“The more I learn the less I know.”
I have no idea who said this first to me but I remember scratching my head for years during my college years about it. How could PhDs claim they know less when they were so educated and were experienced!? As I advanced through courses and degrees, I’ve listened to preeminent scholars declare the endlessness of knowledge. Is there some kind of conspiracy?!?
But then I found myself saying the same thing to my wife (and fantastic editor), “The more I’m learning it seems the less I know.” I started understanding…that I don’t understand.
This cognitive dissonance is felt by anyone diving into a subject. King Solomon of Israel, the wisest person to ever live (except Jesus Himself, of course) felt the same frustration we do. He writes in Ecclesiastes 12:9-12:
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
Ecclesiastes 12:9–12 (NIV)
Awkward as it seems, Solomon, referring to himself as “the Teacher”, extols his (own) wisdom and imparting of that knowledge to his people. While it’s possible to think someone wrote this about Solomon, Near Eastern Wisdom literature was commonly written like this. It’s a humble way to refer to yourself while telling the truth.
The truth is Solomon was wise. He did give this teaching to others (you’re reading aren’t you?). He did think through the meaning of life and recorded his wisdom so others could benefit from this gift from God. The old expression is “it’s not bragging if you can do it.” While the normal use of that expression is phenomenally arrogant, in Solomon’s case, it wasn’t bragging. It was stating reality.
Yet for all this wisdom, the exploration of Ecclesiastes has revealed to us that some of life’s mysteries remain—in this life—as mysteries. The Great Teacher of Israel couldn’t figure these things out and drove himself to misery, depression, and perhaps a bit of unhealthy obsession over it.
But verse 11 and the first part of verse 12 reminds us why we need the wisdom collected in the Bible: it kicks us in our “blessed assurance” to get up and do something. It drives us to action, behavior changes, and ultimately, wisdom drives us to the source: God alone.
The last part of verse 12 is a warning to us: “of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body”. Solomon isn’t knocking education—that would be terribly hypocritical of him. He’s referring to humanity’s search for wisdom. He’s warning us to not weary ourselves on knowledge and pursuits of wisdom that ultimately prove empty and (to quote Solomon throughout Ecclesiastes) meaningless.
If you learn enough in life about a subject, you’ll eventually realize there is more to learn on that subject. You’ll find yourself saying, “the more I learn the less I know”. And you know what? That’s a great place to start with humility.
Perhaps, in some way, ignorance really is bliss. Not the ignorance of closing ourselves off to wisdom (Scripture calls that stupid), but the ignorance we eventually find ourselves facing after we have pursued wisdom.
When we travel down the path of wisdom and found ourselves “wisely ignorant”, that’s the point we can marvel at the greatness and sovereignty of the One who understands the mysteries of life. It is here where we love the Lord with our minds. It is in this frustration we can find rest in our God who needs no counsel, advisors, or teachers.
It is when we reach the wall of ignorance in our own education and wisdom where we discover the truth about ourselves and about God. We don’t understand; He does.