Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 2 (Ecclesiastes 1:15-18)

After he won his third Super Bowl, Tom Brady was interviewed by 60 Minutes.  In an incredibly candid moment, he told the guy interviewing him, “There’s got to be more to life than this, isn’t there?”  Here is one of the most gifted, famous and affluent athletes of our time and he was still unsatisfied after winning three Super Bowls.

Other rich and famous people are facing the same problem.  A famous fashion model was recently interviewed after winning a contest with 10,000 other women to have her image splashed across the cover of innumerable magazines.  It made her rich and hugely famous.  A year later she said, “I finally achieved my biggest dream, the dream I always wanted.  But when I finally got there, it wasn’t all I thought it would be.” 

Solomon, argued that, at least on the surface, life is much like a cul-de-sac that we drive into and find ourselves just driving around and around and around.  The reality that life is like a cul-de-sac didn’t stop him from trying to find fulfillment along the way because there was something innate within him—just like it’s within each of us—that pushes us to find meaning and purpose.

We all need a reason to live, a reason to get up and keep going and that was true of this writer as well.  So, he picked three of the most common ways that people use to find fulfillment and then he ran after them as hard as he could.  First, he chased after wisdom.

After all, wisdom is what is touted in the book of Proverbs as better than silver or gold, or honor.

In one of Solomon’s many famous proverbs we hear wisdom say, “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 8:35).  Here, however, that quest seems futile.

Many good minds have reached the same conclusion.  Before he died, the modernist poet Ezra Pound said, “All my life I believed I knew something.  But then one strange day came when I realized that I knew nothing; yes, I knew nothing. And so words became void of meaning” (See http://www.quoteland.com/topic.asp?CATEGORY_ID=89.)

Similarly, the infamous atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins has concluded that human existence is “neither good nor evil, neither kind nor cruel, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose” (Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96.)

Last week we started Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom.  Here is what he said…

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.

We noted that although Solomon had all the advantages to search out wisdom to the fullest extent to determine whether it held the key to fulfillment, only to come up saying “all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Today we’re going to continue Solomon’s theme where he indicates that wisdom and experience cannot solve every problem.  Guys, listen, we can’t fix everything.

Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs, speaking 3,000 proverbs according to 1 Kings 4:32 and, of course, wrote much of the book of Proverbs.  Here he gives a proverb expressing:

 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 

Duane Garrett explains:

“That which is ‘twisted’ refers to a problem that cannot be solved, and that which is ‘lacking’ refers to lack of information (i.e. missing data cannot be taken into account and thus contribute toward finding an answer).  Some problems cannot be solved, and some information we can never find.  The intellectual more than anyone else should be aware of the futility of the human position.  No matter how he or she searches, the intellectual cannot answer some fundamental questions of life.  The implication behind this is that God’s ways are inscrutable.”

Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are higher than ours.  Job came to understand that God didn’t have to explain himself.

Solomon makes a similar statement in 7:13.

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?

If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left to live our lives!  And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up bankrupt.  Unlike God, we do not have limitless resources.  Unlike God, we cannot fix or explain everything.

In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.”  Ken Taylor paraphrased verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been.” (TLB)

That is why it is such a comfort to know that God is in perfect control and has the power and wisdom to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking.  He won’t change the past, but He can change how the past affects us.  Sins can be forgiven, the past can be transformed.

But that is not Solomon’s message.

We’re the most educated nation in human history; every year we graduate thousands of master’s degrees, medical degrees, law degrees, and PhDs.  As a society we pride ourselves on being smart and getting smarter all the time and we probably all know some really bright people.  You probably work with some or maybe even live with some and I know I do.  Being educated and becoming intellectually competent are not bad things at all.  But if you think gaining more knowledge and leveraging your intellectual prowess are going to give you a lasting sense of fulfillment, think again.  Our minds are the gift of God but they are limited.  Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

That doesn’t mean that Solomon gave up on this quest.  After his first attempt ended in failure, he had a heart-to-heart talk with his own soul, a running internal dialogue about what he had discovered thus far.

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.”

Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reasons.  First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway.  Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight.

If anyone was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person.  He was the wisest of men and had the greatest opportunity to face many different experiences of wisdom and knowledge.

The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we realize we are.  This only adds to the burden.  “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “Choruses from The Rock.”  At the close of his life, Isaac Newton said, “I have been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.”  He, too, felt the frustration of not being able to understand more.

All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3).  When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows.

Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

I heard about an article that was titled “178 Seconds to Live.”  It was about a test that was given to 20 of the smartest pilots in the world, all of whom had exceptionally high IQs and a great deal of aviation experience.  Each pilot was put in a flight simulator—without the use of any instruments—and then told to do whatever he could to keep the airplane under control as he flew into some very dark clouds and really stormy weather.

The article stated that all 20 of these incredibly bright people who had long and successful flying careers, “crashed and killed themselves” within an average of 178 seconds.  It took these highly intelligent, seasoned pilots less than 3 minutes to destroy themselves once they lost their visual reference points.

All their knowledge combined with their intellect could not save them. 

H. C. Leupold suggests:

“The closest analogy to the experiment here described would in our day be an honest attempt to solve all problems and to attain to all knowledge by the processes of rational thinking.  It would be the philosopher’s attempt to probe into the depth of matters by his unaided and unenlightened reason apart from any disclosures of truth that God has granted to man.”

But Solomon had not yet considered the claims of morality, so his quest was not complete.  He had tried to learn everything he could about life, like someone who attends the best universities and reads all the latest books claiming to reveal the mysteries of human existence.  But he had not yet fully investigated the difference between right and wrong or tried to find meaning and purpose in life by becoming a better person.

So he said, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Formerly the Preacher had been seeking and searching for wisdom, but now he would take a comparative approach, contrasting wisdom with folly.  When he says “madness and folly,” he is not talking about insanity but immorality.  In other words, Qoheleth was using “madness and folly” the way they are usually used in the Old Testament — to refer to the mad foolishness of living in disobedience to God.  Solomon was not trying to see if losing his right mind would help him understand the meaning of life.  Rather, he was trying to understand the difference between right and wrong.

We all have an innate sense of right and wrong and many people still want to lead good, moral lives.  Although wisdom does have benefits, like Solomon too many people study folly a little too well.

Part of the back story to Ecclesiastes is 1 Kings 11, in which King Solomon fell tragically into foolish sin.  He married many wives and worshiped many idols.  In the process, the man who knew so much wisdom learned more about folly than anyone ever should.

One of the Targums of the Jews had an interesting word here:

“When King Solomon was sitting upon the throne of his kingdom, his heart because greatly elated with riches, and he transgressed the commandment of the Word of God: and he gathered many houses, and chariots, and riders, and he amassed much gold and silver, and he married wives from foreign nations.

Whereupon the anger of the Lord was kindled against him, and he sent to him Ashmodai, the king of the demons, and he drove him from the throne of his kingdom, and he took away the ring from his hand, in order that he should roam and wander about in the world, to reprove it; and he went about the provincial towns and cities in the land of Israel, weeping and lamenting, and saying, ‘I am Qoheleth, whose name was formerly called Solomon, who was king over Israel in Jerusalem.’”

Now, there is no reference to this in the Scriptures, but we might wonder whether it represented some part of the reality of Solomon’s later repentance.

So Solomon took up the study of folly, something he will continue in the next chapter.

And what was the result of this new quest?  Did knowing the difference between right and wrong help him find meaning and fulfillment in life?  Not at all.  The claims of conventional morality failed to satisfy his soul.  It was all a waste.

So he said, “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Once again the Preacher quoted a proverb that summarized the conclusion of his quest.  Human wisdom failed because it could not straighten things out or make life add up (Ecclesiastes 1:15).  But knowing the difference between right and wrong failed for an additional reason:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Greater wisdom had only brought the writer greater “vexation” (mental anguish) and “sorrow” (emotional pain, v. 18). 

Maybe this is why some people say “Ignorance is bliss.”  And it makes us realize why Jesus recommends that we become as children in order to embrace the gospel.  Education, knowledge and expertise do not necessary make us good candidate for heaven.  Paul argues against the Greek conception of knowledge as a saving factor.

Once again the Preacher has succeeded in making us feel even worse about life than we did before.

This world is fundamentally flawed and we cannot fix it.  No matter how much information and expertise we might possess.  There must be something outside the system that can give purpose to life.

Zack Eswine summarizes this portion of Ecclesiates—Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom—as a snapshot of that frowning moment in the Garden of Eden.  As Adam and Eve fig-leave themselves with shame and the Serpent is silent and caught in his treason, God declares a curse upon all that he had made.  They will live.  But from that point on, thorns, thistles, pain, and sweat await them all “east” of Eden (Gen. 3:14-24).

The preacher does exalt God.  But what he exalts is that aspect of God’s character which did not relieve Adam, Eve, or the Serpent from sin’s consequences.  We see his brooding and frowning.  This is the God who governs us.  He did not stop the unhappy business of paradise lost.  We must linger here.

This part of God’s story tells us that God will not bring salvation by giving us escape and immunity from the now-cursed world.  Jesus too will highlight this lack of escape throughout his teaching.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” he assures us (John 16:33).

We will have to come to terms with this fact about God.  If there is no escape from what is under the sun, then rescue will have to come from somewhere else.  The time will come in which God will personally squint and sweat beneath the sun’s light and heat.  He will enter the gainless world, endure its vanity, and feel the pain of it.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus will one day say.  “The poor you will always have with you,” he will declare.  In that, he will sound just like Solomon in Ecclesiastes.  But then Jesus will go further than Solomon can.  Jesus will stand beneath the sun with us.  From there he will look us in the eye and declare what Solomon cannot.  “But take heart,” Jesus will say; “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 58)

So I want to encourage you to seek after true wisdom—from God and His revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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