Chasing the Wind (Ecclesiastes 1:12–18)

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Stuart Chase - 4 Oct 2020

Chasing the Wind (Ecclesiastes 1:12–18)

As Solomon answers the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3), he presents a litany of considerations to highlight the futility of life “under the sun.” We previously considered three of his arguments: the inevitability of death (vv. 4–8); the impossibility of satisfaction (v. 8); and the instability of novelty (vv. 9–11). In this study, we will consider two more: the insufficiency of education (vv. 12–15) and the illusion of enjoyment (vv. 16–18).

Scripture References: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

From Series: "Ecclesiastes Exposition"

A devotional exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes by various contributors.

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Forty-two is the natural number that follows 41 and precedes 43. It is my age as I write these words. It is the name of at least five songs by different artists and the name of a biopic about American baseballer Jackie Robinson. It is also the Answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought is a powerful supercomputer created to calculate the answer to life’s ultimate question. The computer takes 7.5 million years to run the calculations before proudly spitting out its simple, unambiguous answer: 42. When someone angrily asks if that is all the computer has to show for 7.5 million years’ work, Deep Thought responds, “I checked it very thoroughly 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.”

Deep Thought admits its inability to calculate the question but offers to help create an even more powerful computer than can do so. It will take that computer ten million years to calculate the question. The more powerful computer, as it turns out, is the planet earth. Its pan-dimensional creators assume the form of white lab mice to observe its running but, five minutes short of ten million years, an alien race known as the Vogons destroy the earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

Adams’s story is ridiculous but the interaction between Deep Thought and the bystanders waiting for the answer highlights a significant truth: If you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answers. Or, if you do, the answers will make no sense to you.

As we have seen, Ecclesiastes is a memoir of Solomon’s attempt to find meaning “under the sun.” Solomon begins, like Deep Thought, with his answer: Everything is vanity (v. 2). Life under the sun is empty, futile, meaningless. Unlike Deep Thought, Solomon knows this because he knows the question to ask: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (v. 3). He knows both the question and the answer.

To show that, like Deep Thought, he has checked very thoroughly and that quite definitely is the answer, he presents a number of arguments. He comes back to these over and over in Ecclesiastes, considering them from different perspectives and in differing degrees of depth. We considered three of his arguments for futility under the sun last study: the inevitability of death (vv. 4–8); the impossibility of satisfaction (v. 8); and the instability of novelty (vv. 9–11). In this study, we will consider two more: the insufficiency of education (vv. 12–15) and the illusion of enjoyment (vv. 16–18).

The Insufficiency of Education

Solomon shows, first of all, the insufficiency of wisdom to produce meaning and satisfaction.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 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. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

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

(Ecclesiastes 1:12–15)

Before we dig into these verses, it is important once again to notice that Solomon is arguing for life under the sun—or, as he calls it here “wisdom … under heaven.” We are again dealing with a life lived without submission to God. He knows that the fear of God is the beginning of true wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), but the wisdom he speaks of here is not godly wisdom attained through fear of the Lord but earthly wisdom attained through educational pursuit.

We live in a world that idolises education—that suggests that education is the solution to every societal ill. We are promised that, if we just educate people sufficiently, humanity’s problems will dissipate. There is nothing new under the sun. Solomon tried that centuries ago and found that it, too, is vanity. Others have come to realise the same.

Daniel Tammet is an English writer who, in March 2004, broke the European record for reciting pi from memory. Early in life, Tammet was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which gives him heightened ability in tasks like learning languages and memorising numbers. He became fluent in Icelandic after studying it for a week. On 14 March 2004, Tammet recited, without error, 22,514 digits of pi. It took him five hours and nine minutes. He’s an intelligent man.

In his memoir, he recalls lying on his bedroom floor as a teenager, staring at the ceiling, trying to picture the universe in his head so that he might arrive at a concrete understanding of “everything.” He writes, “In that instant I felt really unwell and I could feel my heart beating inside me, because for the first time I had realized that thought and logic had limits and could only take a person so far. This realization frightened me and it took me a long time to come to terms with.”

Solomon realised long before Daniel Tammet—and long before any of us—that human wisdom and knowledge have limits. Education, in and of itself, is simply insufficient to provide meaning and satisfaction in life under the sun.

For the first time in the book, Solomon speaks in the first person. As the wisest man who ever lived, he relates his experiences so that his readers will not have to learn by their own experience. He “applied [his] heart to see and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (v. 12). That is, he applied his mind fully to every human discipline to see if it would make a difference to the seeming futility of life.

We sometimes draw a distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and it is often proper to do so, but we must remember that Solomon was blessed with both. He had wisdom to decide difficult disputes (1 Kings 3:16–28) and encyclopaedic knowledge “of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (1 Kings 4:33). When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she brought her toughest trivia questions but “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her” (1 Kings 10:3).

If formal degrees were as valued in 1000 B.C. as they are today, Solomon would have had them all. And yet notice his conclusion: “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of men to be busy with” (v. 13). The CSB translates, “God has given to people this miserable task to keep them occupied.” The relentless pursuit of knowledge is a bottomless pit that keeps us searching for more.

This may sound dreary—and, if it does, Solomon has achieved his goal!—but it is a reality that resonates with many. The late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking declared of humanity: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys in a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe.” In other words, the quest for knowledge is what gives us meaning. In a three part television documentary titled Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life, atheist Richard Dawkins was asked, why does an atheist bother to get up in the morning? Noting that the answer will vary from person to person, he said that, for him, the awe and wonder of scientific enquiry keeps him going. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with knowledge and understanding and scientific enquiry. God has given us inquisitive minds that are fed by such enquiry. But we must realise, says Solomon, the insufficiency of such enquiry to lead us to meaning. All of this, he says, “is vanity and a striving after the wind” (v. 14). Trying to find meaning in scientific enquiry or any other form of education is like trying to grab a hold of the wind. It just won’t work.

To explain why it won’t work, Solomon provides a proverb: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (v. 15). There are two inherent problems with mere knowledge—with the relentless pursuit of education.

First, education cannot fix all of life’s problems. “What is crooked cannot be made straight.” There is always some aspect of life that seems out of shape: relational conflict; injustice; government corruption or incompetence; financial instability; physical disability and death; sinful inclinations; etc. Human knowledge cannot ultimately correct these out-of-shape realities. You can educate yourself silly; you cannot solve all your problems.

Second, education can never exhaust itself. “What is lacking cannot be counted.” No matter how much knowledge you have, there is always more you don’t have. No matter how many degrees you have, you will never know all there is to know. If education is the key to meaning, you will never find ultimate meaning, because ultimate knowledge will always escape you. You can pursue education to your heart’s content, but you will always be ignorant of something. And, worse, you will never know what you’re ignorant of. You never know what you don’t know.

In essence, here is Solomon’s point in this section: We know that life is not as it should be. As O’Donnell says, “When we witness life ‘under the sun’ scarred by suffering, overflowing with oppression, infected with injustice, crawling with crime, traumatized by terrorists, polluted with impurity, we know that this is not just the way things are.” We know that something has gone wrong. But while wisdom, knowledge, and education can highlight the problems, they cannot fix the problems.

The Illusion of Enjoyment

Second, Solomon highlights the illusion of enjoyment.

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.” 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.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

(Ecclesiastes 1:16–18)

Solomon again reiterates his surpassing wisdom. Since he mentions “all who were over Jerusalem before me,” and since only David was king in Jerusalem before him, he appears to be comparing his wisdom to even the pagans who ruled Jerusalem before it was conquered by Israel. Jerusalem had had leaders over it for centuries, at least as far back as the time of Abraham, when Melchizedek was the king-priest of Salem (Genesis 14:17–20).

Since he had tried and failed to find meaning in education, he turned his pursuits elsewhere. Now, he used his surpassing knowledge to pursue “madness and folly” (v. 17). These terms do not speak of stupidity but are used consistently in Ecclesiastes to speak of immorality and godless behaviour.

Solomon’s point, in other words, is that, having failed to find the meaning of life in education, he decided to use his knowledge to pursue immoral pleasure. If meaning could not be found in education, perhaps it could be found in enjoyment. But debauched revelry failed to produce meaning and satisfaction. It also was “striving after wind” (v. 17).

Today, people pursue their own pleasures, convinced that that is where they will find meaning. When Richard Dawkins asked atheist comedian Ricky Gervais about the meaning of life, Gervais replied that meaning is found in loving what you do and centring your life around meaningful relationships. As long as you enjoy life, it is meaningful. Solomon tried that and found that it did not work. This also was “striving after wind” (v. 17).

Here is Solomon’s conclusion: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (v. 18). Using his God-given gift of “wisdom” in pursuit of “madness and folly”—in pursuit of worldly and godless pleasures—did not help Solomon. On the contrary, he found that it produced only anger (“vexation”) and sorrow. Pursuing the pleasures offered by the world will never bring the meaning that the human soul longs for.

Contrary to what Ricky Gervais says, true meaning does not come from enjoyment. He seems to enjoy life, but the longer he tries it the more empty he will find it. Pursuit of enjoyment is chasing the wind.

The Sufficiency of Christ

Throughout this book, Solomon’s goal is to get you to feel the weight of meaninglessness. He wants his readers to know that life is hopeless under the sun. Those who live under the sun are without hope because they are without God in this world. But his goal is to make you feel the weight of meaninglessness so that you will know where to look for meaning. He wants to destroy earthly wisdom so that we begin to pursue heavenly wisdom.

Solomon, of course, is following God in this way. God said to Isaiah, “I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden” (Isaiah 29:14). The New Testament reveals how God did this: in the cross of Christ.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

(1 Corinthians 1:18–19)

The cross of Christ lays waste human wisdom and shows us where to find true meaning. The cross of Christ reminds us that education is not life’s ultimate pursuit, for

not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

(1 Corinthians 1:26–29)

Godly wisdom further understands that not everything that is broken under the sun needs to be fixed. Like Christ, it sometimes entrusts itself to the one who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:21–24), trusting that, ultimately, on that final day of judgement, he will right all wrongs and reveal that, indeed, everything has worked together for the ultimate good of those who love God and keep his commandments (Romans 8:28).

So quit chasing the wind. Instead, pursue Christ, and find in him everything you need for meaning and lasting satisfaction in this life and the life to come.

AMEN