Ecclesiastes Lesson Two: The Limits of Wisdom – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to seek and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; 

what is lacking cannot be counted. 

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” 17 I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind.

18 For with much wisdom is much sorrow; 

as knowledge increases, grief increases. (HCSB)

We’ll look at this passage as one coherent whole. When we consider what’s written in Ecclesiastes came from the mouth of Solomon in the later stage of his life, and he was widely commended for his wisdom and knowledge, it can be both discouraging and comforting that the acquisition of knowledge has its limits. It can be discouraging because no matter how hard a person tries, they will never understand everything. It is comforting for the same reason; the pursuit of knowledge should not be the goal itself.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at this passage.

  • The teacher sought to attain wisdom and knowledge.
    • The pursuit of wisdom wasn’t just a passing fancy or a whim.
    • Pursuing wisdom was a passion for the teacher.
      • A primary theme in wisdom and philosophic writing is that a life of wisdom is the highest of all callings.
      • Plato believed the work of a philosopher was the purest form of living.
    • 1 Kings 4:29-34 – God gave Solomon wisdom, very great insight, and understanding  as vast as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone—wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, sons of Mahol. His reputation extended to all the surrounding nations. 32 Solomon composed 3,000 proverbs, and his songs numbered 1,005. 33 He described trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop growing out of the wall. He also taught about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from everywhere, sent by every king on earth who had heard of his wisdom, to listen to Solomon’s wisdom.
    • Why does the teacher call the task of acquiring wisdom a “miserable task?”
      • The teacher is challenging the widely-held view of the time that the pursuit of knowledge fulfills their life and gives them permanent significance.
      • The teacher finds it a hopeless task; he can’t find the answers he seeks.
      • The teacher views life as being under the sovereign rule of God.
      • Philosophers and their work are under the control of God. 1 Corinthians 3:19-20 – For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, since it is written: He catches the wise in their craftiness; 20 and again, The Lord knows that the reasonings of the wise are meaningless.
    • Although some believe verse fourteen pertains to both physical as well as intellectual pursuits, when the context of this section is considered, it makes more sense to interpret the teacher’s focus as being on intellectual pursuits only.
      • All intellectual work done by an individual will disappear with time and their passing. None of it has eternal worth.
      • The phrase “a pursuit of the wind” should be interpreted in the following manner.
        • You can chase the wind but never catch it.
        • Even if you were able to catch the wind, you wouldn’t have anything of substance.
      • The pursuit of wisdom won’t satisfy the heart.
    • Verse fifteen should be understood in two different ways.
      • Not everything can be changed, referring specifically to mistakes made in the past.
        • We can’t undo the mistakes we’ve made in the past.
        • Since we can’t change the past, we should stop worrying about the mistake itself.
          • This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from the mistake to avoid repeating it.
          • It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confess and repent of the behavior if it is sinful.
          • It does mean we should move forward and not be weighed down by the past.
      • Even God can’t change the past.
        • However, God has the power to straighten what has been twisted and supply what is lacking.
        • God can change how the past affects people.
          • For the unbeliever, the past is a heavy weight that can drag a person down.
          • For a believer, past mistakes can push them back on the correct path and guide them forward. Faith in the redemptive power of Jesus is the key.
        • Jesus often straightened out the twisted and provided when there was a need.
          • Luke 13:11-17 – a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for over 18 years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, He called out to her, “Woman, you are free of your disability.” 13 Then He laid His hands on her, and instantly she was restored and began to glorify God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded by telling the crowd, “There are six days when work should be done;  therefore come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “Hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you untie his ox or donkey from the feeding trough on the Sabbath and lead it to water? 16 Satan has bound this woman, a daughter of Abraham, for 18 years—shouldn’t she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When He had said these things, all His adversaries were humiliated, but the whole crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things He was doing.
          • Matthew 12:10-13 – There He saw a man who had a paralyzed hand. And in order to accuse Him they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 But He said to them, “What man among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? 12 A man is worth far more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then He told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out, and it was restored, as good as the other.
          • Matthew 15:29-31 – Moving on from there, Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee.  He went up on a mountain and sat there, 30 and large crowds came to Him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, those unable to speak, and many others. They put them at His feet, and He healed them.31 So the crowd was amazed when they saw those unable to speak talking, the deformed restored, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they gave glory to the God of Israel. 
          • John 6:1-13 – After this, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias ). And a huge crowd was following Him because they saw the signs that He was performing by healing the sick. So Jesus went up a mountain and sat down there with His disciples. Now the Passover, a Jewish festival, was near. Therefore, when Jesus looked up and noticed a huge crowd coming toward Him, He asked Philip, “Where will we buy bread so these people can eat?” He asked this to test him, for He Himself knew what He was going to do. Philip answered, “Two hundred denarii  worth of bread wouldn’t be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish—but what are they for so many?” 10 Then Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, so they sat down. The men numbered about 5,000. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and after giving thanks He distributed them to those who were seated—so also with the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were full, He told His disciples, “Collect the leftovers so that nothing is wasted.” 13 So they collected them and filled 12 baskets with the pieces from the five barley loaves that were left over by those who had eaten. 
        • Solomon was viewing problems from the perspective of “under the sun,” meaning he wasn’t bringing God into the discussion. This is why the problems were insurmountable.
    • The second understanding is a problem that can’t be solved.
      • Some problems are not solvable from a human perspective.
      • Some problems have critical information missing, which would aid in finding the correct answer.
      • More than anyone else, the intellectual understands the futility of humanity. They can’t answer some of the fundamental questions of life.
      • God’s ways are so much higher than ours; we’ll never fully understand some of the questions we have.
  • In the final three verses of this passage, the teacher acknowledges that wisdom and experience will not solve all of our problems.
    • If we try and go through life focused on explanations, we’ll be unhappy for two reasons.
      • There are no logical reasons for some of the things people experience. God is under no obligation always to provide explanations, and if He did, we might not understand anyway.
      • God has ordained His people to live by promises and not explanations.
        • By faith and not by sight.
        • John 20:29 – Jesus said, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Those who believe without seeing are blessed.”
    • The teacher comes to the conclusion that acquiring great wisdom only added to his difficulties in life.
      • Increasing one’s wisdom and knowledge leads to an increase in sorrow and grief.
      • For those who don’t ponder the problems of life, there is an innocence of not having to wrestle with the “why’s” and try to understand God.
    • If we think back to Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan, we have a clearer understanding of this picture.
      • When they sinned, they received an experiential understanding of good and evil.
      • This revelation resulted in their alienation from God.
      • The increase in knowledge only increased their sorrow.
      • This cycle has afflicted mankind ever since the fall in the Garden of Eden.
  • For many people, life is boring and monotonous.
  • For the Christian, life should be an open door and not a closed circle.
    • The believer experiences daily blessings from God.
    • While it is true we can’t understand or explain everything; life is not built on explanations.
    • For the Christian, life is built on the promises of God.
    • God’s Word is full of His promises.
    • As a believer, if your life resembles a closed circle, you need to turn back to Jesus and experience once again the fullness and blessing of living in a close relationship with God.


  • Seeking after wisdom for the sake of seeking is wasted time. Education for the purpose of our vocation is not a bad thing unless our motivation is wrong. Follow the path of God’s will for our life and find your wisdom in Scripture.
  • When incidents occur where there is no explanation, don’t try and force an explanation. God’s ways are higher than ours and always perfect. In this life, we may never understand all the things that happen to us. That’s certainly been my experience. Focus on God’s promises and find peace in them.
  • The only wisdom we should chase after is found in Scripture. 
  • Fullness in life is found in Christ, not in anything the world will try and use as a substitute. 

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