The Bible: The Limits of Wisdom

In this series, we have commented on the tremendous value of wisdom. The wisdom literature, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, gives us many insights into our daily lives. Yet wisdom alone cannot solve all our problems. This is vividly illustrated by the life of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.

Solomon mournfully reflected: “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” (Ecclesiastes 2:15). Illustration by Jody Eastman

Solomon was not some thinker who shut himself off from the world. Instead, he used his wisdom to do great works. He says of himself: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards” (Ecclesiastes 2:4).

The reign of Solomon was the height of Israel’s power and glory. However, after Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, ascended to the throne, his lack of wisdom soon resulted in the kingdom of Israel being divided and Solomon’s work being undone.

Perhaps Solomon foresaw this when he said: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun” (verses 18-19).

Wisdom did not bring Solomon fulfillment in life. He said, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Solomon’s fault lay not in seeking wisdom but in his approach to life. He sought wisdom for himself, trying to find meaning, purpose and fulfillment in his own existence, apart from a higher reality. His focus was self-centered. His wisdom led him to realize the fleeting nature of life. Even though he had much wisdom, he knew he was going to die, just like everyone else: “Like the fool, the wise man too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16).

Solomon also lacked the character to do what he knew was right. He realized the importance of treating others respectfully, but did not always consider the welfare of others. For example, he taxed his people heavily to spend money on his lavish private projects. He also advised others to fear God, yet he turned his own heart away from God.

As a result, Solomon was alone, without any close personal relationships. Apparently, this was true even with his 1,000 wives and concubines (Ecclesiastes 7:28). In the end, God tore the kingdom of Israel away from him (1 Kings 11:11).

Jesus Christ taught a way of life based on a value higher than wisdom — love.

Solomon was unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to live the way of life that brings happiness. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ taught a way of life based on a value higher than wisdom — love. Jesus taught that the two great keys to spiritual well-being are to love God and to love fellow humans. Paul, an early follower of Jesus, wrote, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

The hope of all who follow Christ is not in this life. No one who is overly concerned with this life can achieve lasting happiness. That was Solomon’s mistake. That is the limit of wisdom, of practical advice regarding this life. Jesus told his followers:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…. See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these…. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-33).

Christ’s followers look beyond the concerns of this life, to eternal life and happiness in the kingdom of God (Colossians 3:1-2).

Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay


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