Toward a Solution From Beyond the Heavens (Ecclesiastes 1:12–18)


I studied philosophy in college. Whenever people asked me why I had chosen that discipline as my major field of study, I replied with three words: “To think clearly.” Thinking clearly, it seemed to me, was an obviously good activity. After all, what was the alternative? Muddy thinking? Fuzzy logic? Of course not! But thinking clearly was not an end in itself; rather, it was a means to another end, namely, living well. Philosophy, you see, is literally “the love of wisdom,” and wisdom is a practical science, a morally serious thoughtfulness that guides a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Now, I think that my love of Ecclesiastes and my love of philosophy developed simultaneously. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes clearly examined his life quite carefully. He said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (1:13); and, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun” (1:14); and, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who over Jerusalem before me” (1:16); and, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (1:17).[1] The Preacher, in other words, is a very serious thinker.

His thoughts, however, are disappointing, even depressing. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (1:13) he concluded; “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14). Why? The Preacher offered two reasons: (1) The difficulty of change: “What is crooked cannot be made straight” (1:15); and (2) the tragedy of knowledge: “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18). Greek philosophers such as Socrates typically believed that the basic problem facing humankind was ignorance. If people knew more, they would live better. The Preacher’s conclusion—and the Bible’s as a whole—is the exact opposite: Greater knowledge does not necessarily produce more change.

In biblical perspective, the basic problem with humankind is not ignorance, you see, but disobedience to God’s commandments. Because we choose to live our lives outside of God’s will, God burdens us with a lifetime of hebel—vanity, futility, “Poof!” This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. The Preacher said, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (1:13) The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it,” namely, God. But why would God do such a thing? Paul wrote, “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8.20, 21). In other words, God burdens us with futility in this life so that we will turn to him in repentance. The Preacher’s wisdom discovers only futility; God’s Wisdom brings salvation (1 Corinthians 1.18­–25).

Why, then, should we pay attention to the Preacher? Why read him when we could simply read Paul and get the solution to life’s problem? For the simple reason that more than anyone else, the Preacher shows us the problem for which Jesus Christ alone is the solution. Under the sun, all is vanity and a striving after wind. If there is a solution to man’s problem, it must come from beyond the heavens.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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