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In Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 the author (personally I assume King Solomon), says:

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (ESV)

I am assuming his application of heart to know madness and folly included his actual experience of them and not just theoretical study as he later says that anything his eyes wanted he did not withhold from himself and I can't imagine that this did not include a lot of wives. That is not my question but it does sort of put context around this question.

My question is about the statement that follows. He then says 'he who increases knowledge increases sorrow'. Some knowledge seems to relieve and comfort sorrow, so I am asking if this knowledge is to be taken unbounded or under some focus or context?

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In Ecclesiastes 2:26, the Preacher (son of David) says that God gave to those he considered good, the gifts of wisdom and knowledge. In this passage, at verses 1:17-18, the author talks about how he set out to know wisdom, madness and folly. He learnt that this also is vexation of spirit "For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."

The knowledge that is sorrow is found in chapter 2, where the Preacher finds that wisdom is just vanity: the wise man will be no better remembered than the fool. The wise man dies like the fool.

Ecclesiastes 2:13,15-16 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness ... Then said I in my heart, As it happens to the fool, so it happens even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dies the wise man? as the fool.

The author said to himself (Ecclesiastes 2:15), if the fool's lot is to befall him also, why then should he be wise? Where is the profit? He has learnt to his great sorrow ("said in my heart") that wisdom is vanity. If great wisdom was a gift from God, then 'Solomon' has come to realise that this was a gift of no great value. The more he knows this the more his sorrow increases.

  • Are you saying that he got depressed about the lack of value in the meanigless workings of this world (including his own wisdom as compared to say a life of stupid pleasures) ...if so are you saying this knowledge is focused on the 'activities and occurrences of this world', as compared to such things as knowledge of God, or even of non-depressing subjects such as mathematics ? – Mike Jun 11 '15 at 9:50
  • @Mike To your first question: yes, he was depressed about the lack of value in the meaningless workings of this world (including his own wisdom as compared to say a life of stupid pleasures). To your 2nd: I think also yes, although this is less obvious in the text. – Dick Harfield Jun 11 '15 at 21:22
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The Idea in Brief

There are three Jewish sources which relate that this particular passage in Ecclesiastes is not about misery resulting from wisdom: that is, the Babylonian Talmud, the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki ("Rashi"), who is also found in the Talmud, and finally Targum Qohelet each relate that the context of Ecclesiastes is not about misery resulting from wisdom; but instead concerns wise people who run the risk of assuming that they are so smart that personal holiness for them is optional. That is the misery stemming from wisdom.

Discussion

Rashi

The following comments appear from Rashi regarding the words "I know" in Ecclesiastes 1:17. That is, Rashi provides the meta-narrative of Ecclesiastes as follows:

. . . now that also wisdom has frustration in it, for in great wisdom, a person relies on his great wisdom and does not distance himself from prohibition, and much vexation comes to the Holy One, blessed be He. I said, “I will acquire many horses, but I will not return the people to Egypt,” but ultimately, I returned [them]. I said, “I will take many wives, but they will not turn my heart away,” but it is written about me, (1 Kings 11:4): “his wives turned away his heart.” And so he says, (Prov. 30:1): “The words of the man concerning, ‘God is with me’; yea, God is with me, and I will be able.” (bold emphasis added)

Solomon's error was not finding misery through wisdom, but on relying on his wisdom to the exclusion of personal holiness.

The Babylonian Talmud

Rashi mentioned the anger of God with regard to Solomon's disobedience in light of direct divine revelation. The Talmud says the same regarding the Israelites, who disobeyed God in light of direct divine revelation. The following citation comes from Nedarim Folio 22A and Folio 22B, which concerns unbridled anger in the context of taking vows. The translation is from Neusner (2011).

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As Rashi has already indicated (his commentary appears in the same Babylonian Talmud), it was the anger of God at hand. So, for example, based on Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud, the following English translation from the NASB (with the parenthetical emphases) would appear as follows:

Ecclesiastes 1:18 (NASB)
18 Because in much wisdom there is much grief (from us to God), and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain (to us from God).

The misery is from receiving special direct divine revelation (resulting in wisdom), then assuming that the wisdom precludes the necessity for holy living. In this regard, the Aramaic translation of the very same passage reinforces this outlook.

Targum Qohelet

The Targumim are the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic. In this respect, the translation provides nuanced meaning based on the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures by Jewish scholars at the time of translation. For example, the following are the relevant verses from the Targum Qohelet from the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project (2005).

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The following translation (my own) was possible through the use of Logos Bible Software --

Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 (Proposed Translation)
16 I said to myself in my heart, Behold, I will increase and multiply wisdom more than all the wise men who were before me in Jerusalem, and to my heart I came to see much wisdom and understanding.
17 Then I gave to my heart to know the wisdom and distress of the kingdom; and understanding and knowledge. I assayed to know that which is also the sadness of man, who deceives himself into trying to discern it all.
18 Thus is the one who accrues wisdom. When he sins, and does not repent, he accrues wrath before the Lord; it is he who accumulates understanding, and who dies young: he accumulates grief to the heart of those near and dear to him. (bold emphasis added)

The Aramaic translators were careful to interpret these verses to indicate the peril of excluding personal holiness through undue reliance on ones wisdom. That is, one can neglect personal holiness based on an assumption that wisdom accrued is sufficient in life (to the exclusion of personal holiness). As Rashi had indicated, Solomon accrued wisdom AND wives (1 Kings 11:4), who then turned his heart away from God "who was with him" (Prov. 30:1). The Talmud also had indicated that since Moses, the anger of the Lord resulted from his continued direct divine revelation (though "wise prophets") ---which of course provided them wisdom--- but personal holiness did not ensue as a result. The incorrect assumption is that Bible knowledge is enough, and so personal holiness is something optional (à la Solomon).

Conclusion

The Jewish understanding of this passage was not related to wisdom resulting in misery (which is the common contemporary western view), but instead was in the particular misery that occurs when one relies on ones wisdom to the exclusion of personal holiness. In other words, when one receives divine revelation and becomes wise, one may lose sight of the importance of personal holiness, and that is the occupational hazard which will result in the misery stemming from wisdom.


References:

Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (2005). Targum Qohelet. Hebrew Union College, Ec 1:16-18.

Neusner, Jacob (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 10a). Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 61.

  • In this regard, the late Bruce Metzger once quoted Johannes Albrecht Bengel, who had written the following in the preface to his 1734 edition of the Greek New Testament, "Te totum applica ad textum: rem totam applica ad te" ("Apply yourself wholly to the text: apply the whole matter to yourself). – Joseph Jun 12 '15 at 4:44
  • Joseph, (A.) Not unlike Christianity, Judaism also struggles to interpret Eccl./Kohelet, For another "Jewish" understanding, consider Seforno, who interprets this indictment of "Wisdom" as the indictment of the "ostensible wisdom of heretics", (YU Paper on Eccl./Kohelet, pg. 12). – elika kohen Jun 12 '15 at 17:55
  • Joseph, (B.) This argument wrongfully injects Solomon's "Sins", or even Israel's "Sin" into this context--this is completely contradictory to the text : (C.) The writer explicitly indicates there is no distinction between the pursuits of the righteous, and unrighteous, "As the good man is, so is the sinner", (Eccl. 9:2, 8:14, etc); A distinction is only made at the end--a distinction to those who follow God's pursuits, his commands – elika kohen Jun 12 '15 at 17:58
  • @e.s.Kohen - my posting hinges on the commentary of Rashi found in the Talmud. That is, Qohelet is not about wisdom resulting in vanity (which is the most popular approach to the text), but is instead about the vanity that comes from embracing wisdom (divine revelation from God) at the exclusion of personal holiness. Rashi's comments find resonance in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Targum Qohelet. These three "primary" Jewish sources force us to reconsider our approaches to the text. Also, the commentary you provided does not quote Rashi's opinions on Qohelet. Very Respectfully, – Joseph Jun 12 '15 at 19:31
  • @e.s.Kohen - for reference, my own hand-written translation is here. I have modified my posting to provide access to the Targum. Very Respectfully, – Joseph Jun 13 '15 at 2:02
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Note: An answer has already been accepted, (which cites tradition/Rashi), this answer is submitted as an alternate, with the intent to rely exclusively on the text.

1. Question Restatement

In Eccl. 1:18, Does Solomon say that increasing in knowledge generally brings sorrow, and just that specific knowledge, like knowledge regarding the vanity of things?

Ecclesiastes 1:18, NASB - Because in much wisdom, (חָכְמָ֖ה) there is much grief, and increasing knowledge, (דַּ֖עַת), results in increasing pain.

2. Answer

The Writer's analysis of the Pursuits of Men, including the Pursuits of Wisdom and Knowledge, do not end in conclusion that only Wisdom brings grief, or that only knowledge brings pain--throughout the book, the writer affirms that they BOTH inevitably lead to vanity--that all pursuits do :

Eccl. 7:2-3, NASB - It is better to go to a house of mourning Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, For when a face is sad a heart may be happy.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is an "Argument", that even the Most Noble of Pursuits, (like wisdom and knowledge) inevitably lead to sorrow, loss, and judgment, including the pursuit of Wisdom and Knowledge--with TWO exceptions, (the fear of God, and trusting in obedience).

Eccl. 12:13, NASB - The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

3. The Knowledge that Brings Grief, is Great Knowledge

The verses immediately before explicitly state that this knowledge was not limited to knowledge of just one thing, but rather Knowledge that is great in Width, AND Depth, about MANY things.

Eccl. 1:16, NASB - I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.”

Eccl. 12:9, NASB - In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, [certainly not of just one thing]; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.

4. Joy is not Mutually Exclusive with Wisdom/Knowledge

The writer again sets apart joy, as distinct from wisdom and knowledge.

Joy is given, and found, as a divine gift, apart from pursuits.

Eccl 2:26, NASB - For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

6. The Context: Pursuit of God

In context of Ecclesiastes, the writer is certainly attempting to show which pursuits of man, which works, are least "vain".

This examination even includes the pursuit of Wisdom and Knowledge.

In the end, the writer concludes stating that EVERY work will be brought into judgment--including the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom!

The writer concludes, declaring that there are--two things--that man can confidently pursue: fearing God, and obeying his Commandments.

However, "Fear and Obedience" are not "the end", but rather a "spoke" on a cyclical pattern in the pursuit of God, that leads to more knowledge, and wisdom, to fear--back again to obedience, to more understanding, etc ...

Job 28:28 - “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear, (יִרְאַ֣ת) of the Lord, that is wisdom, (חָכְמָ֑ה); And to depart from evil, [obey], is understanding, (בִּינָֽה).’”

But this process cannot begin without obedience and trust.

Prov. 2:1, NASB - My son, if you will receive my words, [listen] And treasure my commandments within you, [obey] 2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding, [humility]; 3 For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; 4 If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures, [seeking]; 5 THEN you will discern the fear of the Lord And discover the knowledge of God.

7. Issues

  1. This question exhibits a "False Dilemma", leading one to presuppose that the writer is only speaking of, either: (A.) sorrow/pain that comes from the knowledge that these pursuits are vain; Or, (B.) if the writer is speaking of the sorrow/pain that comes from knowledge in general.
  2. A third possibility, that the writer was making a judgment about Wisdom AND Knowledge AND Everything Else; Was the writer having a "bake-off", trying to identify the best pursuit(s), ones that don't lead to sorrow or grief?
  3. Is the writer discouraging the pursuit of great wisdom and knowledge, in general?
  4. The writer compares/contrasts different values throughout the book, which one(s) come out on top?

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