And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (NRSV 1:17-18)
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (KJV 1:17-18)
Early on, Ecclesiastes questions the very idea of wisdom. He says that the wise are sad because they see how empty and vain life is. But this isn't his last word on wisdom, since he goes on to say that even though it leads you into "the house of mourning," the grimace it gives you can hide a secret gladness on the inside.
For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow? For who can tell them what will be after them under the sun? (NRSV 6:12)
For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun? (KJV 6:12)
Ecclesiastes asks this rhetorical question to imply that no human being can know what's truly good for every other human being. Our situations are all just too different, and the problems that rise up in the world are too various for any person to know all the answers.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity. (NRSV 7:2-6)
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity. (KJV 7:2-6)
This was also quoted in the section on "Folly"—but we couldn't exactly leave it out of the wisdom section either. Ecclesiastes points out that, even though the wise face up to sadness, since they see the way life really is, they can be secretly pleased with the dark comedy of it all. They're happy because they aren't deceived by life's illusions.
Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it. (NRSV 7:11-12)
Wisdom is good with an inheritance: and by it there is profit to them that see the sun. For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. (KJV 7:11-12)
This is pretty simple. Wisdom can help stop you from ruining yourself or being ruined by someone else. And it can also help enhance life—it lets you enjoy what's really there instead of running after pipe-dreams.
In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both. Wisdom gives strength to the wise more than ten rulers that are in a city. Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning. (NRSV 7:15-20)
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself ? Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all. Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city. For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. (KJV 7:15-20)
Don't be too wise… interesting, but that's a wise piece of advice (or it's supposed to be). It's like saying "Don't stare into the sun." You need to still be able to enjoy life, and can't just be concerned with understanding it, since you never can really understand all or probably even most of it. But wisdom also gives you the strength you need to keep on going. It's like Gatorade for the heart and mind.
All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. (NRSV 7:23-25)
All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out? I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness. (KJV 7:23-25)
Part of wisdom is knowing that you can't be totally wise. The true nature of things is always going to be beyond you—too deep or too far off. You can content yourself with knowing what an utter waste of time folly and wickedness are, though.
Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? Wisdom makes one's face shine, and the hardness of one's countenance is changed. (NRSV 8:1)
Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed. (KJV 8:1)
Before, Ecclesiastes said that wisdom could make your face sad, while your heart was secretly happy. Now, he's saying that it can make your face less hard and make it shine. But does this mean that the sadness goes away too? Or is that part of the glow and the softness that comes over your face?
When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one's eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (NRSV 8:16-17)
When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:) Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it. (KJV 8:16-17)
Here, Ecclesiastes is making the same point he made earlier: you can't know everything, and it's wise not to try. Some things need to be left in mystery.
I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded." (NRSV 9:13-16)
This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me: There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. (KJV 9:13-16)
This little tale illustrates a lot of the things Ecclesiastes has been saying about wisdom. It can help save you and sustain you and help you to survive—but it's not necessarily going to improve your reputation or make you wealthy. Worldly status is completely up in the air, and wisdom can't do anything about it.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good. (NRSV 9:17-18)
The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good. (KJV 9:17-18)
Wisdom is more effective at solving problems than violence. This means that you can more easily get around a problem by understanding the nature of it and seeing how life works than by trying to just blast your way through it. Even so, one foolish person alone can wreck all the good work that wisdom would've accomplished.
If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed. If the snake bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer. Words spoken by the wise bring them favor, but the lips of fools consume them. The words of their mouths begin in foolishness, and their talk ends in wicked madness; yet fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds? (NRSV 10:10-14)
If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better. The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness. A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him? (KJV 10:10-14)
A whole bunch of Ecclesiastes's favorite topics are all bundled together here—wisdom is like a tool that helps us to be sharper and more effective. But if you spend too much time in preparing to be sharper and more effective and don't actually use wisdom in life, you can easily wind up dead or destroyed—like the snake charmer who didn't bother to charm the snake right in front of him. He also sounds off against fools talking too much, again, and says, one last time, that we can never hope to wrap our minds around everything that's happening in time.