The Limits of Attaining Wisdom for Sinful Man

Previous article in this series: October 1, 2016, p. 8.  

All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out? I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: and I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Ecclesiastes 7:23-26

“All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me” (Eccl. 7:23). Solomon reviews what he has sought out, proved, and tested by the wisdom given him of God. He has set before us, in chapter 7, the sober reality of death and sorrow, the folly of sin and pride, the sovereign providence of God, and the strength that wisdom gives, including the knowledge of one’s own sin. But in seeking after wisdom and understanding he also reached a limit. He has proven much, but when he sought to be wise, he could not attain to its perfection. He was yet a man, a creature of the dust, and also a sinner.

We must put what Solomon says in the context of his own life and conduct as king over Israel, his rule from the throne, and the life of the palace. There was much wisdom displayed in the ordering of the kingdom, the building of the temple, and his other works. I Kings records these works extensively in its opening chapters. When the Queen of Sheba saw that order and plied him with hard questions, she was in awe of what she saw and heard of Solomon’s wisdom (I Kings 10:1-10). There was also his enterprise and business sense—his navy, commodity trading, and the wealth of Israel that was its fruit in gold, silver, and every luxury. He was indeed wise by the gift of God. But in these things, perfection of wisdom was not attained; there was an undercurrent of discontent even among his servants in the palace and also in the kingdom with men like Jeroboam. Prosperity itself cannot truly satisfy, because of man’s bondage to covetousness (chapters 5 and 6). It can work discontent because enough is never enough to man, who is by nature given to envy. That discontent would grow into rebellion. Solomon’s own stubborn sinfulness, under God’s chastening, would fuel it.

If in the ordering of the kingdom much wisdom was attained in Solomon’s own life (we may say his personal life), there were also many sins. He himself confesses the fact of it, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Eccl. 7:20). The statement is both an observation of life in general and a personal confession. What then? He sought to be wise, and found that he could not attain unto complete or perfect wisdom for all of the measure of wisdom given him. Wisdom is a divine attribute. It is God’s ability to form all things and work all things together for the realization of His counsel and purpose, unto the revelation of His own glory and grace in Christ. God’s wisdom is beyond the understand ing of man. Solomon says, “It was far from me” (Eccl. 7:23).

He now adds, “That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?” (Eccl. 7:24). The fountain of true wisdom is in God, and man cannot attain unto it. Solomon has said, “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” (Eccl. 7:13). God’s ways are higher and deeper than our understanding. Agur in Proverbs 30 speaks the same language: “Surely I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy” (vv. 2, 3). The apostle Paul makes the same confession: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).

Solomon likewise confronts the limits of his own understanding. He has said in the beginning of Ecclesiastes, “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl. 1:17, 18). Here he repeats the same idea, “I applied mine heart to know and to search, and seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness” (Eccl. 7:25). He has said in himself, “I will be wise.” He has given every effort to be wise and to search out wisdom. The object of that study was “What is wisdom and its way?” Because of sin, that study included also its spiritual opposite, folly and madness.

He sought to be wise, but it was a wisdom tainted by the flesh. There was an element of fleshly carnal wisdom that cleaved to his desire. His searching and seeking was not a mere abstract exercise, for Solomon had his own sins to wrestle with. He multiplied wives, not so much out of lust, though that is not excluded; but he took heathen princesses to form political alliances to secure the external peace of the kingdom. In an earthly sense, this was the way of the world’s wisdom. But it was a false wisdom, which led to folly on his part.

When he speaks of knowing the wickedness of folly, even foolishness and madness, he is not advocating doing wickedness. His desire was to be wise, but he was still a sinner. He speaks, therefore, of seeking to understand this reality of sin, as it is part of the reason of things and as it cleaves also to him in his own life. He is at this point somewhat like Paul in Romans 7, “I find a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). He sought not only wisdom as from God, but to know his own sin and the reality of sin around him. Sin is foolishness and madness, because it is contrary to God’s law and design for man’s life and well-being. This too was beyond his understanding. His confession is similar to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” The answer to the dilemma Jeremiah gives as well: “I, the Lord search the heart, I try the reigns, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to his doings” (Jer. 17:10). The Lord alone knows the heart. But that means for man, as well as for Solomon, “That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?” (Eccl. 7:24).

Solomon illustrates this limitation of his own wisdom by speaking of his own personal experience. “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her” (Eccl. 7:26). Because he speaks of “finding” what is “more bitter than death,” and that personally, not just by observation, we may understand that he is speaking of his own experience. Death is the judgment of God upon sin. The bitterness of which he speaks is not, however, physical death, but the state of his heart when he looks at the matter before him. It worked a sorrow in his experience that was to him more bitter that death itself, a spiritual grief of heart comparable to the sorrow of death and loss. That grief was the effect of his relation to women. He is not speaking, however, of any kind of woman; he is not speaking of women in general, but of one who has a specific character: “whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands.” She is an ungodly woman, an unbeliever. The description is that of his heathen wives, who caused his heart to err and led him to serve or make room for their idols.

His intention is not to discuss his sorrow over his sin; that belongs to David’s history in Psalms 51 and 32. Rather, it is to give a warning to the young man who is drawn to the unbelieving daughters of this world. Nor is it to be limited to young men. While that is the illustration in Solomon’s case, what he says is also a warning to a young woman with regard to being attracted to unbelieving young men. It further applies to whatever draws us away from the Lord within the life of the church in a sinful world. His picture is of a woman whose heart, in the deceitfulness of sin, is like one who lays a snare and net to capture a bird. The snare is deceitful, cunningly laid, out of a heart that is a trap of sin to ensnare one who is heedless and lacking discernment. That trap certainly uses sex and sexuality, but Solomon has a broader view than simply the seventh commandment. It is a trap that preys upon the mind in order to deceive, preys upon the emotions to draw, and seeks to hold by hands that become bands, bands that are the chains of bondage. Nor is there any need to introduce the idea, as some commentaries do, that the author is speaking allegorically of the woman, as a personification of worldly philosophy. He speaks concretely. He is seeking to warn young people, by his own bitterness of heart, to flee from such relationships and not be ensnared by them. He intends that they should remember their Creator (Eccl. 12:1) and not fall into this, his sin.

What makes the warning a sober and serious one is not only his sin and its sad history but what he adds: “whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her” (Eccl. 7:26). There is a judgment of God that is manifested in this matter. He who walks in the fear of God, taking heed to His Word, walks in a way that is pleasing to God. Because our wisdom is limited and our understanding of our own sin imperfect, it is clouded by the subtle deceitfulness of sin. We are called to flee youthful lusts (II Tim. 2:22). But it is God’s grace that keeps us from that and other ways of sin. God chastens the one who walks in the sin of pride and who departs in the way of his own sinful imagination. He, or she, is like a heedless bird who does not regard the danger and the warnings given.

The sinner shall be taken and ensnared, and with the ensnarement comes sorrow of heart, bitterness “more bitter than death,” for it often works the ruin of life and joy. Such was the case with Solomon’s sin. He laid the root of sin in the life of the palace; the consequences would rend the kingdom after his death in the days of Rehoboam. The blessings of God’s covenant in marriage and family life are at issue, and Solomon’s sin undermined both in the life of the church and kingdom. The idolatry of his unbelieving heathen wives and the temples built for them outside the city would work through in the life of the nation. The idolatry introduced into Israel would ultimately lead them into the captivity in Babylon. Solomon when he is old speaks to us: “Learn what I learned to my grief, bitter as death, and walk not in it.” Pride supplanted wisdom because of sin. Solomon for all his wisdom did not have perfect wisdom or understanding. In Jesus Christ alone, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, is perfect wisdom to be found.