Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
Good morning, and welcome back to Sunday school. Please find your seat, and we’ll get started. It’s been an eventful week at the Schaal house. And I knew some of you would like to see a picture of the new addition, so I added one to the slide show. So, here she is. This is Mollie Jordan Schaal. Or, as her mom is going to call her, “Mollie Jo.” It’s funny, about two weeks ago, Pastor Kit asked me if I would be interested in having Craig fill in for me last Sunday in case Elise had the baby. And it turns it was a good thing he did. Elise woke up with contractions last Saturday night and said that we ought to go the hospital. Now, we had had an episode the week before where she was having contractions, so we went down to Kaiser, but then the contractions stopped, and they ended up sending us home. So, this time, I asked her, “Are you sure?” I knew it was serious when she said, “Something’s coming out, and it isn’t going back in!” We got to the hospital, and she had the baby 37 minutes later. God is good, isn’t he? We’re so thankful for baby Mollie.
I could talk about Mollie all Sunday school long, but we better get back to Ecclesiastes, or we won’t finish in time. Turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 1:12-18. And let’s start out with a little review. Two weeks ago, we covered Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, which is a section known as the prologue. And we used three terms to guide us through that section. Who remembers what those terms were? (“vapor,” “net profit,” and “rat race”). Now, can you explain to me what those three terms have to do with Ecclesiastes 1? (“Vapor” is the literal definition of the word translated “vanity” in most English translations when Solomon says, “All is vanity” in v. 2. And we said that in the OT, vapor can symbolize that which is transient or fleeting or that which is futile, empty, or valueless, in the sense of not being able to make good on implicit promises. We also said that some commentators believe that in Ecclesiastes, vapor represents that which is enigmatic or mysterious. The second term we used was “net profit.” Remember, Solomon uses the Hebrew word for “net profit” in v. 3 when he asks, “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” referring to mankind’s innate desire to do more than just subsist. Finally, the third term we used was “rat race.” According to the poem in vv. 4-11, Solomon says that the whole world appears to be trapped in a cosmic rat race. There is endless activity, but nothing is ever really accomplished. This is true when it comes to nature and when it comes to human activity.)
So that’s where we left off last week. The questions have been stated but not answered. Solomon is drawing us in, enticing us to read more.
TRANSITION: And that brings us to our next passage, which is sort of an introduction to the part of the book describing Solomon’s quest for meaning in life (1:12-2:26). In today’s passage, Solomon sets aside his inductive approach and presents us with some tentative conclusions. I say “tentative” because Solomon certainly has much more to say. And yet, he skillfully brings forward a couple of the conclusions that he reaches as a result of his quest and states them at the outset, so that those conclusions are allowed to color the entire section. This is an important passage when it comes to understanding the message of the book, so make sure that you listen carefully. I’ve entitled this lesson, “Work + Wisdom = Striving for the Wind.” First, Solomon will show us that work = striving for the wind.
II. Work = striving for the wind (vv. 12-15).
Solomon launches into this brief autobiographical section by telling us that he the preacher, or the “assembler,” was also king over Israel in Jerusalem. And you might remember that some people take this verse to mean that whoever wrote this part of the book had been king but was king no longer. That however is a bad conclusion. The Hebrew word for “was” could also be translated “have been.” In other words, Solomon is saying that the story he is about to tell took place when he was the king; but he is not necessarily implying that he isn’t king any longer. Does that make sense?
So, what happened when Solomon was the king? Well, he devoted himself to a particular quest. The Hebrew literally says that he “gave his heart” to this pursuit. And what was that pursuit? He wanted “to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven.” That’s a complicated phrase, so let’s break it down. First, the words “search” and “seek out” can both be used to describe intellectual activity, so we get the impression that Solomon’s quest was not like that of Christopher Columbus or Alexander the Great. He was not seeking to conquer foreign lands. And he wasn’t really exploring, although the word for “seek out” literally means “explore.” Rather Solomon’s quest was intellectual in nature. He was trying to solve something, almost like the world’s most massive puzzle for the world’s most intellectually-gifted human being. Solomon wanted to study and explore in the realm of all of human activity in order to figure out what is good for men to do while on earth. You say, “Pastor Kris, where do you get that in this verse?” Well in order to see that Solomon was looking for the meaning of life, you have to jump ahead to 2:3 (2:3). In other words, this verse illuminates 1:13 and shows that what Solomon was trying to do was to answer the very question he posed in 1:3. Which was what? (What’s the net profit of life for human beings?) That was the question Solomon was trying to answer. That was the riddle he was trying to solve. And he gave his heart to this pursuit. In fact, he felt compelled to do so. He says at the end of v. 13, “This burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised.” So again, it is merely human nature to ask these sorts of questions. Like I said last week, we’re all looking for net profit in our own way. One Christian philosopher said, “All men seek happiness.” Solomon said, “All men seek profit.” That’s just what we do. We want to know that we’re doing something that is somehow eternally significant. So, mankind as a whole and not just Solomon searches for meaning in life. But we see in v. 13 that Solomon counts this to be a burdensome task. It’s a necessary, God-given task in the sense that God knows we will search for meaning in life and that he wants us to do so, but it’s also a grievous task, because all along the way, we are haunted by the phrase: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Does that make sense? I want to make sure I don’t lose anyone.
So that brings us to v. 14, in which we are introduced to a new and very important metaphor in the book of Ecclesiastes (v. 14). Now first, it is important to note the subject of Solomon’s consideration. What did Solomon see? (“all the works that are done under the sun”) What are these “works” to which Solomon is referring? Well, in the book of Ecclesiastes the word “works” is used in a couple of different ways. Sometimes it refers to human activity, and sometimes it refers to God’s activity. However, when the word “works” refers to God’s activity, it is almost always qualified by the phrase “works of God.” Also, the phrase is much more commonly used with reference to man’s activity. All of that to say that according to this verse and verse 13, Solomon’s consideration was limited to the realm of human activity—what people do. And he concludes based upon his observation that all of these works are “vanity and grasping for wind.” So here again we have that pesky word “vanity” or “vapor.” Remember two weeks ago, we didn’t say what vapor symbolizes. Instead, we said that we would let Solomon show us what he meant. And here take our first step toward that discovery, because in this verse, the word “vanity” is parallel to the phrase “grasping for the wind.” Now, the Hebrew word for “grasping” is a bit tricky to translate. It could refer to striving after, chasing, or even shepherding. But for the most part, it doesn’t matter how we translate that word; the idea is still the same. Solomon says that human effort is like chasing the wind. Now, what do you think that metaphor means?
I would say that there are two main points to the metaphor of chasing the wind, at least in this verse. First, like chasing the wind, human effort is futile. Not that nothing we do matters, but just that “net profit” is not to be found in human effort. It doesn’t matter what kind of effort we pour our lives into, Solomon says that no amount of human effort in and of itself can possibly result in the type of eternal impact all of us want to have. The answer to the “net profit” question is not to be found in a particular kind of work or a particular level of effort.
Second, because it is ultimately futile in terms of its ability to fill our deepest void, human effort is also frustrating. Try chasing the wind for half an hour and tell me you aren’t in a bad mood. It’s interesting that the word for “grasping” can also be translated “shepherding.” You’ve heard of the axiom about herding cats, right? Try herding the wind, and see where that gets you! You can only end up frustrated. And that is exactly what happens to all of the men in the world who live for work. They think that someday, somehow, they are going to break out into the wild blue yonder and that their whole life is going to be worthwhile because they worked so hard. I’ve got news for you: it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, that will never be the case! But also remember that this isn’t just about occupations. It’s about every kind of activity that people invest with effort. And Solomon says that it’s all vanity, like chasing the wind.
Well, that raises the obvious question, “Why?” and Solomon answers with one of his famous proverbs (v. 15). If taken in isolation, this could be a very depressing verse! Solomon says first of all that what is crooked cannot be straightened. In other words, there are problems in this world that we will never fix. Now, Solomon is not saying that we can’t fix anything. Husbands, this is not your Bible excuse for ignoring your honey-do list. Instead, what Solomon is saying is that the main categories of problems that humanity faces we can never eradicate by our own effort. The phrase “the war to end all wars” is a joke now. The war to end all wars is the war that will take place right before Satan is cast into the lake of fire. Until then, humanity will never eradicate war. Bill Gates has donated more than $30 billion of his own money to help fight famine, which is great. But unfortunately, after he dies, there will still be famine in the world. And the same logic also applies to the less significant problems that we face on a daily basis. Men and women will always struggle with communication. Marriage will always be difficult. Kids will always tend to disobey their parents. Government will always be inefficient. It doesn’t matter the collective effort that we put into fixing these kinds of problems, we won’t ever be successful at eradicating them. It is what it is. And that’s really Solomon’s point: it is what it is. You can work on these things and achieve some degree of success for a time, but the problems will just crop up again at other times and in other places. And of course, we know that this is because of the presence of sin in the world. Until sin is conclusively dealt with, these problems will continue to persist, and we cannot deal with sin on our own. That’s why no amount of human effort can ever be the ultimate answer to life’s problems.
The last half of v. 15 says, “that which is lacking cannot be numbered.” When I was in high school, there was a group of us guys who loved board games. One of the guys in our group was named Josh Johnson. Josh would often get new games and invite us over to place them. And since he was a bit of a nerd, he would read the entire rule book prior to the game so that we wouldn’t have to, which was nice. Then, he would just give us the cliff notes version. But what seemed to inevitably happen was that Josh would forget to mention some little rule until that rule worked out to his own advantage. And then we’d say, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And he’d proceed to cite the page from the rule book where that rule was found. It was very frustrating! You see, the bane of the strategist is missing information. I can’t plan properly if I don’t know all the facts. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? You never know all the facts. And so sometimes, you end up wasting time or effort because you simply didn’t have all the information. Yet another reason why human effort cannot be the solution to the meaning of life. Human effort is often wasted due to insufficient information. You can’t account for what isn’t there. Does the idea that work = striving for wind make sense? Do you have any questions about that?
TRANSITION: So, all of that has to do with point #1: “work = striving for the wind.” Are there any questions or comments on that? Now on to point #2: “wisdom = striving for the wind.”
III. Wisdom = striving for the wind” (vv. 16-18).
In v. 16, we learn what we already knew about Solomon: namely, that he was incredibly wise. In fact, he states quite bluntly that he was wiser than all who came before him in Jerusalem. Wiser than his father David and all of his counselors. Wiser than any of the Canaanite kings who controlled that city. Wiser even than Melchizedek, who is a type of Christ. Now, at this point, we ought to stop and point out that not all wisdom is the same. The book of Proverbs famously says that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” However, the OT often refers to a form of secular wisdom that is nothing more than intellectual ability or shrewdness. In fact, when Solomon asks God for wisdom in 1 Kings 3, it appears that what he is primarily is the ability to make distinctions, to cut to the heart of a make good judgments. Solomon was well aware of the fact that there was no balance of powers in Israel and that as Israel’s king, he would also function as its supreme court. He needed the intellectual keenness that it takes to be a good judge. That is not to say that it was by any means wrong for Solomon to request this of God. It was, on the other hand, a very good request that spoke to Solomon’s humility and desire to rule well on behalf of the people. However, we shouldn’t assume that because Solomon says he was the wisest man ever to live in Jerusalem, he was also the godliest man ever to live there. The story of Solomon’s life bears witness that that was not the case. However, what Solomon’s life does show is that he was an incredible judge, that he had a remarkable understanding of human nature, that he was a skilled administrator who was able to head up building projects that resulted ultimately in one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, that he was a skilled diplomat, that he was economically-savvy, that he had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all types of subjects, including science, and that he was an unusually-gifted communicator who had a way of saying profound things using only a few words and of making those thoughts stick in your head. If all of those qualities resided in one person today, he would be celebrated as a legend, especially if he happened to also be the leader of some powerful world nation.
But Solomon didn’t just rest on the proverbial laurels of his own intellectual ability. He worked hard to gain more wisdom. In v. 17, Solomon says that he devoted Himself to understanding wisdom as well as folly. He conducted a study in contrasts. He wanted to gain insights into both the life of wisdom and the life of foolishness. And his insights were obviously true and important. After all, many of them are recorded in the Bible in the book of Proverbs. However, when it was all said and done, Solomon concludes that like human effort, his own intellectual pursuits were also striving after wind. Work cannot provide the solution to the problem of “net value,” and now neither can scholarship. The chief end of man is not to learn a lot of stuff. Now, you say, “Pastor Kris, is Solomon saying that wisdom is bad?” No, obviously not! After all, this entire book is dedicated to imparting wisdom to its readers. And we are going to see that later on, Solomon praises wisdom for its benefits. Not to mention, as we’ve already said, that he wrote Proverbs! So, Solomon is not saying that wisdom is bad or that we should not pursue it. Instead, he’s saying that if we search for net profit in intellectual pursuits, will feel like we’re chasing the wind.
Once again, the question is, “Why?” And once again, Solomon responds with one of his proverbs (v. 18). Recently, I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. In that book, Lowry depicts a world in which society has delegated wisdom. People learn about the practical things they’re supposed to do each day, but they’ve discarded scholarship and in particular the study of history as a pursuit. And fascinatingly, the reason they have chosen to do so is that they know that along with great knowledge comes great pain, because the world is plagued with so many evils. And so they create their own little utopia where everyone can live like children and nobody has to really face up to the harsh realities of the world. You see, even though Lois Lowry knows that what Solomon says is true: to add knowledge is to add pain. And that is because you can’t study much of anything without being slapped in the face with the reality of the brokenness of this world. That’s why we have the phrase, “innocence is bliss.” You watch the news because you want to keep up with current events, but you don’t really want to watch the news because of all the bad news! And so it goes. The more and more you become initiated into the realities of this world, the sadder and sadder you get. The more you learn, the more you wish you could “unsee.” Again, Solomon is not saying that we shouldn’t pursue knowledge. In fact, he would encourage us to do so. He’s merely pointing out that intellectual pursuits are not all they’re cracked up to be because in the midst of adding knowledge, you also add sorrow. All of that means that the answer to the net profit question is not the pursuit of knowledge. Does the idea that knowledge = striving for the wind make sense? Are there any questions or comments about that?
As I conducted my study this week, I found that it left me hungry for the grace. When you think about the futility of human work and wisdom, it makes you long for what God has done. It makes you long for an actual solution to the problem of sin. And it makes you long for a day when all of this suffering will be removed. All of that is found in the gospel. I’ve heard it said that the best things in life are the things that God does. And that’s true. This world is so broken that only God can fix it. And one day, He will. Meanwhile, He’s redeeming men and women to be a part of His perfect world, and we get to be included in that. Praise the Lord! But it’s not because of our own work or wisdom. It’s all because of His grace. And it’s only His grace that makes our work and efforts to obtain wisdom significant.