FROM ECCLESIASTES 1:12-18
If you do an internet search on the question, “What is the meaning of life?” you will find page after page of websites devoted to addressing that question. As you might imagine, most of the answers to this question on the web are not written from a Biblically informed worldview. The text in Ecclesiastes we’re looking at today tells us that all the time spent and ink spilled to explain the meaning of life apart from God—is a complete waste. Each one of those websites is an expression of utter futility. This week, we move into the second half of chapter one. This begins the first section of the author’s autobiography. You’ll recall that the author calls himself the Preacher and also Qohelet—a title indicating he is a king. The king is a qohelet—one who gathers his people. In Ecclesiastes he searches for meaning in life from a secular perspective—without figuring in God. This perspective he refers to as “life under heaven” or “life under the sun.” In this major section of the book, Qohelet recounts the vanity or futility of his search for meaning in life. Our text for today—(vss.12-18) amount to an introduction of this section as he gives some opening reflections on his search for meaning. Before this first section of the book is over in chapter two, we will trace the Preacher’s search for meaning in life as he looked for it through pleasure, wisdom, folly and his work.
In verses 12 and the first half of verse 13, he establishes his unique credentials as one who is qualified to give a thorough and probing search for the meaning of life. He says, “12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” First, he says that he has been king over Israel in Jerusalem. We said last week that the traditional view of the author’s identity is Solomon but many conservative scholars—going all the way back to Luther, don’t believe this is Solomon’s work. For our purposes, it’s not terribly important what human author penned these verses. The Holy Spirit inspired whoever the author was to write a God-breathed account of the vanity of life without God. The Preacher’s very thoughtful attempts to find meaning in life is very methodical—exploring one possibility and then the next. He wants to exhaust all possible areas where meaning might be found
When he says, “And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” he’s emphasizing the thoroughness and the intensity of this attempt to find meaning in life. His point is to say, “I have dug broadly and deeply for meaning in life under heaven minus God and my findings are authoritative.” That would of course be a ridiculous statement if this person weren’t both fabulously brilliant and his findings were inspired by God. The main idea of this section is in the second half of verse 13. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” That’s his thesis. The words translated “unhappy business” means more than simply—the unpleasant business of trying to find meaning in a fallen world through wisdom. There is a moral note here. This business of using wisdom to find meaning is not just an unhappy business, it’s a bad business. This very negative view of wisdom is very different than what we see in Proverbs. There, Solomon personifies wisdom and says, “35…whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD,” As the book unfolds, we’ll see why these perspectives are so different.
As we’ve said before, the author doesn’t mention God very often but this text is one of the few exceptions in Ecclesiastes. The author says it’s God who has tasked humanity with this bad business of seeking out meaning in life through wisdom. God has hard-wired into humanity a need for meaning and satisfaction. Qohelet discovers that the problem is—without God, we’ll never experience it. Lost humanity is like a person groping around in the dark to find something he knows he needs, but he doesn’t know what it is. This is what he’s saying in verse 14 where he tells us WHY this search for meaning is life is an unhappy business. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.”
Again, he emphasizes the comprehensive nature of his search—“everything that is done under the sun.” He obviously means every category of activity, not every single activity. After testing all these life categories for meaning, he finds nothing that ultimately satisfies him. Its vanity—a vapor that disappears. It’s like “striving after the wind.” One scholar says a good equivalent for that would be, “it’s like trying to herd the wind.” If herding cats is difficult, herding the wind is impossible—it can’t be done. Human wisdom will never find meaning in this world apart from God. That’s the point. In verse 15, he tells us in broad terms why this quest for meaning is futile through a proverb. He says, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Tremper Longman does a good job of summarizing the meaning here. “…there is something fundamentally wrong with life on earth, and, since the world as it is has come about as a result of God’s will, there is absolutely nothing that humans can do about it.” There is something wrong on earth at its very core--like something that is bent that can’t be straightened, like something that is absent that cannot be counted.
We said earlier that the book of Ecclesiastes is essentially a detailed exploration of how deeply messed up this world is because of the fall. Each half of this proverb gives a different aspect of what is wrong on this fallen planet. “What is crooked cannot be made straight” speaks to the irreparable damage done through the fall. There is nothing we can do to fix this world—it’s like a piece of metal that is bent and once you bend it, you can never (at least by hand tools) bend it back to be perfectly straight. Try straightening out even a paper clip so that it’s perfectly straight. Anyone who works with engines knows that if the shaft of the motor is bent even slightly, the operation of that motor is compromised and if the shaft is bent more than slightly—the motor won’t run and can’t be restored to its original condition by trying to straighten out the shaft. It won’t straighten completely. But it’s not just metal. Think about a stalk of corn. You bend it to a 45 degree angle. Try straightening it again. The author is saying—that’s what this world is like. This world is bent, twisted, crooked and apart from a restorative miracle of God, nothing can straighten it back again. It’s irreparable.
The second half of the proverb, “what is lacking cannot be counted” is clever. If someone were to come up to you on the street, pull on your sleeve and tell you with great urgency, “What isn’t there can’t be counted” my guess is you would think, “Well, duh!” and that’s precisely the point. You don’t have to be terribly discerning or observant to notice that there is something wrong with this world. This speaks to the self-evident nature of the fall. One could safely assume that a world created by a holy, omnipotent, all-knowing God would not be filled with sin, death, misery and disaster unless something very bad had happened to distort his creation. When you combine the two halves of the proverb—the irreparability and self-evident nature of the fall he is saying “life is like an account that refuses to balance—it’s like a puzzle with pieces missing, a disease that can’t be cured, and a conflict that can’t be resolved.” Those things are irreparable and self-evident. Philip Ryken says it this way, “Life is what it is, and there is no way to fix it.” After countless human attempts to make resolution to the problems, there are no successes. After making these broad, sweeping pronouncements, the author again assure us that his conclusions are accurate and reliable. “I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” This may sound excessively boastful, but it’s also true. He’s saying in essence, “I have looked deeply into these profound questions and my vision is better than anyone else’s. I am qualified to render the bold, sweeping judgment that all in life is vanity.” By implication, our deepest and most profound thoughts on these matters are less insightful than the Preacher’s initial musings. The point of the verse is to communicate that—if Qohelet can’t find meaning in life through wisdom, no one else can.
In verse 17, the Preacher introduces the first area he searches to find meaning. “And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.” The point here is that the Preacher worked diligently to find meaning in life, not only through wisdom, but also through madness and folly which are moral terms. With respect to his pursuit of “madness and folly,” he’s not saying that he spent time living like an insane person, but living like a fool in disobedience to God. Part of the point here is again to emphasize the comprehensive nature of his search for meaning. He not only sought meaning through wisdom, he also tried finding it through sin, which is where many in this world try to find it. He will later tell us more about the sin he deeply explored and found meaningless. He said this pursuit of meaning in both wisdom and folly is “a striving after the wind.” You are as apt to find meaning through human wisdom and folly as you are to capture the wind. In verse 18 he tells us why wisdom and knowledge are dry wells. He says, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” He not only maintains that there is no meaning found through wisdom and knowledge—because wisdom and knowledge themselves actually end up draining what little joy you have—not adding to it. Think about it. If this world is vanity through and through and in your wisdom, you are particularly adept at seeing things the way they are—is that going to be a cheerful endeavor? You’re just going to be more insightful as to how wicked this world is!
Again, he’s in disagreement with the Proverbs that tell us that wisdom brings life and joy. He says it leads to “vexation”—frustration and sorrow. The difference is that the pursuit of wisdom assumed in the Proverbs has as its source—“the fear of the Lord” which is the beginning of wisdom. The Preacher’s pursuit does not begin or end with God—it’s a search “under the sun”—without factoring God in. THAT pursuit of meaning through wisdom and attaining knowledge is empty. This only makes sense when you look at the general thrust of the book. The Preacher argues that ALL things under the sun are vanity—none bring satisfaction. People without God who are looking for meaning in wisdom are asking the big questions about life. Why are we here? Is there a God and if there is a God what is he like? How did life begin? Why is there evil? What is the way to joy? What makes for successful relationships? If there are going to get satisfying answers to those big questions—God will need to be in the equation.
Some people may claim to be satisfied with their self-generated answers to these big questions, but we know these answers are not true. Because of that, the answers of one generation are always being challenged and eventually thrown over by the next wave of scientific or philosophical or psychological investigation. Freudian thought once ruled psychology. Now, only small bits of his thinking are maintained. The same is true in most any knowledge-based discipline. Most evolutionists maintain that they’re satisfied with their theory of origins, but if they’re intellectually honest (and most are afraid of that) they would admit that evolution is wearing increasingly thin especially in light of so much of the scientific study that has been done recently. I’m no expert, but I daresay that if another theory of origin that didn’t include God were to be posited and sound plausible, the theory of evolutionary would be soon abandoned as well.
If you’re pursuing answers without God that require God to be factored in, you’re bound to be either 1. deeply deceived (if you think you’ve found the answer) or 2. if you’re not deceived, you’ll be deeply frustrated in your pursuit. You’ll be like the 8th grade chemistry student who’s looking for the chemical make-up of water H2O, but is unwilling to consider hydrogen as a possible element--like the person who wants to make cotton candy, but refuses to use sugar in the recipe. It’s inherently futile. It’s trying to make a square circle—you can’t do it.
Again we see Qohelet finding vanity in his initial search for meaning through wisdom—he’ll come back to it later. The question we want to ask is—How does Jesus Christ bring meaning to this otherwise empty pursuit of meaning through wisdom? Let’s look today at two answers to that question in the hope of stoking our gratitude and stimulating our affections for him. First, Jesus brings meaning to life through wisdom because—through his word he helps us understand WHY wisdom will not yield meaning apart from God. In First Corinthians 1:18-31, Paul writes to the church in Corinth that was very proud of all their wisdom and knowledge. He says, “18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This is a glorious text and we can’t begin to treat it comprehensively, but as it relates to our task in Ecclesiastes, this text helps us see why, without God we can’t find meaning through wisdom. That is is—because you can’t know the God who gives meaning to life through worldly wisdom. Paul says in verse 20, “20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Paul is saying that God set up this world in a way that humans cannot possibly know him through wisdom. If that were true then the wiser you were, the more you could know God and if you weren’t wise by human standards, you wouldn’t be able to know God. The Scribe, the debater-those who the world considers wise--haven’t found God through their wisdom. The reason the wise cannot know him through wisdom-- to quote one scholar, is because God devised, “… a means of salvation [the cross of Christ] that is impenetrable to human wisdom and does not meet its criteria of solid evidence and sound reasoning.”
In order for a person to know God, they must first be saved and given a mind to know him. And God’s way of salvation through the crucifixion of his Son flies in the face of human wisdom—it’s impenetrable to it. Here’s his plan of salvation. God saves sinners and enables them to know him by sending his Son as a man who couldn’t even save himself—a man who dies a shameful, humiliating death as a convicted criminal—THAT is God’s way of opening the door to knowing him and finding meaning. If you were given a million years, you would never deduce that plan of salvation through logic, human reasoning or wisdom. Christ’s saving work will never make sense through only human wisdom. Paul says that knowing God comes, not through pursuing him through wisdom, but only as he reveals himself to people and he reveals himself through preaching. There is nothing to figure out—no puzzle to solve, no great mystery to unlock. Here’s the way to know God—believe this ridiculous message when God through preaching reveals it to you—the way to know God is through a man who is really God and who died a scandalous death 2000 years ago. That is completely counter-intuitive to both the learned Greek and the Jew.
It’s not a matter of knowing something or through wisdom being able to figure something out or solving a deep mystery. It’s a matter of believing a message. “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”[Acts 16:31] You know God by faith, not intellect or reason. Those are not unimportant, but our reason must orbit around and be rooted in the revealed truth of God in the gospel. Paul says this is the reason why not many of the “wise” of this world come to know God; because they want to know him through their own reasoning and that’s a futile quest. And the reason for this is “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” God doesn’t want anyone in heaven to be able to say—“I’m here—I know God because I was smart or wise or educated.” Ultimately, all our wisdom is in a person—Jesus Christ “who became for us wisdom from God…” Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ, “…are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Jesus helps us to see why the world can never through wisdom find meaning in life—it can’t find the source of meaning through wisdom.
A second way Jesus brings meaning to us through wisdom is-- He has done all the work necessary to reverse the vanity and meaninglessness that came through the fall. This world is bent, but Jesus has done the work necessary for it to be absolutely straight. The world is incomplete, but he has done the work on the cross for everything that is lacking to be supplied. This world is full of misery, but he will wipe away every tear. This world is full of sin, but his death will eventually banish all sin. Christ’s work on the cross reversed the process of death, decay and emptiness that Adam’s sin brought into this world. Paul says in Romans chapter five, “8 …as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men…19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” What Adam’s sin did to bring emptiness and meaningless into this world, Christ death has reversed and will one day completely remove all vanity from this world.
people to pursue meaning through their wisdom is their own pride and the lies they have believed, both of which
they get from Satan. If
meaning is to be available to fallen man, Satan—this evil obscurer of truth must be neutralized. Jesus said of his impending death
in John 12, “31
the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And
I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The
cross of Christ did the work necessary for Satan to be ejected from this earth. Colossians 2:15 says of Jesus,
“15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities
and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Those
spiritual powers that ruthlessly held this world in self-glorying pride and the power of the lies that lead people
to vanity and meaninglessness have been disarmed, opening a new door for people to find meaning through the wisdom
that is in Christ.
We live in a bent, incomplete world and it won’t get fundamentally better through anything we do here. The fall brings suffering and pain and countless forms of misery and it’s also why the search for meaning through human wisdom is bound to be futile. We don’t have the kind of spiritual wisdom we need to do that, but God has given us Christ who is our wisdom and it’s through him we can know God and therefore, satisfaction and joy. For those of us who are believers, rejoice that God has injected meaning into your life because he has revealed himself to you in Christ through the gospel. You don’t have to be like so many spiritually blind people who are groping for meaning in a dark room—God has revealed wisdom and satisfaction to you in the person of Jesus. It’s all grace—we could never have known him apart from him revealing himself to us through the gospel. Romans three says, “No one understands, no one seeks after God.” If you’re here today and you don’t know God and your life does not produce a sense of satisfaction and ultimate joy, your problem is—you don’t know God. This isn’t a matter of reading your Bible or praying to him. People pray to him all the time who don’t know him and therefore don’t know the satisfaction he alone brings. This is a matter of asking him in his mercy, to reveal himself to you and that begins when he reveals your desperate need of him by showing you how wicked your sin is, and how much he hates it and must punish it. As he reveals that about your sin—which is the source of all the vanity in your life--, he will also reveal the only answer to your sin, Jesus Christ who took the punishment your sin deserves. As you by his grace come to know him and embrace him in love, you’ll not only find forgiveness, but the source of joy unspeakable and full of glory here and in eternity. May God give us the grace to look for meaning in the source of all wisdom, Jesus Christ.
 Longman, Tremper, NICOT, Ecclesiastes, p. 82.
 Ryken, Crossway, Ecclesiastes, p. 41.
 Garland, 2003, NICNT, First Corinthians, p. 66.
Page last modified on 10/23//2012
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