRIBES THE PURSUIT OF WISDOM AS A SEVERE AND LABORIOUS TASK. He looks back upon the course of inquiry he had followed, and declares that it has been a rugged, thorny road. "This sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith." And it is quite in harmony with the spirit of the book that the name of God, which occurs here for the first time, should be coupled with the thought of his laying heavy burdens upon men, since it was by him that this profitless search had been appointed. He remembers all the labors of the way by which he had come - the weariness of brain, the laborious days, the sleepless nights, the frustrated hopes, the disappointments he had experienced; and he counts the pursuit of wisdom but another of the vanities of life. The common run of men, who have no high aims, no desires after a wisdom more than that needed for procuring a livelihood, who are undisturbed by the great problems of life, are spared this painful discipline. It is those who rise above their fellows, that are called to spend their strength and resources, to deny themselves pleasures, and to separate themselves from much of that in which mankind delight and find solace, only to find keener sorrows than those known to their fellows. They do indeed hear and obey the voice of God, but it calls them to suffering and to self-sacrifice. In these days, when the sciences open up before men vast fields for research, there must be many who can verify from their own experience what Solomon says about the laboriousness of the methods used. The infinite patience needed, the observation and cataloguing of multitudinous facts, the inventing of fresh mechanical appliances for facilitating research, the varied experiments, the careful examination of evidence, and the construction and testing of new theories and hypotheses, are the "sore travail" here spoken of.
II. In the second place, THE WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE SO LABORIOUSLY GAINED ONLY MEAN INCREASE OF GRIEG AND SORROW. (Ver. 18.) There is abundant evidence of the truth of this statement in the experience of those who have made great attainments in intellectual wisdom. For progress in knowledge only convinces man of the little he knows, as compared with the vast universe of being that lies undiscovered. He is convinced of the weakness of his powers, the shortness of the time at his disposal, and the infinite extent of the field, which he desires, but can never hope to take possession of. This thought is expressed in the well-known words of Sir Isaac Newton: "I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then with a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me." With increase of intellectual knowledge, with enlarged acquaintance with the thoughts of men, and the various theories of the universe that have been held, and the various solutions of difficulties that have been given, there often comes, too, unwillingess or inability to rest content with any theory or any solution. Doubts, which frequently settle down into definite agnosticism, beset the man who is given to great intellectual activity. And then, too, the fact remains that we cannot by sheer reasoning come to any definite conclusions as to any of the great questions which most concern our happiness. No one can by searching find out God - reach definite knowledge concerning him, his existence, nature, and character; or be assured of the fact of there being an overruling Providence, of the efficacy of prayer, of a life beyond the grave, or of the immortality of the soul. Probable or plausible opinions may be formed, but certainty comes only by revelation and faith. Hence it is that Milton describes some of the fallen angels as wandering hopelessly through these labyrinths of thought and conjecture, and finding in so doing intellectual occupation, but neither solace nor rest.
"Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason'd high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and late;
Fix'd fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy." And it has been said that one of the attractions which this Book of Ecclesiastes has for the present age is in its skeptical questioning, and restless, fluctuating uncertainty. The age can adopt as its own its somber declarations. "Science beasts vaingloriously of her progress, yet mocks us with her grand discovery of progress through pain, telling of small advantages for the few purchased by enormous waste of life, by internecine conflict and competition, and by a deadly struggle with Nature herself, 'red in tooth and claw with ravin,' greedy to feed on the offspring of her own redundant fertility. The revelations of geology and astronomy deepen our depression. The littleness of our lives and the insignificance of our concerns become more conspicuous in comparison with the long and slow procession of the aeons which have gone before, and with the vast ocean of being around us, driven and tossed by enormous, complicated, and unresting forces. A new significance is thus given to the words, 'In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow'" (Tyler). In his celebrated engraving of 'Melaucolia,' Albert Direr has with wonderful skill depicted this mood of intellectual depression. He represents a winged figure, that of a woman seated by the seashore and looking intently into the distance, with bent brows and proud, pensive demeanor. Her thoughts are absorbed in somber meditation, and her wings are folded. A closed book is in her lap. Near her stands a dial-plate, and above it a bell, that strikes the hours as they pass. The sun is rapidly nearing the horizon-line, and darkness will soon enshroud the earth. In her right hand she holds a compass and a circle, emblematic of that infinity of time and space upon which she is meditating. Around her are scattered the various implements of art, and the numerous appliances of science. They have served her purpose, and she now casts them aside, and listlessly ponders on the vanity of all human calculations. Above her is an hour-glass, in which the sands are running low, emblematic of the shortness of the time yet left for fresh schemes and efforts. In like manner the Preacher found that on the moral side increase of knowledge meant increase of sorrow. Knowledge of the true ideal only made him the more conscious of the distance we are from it, and of the hopelessness of our efforts to reach it. The further the research is carried, the m6re abundant is the evidence discoverable of our moral nature being in a condition of disorder. We find that conscience too often reigns without governing, that natural appetites and desires refuse to submit to her rule, that often motives and feelings which she distinctly condemns, such as pride, envy, selfishness, and cruelty, direct and animate our conduct. All schools of philosophy have recognized the fact of moral disorder in our nature. It is, indeed, unfortunately too evident to be denied or explained away. Aristotle says, "We are more naturally disposed towards those things which are wrong, and more easily carried away to excess than to propriety of conduct." And Hume, "We naturally desire what is forbidden, and often take a pleasure in performing actions merely because they are unlawful. The notion of duty when opposite to the passions is not always able to overcome them; and when it fails of that effect, is apt rather to increase and irritate them, by producing an opposition in our motives and principles." But it is not necessary to multiply Testimony to a fact so generally acknowledged. How this moral disorder originated in human nature is a problem which philosophy is unable to solve, just as it is lacking in ability to correct it. It can discern the symptoms and character of the disease, and describe the course it takes, but cannot cure it. And so the existence of disturbing and lawless forces in our moral nature, the power of evil habit, the social inequalities and disorders which result from the perversity of the individuals of whom society is made up, and the varying codes of morals which exist in the world, are all calculated to distress and perplex him who seeks to make that straight which is crooked, and to supplement that which is defective. Increase of knowledge brings increase of sorrow. - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.