Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)
Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.
I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.
In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes about Deep Thought, the powerful supercomputer that is tasked with determining the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It takes the computer a long time to check and double-check its computations — seven and a half million years, to be exact — but eventually it spits out a simple, unambiguous answer: the meaning of life is 42.
“Forty-two!” someone yells at the computer. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” Deep Thought replies, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
That is the quest of life, the aim of philosophy, to understand the meaning of life. This is the quest of the Preacher, especially in this next section of Ecclesiastes. Will the search for wisdom give us the key to fulfillment and satisfaction in life? Let’s see.
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. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 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.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
It doesn’t sound like wisdom enables us to find satisfaction in life either.
Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:23 announces the Preacher’s personal testimony, his confession to his inability to resolve life’s most important issues without God. He has determined to examine a great range of human activities in a search for anything of lasting value. In case his readers should purpose to take up the same search, “he warns us of the outcome (1:13b–15) before he takes us through his journey (1:16–2:11); finally he will share with us the conclusions he has reached (2:12–26).
Man has always held the pursuit of wisdom to be a high virtue, from Socrates, to the scholastics, to the Enlightenment, to modern scientism. But Solomon will show us the futility of this pursuit in finding ultimate satisfaction in life.
Verse 12 affirms that the Preacher is Solomon, “king over Israel in Jerusalem.” This statement not only helps us identify who the author is, but it reminds us that this Solomon, king of Israel at its economic and political height, would have all the resources he needed to pursue any quest.
In verse 13 Preacher perceives that in this world God has given an unhappy business, i.e., a troubling or burdensome task, to the children of man.
13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
The Solomon of Ecclesiastes was a seeker; he was on a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge.
This quest fits everything we know about King Solomon from other places in the Bible. When Solomon became king, God gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: he could ask for anything he wished. Solomon chose wisely. Rather than asking for money or fame, he asked for wisdom to govern the people of God. God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that he said,
“Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).
God made Solomon so wise that he wrote thousands of proverbs, and he was considered to be wiser than all the men of his day (1 Kings 4:29-34).
This precious gift of wisdom did not mean that the king instantly understood everything. He still had to apply himself to the pursuit of knowledge, which is exactly what Solomon did: he devoted his life to learning.
Solomon’s quest was sincere. When he says, “I applied my heart,” he means that the pursuit of knowledge came from the very core of his being. The Preacher-King focused his mind and disciplined his heart to know the truth.
His quest was also comprehensive. The words “to seek” and “to search” indicate the seriousness of his efforts. We would say he “left no stone unturned.” He was diligent in his search, telling us that he did all he could to find fulfillment from wisdom.
It is possible that the first verb indicates minute dissection of an issue to understand it, whereas the second means backing away to get the big picture. If so, then Solomon did not lose the trees in the forest or the forest in the trees.
There is nothing wrong with his quest. In fact, in Proverbs 2, Solomon recommends this to every young man:
1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
The quest is commendable. Leaders need to be lifelong learners. But Solomon was limiting his search to only what humans could understand and had experienced.
At his command emissaries went to India, to Egypt, to Ethiopia, to Babylon, to Greece, and to the uttermost parts of the world in search of answers to life’s most perplexing questions. Solomon has ships and men to command. His wealth funds wide-ranging expeditions. His knowledge of the fauna and flora excels (1 Kgs 4:33). His wisdom, though tainted by his disobedience, is still vast and capable of collating the results and reaching a conclusion.
He wanted to investigate every area of human endeavor — “all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). In short, he wanted to know everything about everything under the sun.
This is commendable. Later Solomon will search for satisfaction through pleasure seeking and accolades through achievements, but he starts here…with a search through wisdom.
He would have made Plato proud.
However, we must realize that the wisdom Solomon was seeking was “under heaven,” or as he frequently says “under the sun,” meaning that it was not heavenly wisdom, not biblical wisdom so much as the wisdom one gains from ones senses, experiences and thoughts.
Seeking such wisdom is a worthy pursuit, as far as it goes. All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found. If we learn anything that is true to the world as it truly is, that truth ultimately comes as a gift from God.
By God’s “common grace,” as theologians call it, even books in the “Religion and Self-Help” section of a secular bookstore give people some of the knowledge they seek. The question is, how far will such wisdom take us? Will it help us to know and to worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God? Will it lead us in the way of life everlasting? Will it help us understand why everything matters?
This is the wisdom of those who guide us to a better life in the here-and-now; how to live a healthier, happier, more prosperous life. This wisdom certainly has value, and many lives would be better for following it. Yet if it excludes a true appreciation of eternity and our responsibilities in the world to come, this wisdom has no true answer to the meaninglessness of life. It only shows us how to live our meaningless lives better.
So Solomon gave diligent search to try to gain all the wisdom he could.
But ultimately Solomon realized that this kind of wisdom—wisdom apart from God’s revelation through Scripture—was a dead end. It didn’t end up “42” but zero.
It is rather an “unhappy business.”
The same Hebrew phrase occurs in 4:8 and 5:14 (“unhappy business”), where it refers to the burdens and trials experienced by those who live under heaven (this phrase is interchangeable with the expression “under the sun”; cf. 1:14). For some inscrutable reason, God ordains that mankind should endure painful experiences in this present fallen order.
Again, Ecclesiastes represents a post-fall world. Solomon’s reference to the “children of man” is literally “the children of Adam.”
Remember that God had given Adam tasks to fulfill in the garden and enough knowledge to enjoy life to the full. But when Eve and Adam rebelled against God, they and their environment was cursed. Now, the tasks are difficult and not nearly as fulfilling.
Tommy Nelson points out:
Adam had no philosophic problems in the garden. He walked with God in the cool of the day. He was in touch with infinite reality; he had an absolute answer for creation, for the dignity of man and for the distinctiveness of his wife. He understood himself in relation to the animals and to the cosmos. He knew why he was here. He knew where he was going. He knew what he was to do, but he sinned.
When Adam sinned, the lights went out. His awareness of his place and purpose vanished. His eyes darkened, and his offspring have continued in that state. His children cannot look up and know what is up above the sun. We’re just down here in this machine, trying to find some scrap of meaning. (The Problem of Life with God, pp. 21-22).
Now man is not only finite, but fallen. Everything is now filtered through this new reality.
In fact, the word for “unhappy” is a moral word. The Hebrew ra, means “evil.”
Thus it describes a moral category rather than an emotional state. The problem is not simply that life makes us unhappy, but that it is evil in itself. It is not just an unfortunate business, but a bad business.
Everything we do and experience has been infected with evil, with sin.
As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “All men . . . have a deep longing for significance, a longing for meaning . . . no man, regardless of his theoretical system, is content to look at himself as a finally meaningless machine which can and will be discarded totally and for ever.” (Death in the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), p. 98.)
Notice that this “unhappy business” is no accident, it is what God has given. So Derek Kidner says, “He sees the restlessness of life which any observer could report, but he traces it to the will of God. It is He who has given it to the sons of men.” He goes on to say…
“This may sound more like bitterness than faith, but in faith it drops a clue to something positive which will be picked up in the final chapters. At worst it would imply that there was sense, not the nonsense of chance, behind our situation, even if the sense were wholly daunting. But it can equally well chime in with the purposeful discipline which God imposed upon us as the sequel to the Fall. That was how Paul—with an evident glance at Ecclesiastes—was to interpret the travail of the world: “for the creation was subjected to futility…by the will of him who subjected it in hope. (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 29).
It may seem cruel of God to devise such a system, but it is actually evidence of His great love and mercy. He built within us the desire and need for that which brings meaning and fulfillment to life. As Augustine wrote, the Creator made a God-shaped space in each of us, which can only be filled with Him.
Ultimately we cannot be satisfied, we won’t find fulfillment in life, unless we have a personal relationship with this God.
H. C. Leupold points out that throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon refers to God as Elohim, not Yahweh. Now, Yahweh is the personal God of covenant and promise, whereas Elohim is the distant, majestic creator God. It makes a difference how we view God. It may reflect how Solomon, at this stage in life, due to his own rebellion, was somewhat distant from God.
This is, however, Solomon first mention of God, as if he is beginning to see that the only One Who can answer life’s questions is the Creator Himself.
The mention of God (for the first time) in v 13 and God’s “giving” are important for understanding some basic presuppositions of this book. It is to be interpreted within Qoheleth’s own religious traditions: God controls everything and grants “gifts,” even if arbitrarily. This is all part of the inscrutable divine action, which defies understanding.
So, in verses 13–15 he describes the unhappiness, the emptiness, and the futility of his own efforts to understand the universe — the end of his first quest.
Verse 13 describes Solomon’s intention, whereas verse 14 expresses his experience.
14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Within the space of two verses the lofty king (v. 12), with equally lofty intentions (v. 13) has come crashing down. All his plans are foiled.
Solomon’s exhaustive search for answers meets with failure. All his wisdom and resources cannot turn up the answer to his most basic question: What is the purpose of life on this planet?
He attempts to make order of chaos. In our own times another very knowledgeable man has undertaken a similar task with a strange twist to it. World-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, investigates the origin of the universe while seeking to disprove the existence of God. So far, like Solomon of old, he has failed.
Could it be that people like Solomon and Hawking are looking but not seeing? They take into account the visible, but what about the invisible?
Charles Swindoll recounts an interesting story. A native American was visiting New York City. Walking with a friend near the center of Manhattan, the Indian suddenly stopped his companion and whispered, “Wait, I hear a cricket.”
His friend was disbelieving. A cricket? In downtown New York? Impossible. The cacophony of sounds from passing taxis, impatient honking, people shouting, brakes screeching, and subways roaring would make it virtually impossible to hear a cricket, even if one were present.
But, the Indian was insistent. He stopped his friend and began to crisscross the street and sidewalks with his head cocked to one side, intently listening. Then, in a large cement planter where a tree was growing, he finally found the cricket and held it up for his friend’s benefit.
Amazed, his friend asked how he could have possibly heard that cricket. Reaching into his pocket, the Indian grasped some coins, held them waist high, then dropped them on the sidewalk. Everyone within a block turned to look in their direction.
As Swindoll explains, “It all depends on what you’re listening for. We don’t have enough crickets in our heads. We don’t listen for them. Perhaps you have spent all your life searching for a handful of change and you’ve missed the real sound of life.”
He had researched it all, and it was “vanity and striving after wind.”
“Striving [chasing] after wind” (v. 14) graphically pictures the futility Solomon sought to communicate (cf. 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). The literal Hebrew is “shepherding wind.”
The Preacher depicts how endlessly men and women can analyze life without living it for God. Ecclesiastes reveals that the search to answer all of life’s conundrums is like trying to shepherd the wind—to attempt to push the wind into a pen of one’s own making. It just won’t go. It is futile and useless.
James Bollhagen concludes this verse saying:
The human eye surveys the panorama of human experience with no light of divine revelation piercing the darkness. When the church sees the pathos of this verse, it will treasure all the more God’s revealing himself in the Holy Scriptures….The church will also better understand the plight of every human being. It will not merely commiserate with people on the level of sight, but it will focus on bringing to the lost world “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the Gospel of the Savior, who has seen “the all” (cf. Eccl. 1:14) of this world’s evil and has conquered it for our salvation (John 16:33).