THROUGHOUT THE BOOK OF PROVERBS, Solomon asserts that The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (4:7 ESV). He insists that receiving or seeking instruction and then heeding it is a lifestyle of wisdom, as in My son, be attentive to my wisdom (Proverbs 5:1). Solomon praises wisdom as most vital in Proverbs, but in Ecclesiastes, he seems to struggle with the gift God gave him. Though he has wisdom, Solomon bemoans his and man’s limitations, and yet he eventually perceives a parcel of hope in a life of wisdom and in a life lived in the fear of God.
Much of Solomon’s perspective concerning wisdom is experiential. As a ruler, his heart is guided by wisdom (2:3) as he sought to improve his kingdom and become great, to surpass all who were before me (2:9). For instance, Solomon admits that he built, planted, bought slaves and flocks, gathered gold and treasures and found pleasure in them (2:4-8). He also agrees that any man could find pleasure in his work, that this too is a gift from God (2:24; 3:13, 22). But Solomon then quickly concedes that he himself found all of these pursuits to be empty, a striving after wind (2:11). For him, having wisdom or exerting wisdom with all of his toil did not elicit a lasting peace or contentment. He sees that accomplishing more brings less reward in his journey for wisdom.
As Solomon labors to understand wisdom, he also contrasts it with foolishness. He readily acknowledges that wisdom is better than folly (2:13), extremely so because he juxtaposes it as light to darkness, as if there were no comparison. Later, Solomon says that the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (7:4). It’s as if the foolish man is so ignorant of life that he can laugh and cajole with no understanding of serious matters: The laughter of fools . . . is vanity (7:6) or a vapor, something without depth that will merely dissipate. This implies by contrast that wisdom does endure. Yet ironically, Solomon does equate the foolish with the wise in one thing—that they die the same death and leave nothing behind (2:16; 9:11), for all go to one place (3:20). This speaks more to his melancholy state of reflection though than to what wisdom truly is.
The most distinct theme of Ecclesiastes becomes clear as Solomon reasons through the meaning of wisdom and the meaning it has for his life—he regularly affirms that God is sovereign, both as creator and Lord. From the beginning of the book, Solomon acknowledges God, the one who gives man what he has, either good or bad (1:13, 2:24, 5:18), and the one who tests man (3:18, 7:14). But for Solomon, God, the giver of wisdom, also demands worship and obedience. Solomon must offer a pure sacrifice to God when he goes to His house or he too would be considered a fool (5:1). God is the one you must fear (5:7). It is here that Solomon knits his own understanding to knowing God, like in Proverbs 9:10, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Knowing God does produce wisdom. Solomon again says in Proverbs, Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning (9:9). However, Solomon also concedes that he, as a man, will never be able to understand all that he desires to, even the ways of God: then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (Ecclesiastes 8:17). Man simply cannot know everything, and perceiving that fact alone is also wisdom.
Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon persistently acknowledges not just God’s existence, but also His very presence and omnipotence. For Solomon, man’s desire for wisdom cannot be separated from knowing his Creator. Man may seek wisdom, desire instruction, and even heed what he learns, but his wisdom will always be limited. Solomon’s advice then to man is to live a life of temperance and to live in awe of God as we learn to know Him:
Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them (7:16-18).