“Then I saw that there is an advantage to wisdom over foolishness as light is advantageous over darkness. The wise one has eyes in his head and the fool walks in darkness; yet, I knew also that there is one fate that befalls all of them. I spoke to my heart, ‘The fate of the fool will also befall me; so why have I been so wise?’ And I spoke to my heart, ‘This is also vanity.’”
Light and darkness play an important role in the scriptures from beginning to end and they are often used to contrast truth from lies, God’s ways from the the Devil’s, and righteousness from sin. Here, Solomon uses the analogy to contrast a life of wisdom with a life of foolishness — they are set apart from each other as night and day are set apart from one another. And thus, the wise man has eyes in his head (he sees clearly) but the fool walks about in the darkness (he is like a blind man, stumbling through an unfamiliar room).
The thing that disturbs Solomon’s soul as he reflects on this is that in the end, both the wise man and the fool are both laid in the ground. It has often been said that death is the great equalizer — rich and poor alike, wise and foolish alike, educated and uneducated alike, the accomplished and the sluggard alike — no matter your ethnicity, the color of your skin, the bloodlines you have, no matter what you have done, death will claim you.
So then, why has Solomon bothered being wise? Now, do not be tricked into thinking that Solomon is embracing a kind of fatalism here — one that says, ‘we are all fated to die, so why bother in this life?’ That is not consistent with the rest of the text. Solomon is posing a rhetorical question with these words…one that he has already answered in the verse that has gone before it. Why bother being wise? It is worth the bother because life in the world will be better as it is filled with light. Remember, wisdom is better than folly and walking in the light is always better than walking in darkness.
So why then is all of this vanity? Again, as we have seen thus far, from a purely worldly perspective, everything fades and passes away. If you strive to know all human knowledge and learn to apply it well, you will indeed live a better life than that of the fool, but without a relationship with God it avails nothing on an eternal scale. Wisdom is indeed better than folly, but true wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord — without it, all human wisdom is vanity.