“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.”—Eccles. 1:17, 18.
We have in this book an estimate of human life. Most of the things that are seen under the sun here pass under review; and each, as it passes, is inscribed with vanity.
It may be thought, from the pensive strain of the writer, to be an effusion of melancholy, rather than the result of mature reflection; but it should be considered that no man had greater capacity and opportunity for forming a just judgment; that the book was written at the most mature period of life; and, what is more, that it was written under Divine inspiration.
As wisdom and knowledge, in the writings of Solomon, commonly include true religion, so madness and folly seem here to be used for irreligion. He studied the nature and effects of both good and evil.
In ascribing “vanity and vexation of spirit” to almost every thing that passed before him, he does not mean that they were in themselves evil, or of little or no value; but that every good had its alloy, or something attached to it which subtracted from it. Thus it was even with wisdom and knowledge. It is because these were not only good in themselves, but ranked high in the scale of what is estimable, that they are introduced. If the best things pertaining to human life have their alloy, the same must be said of the rest.
In discoursing on the subject, we shall endeavour to show the justness of the remark, and to draw some conclusions from it.
I. Let us endeavour to show the justness of the remark, or its agreement with universal experience. Knowledge may be distinguished, by its objects, into three parts, or branches: the knowledge of men and things about us—the knowledge of ourselves—and the knowledge of God. Each of these is good, and the practical use of it is wisdom; but each has its alloy, subtracting from the enjoyment which it would otherwise afford.
First, Let us try the justness of the remark in respect of the knowledge of men and things about us. None can deny that the thing itself is good and valuable, and the want of it to be regretted as an evil: “That the soul be without knowledge it is not good.” It is this which distinguishes men from brutes, and raises some men much higher in the scale of being than others. Minds thus qualified are susceptible of much greater enjoyments than others, and are able to do much more good in their generation than others. The greatest and best things that have been done in the world have been done, in general, not by the ignorant, but by men of understanding. Yet, with all its advantages, there is that attached to it which increaseth sorrow.
1. He that knows the most of mankind will see the most of their faults and defects, and so be compelled, upon the whole, to think the worst of them; and this, to a good man, must needs be a source of sorrow. I would by no means wish to cherish a spirit of misanthropy. I remember, in a speech delivered in a very respectable assembly, meeting with this sentiment: “I think well of man, but ill of men.” On the contrary, I should say, I think ill of man, but well of men, till I see cause to think otherwise. Scripture, observation, and experience concur to justify me in thinking ill of human nature; but as, in our world, there is, through the grace and goodness of God, a good number of upright and benevolent characters, it becomes me to hope the best of every man I meet, till I am obliged, by his conduct or conversation, to form a different judgment; and this I feel to be a principle at a much greater remove from misanthropy than the other.
There are cases in which the more we know of men, the more we shall see reason to esteem them; but this is not true of mankind in general. The longer we live, and the more we are acquainted with them, the more evil we shall see in them. The characters of the greater part of men will not bear scrutinizing. If we look but a little below the surface, whether it be in high life or low life, or even in middle life, we shall see enough to sicken our hearts. Many a favourable opinion, formed under the philanthropic feelings of youth, has been obliged to give way to observation and experience; and many a pleasing dream, into which we have fallen from reading books, has disappeared when we came to read men.
2. He that knows the most of mankind will know most of their miseries; and if he be a man of feeling, this must be another source of sorrow. Who can make himself acquainted with the privations and hardships of the afflicted poor without participating of their sorrows? This may be a reason why some who are in opulent circumstances decline visiting them. They seem to count the cost, not merely what it will require to supply their pecuniary wants, but what they shall lose by a diminution of their pleasure.
If, in addition to the state of the afflicted poor of our own country, we knew the miseries of slavery, would it not increase our sorrow? Who, that has only acquainted himself with the facts which have been established during the late parliamentary discussions on the African slave trade, can forbear weeping over the miseries which the avarice of one part of mankind brings upon another? And if, in addition to this, we knew the miseries of war, must it not still more increase our sorrow? We hear of great battles, on which depend the fate of kingdoms, and rejoice or are sorrowful as they affect the interests of our country; but did we know all the individual misery produced by the most glorious victory, how different would be our feelings! Did we hear the cries of the wounded, and the groans of the dying; could we know the state of mind in which they died; were we acquainted with the near relations of the dead, the widows and orphans that they have left behind them; alas, were we in the midst of them, we might be reduced to the necessity of trying to get away, and to forget them!
If, leaving these scenes of woe, we turn our eyes to the abodes of ease and opulence, we shall not find things as we might expect. How often are men envied, when, if we knew all, we should pity them! We form our estimates of human happiness more by appearances than by realities. We little think how many things are necessary to make us happy, any one of which, if wanting, will render all the rest of little or no account. What are riches, and honours, and amusements to one whose life hangs in doubt, from some threatening disorder which he feels to be preying upon his vitals; or to a mind smitten with melancholy, or corroded with remorse; or to one whose peace is destroyed by domestic feuds, jealousies, or intrigues?
3. He that knows most of the sentiments of mankind on everlasting subjects will, if he be a believer in Divine revelation, know most of their devious and destructive tendency; and this must be a source of sorrow. There is what is called charity that excites no sorrow on this account; but viewing all religions as nearly alike, all leading to one happy end, it renders the subjects of it quite easy and unconcerned. But Christian charity is another thing. It bears good-will to all mankind, but does not think lightly of their alienation from God. He that should doubt whether the sentence passed against a number of traitors was ever designed to be executed, and should persuade them into his way of thinking, might call himself a charitable man; might boast of his own happiness, and the happiness he produced in others; and insist upon it that, by entertaining such views, he did more honour to the government than they who yielded to the gloomy apprehensions of an execution; but if, after all, his opinions should prove false, and be found to have originated in his own disloyalty, would not his charity be considered as cruel, deceitful, and destructive? The only difference between this and the charity in question is, that the one goes to destroy men’s lives, and the other their souls! Genuine charity would have endeavoured to convince them of their guilt, and to persuade them to sue for mercy to their justly offended sovereign. He that can view whole nations of men, who, from time immemorial, have lived “without Christ, having no hope, and without God in the world,” and not feel a wish to burst their chains, of whatever religion he may profess to be, must himself be in the same state.
To read the controversies of former ages, and those of the present age, even in the Christian world, must be depressing to a serious mind. He is either perplexed, and tempted to indulge in scepticism, or, if he feels his own ground, still he must perceive great numbers wandering in the paths of error; and who, unless God give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth, will continue to wander, notwithstanding all that can be said or written to reclaim them. They that have done the most towards bending the mind of man to that of Christ, and inculcating just sentiments of religion, will find, after all their labour, much remaining undone; so much, both of the devious and the defective, that he may retire with the words of the wise man, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered!”
4. He that knows most of the religious world will see the most of its faults and imperfections; and this is another source of sorrow. Among his friends, he will find some will prove false, and others fickle; and, what is worse, many turning their back on Christ, and “walking no more with him.” The longer we live in Christian society, and the closer we are connected with it, the more jealousies, envies, evil surmisings, whisperings, and backbitings we shall discover. Those Christians who have to travel to hear the gospel, and only see their fellow Christians once in a week, are apt to consider themselves as under great disadvantages; and, in some respects, they certainly are so; but, in others, the advantage may be on their side. They do not hear so many sermons, but, having to travel, they may be more likely to profit by those which they do hear. They miss much social intercourse; but they also stand aloof from the evils which frequently attend it. On looking round the place on a Lord’s day, they see their Christian friends, as we say, in their best dress; knowing just enough to love them and pray for them, and to part with them with affectionate regret; while those who are acquainted with their faults, as well as their excellences, know to the increase of their sorrow.
Once more, He that knows most of the things of this world will feel the greatest portion of disappointment from them; and this will be a source of sorrow. Riches, honours, and pleasures promise much, and, while inexperienced, we may hope much; but a thorough trial will convince us that happiness is not in them. Even knowledge itself, the treasure of the mind, is not only attained with great labour, but is attended with much painful disappointment. He that makes the greatest researches, as Mr. Poole observes, often finds himself deceived with knowledge falsely so called; often mistakes error for truth, and is perplexed with manifold doubts, from which ignorant men are free.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). “The Sorrow Attending Wisdom and Knowledge,” Sermon XXV. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 1, pp. 327–330). Sprinkle Publications.