All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.…
The limitations of human knowledge are nowhere more plainly indicated than in the opening verse of the present section. The Preacher points out that after his utmost endeavors to obtain wisdom with the view of solving the perplexing questions connected with mankind, their actions and their relation to God, he found all such knowledge to be far beyond mortal ken (Wright). "For that which is," that which exists, the world of things in its essence and with its causes, "is far off," far removed from the sight of man, "and it is deep, deep; who can discover it?" (vers. 23, 24). Essential wisdom appeared to him as to Job (28.), quite out of reach. But all his efforts after it had not been in vain. In the course of his researches he had discovered some truth of great value. Though the problems of the universe proved to be insoluble, some lessons had been learned of practical value in the conduct of life. Some rules for present guidance he had discovered, though much remained hidden from him. So is it in every age. The sagest philosophers, the profoundest thinkers, are baffled in their endeavors to explain the mysteries of life, but are able to lay down rules for present conduct which approve themselves to the consciences of all. And happy is it for us that it should be so; that while clouds hang over many regions into which the intellect of man would fain penetrate, the way of duty is plain for all. One great truth he learned, that wickedness was folly, that foolishness was madness, that men who lived in the pursuit of folly were beside themselves and were mad (ver. 25). This thought is very closely akin to the teaching of the Stoics, that the wickedness of men is a kind of mental aberration, and that knowledge is but another name for righteousness. One great source of wickedness he introduces in ver. 26 - the fatal fascination of so many by scheming and voluptuous women. The picture he draws is like those in Proverbs 2. and 7., and, but for the more sweeping condemnation in the verses that follow, might be thought to express reprobation of a certain degraded class rather than a cynical estimate of the whole of womankind. One man, he says, he had found among a thousand, one only what a man ought to be; but not one woman among the same number who corresponded to the ideal of womanhood, who reminded him of the innocence and goodness of Eve as God created her (ver. 29). The race, both men and women, had been created upright, but had become almost utterly corrupt by the devices they had invented by which to gratify their inclinations toward evil. What are we to make of his words? Is the case really as bad as be represents it? The answer to the question is not far to seek. The Preacher is recording his own experience, and if we take his words as a truthful report, we can only say that he was specially unfortunate in his experience. There is no doubt that in some countries and in some ages of the world, corruption is very widespread and deep, and in the land and time in which our author lived matters may have been as bad as he represents them. But the experience of a single life does not afford sufficient ground for broad generalizations concerning human nature. The words may be an expression of that terrible feeling of satiety and loathing which is the curse following upon gross sensuality such as that of the historical Solomon, with his three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines. No sensible person would take the moralizings of the satiated debauchee without very considerable deductions. Those of a chaste, temperate, God-fearing man are much more likely to hit the truth. We may grant that search had been made, and not one woman among the thousand whose dispositions and characters had been passed in review approved herself worthy of praise as like what a true woman should be, and still doubt whether the thousand were fair representatives of their sex. Did he search in the right quarter? or were the women the population of his seraglio? If they were, we cannot wonder that, in an institution which is itself an outrage upon human nature, all its inhabitants were found corrupt. For a very different estimate of the female character as exemplified in some of its representatives, we have only to read the praises of the Shulamite in the Song of Songs, and of the virtuous women described in Proverbs 5:18, 19; Proverbs 31:10-31. And Scripture itself is rich in the histories of good women. There are those of patriarchal times whose tender grace gives such an idyllic charm to so many incidents of that early age. The names of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel call up ideas of purity, innocence, piety, and steadfast love, as a rich inheritance they have left to the race. Miriam, Hannah, Ruth, and Esther, too, suggest a world of goodness and holiness which was quite unknown to the experience of the writer of these dark and somber words in Ecclesiastes. Then in the New Testament we have the luminous figures of the Virgin-mother, the Prophetess Anna, the devout women who ministered to Christ and stood by his cross, and were early in the morning at his sepulcher, and were the first to believe in him as their risen Lord. There are those in the long list recorded in the Epistles of St. Paul, who were zealous fellow-laborers with him in all good works, who, by their deeds of hospitality, their kindly ministrations to the poor and sick and. bereaved, reproved the wickedness of the world in which they lived, and gave promise of the rich harvest of goodness which would spring from the holy teaching and example of the Redeemer. And in no Christian country have abundant examples been wanting of the pure and devoted love by which mothers and wives and sisters have enriched and blessed the lives of those connected with them, and redeemed their sex from the stigma cast upon it by gross-minded and corrupt men. No persecutions have ever wasted any section of the Christian Church without finding among women as true and steadfast witnesses for the cause of Christ as among men.
"A noble army - men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior's throne rejoice,
In robes of light array'd.
They climb'd the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil, and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train!" - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me.