Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 “The Vanity of Wisdom”
Intro: “I, the Preacher” (v.12) big shift
This week Rick started us off in the book of Ecclesiastes by introducing us to Qohelet, the Preacher and King whose words make up this book and we were told he has one thing that he says over and over again. Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity! He asks the question, “What does man gain by all the toil that which he toils under the sun?” And we’re told the rest of the book are his words to that. Today we actually get to see that. The narrator now hands the mic directly to the Preacher himself, and we get to hear directly from him. This is an important shift in the book as this next part will set the tone for the rest of the book. It all begins with the first verse in this passage, verse 12.
Look with me at v.12, he says, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.” The word here can also stand for “teacher” or “convener/gatherer.” One who gathers the people or his subjects to teach them wisdom and that’s what Qohelet here does in introducing himself. He’s not just any teacher, but he is also the King, the King over Israel in Jerusalem. And not just the King but that he has been King over Israel, meaning here is not a young rookie king that’s barely seen much of life, but perhaps a well-seasoned and grizzled king who has seen and done it all.
Here’s a man, be it Solomon or a Solomon-like character, of great power, fame, wealth, and wisdom, and if this is in Solomon’s time, it was during Israel’s Golden Age where the nation led by Solomon, the North and South kingdoms were united, the Temple of God that his father David wanted to build was finally built. They are unrivaled at this time with Solomon at the helm, who was said to be gifted with greater wisdom than any man before him. I could go on and on but this is important because the force of this man’s argument for much of this book falls not upon some bright professor’s theory or abstract conjectures on what life is supposed to be, but upon the strength of this particular man’s personal experience. The ethos as this Preacher-King figure of Israel who has seen and done it all. It’s actually going to be quite personal.
Illustration: And we tend to gravitate towards that don’t we? There’s just a sense of gravitas that we like sometimes when it’s coming from one’s own life. It’s why we bother tuning in to hear a famous person say the same thing over and over again. It’s why the sports reporters jabs a mic in the face of the MVP of the Super Bowl and asks him…with all the confetti coming down…”So what’s it like? What’s it like to win the Super Bowl?!” What’s he going to say? You’ve heard it so many times now! “It’s amazing! Oh, it’s the best day of my life! I’ve spent all of my life working for this moment!” Nothing new or profound that you haven’t heard numerous times before, but you still want to see the joy on his face and hear him say it. Why?! Because we’re never going to be in his shoes, but we want to, and so we want to hear this man express his thoughts in throwing the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, we want to live through seeing his experience.
So we have here, a King/Preacher who’s going to give you the inside scoop, his findings, of his quest for significance of life under the sun, of feats we may never come close to in our lifetimes.
So to start that Qohelet talks about two things here which he treats in two sections, and each section ending with a proverb-like statement. First, from v. 13-15, he will talk about all that he had seen under the sun and then in v.16-18, he will talk about what he learned from his quest for wisdom and to know the difference between that and folly. Each time, we will see that his quest to figure out life will end in utter failure and disappointment. We will see that 1) he finds that there are many things you cannot change in this world no matter what power or wisdom you have… and 2) having all this wisdom and knowledge actually gives you more sorrow, grief, and frustration with life.
All That is Done Under Heaven (v.13-15):
So the Preacher then says, “I applied my heart to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” So here we have him setting out on his quest, here’s this great and powerful man, and he’s now focused his heart and energies and achieving something and what does he seek to do? “To seek and search by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” He says, I want to see it all! Everything that is done under the heavens so that maybe I would find something worthwhile on this earth that can satisfy our reason for living. If there was anything worthwhile, great accomplishments and feats to see you can be sure this man was going to see it. Or maybe he’s talking about things to do, to be done, after all, he is running a nation, and he needs to know how to lead his country in the best and most efficient ways. So he is seeking and searching out, sending his people out far and wide to find the best practices to how to rule and govern a people and nation. And what does he find?
“It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”
He finds out that with all there is to see and do in life… That life is hard. He depressingly calls it “an unhappy business” that God has given us to be busy with. He doesn’t give us the details, but it doesn’t take much imagination if you’ve spent any time in this world and have access to the daily and international news, have some conversations with people in your family or the folk next door to know that life can be unbearable hard, and can kick you even when you’re down.
Ok so, he set out to do this and do it with wisdom, see all that is done under heaven to maybe find some answers. And then he concludes…”I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.”
“I have seen it all! I have been to the mountaintop of what there is to see and do in this life! And guess what…it ain’t all that. It really isn’t all that. It’s all vanity! It’s as dumb and fruitless as chasing after the wind! My quest was an absolute failure. I have stretched the limits of this life to as far as it can go hoping for some precious nugget hoping for some meaning and I have found none. “But what do you mean?” You might ask. You did so much! Doesn’t it count for something that you wisely surveyed and experienced all that life has to offer? No, he says and then offers you this proverb why. “Because what is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
I have found that no matter what I do, how much experience I have, how much wisdom I have, how much power I have. There are fundamentally things about this life and this world that I can never change. What is crooked cannot be made straight. Do you hear that? With the backdrop of a national presidential election on our minds, do you hear what this wise man and king is saying? That there are crooked things in this world. Things we wish so much to change and oh that we just had enough wisdom, enough power, if we just had the right person for the job! The Preacher says, I cannot change it and you cannot either. There are realities in this life even with all my wisdom as the King of Israel, that I cannot change.
“And what is lacking can’t even be counted.” You think that all would be well in this country and in your own life if just maybe these few things got changed? This here says you don’t even know the half of it! You’ve got it all wrong.
Illustration: It’s like coming onto a crime scene that had big bomb blast that completely rearranged the city square and trying to figure out where to even begin your investigation. So uh what happened? What’s different about this place? What’s missing? You don’t even have the right questions to ask.
Wisdom and Folly (v.16-18)
Illustration: OK well maybe you’re still skeptical here, and you think this guy is just pessimistic, maybe like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, you know that gray depressed donkey that always a downer, always gloomy and pessimistic, nothing positive to say and eats thistles for lunch. That’s how I sometimes think of Qohelet, “Everything’s meaningless!” You just want slap him on the back and say “hey cheer up, it isn’t all that bad, is it?”
So Qohelet continues his quest in the second section here, this time with a pursuit to know wisdom and to know its opposite, what he calls “madness and folly.” A lot of times, its best to just know the real thing real well, the genuine article. But here it seems that Qohelet wanted comprehensive wisdom, to know wisdom and it’s opposite: madness and folly.
So we find Qohelet speaking to himself (v.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.” This now paints him to a corner that if anyone would know the glories of wisdom and knowledge, to experience it all, it would surely be this man right? And then he sets out to achieve his mission, “to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.”
Wisdom: Wisdom is used often in this passage, I count 5 times, not to mention all the related words to it like “to know” or “to perceive.” I believe this is not the kind of wisdom being spoken of as in Proverbs which tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of such wisdom, rather he’s accumulating for himself human wisdom, wisdom of this world, of life under the sun (using the language of Ecclesiastes).
OT scholar Derek Kidner says of this, “He says nothing of its first principle, the fear of the Lord, and we can assume that the wisdom he speak of is (as his method demands) the best thinking that man can do on his own.” And really that’s not bad, if you’re going to be a man with the entire weight of a nation on your shoulders, you need a whole lot of wisdom, or you better gather for yourself lots of subjects have a ton of wisdom and knowledge. But alas what does Qohelet find? He says, “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.” He said it before in v.14 after seeing everything that is done under the sun and now he says again, this also, this pursuit of wisdom and folly, it is but a striving after wind. It’s meaningless. It’s empty. And he explains in another proverb: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
The more wisdom I got, the more frustrated I became and anxious. And upon the man with more knowledge, became more sorrow. He thought it would bring him some gain, but all it brought him was emptiness and sorrow. Sometimes the more you know, the more it hurts. The more grief and sorrow it brings. And so with that Qohelet makes another depressing close to this quest by saying, it is all the same, vanities of vanities, trying to find ultimate meaning in life through knowing and gaining wisdom is but a striving after the wind.
Do you feel the agony? Do you sense tension of this man? The defeat mixed with a gnawing at the soul? Oh, but there must be more? Is that all that there is? I’ve tried and worked so hard…is this is all that wisdom affords me? I saw frustration, vexation, tear your hair out, keep you wide awake at night kind of anxiety…That’s what I saw. That so much crooked that cannot be made straight! That what is lacking cannot be counted! That even with much wisdom and knowledge comes much sorrow and grief! It’s all but a striving after the wind!
So what are we to make of all that? Boy that can sound depressing, can’t it? If you came looking for encouragement from God’s Word tonight, this passage may not be the place for it. But…that’s actually ok. We need passages or even books like Ecclesiastes to give us the sobering dose of reality sometimes, it’s a splash of cold water to wake us up. There’s a time to comfort the disturbed and a time to disturb the comforted and maybe God will do some of both in you tonight. This passage is meant to humble and sober us that ultimate meaning in this life cannot be found in our pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, power, or any experience. It’s saying that if you here tonight are looking to wisdom to bear the brunt of ultimate meaning in this life…Oh if I could just know more…have more degrees….then more joy, peace, happiness, gain, success… and so on…If you do that, the Preacher is saying here “Let me save you a lot of pain and just tell you…it will fail you, it will not hold…It will make you despair of life itself…”
And mind you the pursuit of these things may not even be sinful things in and of themselves. They may even be good, noble, virtuous things! Earthly wisdom has value, but it will not solve the problem of life. You can study all the philosophy, get more degrees, read all the self-help books out there, and it will not do it. We are a blessed people here, many very well educated with degrees and Ph.Ds., with lots of life experience even. But we have stop thinking that our lives would make sense and have some meaning only if we knew it all, or had it all, or experienced more… It will leave you empty and wanting…
But what do you do with that wanting? It’s still inside of us, isn’t it? We still long for something more….something better. Something that can truly satisfy and make life all worth it and worth living…Is there more than this? Wisdom that is not pointless and futile? A wisdom that only brings vexation when in the hands of a mere man? Even if he is a very powerful and wise man? And the Word of God tells us, there is. There is a wisdom that is not futile, that is not vanity, but that which is perfect can only be found in Jesus Christ, who is called in the NT by Paul as the very Power of God and Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). He again says of Jesus in Col. 2:3 that He is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in. You may not be able to change big things in life no matter how much wisdom you get. In fact, as Qohelet says to us here, it may bring much frustration into your life. But in Jesus, rest assured, you have the one in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in.
You may not ever have enough answers, but you can know and trust in the One who has all wisdom and knowledge. And the Bible teaches us that true wisdom begins with the fear of God. That means we can know God, from the Bible. That He made us but we fell away from Him we chose our own wisdom, and now we are sinners…our minds and hearts fail us and constantly pulling us away from God because of our sin. Solomon was a man, a great man, a man full of wisdom like none has seen before, and yet he could still not defeat his own sin in his own life and heart. But in Jesus, we have true wisdom from God who made an end of all our sin by coming in the form of man to save us from our sins by dying for us on the cross and then being raised from the dead to defy all earthly wisdom and logic. Jesus is the wisdom of God, and we can have it if we trust in Him.
And even though we can’t fix the world, God in his wisdom sent His Son to redeem His Creation and who will one day make all things new!
And you may still have many, many frustrations in this life and as we said sometimes the more you know, the more it hurts, the Bible never promises a pain-free life… But what the Bible does promise, is that for those who trust in Jesus, who rest in Jesus…Jesus gives your life meaning, hope, and joy. Joy that this world doesn’t know about and joy that this world can’t rob or take away.
So will you trust in Christ? Will you look to Him for meaning in your life? Will you let go of pursuing ultimate meaning in this life by gathering up all the wisdom you can find? Admitting that you are, but a man or a woman or a child and you are not God? But that God in his graciousness and mercy has condescended to us, gave us the One who has all the wisdom? The One who IS the Wisdom of God? Will you receive His Wisdom and let go of your own and your pursuit of it? Turn to Christ now, yet again for wisdom from God and delight yourself in knowing Him, the only inexhaustible fount of all wisdom that will not leave you dry or wanting.
I want to end by quoting another Preacher, one named Jeremiah and he says in Jer. 9:23-24, “Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”