FROM ECCLESIASTES 2:12-17
This week, we continue with the author of Ecclesiastes as he takes us on his personal quest for meaning in life. As we’ve seen, he repeatedly finds there is no meaning in what he calls “life under the sun” or, life without God in the picture. As we follow him on his quest, he reminds us of the emptiness, the futility and the vanity of trying to find lasting satisfaction from the things of this world. We’ve seen that the author or “Preacher” or Qohelet writes as a uniquely wise man who is qualified to look for meaning in life. As we move into the second half of chapter two, he takes us back to something he’s already explored in his search for meaning. In today’s text, he returns to wisdom as a possible source of meaning. It’s as if this great wisdom teacher refuses to believe--meaning can’t be found in wisdom, so he quickly revisits this area to double check. As we’ll see, this time his search is a bit different, but his findings are ultimately the same. There is no meaning in living a wise, perceptive, enlightened life. In the midst of his search for wisdom, Qohelet bumps into the 900 pound gorilla that—far and away--drains meaning or satisfaction from life apart from God more powerfully than any other thing. There is one reality to human life without God that saps the meaning from even what seems the most meaningful event. The wrecking machine that destroys all meaning in a life without God is…death as it casts its dark shadow over everything in this life.
This morning Qohelet says--beginning with verse 12, “12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” The author now turns once again to consider wisdom and madness and folly. The madness and folly are simply two ways of saying the same thing—a life lived recklessly and marked by sinful decisions. As he’s done before, this wise man once again gives his credentials. He says in the second half of verse 12, “For what can the man do who comes after the king?” The translation is tricky here but what is probably being said is—“I am a great king and I have spent my entire life acquiring wisdom—As I have sought out wisdom as a possible source for satisfaction, I have left no stone unturned. Anyone coming after me will add nothing to my findings—he can do no better than simply restating my insights.” More important than his own credentials is that his writing is inspired by God. Ultimately, this is what GOD says about life without him.
In verse 13 he begins detailing his insights. “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.” The author puts a sharper point on what he has said before. He again finds that, although there is ultimately no meaning to be found in wisdom, there is meaning in wisdom when you compare it with folly. So, although there is no ultimate meaning in wisdom, when compared to folly, there is relative meaning. He says in effect—“This should be obvious to everyone—it’s like the difference between light and darkness.” Clearly, light is preferable to darkness. Next, he directly connects the light and darkness metaphor to the wise man and the foolish man in verse 14. “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” That is, the wise person is able to see their way around and navigate through life’s challenges—“he has his eyes in his head.” The fool however, stumbles and bumbles through life like a bull in a china shop—hurting himself and others through his consistently foolish choices. The reason he makes a point of stating how perfectly obvious it is that wisdom is better than folly, is to emphasize the powerful truth in his next statement. This is the pivotal statement of this text. He says, “And yet I perceived that the same even happens to all of them.” Although there are huge, self-evident differences between the wise and the foolish, they share one experience in common that ultimately and completely erases the obvious and enormous differences between them. The difference between the blessedness of a wise life and the cursedness of a foolish life—completely dissolves in the face of this event.
The event—which he never mentions explicitly--is of course, death. This is the main point of the text and we could state it this way: Death empties meaning from all things, even wisdom. His very extreme point is---from his perspective of life without God, death not only ends a life—death erases all of life’s ultimate satisfaction. He digs deeper into this as he reflects in verse 15, “15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.” Let’s unpack those three statements. First, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also.” Death is no respecter of persons. The wise man spends his life learning and writing and sacrificially giving out his wisdom to his students and loved ones. And one evening, as he is reclining on his silk sheets, he dies. The fool selfishly tears his way through life in debauched and destructive living. And one day he dies in a gutter--a drunken, homeless wretch. What’s the difference between the two? Qohelet says, nothing. They are both equally dead. In the movie “The Princess Bride,” the hero—the man in black, is killed and his friends take his body to Miracle Max who pronounces him only “mostly dead” which means that even though he is dead, he’s still “partially alive.” The reason that’s funny is because there is no “mostly dead” state. A person who is resuscitated has not yet genuinely died. You are either dead or you’re not dead. You are not partially dead, walking dead, mostly dead or undead. You are either alive or dead. Between the wise and the fool, the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the not-so beautiful, the couch potato and the professional athlete, death is the great equalizer. And for the Preacher, that saps all the potential meaning out of wisdom. The wise man dies, the fool dies—there is absolutely no advantage to any of our virtues in death.
One commentator tells the story of how Alexander the Great learned this lesson from his teacher, Diogenes. “Alexander found Diogenes standing alone in a field, looking intently at a pile of bones. When Alexander asked what he was doing, Diogenes gave this reply: “I am search for the bones of your father, Philip [Philip was a king] but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.” Because death is the great equalizer, Qohelet asks, “Why then have I been so very wise?” If death renders life meaningless, then why bother pursuing wisdom? Death is not only the great equalizer; the Preacher also implies that it’s also the great trivializer. Death not only erases all distinctions between people—the wise and the fool—it also renders trivial all our achievements. The Preacher asks, “What’s the point of pursuing wisdom if you know it all dies with you.” To illustrate, he’s is asking something like this: “Why would you make the effort to climb Mount Everest if you knew ahead of time, that at the summit you would slip and plummet to your death?” The certainty of death makes the climb pointless.
His next statement is—“And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. The Preacher—after thinking through the arguments says, “Under the specter of death, pursuing wisdom is vanity just like everything else.” In verse 16, he points to another aspect of the futility death brings. He says, “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been forgotten.” Qohelet is wise enough to know that—given enough time—even the deepest footprints of history are covered up. We spoke of this in chapter one. Mortal humans cannot leave impregnable marks in life---those marks eventually fade away. There is “no enduring remembrance of what you done.” Woody Allen knew this. He once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” If the world were to last for another million years, eventually, everyone alive today would be forgotten.
The Preacher is even more graphic—(some would borderline ghoolish) in the last part of verse 17. He says, “How the wise dies just like the fool!” If the Preacher were just saying, “The fool and the wise both die,” he would be repeating himself. That’s why I take the Preacher to be speaking of the actual experience of death. From an Ancient Near Eastern perspective--even the experience of dying is no different for the fool who has wasted his life in decadence, than for the wise king who has spent his life teaching others. This would be much more powerful to us if we lived in an era where our medical advancements and the culture at large didn’t do everything possible to prevent the anguish of dying. Today, if you have a malignancy eating you up, there are drugs to deaden the pain—praise God! If a person is very labored in their breathing at the end--there are drugs to ease that process. The dying process is much less tortuous today. If you walked into a hospice unit and heard several people in the throes of death screaming in anguish, you’d be incensed. That’s not the way people in the west die today. But in human history, it’s only been very recently that medicine has been able to somewhat anesthetize dying. In our western culture the physical torture and anguish of dying has largely been eliminated and that’s a good thing from a human perspective.
However, in the Ancient Near East and in primitive cultures today, the anguish of death’s curse is very real. Screaming, moaning, groaning, choking, struggling for air, wheezing, convulsing are all part of the death experience and the Preacher says—the wise, cultured refined man is just as likely to go out screaming like a wounded animal as is the wicked wretch on the street. During the Preacher’s lifetime, the end of life looked the same irrespective of your bank balance-- whether you die in a feather bed or a ditch. The Preacher’s conclusion to all of this is in verse 17, “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” His verdict on all this is “vanity” and because it’s vain, pronounces “I hated life.” He’s not saying that he hates only his life—he hates life in general because it ends in death. Life on this planet is terminal. When we read these very powerful statements about death, we’re tempted to think—“that’s just the Preacher—he’s an accomplished killjoy.” But this isn’t just the Preacher’s perspective. In Psalm 49, the same sentiments are expressed.
Beginning in verse 10, let me quote selective statements through verse 19. “…even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations… 12 Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish… 14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd… 16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. 17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. 18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed…19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light.” These are not the words of a man who sees life without God, but the psalmist. And this is no lament where you would expect to see emotionally driven over-statements, this is a wisdom Psalm.
The Psalmist is simply laying bare the element of hopelessness in living a life destined to end in death. This is just the way it is from a human point of view. Another truth brought out by the Psalmist is--You can’t take it with you—hearses don’t pull U-hauls—there are no pockets in grave clothes. A rich man died and someone asked, “how much did he leave?” Another man said, “He left it ALL!” One lesson from the wisdom literature is this—people who are really wise from a human perspective without God—find death to cancel out all meaning in life. This perspective is much more likely to be shared by elderly people than young people. Until we reach a certain age, although we know theoretically that we will die, experientially we seldom ascent to that fact. It’s only when you reach a certain age and you begin to see the signs of decay in your body—the same signs of decay you saw in your parents—that it really hits you—“I’m gonna’ die someday…I’m aging just the way my parents and grandparents did and they’re dead.” When you’re a child, you don’t understand why people past 30 can’t get right up after a big meal and run around. You really don’t understand why your dad lets out a little groan when he gets out of bed in the morning—why your mother wears pants with elastic in the waste. But when you get to your parents age, you’ll do those exact same things. And if you’re living without God, an appropriate—even wise response to that is—“Is this all there is? Life is meaningless”
Don’t miss this beloved—all of those signs of aging are gentle, but unmistakable reminders of our mortality—the crow’s feet, the grey hair, the stooped shoulders and middle aged spread are all reminders that-- you are fallen, your body is decaying and one day—you’re gonna’ die. It’s not my intention to be bleak any more than it is the authors of Scripture. Part of the reason this kind of frankness about death sounds “over-the-top” to us is because in our culture we do everything we can NOT to think about death and the unmistakable signs of its approach.
One of the greatest, most satisfying blessings Jesus Christ gives to a believer is the completely, comprehensively, absolutely new understanding of death he brings to the believer. For the person without Christ, death ultimately does render life meaningless. That’s what the Word of God says. But Jesus Christ removes the meaninglessness that death brings because-- for the believer-- Jesus has drestroyed death’s power to rob meaning from this life. Writing on the resurrection of Jesus, Paul concludes his treatment with this glorious promise. “58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” In context, Paul says—the reason your labor—your life is not in vain is because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has forever altered the purpose and power of death for the believer. The believer, unlike Qohelet, can live her life with the assurance that her life DOES have ultimate meaning because the power of death to rob it of that meaning has been defeated.
The resurrection of Jesus means that for the believer, death is not the final word. It’s no longer a brutal spiritual power that has the power to rain on every parade. The first of three reasons is: because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has transformed death from a permanent condition to a temporary one. People who die as believers not only continue to live on spiritually in heaven after death—“to be absent from the body is to be present from the Lord.” The promise also is that their physical, bodily death is temporary. The resurrection turns the Preacher’s argument on its head. The Preacher’s argument has been—since life is temporary, life and the wisdom of this life is meaningless. It’s the temporary nature of life and the permanent nature of death that render life and wisdom meaningless. In Christ however, all that is completely reversed. For the believer, it’s no longer life that is temporary, but death. For the believer, it’s no longer death that is permanent, its life—eternal life in Christ. What the permanence of death does to rob life and wisdom of meaning, Christ has reversed by rendering death temporary.
A second reason death no longer saps meaning from wisdom or the life of a believer is because: Christ is our wisdom. Believers have an infinite advantage over Qohelet who was looking for meaning in the wisdom of this world. The reason he never found wisdom is because the source of wisdom that provides meaning is Jesus Christ. Paul in Colossians 2:3 says that Jesus is the one “3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Qohelet was looking for meaning in wisdom, but he was NOT looking for meaning in Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In First Corinthians 1:30 Paul says, “30…you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” The crucified, risen Christ became wisdom from God to us because in his crucifixion, the wisdom of God was manifested in Christ’s sacrificial death to save us. The question becomes, “Yes, but how does having Christ as our wisdom cancel the power of death to rob meaning from life?” Paul tells us one way in Colossians chapter three. He writes, “1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Here’s how having Christ as our wisdom cancels death’s power to rob life and wisdom of their meaning. Because the believer has already died and been raised with Christ. Death has no power to rob meaning from a person who has already died and been raised up. The old man or, the part of the believer that is native to this world and can seek only after this world’s bankrupt sources of meaning—wisdom, pleasure, toil, etc….is dead. Those counterfeits have no power to seduce dead people into vainly trying to get meaning from them. The believer is “…a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” Believers are not only dead to this world’s counterfeit sources of meaning; we are “raised with Christ.” We have been united with Christ and therefore have joined him in his resurrection. So, on the one hand, we are dead—we don’t have to be seduced by this world’s counterfeits. On the other, we have been raised and are spiritually in the presence of Jesus--the source of all meaning. This world cannot see that reality—Paul says we are “hidden with Christ in God.” That is—we are seated where Christ is at the right hand of God. Because we are raised with Christ, we are called NOT to look to this world and its wisdom for meaning, but to “set our minds on things that are above [God, his Word, his glory, his agenda, his mission] not on things that are on earth”—worldly pleasures, worldly wisdom, etc… And when we do that, we find Christ as our source of all wisdom and meaing.
That means—when believers look to the things of this world for meaning, they are acting in contradiction to who they are. The believer has died with Christ to the things of this world, has been raised with Christ and is in Christ in the place of highest honor in heaven. He has immediate access to the ultimate source of meaning and wisdom. Why would a person with all that be fishing for meaning in the stagnant, smelly waters of this world? Why would the prince live like a pauper? We don’t have to do that because the Prince of peace came to this earth and lived like a pauper in this world so that we former paupers could live like princes in the place of highest honor at God’s right hand!
As we close, here are three questions for application. First, have you allowed death’s power to rob meaning from the things of this world? Does the fact that your physical body will die, rob you of any satisfaction in this world? Many believers hate to think about death as much as unbelievers and yet for the believer, Christ has drawn the sting of death. The relentless aging process and our eventual death should not sap life of its meaning for those in Christ! This life is just preparation for the life to come. Yet, so often people who claim to be believers live as if this life is all there is. It’s often only as their bodies are old, falling apart and filled with pain that they seriously look at heaven as a better option. Is that you?
Second, as it relates to living in this world, are you living in a manner consistent with who you are in Christ? Paul says that because we have died and been raised with Christ to the place of highest honor in heaven, we must seek the things above; set our minds on things above. If you are in Christ and you are living as if it’s the things of this world—even good things like family and the wholesome pleasures of this life—if you’re setting your mind on those things, you are not living like someone who has spiritually died and been raised up with Christ. If you’re hidden in Christ in heaven, THAT is what should dictate where we are looking for meaning. To look for meaning in this world if you are hidden with Christ in heaven would be like a gourmet cook looking for his ingredients in a back alley garbage can. Many so called believers spend all day, every day focusing on the things of this world. They’re not consciously living for the glory of God with everything in their lives orbiting around him—God is barely in the picture except at meal times and when they pray or read their Bible. Their treasure is here on earth, not in heaven. Paul says our treasure is Christ in glory and that is where we should be seeking after meaning and satisfaction. If we are in Christ, that’s who we are. Are you living like that gourmet cook, scavenging the comparative trash of this world when you could be dining with the King at his banquet table?
Third, do you see the pathetic plight of the unbeliever and are you doing anything about that? This text in Ecclesiastes reminds us that those who don’t know Jesus are inescapably trapped--destined to look for meaning in places where there is none. Their own death—which they avoid thinking about at all costs—casts a shadow over them that renders everything else they do and seek after ultimately meaningless. This is a miserable existence for someone created in God’s image—meaningless. Do we see the lost people around us that way? Does our heart go out to those who are scratching and clawing for meaning in this life, but who don’t know the source of true meaning and wisdom? May God give us the grace to live in Christ as those who have already died and been raised in Christ.
 As quoted in Ryken, Ecclesiastes, p. 63.
 As quoted in Ryken, p. 63.
Page last modified on 11/12//2012
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