3. The Vanity of Wisdom
What was the problem that was presented last week?
Life is hebel. It is brief, absurd and meaningless.
Consider Juicy Fruit – A gum with a phenomenal taste that only last for a few seconds. The satisfaction found is quickly gone.
How was that problem magnified in verses 3-11?
Creation reflects the futility of life in its continued cycles and in the fact that it remains unmoved over time.
Man not only realizes that life is futile but as well is unable to answer the problem, find anything to satisfy the problem, learn anything to fix the problem or come up with any new ideas to solve the problem.
Man is left with a complete inability to find purpose and satisfaction.
Solomon desired to search out an answer to this problem and as we leave the first 11 verses of chapter 1, we follow the beginning of his lifelong search.
Solomonic Authorship Revisited
NET Ecc 1:12 I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
NIV Ecc 1:12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
KJV Ecc 1:12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Once again we see the establishment of Solomon as author/teacher.1 The first 11 verses of chapter one are written in the third person, and now the person changes to the first. Solomon no longer is looking at the ‘purpose driven life’ as an onlooker but as the active participant. He is the one that, as we will see, is personally looking in all these areas for satisfaction.
1:13 I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied.
Prior to jumping into Solomon’s reflections of his pursuit for happiness and fulfillment in wisdom, let us remember the very familiar story of God’s gifting to Solomon wisdom.
I Kings 3:5-12
3:5 One night in Gibeon the
I Kings 4:29-34
4:29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment; the breadth of his understanding was as infinite as the sand on the seashore. 4:30 Solomon was wiser than all the men of the east and all the sages of Egypt. 4:31 He was wiser than any man, including Ethan the Ezrahite or Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol. He was famous in all the neighboring nations. 4:32 He composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. 4:33 He produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. He also produced manuals on biology, describing animals, birds, insects, and fish. 4:34 People from all nations came to hear Solomon’s display of wisdom; they came from all the kings of the earth who heard about his wisdom.
Solomon desired to study, wisely, everything under the sun. Once again we see the problem in Solomon’s approach. His search is only for those things ‘under the sun.’ This Hebrew word (darash) means to “seek with care, inquire, require.” This word is used a number of times throughout the OT and many of those times speak of how man is to seek after God.
Deu 4:29 But if you seek the LORD your God from there, you will find him, if, indeed, you seek him with all your heart and soul.
Psa 9:10 Your loyal followers trust in you, for you, LORD, do not abandon those who seek your help.
Psa 34:4 I sought the LORD's help and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.
These passages are in contrast to that which Solomon was seeking after. His diligent study for fulfillment was only in those things that were ‘under the sun.’
Solomon established that his conclusions will be the correct conclusions for all time. He has already stated (1:9-10) that there is nothing new under the sun. If there is nothing new under the sun and Solomon studied everything under the sun, there is nothing beyond the scope of Solomon’s study. Therefore his conclusions are valid for all time, and this leaves modern man with the inability to find something new with which to be satisfied.
Solomon Concludes that Wisdom is Vanity
Ecc 1:13-14 1:13b . . . God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. 1:14 I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!
A burdensome task
The statement that a search for knowledge is a grievous task flies into the face of both ancient and modern philosophical thought. Plato thought that the task of a philosopher was the highest of callings. We can see throughout time that man has held in high esteem intellectual pursuits.2
5th century BC
Socrates seems to have often said that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path that a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it.
4th - 3rd century BC
Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear as well as absence of bodily pain through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires.
12th - 16th century
Scholasticim originally began to reconcile the
philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. It is not a philosophy or theology in itself, but a tool and method for learning which puts emphasis on dialectical reasoning.
Age of Reason
Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the
human condition and its relation to the world around us. Existentialism can be seen as a philosophical movement that rejects the belief that life has an inherent
meaning, but instead requires each individual to posit his or her own subjective values.
Rationalism proposes that all knowledge can be gained by the power of our reason alone (took the model of mathematics).
Empiricism claims that all knowledge has to come through the senses, from experience (took the model of physical science).
18th - 19th century
The Enlightenment advocated
Reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of
logic, to allow philosophers to obtain objective truth about the universe.
19th - 20th century
Modernism begins with the finite “I” It does not assume God. At best God is allowed to be the conclusion of the argument. Modernism began with convincing and appropriate foundations and added to that were carefully controlled methods. The product of this was generated truth and this truth was universal truth.
20th - 21st century
Postmodernism as well begins with the finite ‘I’, but each ‘I’ is different than every other ‘I’. This thought would posit that there are no secure foundations. Foundations are only ‘self evident’ within the given culture. Those foundations were the products of finite beings and are therefore finite in themselves. Therefore objective knowledge is unattainable. All truth claims are only true for some people.
As we view this very brief, shallow and potentially inaccurate history of philosophical thought, the point remains unhindered. Man has for all times desired to establish, through study and the intellect, an approach to life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Very few of those studies seriously take into consideration God. They are nearly exact replicas of Solomon’s futile search.
This grievous task is given by God
What does it mean that this task was given by God? There seem to be a few acceptable implications in the statement that this task was given by God. (1) The statement seems to imply God’s sovereignty over His creation. (2) As well, God has given His creation a desire to be fulfilled. The task given to man is not to find wisdom but to find fulfillment. Solomon in this case tried to find fulfillment through wisdom.
God has given us a task that can only be accomplished in Him. We acknowledge this task in the very fact that we are constantly searching for purpose and fulfillment. God desires that we come to the end of ourselves and realize that for true satisfaction to be found, that it can only be found in Him.
“Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, The First Book, Pg. 1)
This grievous task afflicts men
The idea that this task afflicts men follows close on the heels to the fact that all men have this desire to find fulfillment, and that no man can find it in himself.
Chasing the Wind
Solomon attempted to achieve this grievous task that is given by God to man. He, through wisdom, searched everything under the sun. His conclusion after having done this search is that the search itself was like striving after the wind. One would obviously conclude that no one can catch the wind. In this context it wouldn’t matter if they did; if they were to catch it, they would find they still have nothing.
A Proverb quoted in support
Ecc 1:15 What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied. (cf. 7:13-14).
We find that verse 15 is the end of this first reflection of Solomon. He offers a proverb (we do not know if it is his own, or quoted from another source) to support what he had come to conclude.
“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.”3
The passage in chapter 7 seems to indicate that God is the one who bends/twist life and thought. Who is man that they might straighten that which God bent?
Ecc 7:13-14 7:13 Consider the work of God: For who can make straight what he has bent? 7:14 In times of prosperity be joyful, but in times of adversity consider this: God has made one as well as the other, so that no one can discover what the future holds.
Ecc 1:16 I thought to myself, “I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem; I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
With a bold claim of having more wisdom than all in Jerusalem prior to himself, he establishes that if he could not find wisdom, no one can.
Statement of the vanity of pursuing wisdom
Ecc 1:17 So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas; however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind!
There is a shift of subject in verse 17. It appears that Solomon is still searching for fulfillment and doing so through the medium of wisdom, but the subject of his search is now foolishness/the pursuit of pleasure. This search is nearly identical to that of Epicurean thought.
Imagine a train yard. The goal destination is the land of fulfillment. Solomon decides to take the engine of wisdom on the track of philosophy to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. This trip failed miserably (vs. 13-15). He now decides to take that same engine of wisdom, but now chooses the track of pleasure to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. We will see that this trip as well ended in utter failure.
This Epicurean attempt as well is characterized by ‘chasing the wind.’ Either he caught the wind and found nothing or never caught the wind.
A Proverb quoted in support
Ecc 1:18 For with great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache.
This proverb is very similar to verse 13b. As man searches for fulfillment outside of God, human wisdom and knowledge only result in pain and grief.
Our modern day equivalent (in the form of a contrasting statement) to such a proverb would be, “Ignorance is bliss.”
It is important that we understand that Solomon is not espousing that all of the areas in which he searched were pointless, but that without God they were unfulfilling. It is not true that wisdom and even pleasure carry no worth, but a complete focus on them for satisfaction will be fruitless and vain.
It seems apparent that God wants man to come to the end of himself. Often man only comes to find God when he has come to the end of his own ability. Man has the opportunity to go directly to God, but often chooses every other path to satisfaction.
How have you been searching after knowledge separate from God?
- This search could be as bold as an attempt to find fulfillment in the studies of philosophy.
- This search could be as subtle as trying to answer all the questions left unanswered in divine revelation. (i.e. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility)
- This search might look like a sincere study of scripture without a study of the God of scripture. Do you desire to know scripture academically or do you desire to know God personally?
- How often do you meditate on the person of God? How often do you meditate on the things of the world? Do you think they will bring you more satisfaction? Remember that the answer is in your actions.
As we come to the conclusion of this passage, let me ask you a question that has been disturbing me since the beginning of this study . . .
What if God doesn’t satisfy?
Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as a look back on his feeble attempts to be satisfied apart from God. In reverse fashion there are many people who would admit that they first attempted to find satisfaction with God and didn’t, so they sought other places. What was the problem?
- Does God in His sovereignty not allow some to be satisfied in Him?
- Are those people not truly searching for God, but using God as a rouge to find contentment?
- Are those people wanting acceptance and they use religion to receive it?
We often may throw out clichés such as, “Well, you just didn’t do it right” or “You didn’t go to church enough” or “You didn’t read your bible enough” or “God would have satisfied if you had done it right”
I would imagine that most of you have determined to only find satisfaction in God. Do you ever feel unsatisfied? Why?
We will consider this question more as we continue our study in Ecclesiastes.
1 The NET Bible translates this verse better while carrying the intended meaning. Even those who deny Solomonic authorship acknowledge that the verb is in the perfect and ought to carry the meaning of that which is seen in the NET Bible. It is at this point for the many commentators who deny Solomonic authorship to point out that the time in this verse is past. Many translations translate this verse “I . . . was king over Israel” They imply from this that the author at this point is no longer king over Israel. They take the step that the author never was king over Israel and the author is only acting as Solomon, who at their dating of the book had been in years past, king over Israel.
2 All of the above definitions with the exceptions of modernism and postmodernism are taken from Wikipedia. The definitions of modernism and postmodernism are taken from D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church.
3 Garrett, NAC, 290