Wisdom’s Limit

GIA745714 Inferno, Canto 8 : Virgil and Dante disembark at the citadel of Dis (Dite), illustration from 'The Divine Comedy' by Dante Alighieri, 1885 (digitally coloured engraving) by Dore, Gustave (1832-83); Private Collection; (add.info.: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Italian author and poet. Divina Commedia.); © Giancarlo Costa.

By James Cornwell

A Reading from Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14

9 Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

12 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and the caper bud falls; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

9 Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.


An epilogue to Ecclesiastes closes this book with a warning. Wisdom is valuable, but it has limits. Other authors testify to this, too. The embodiment of wisdom in the Divine Comedy, Virgil, standing outside the infernal city of Dis, is unable to convince the demons to allow him and the pilgrim to pass. The lesson is not that wisdom has no value, but that, as Christians, we need to be aware of its limitations, particularly in the face of evil.

When dealing with evil done or suffered — harm to loved ones or the created order — the temptation is to explain, assign blame, or attempt to “fix” reality to prevent a recurrence. While these approaches may have benefits, they misunderstand evil as something that occurs for a reason. But evil has no reason — it is a negation of reason, of reality: a lack, a nothing. Evil is that which, at rock bottom, makes no sense. We can do battle with it or erect boundaries around it — and wisdom has a vital part to play in these efforts — but we cannot comprehend it.

Fortunately, the gospel promise isn’t that we will one day understand why evil is in the world, but that evil has been vanquished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Virgil didn’t harrow hell; Jesus did. He did it by entering into the deepest hells of human suffering. When others suffer great evils in their lives and find themselves going through hell, imitation of Christ means not merely offering wisdom, but entering into hell with them in the hope that the final deliverance of the last day may break through in our presence. Wisdom is a great gift — it helps us to prevent and ameliorate many tragedies — but it will inevitably come up against darkness it cannot comprehend alone. Our guide in such circumstances ought to be the light which the darkness itself could not comprehend.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their seven children.

To receive a TLC Daily Devotional in your inbox each morning, click here.

Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Madi-West Nile – The Church of the Province of Uganda
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Lake Charles, La.


Online Archives