Ecclesiastes Lesson Four: Ecclesiastes 2:12-16 – The Limits of Wisdom

Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly, for what will the man be like who comes after the king? He will do what has already been done. 13 And I realized that there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness. 

14 The wise man has eyes in his head, 

but the fool walks in darkness. 

Yet I also knew that one fate comes to them both. 15 So I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will also happen to me. Why then have I been overly wise?” And I said to myself that this is also futile. 16 For, just like the fool, there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man, since in the days to come both will be forgotten. How is it that the wise man dies just like the fool? (HVSB)

In this passage, the teacher makes a comparison between wise and foolish people. He determines that there is a difference during their lifetimes, but once death overtakes them, there is no difference. Let’s peel back the layers on these verses.

  • Verse 12
    • Throughout history, discoveries and advancements have been made. Each one is in the hope that life will be made better for the current and subsequent generations.
    • However, often the subsequent generations will conduct the same experiments.
    • The worst part is repeating mistakes made by previous generations. 
    • That’s the teacher’s point when he says, “He will do what has already been done.”
    • What’s the point of chasing after wisdom and knowledge if mankind continues to repeat previously made mistakes?
    • Let’s consider this point in our personal lives or maybe with family or close friends.
      • How often do we see mistakes being repeated, even painful or stupid ones?
      • How often are we guilty of these same mistakes?
      • Why is it that we can blindly follow previous mistakes and cause great harm to ourselves or others?
    • It all comes back to the fall and the sinful nature of mankind.
      • Our focus isn’t on the things of God.
      • Our focus is on the things of the world.
  • Verse 13
    • This verse should be viewed in a two-pronged understanding.
    • It’s not just the contrast between wisdom and folly or light and darkness.
      • The wise man sees “things” and has understanding.
        • Wisdom brings illumination to situations.
        • This illumination doesn’t always avert the troubles that are coming, but it makes the wise man aware of them.
        • Because of wisdom, some trouble can be avoided or reduced.
        • In an extreme interpretation, the wise man can see when death is approaching.
      • The foolish man doesn’t see things.
        • The foolish man is walking in darkness and never sees the troubles that are coming.
        • The foolish man walks blindly into the troubles.
        • Death will catch the foolish man unaware.
    • When we think about the New Testament, the gospels, and Jesus, we see an identical comparison.
      • Jesus is our wisdom. 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord.
      • Jesus is light. John 8:12 Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”
      • Satan is darkness. Acts 26:18a  To open their eyes so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.
      • Paul speaks about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of man (worldly ways) in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25  Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? 21 For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. 22 For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. 24 Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, 25 because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
    • Seeking wisdom isn’t wrong or wasted time as long as we are aligning with God’s wisdom.
  • Verse 14
    • The comparison between light and dark in the previous verse carries over to this verse.
    • However, there is one common ground for both the wise and foolish man; death awaits both of them.
    • As a Christian, we must remember that the life we live here is not the end. Our hope is in our eternal dwelling place and never-ending fellowship with God.
      • 1 Peter 1:3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
      • John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.
      • John 5:28-29 Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of judgment.
      • Romans 6:5 For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.
    • The hope and promise of eternal life in heaven should give each follower of Christ a sense of peace and comfort, no matter what we face.
  • Verse 15
    • The teacher now comes to the conclusion that regardless of wisdom or folly, light or darkness, wealth or poverty, there is one great leveler which everyone faces…death.
    • He also ponders the question, “What did he gain by being wise?”
    • Wisdom will not prevent him from dying.
    • As I mentioned in the discussion of the previous verse, the Christian always has hope. Regardless of our circumstances, background, socio-economic status, gender, etc., we realize that it isn’t “what’s under the sun” that is important. It’s our relationship and submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ that will ultimately determine wisdom or folly.
  • Verse 16
    • As we read this verse, we can almost feel the despair in the teacher’s words.
    • He has concluded that when all is said and done, wisdom is no better than folly.
    • Consider the pursuits of the wise, powerful, or wealthy.
      • They desire fame or to be well-known.
      • They desire some type of physical structure by which to be remembered.
        • It could be a plaque.
        • It could be a monument.
        • Anything of a physical nature would qualify.
      • Many of these people are materialistic in nature.
        • They desire to be remembered for their “achievements.”
        • But the only immortality they can achieve are the physical reminders of their life.
        • In the end, these are often ignored unless they were extraordinary during their lifetime.
        • One example might be the Lincoln Monument. But we need to ask the question, “How many people today actually know who Lincoln was and what he accomplished during his lifetime?”
    • The death of the “famous” people begins to vanish as those who knew them personally also die.
      • Consider the life of Beethoven.
        • It may be said that he lives on in his music.
        • However, the truth is that we know the music but not the man.
      • Another example is Pythagoras of Samos, who was credited with mathematical and scientific discoveries.
        • He developed the Pythagorean theorem.
        • He developed Pythagorean tuning.
        • He identified the five regular solids.
        • He developed the Theory of Proportions.
        • There are several more discoveries attributed to him.
        • Yet, knowledge of the man by the vast majority of people is non-existent.
  • The teacher pursued wisdom and “things” as the ultimate goals of life.
  • Today, many follow the same path and eventually realize these pursuits leave them feeling empty. 
  • Only by pursuing God and not “the things under the sun,” will we be truly happy and fulfilled.


  • Examine the things in life you place a priority on. Are those things of a worldly or eternal nature? If you find that worldly things occupy a prominent place in your life pursuits, reorder your priorities and focus on eternal choices.
  • The pursuit of possessions or accomplishments most often will fail to satisfy us. There is only one path to happiness and joy, being a faithful follower of Christ. If we’ve placed our faith in Jesus and trusted His words, we should follow this path. Remember His words in John 10:10b  I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. If you don’t feel that your life has abundance, it’s likely because your focus is wrong. The “stuff” of the world will never satisfy. Only Jesus can lead us to satisfaction.

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