The comical science fiction series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy tells the story about a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demanding to learn the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose.
It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the question was, which hilariously makes the point that there is no point to life. More nightmarishly is Frederick Nietzsche. In the 19th-century, Nietzsche proposed the philosophy of Nihilism, which also taught that life was without any real objective meaning but without the punchline of Hitchhikers Guide.
So then, what is the meaning of life? That’s a question every single person has asked of themselves; whether you have ever expressed it that way is beside the point. Because practically speaking, we are trying to find that answer even if we have never asked that question of ourselves.
Wise King Solomon also grappled with the question and purpose of the meaning of life. Solomon was a man who held power, owned materials, wielded influence, surely, he would know the answer to the ultimate question of life. What is the purpose of life? In Ecclesiastes 1:12-18:
I the preacher (King Solomon) 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. 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.
We observe the text and discover two critical ideas:
- First, The Pursuit of Wisdom Won’t Give You the Meaning of Life.
King Solomon, in all his wealth, power, and wisdom, begins his quest for meaning. Solomon was practically a celebrity in the ancient world for his wisdom and understanding, so much so that the Queen of Sheba (and no doubt other heads of states) visited him upon occasion. If the answers to life’s emptiness or meaninglessness could be found—he would have been the one to find it. He says in verse 13: 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.
Now you need to understand the kind of wisdom that the king is talking about in verse 13, he’s talking about wisdom that doesn’t really put God in the center of it. You see that phrase, “all that is done under heaven,” is meant for us to take the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a God-centered view of life, someone who sees life apart from God. In essence, it is the horizontal view of the world, which eclipses the vertical view of the world.
We look for answers to the ultimate questions of life. But the wise king tells us that it’s a frustrating thing, because when try and get those answers apart from God, they we can’t come up with them. So, wise King Solomon says that it’s a grievous task that God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with, and that’s the first result of his search for ultimate meaning by way of human wisdom. The other consequence of his search for wisdom only brought him to a place of more despair.
The king says in verse 14, “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.” Derek Kidner says, “With his usual devastating candor, [the king/the preacher] is quick to tell us the worst. The search for meaning has come to nothing.”
In life, there are many things that worldly wisdom cannot answer—why someone gets cancer, while others do not—why one tornado hits this home, but misses the other—wisdom cannot make that which is crooked straight.
- The Pursuit of Wisdom Brought Some Knowledge, But Also Much Heartache.
The Preacher looks for answers to life’s meaning, but he is looking at life from “under the sun,” that is life apart from God at the center of life. And when God is not at the center, he can find no real meaning or answers to life’s purpose. The Preacher says, in verse 16:
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. 17 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.
The repeated and intensified search for wisdom brought no ultimate meaning. The solution wasn’t to think harder and search better; because it was all grasping at the wind, like trying to catch a vapor. But the wisdom that he did attain did teach him, and our text says: 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
The more Solomon understood life under the sun and living life apart from God, the greater his despair. The more he learned, the more he realized what he didn’t know. The more he knew, the more he knew life’s sorrows. Bible commentator James Moffat wrote, “So long as wisdom is restricted to the realm ‘under the sun’, it sees the throbbing tumult of creation, life scurrying round its ever-repetitive circuits, and nothing more. ‘The more you understand, the more you ache.’”
So, what trajectory does this passage send us on? It sends us on a course to apply good news.
- First, King Solomon’s Despair points us to King Jesus’ Hope.
Charles Spurgeon said of the contrast between King Solomon and King Jesus:
“In His nature the Lord Jesus is greater than Solomon. Alas, poor Solomon! The strongest man that ever lived, namely, Samson, was the weakest of men; and the wisest man that ever lived, was, perhaps, the greatest, certainly the most conspicuous, fool. How different is our Lord! There is no infirmity in Christ, no folly in the incarnate God. The backsliding of Solomon finds no parallel in Jesus, in whom the prince of this world found nothing though he searched Him through and through. Our Lord is greater than Solomon because He is not mere man. He is man, perfect man, man to the utmost of manhood, sin excepted; but still He is more, and infinitely more, than man.”
In other words, Jesus is another Solomon, the great and wise King, but Jesus is much greater than King Solomon. The wise king of ancient Israel could not find hope and despair in the best the world could offer, the Wisest King, King Jesus offers boundless love, infinite hope, and incomparable hope to those who trust in Him.
- Second, Jesus is the Wisdom of God who makes Life Meaningful.
If you look over at what Paul says in 1st Corinthians chapter 1, you’ll see that Jesus is not only wise but wisdom incarnate. Paul says there in verse 18:
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[b] to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Biblical theologian Graeme Goldsworthy says, “Wisdom has this application to the Christian: It is the possession of the believer in Christ. As righteousness is imputed to the believer, so wisdom is also imputed, for wisdom and righteousness are ultimately synonymous. If Christ is our wisdom, we possess it before God in Christ, not in ourselves; and we possess it by faith. Another way of putting this is that the person of Jesus Christ, now exalted on high, embraces within Himself all reality perfectly related and that this is so for us.”
Isn’t it remarkable that Jesus will say to His disciples in John 14:6, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.” Isn’t it interesting that Isaiah 53:11 will say of the Messiah, “That by His knowledge the righteous one will save the many.” And doesn’t it grab your attention that Jesus, in concluding the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-29, will say that “The wise man will build his house on Jesus and His words.” You see, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of true wisdom, and that’s why humility and teachability is the hallmark of true wisdom.
And Jesus will say in Matthew 11, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am humble and I will give you rest for your souls.” What we discover in King Solomon is that we should forsake the wisdom of the world, the philosophies of life under the sun, and instead seek the wisdom of God, life in the Son of God. Christ, the King.
Tobby Smith is Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in New Castle, Indiana. Tobby holds a B.A. from Boyce College, an M.A. and Masters of Divinity from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Tobby has been married to his wife Rachel for twenty-three years. They have a teenage son named Piper.