I've noticed that Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have shockingly differing views of wisdom and knowledge:

“Her [wisdom and understanding personified] ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17)

“Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

Clearly peace is not the same thing as grief, nor is pain the same as pleasant. Considering that there is no argument over that, what then make sense of these two verses. Can they both be true at the same time? Is wisdom and understanding a grievously pleasant and peacefully painful thing? Are we supposed to do the math and determine that wisdom is just average then in every regard?

How can these two verses be understood so that they are both true, but can be in harmony with each other and not be a ridiculously obvious contradiction?

  • 3
    You do realize that Ecclesiastes 1:18 is speaking of wisdom "under the sun". This is worldly wisdom where Proverbs speaks to Divine wisdom.
    – Rick
    Aug 30, 2013 at 19:26

6 Answers 6


I have of late taught that "wisdom" in the book of Proverbs is best understood as the understanding of God's ways or will and the application of such. In other words, acting and behaving in the manner which God intends for us. "Knowledge" can be understood in a similar fashion. This interpretation of wisdom, in my opinion, can be applied to all instances of "wisdom" within Proverbs with the resulting understanding of the passage remaining consistent with all of scripture. Again, this is my opinion.

However, if we look at Ecc 1:16-18, it would seem the author is boasting that he is responsible for his wisdom and intelligence, not God, and through that he could determine on his own what was foolishness in thought and deed apart from the discernment and direction of God. But, he knows now such a thing is futile because the more he did what he thought in his own mind as wise, the more trouble he brought upon himself. So, in this sense, despite both books using the same word the connotation of it is different in these three verses.

To answer the question, then, yes, the two instances of wisdom are indeed polar opposites in that God's wisdom, the understanding and application of His will for our lives, is diametrically opposed to following our own "wisdom" which is selfish, self-interested (Pr 14:2 and others), and governed by a deceitful heart (Jer 17:9).

  • Thanks Mark. What about this though: There are many who believe Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. If that is the case, we know that God granted much wisdom to him. What if the level of wisdom and knowledge he says he has wasn't, like you said, only from himself, but from God? If understood that way, it can definitely change things here.
    – Prattski
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:11
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    Sure, it certainly could. However, when he took the wisdom given to him by God and claimed credit for it himself is when his problems started. We know Solomon left God's instruction (wisdom) behind and did what he thought was best, even though God had forbidden it in the Law. Kings were not to marry many wives, buy Egyptian horses, or accumulate large amounts of wealth (Deut 17:14-20). Solomon did all three (cf. 1K 11:1-6, 1 K 10:28, and 2 Chr 1:14-15). And this is only part of his sin. And yet, if we assume he wrote Ecclesiates, Solomon found no fulfillment in this, only grief and heartache. Aug 30, 2013 at 15:28

Living wisely allows a person to avoid a great deal of calamity. For instance, someone who is wise with his money and stores up wealth for his later years can enjoy the blessings of wisdom, whereas someone who spends money foolishly will suffer for that. So, there is blessing in living wisely with the things of this world.

However, Ecclesiastes probably addresses the folly of focusing exclusively on the things of the world, as such things are only temporal. Riches and wealth can satisfy the desires of the flesh but not the cravings of the soul and spirit. Thus, it is good and honorable to live wisely in regard to the things of this world, but even better to live wisely in regard to eternal things.

  • Narnian - Thanks for your comment, but that, to me, doesn't clear up the stark difference. In Ecclesiastes, the author is observing the wisdom and knowledge that he has gained in this world, and considers it pain and grief. Proverbs is also talking about wisdom in this world, and the peace and pleasure that it is. Both, to me, seem to be talking about wisdom and knowledge in the world - temporal wisdom and knowledge.
    – Prattski
    Aug 30, 2013 at 13:46

Consider the wisdom books (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job) not only as complementary, differing in focus and filling out the ideas by considering difficult cases, but also as a progression.

Ecclesiastes begins with a lost person, who despite a measure of wisdom, is confused about the meaning and purpose of life and unable to find the most enjoyable course to follow. It ends with the conclusion: "Fear God and keep his commandments."

Proverbs begins (in 1:7) with the thesis: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." But chapter 2 begins with a passage that stands in contrast with Ecclesiastes and touches on your question:

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, 2 turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— 3 indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, 4 and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, 5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. 6 For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, 8 for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. 9 Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. 10 For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes did speak of how wisdom brought pain, mourning, and suffering. But here in Proverbs it states that fallen humans do not find wisdom "pleasant to the soul" unless they embark on a journey of the heart. Humility - and the hungering and thirsting that Jesus alludes to in the Beatitudes - are required. Making the acquisition of wisdom a top priority and treasuring it more than material wealth and pleasure is a precondition for Wisdom satisfying the soul.

Job completes the trilogy. It begins with "In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil." In verse 8 this characterization of Job is cemented:

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

So Ecclesiastes ends with a call to fear the Lord, Proverbs is saturated with it (there are at least twenty passages describing the benefits of fearing the Lord), and Job begins with it, as it explores what happens when fearing God seems to fail. The faith that sustained Job even when the blessings of a God-fearing life disappeared was a faith built upon the glory that God had revealed to him during his years of obedience. That glory persuaded Job that God's character was such that He would redeem him, would answer him, would appear in his time of need. In the end, it was not God's wisdom as a form of utilitarian access to manifold blessings that Job pursued, it was God Himself.

In Exodus 33, despite assurances from God that He would send an angel to accompany them, Moses held out for more.

15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

Ultimately the desire of the heart of Moses, Job, and all who have faith is to behold God's glory, and fearing God is the path that leads there. Though Ecclesiastes 1:8 says this:

All things are wearisome, more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.

the Glory of God will fill our eyes and satisfy us forever.

As Psalm 27:4 says:

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.


There is “worldly wisdom” and there is “wisdom from God”:

1Corinthians 3:19 “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”

Ecclesiastes speaks further of wisdom that is not polar to proverbs:

2:13 Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.

7:11 Wisdom [is] good with an inheritance: and [by it there is] profit to them that see the sun.

7:19 Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty [men] which are in the city.

9:18 Wisdom [is] better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

  • There may be different understandings of wisdom, but unless the Bible specifically says something like "wisdom of the world", when it refers to wisdom, it refers to Godly wisdom. I don't think that's what the two verses I provided are contrasting though (worldly vs godly). And, your 2:13 reference is kind of taken out of context. He says while wisdom excels folly, he says that both succumb to the same fate and in the end it's all vanity.
    – Prattski
    Aug 30, 2013 at 14:28
  • Can you validate this statement: "but unless the Bible specifically says something like "wisdom of the world", when it refers to wisdom, it refers to Godly wisdom"
    – Rick
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:25
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    Your argument on 2:13 is valid, however, wisdom is distinguished from folly (darkness to light). What of the rest? One must reconcile the whole book of Ecclesiastes.
    – Rick
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:28
  • @Prattski, You do realize that your 1:18 is wisdom "under the sun". How would you interpret this other than worldly wisdom?
    – Rick
    Aug 30, 2013 at 15:35

The contrast is worldly wisdom vs Godly Wisdom. We know the Bible tells us it is not up to man to direct his own steps but up to our maker - yet we chase the wind with all our pursuits when we chase our pursuits from the bossom of our own desires rather than in prayer and asking for direction first. So we seek our own way first then ask for God to bless our own will and its backwards and our hearts are unsatisfied because it is backwards - futility and vanity. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added onto you - that's pretty simple and not exhausting but unburdensome. Christ himself on the cross said I would this cup pass from me but nonetheless let your will father be done. Demonstrates the correct form of prayer and submission that we should model make our petitions known but nonetheless know that his will is best and ask for that guidance. Solomon was exercising the fleshly chasing of the mans desires after the physical pursuits of the world a rebellion of fleshly desires and the fight against the acknowledgement and wilful submission to God.

  • An interesting idea. You are saying that they are very intentionally contrasting. Do you know of any sources that say a similar thing?
    – fredsbend
    Nov 3, 2014 at 23:17

The verses aren't contradictory, even if you make a distinction between Godly and earthly wisdom. They both can be true at the same time.

Godly wisdom brings prosperity for the entire man. Not only are his physical needs addressed, but his spiritual life blessed.

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.

We live in a world, governed by principals that are the antithesis of God's. Those without a relationship with him, do not grasp or comprehend, the wisdom of God. In fact, they find it absurd.

As a believer, you must deal with this. You'll encounter a dying world in desperate need of the truth of Christ. However, you'll see him being rejected consistently.

So while you're flourishing due to a knowledge, graciously bestowed on you by the spirit of God, you're grieved by those perishing in their blind and hard hearted ignorance.

You're saddened by the mockery made of your Lord.

You're troubled by the adversity and persecution you face.

You see the condition of a fallen world and it sucks.

Yet in all of this you have peace, because you know God as a omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being with a personal and fierce love for you. You believe he is love and that love never fails. You know first hand,how real his redemptive power is, and honor him for it.

You rejoice in your hardship and tribulation because you know it produces endurance, perseverance, patience--things that are necessary to continue to love God and reflect his character, amidst a world that does not.

You understand the homeostatic nature of peace, even in the presence of profound grief. You can experience the full spectrum of human emotion, but not be engulfed by negativity. You can be impacted by adverse situations in life, but won't drown in a sense of hopelessness or despair. You know that all things are working together for your good.


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