Up to now in this series on Ecclesiastes, the Teacher has guided us through multiple avenues we may be tempted to take in order to find fulfilment in life. The Teacher discussed how using our time on earth to seek greatness, using our careers to find purpose, and pursuing pleasures to feel alive are totally futile. One by one the Teacher of Ecclesiastes shattered these life pursuits, constantly pointing to the Lord as the only One who fulfils. Throughout the Teacher’s explanations though, the pursuit of wisdom has always been the key.
But now in this last post of this series wisdom itself, or knowledge, is in the firing line.
This may seem completely contradictory to the whole purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes, which is itself part of the wisdom literature in the Bible. But of course, part of the purpose of Ecclesiastes is to explain the human search for satisfaction, and knowledge is an example of a way in which humans try to find security, recognition and standing.
So, let’s look at what Ecclesiastes has to say about the pursuit of knowledge in order to attain a higher standing amongst others or to feel secure, and how it then applies to us. Ecc 7:16 says this: ‘Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself?’ Yet again, Ecclesiastes gives us a verse that on the surface seems mysterious, but let’s dig in deeper to see what the Teacher wants us to understand about wisdom.
The word used for ‘overly’ here better translates as ‘superior’, and so to be overly wise really means to ‘think yourself wise’ and to be overly righteous may be rendered ‘righteous in your own eyes’. The Teacher is describing the pursuit of knowledge that aims to glorify oneself and to feel superior within a crowd. This could be through trying to gain knowledge of current affairs, politics, literature or even Christianity.
University is a good example of this. I had a friend who worked in a university department, and they once told me that the way professors tend to find their social standing within the offices is through the number of articles they wrote and the feedback they received from them. This person told me that it made friendships seem fickle, and allowed hierarchy to form. Their worth within the work space depended on their knowledge.
We see this spill into many areas of life, especially in situations where we are out of our depth or where there isn’t a firm level of security. This can even be the case within Christian circles. Knowledge about doctrine or biblical narratives can be used to gain a step-up in respect or security in oneself. Or when we feel out of our depth then we can mistake this as a reflection of our value.
What is fascinating about the Teacher’s response to this use of knowledge is when he asks the question: ‘why should you destroy yourself?’ That seems a bit strange until we understand what we are doing to ourselves and others when we seek knowledge for this reason. The aim of making a show of knowledge, or aiming for wisdom only to be ‘cleverer than them’, is like diminishing the preciousness of what we are truly created for: to glorify and worship God, not ourselves.
The key to this, as with most things, is humility. The road to wisdom and knowledge has to come from a place of humility, where you’re able to be self-critical and yet laugh at yourself. To know that you will never know it all, or even have it all spot on, but to always see any opportunity to improve and learn more. Knowledge is then an honest pursuit which pleases God because it is not out to replace Him as your identity.
All knowledge comes from God. He is the definition of ultimate wisdom, and all knowledge that we see or hear in others is actually a sign of God’s grace in giving it to them in the first place. Earnestly seek knowledge – read more, initiate discussion and be open to hearing what others think and believe. But know that if you believe in who Jesus is and what He did for you, knowledge does not lie as your source of worth or identity, rather it continuously points to the magnificence of God – His higher plan and sovereignty.
Written by:Abigail Armstrong