by Eric Garner
“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” –Ecclesiastes 1:18 KJV
As with most of the disciplines, study runs the risk of pain. I am not talking about that time you fell asleep preparing for your poorly taught world history course and you got a bloody nose when your face hit the desk, but rather the pangs of doubt and loneliness often found tucked between the words of a printed page. I cannot guarantee that this will happen to everyone who studies, but I do imagine I am not alone in this mourning.
As I stated in my last article, study has the ability to bring us close to God; however, today we look at the other side of the same coin – sometimes we are profoundly uncomfortable with what we learn about God. What do we do with God’s violence in Joshua? As we study the law, how do we explain the exclusive nature of the holiness code (particularly towards women and non-Jews)? What exactly is Jesus talking about in his parable concerning Lazarus and the rich man? I venture that the more these matters are studied, the more troubling they often become. It is not easy learning about God.
My text for this blog comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, which has brought much comfort and woe to those who study it. In a roundabout way of declaring ignorance to be bliss, Solomon writes that the increase of knowledge also increases sorrow. Ecclesiastes is full of unconventional wisdom that challenges our safe view of the world, and this piece of advice is no different. In the ancient world it was believed that knowledge of the good necessitated action upon said good, thus leading to a good life; however, Ecclesiastes offers a radically different view of the world where knowledge of the good will not lead to a good life.
Biblical scholar Ellen Davis observes: “[Solomon’s] radical nay-saying is a shock to the pious. Yet he is no mere cynic, content to strip us of illusions and then leave us comfortless. Rather, his nay-saying is the means by which this teacher instructs us in a matter essential to the life of faith. […] What [Solomon] aims to instill in his students is the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as sole Giver” (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 107). According to Davis’ reading of the text, it is not knowing the right thing that leads to blessing/goodness, but rather solely rests upon the gifts of God.
Davis offers a valuable perspective, for it reminds us that we cannot control God. Often times study and acquisition of knowledge becomes a form of control. Rather than patiently waiting on God, we demand answers to our questions – which I claim is idolatrously elevating something (knowledge/comfort) above God. Ironically, it is often our pursuit of answers and control that feed our disquiet and despair.
One may justifiably wonder then what the purpose is of increasing knowledge. Here too we turn to Ecclesiastes’ wisdom within the well-known first eight verses of chapter three. Solomon indicates that there is a time for everything under the sun, which includes both study and sorrow. Also, I do not believe Solomon means to indicate that sorrow is bad. This surely is counter-cultural today in a world that glorifies comfort and pleasure, but must be seriously considered by anyone who would come to know a God whom we claim feels sadness and pain (to the point of death on a cross) for the evil we commit in this world.
We cannot assure ourselves pleasure in this life, and so any we receive we must humbly thank God for, and in response to God’s goodness, we study in order to share in the knowledge of the pain God experiences over our wretchedness. While I have not fully supported this claim, I will end here. This variety of questions cannot be answered by simply reading someone’s thoughts briefly explained in a blog post, but rather must be lived out for the rest of our lives – even if this is a painful process.
And so go into this world living humbly, doing rightly, and remembering always that there is time for everything under the sun.