EXPOSITION OF ECCLESIASTES
TEXT : Ecclesiastes 1:12- 2:26
THEME : Solomon’s personal testimony – "Chasing the Wind!"
DATE : 24/06/2012
Last week we considered the first 11 verses – the introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes. The subject was introduced : “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher… all is vanity!” (1:2) Having said that, Solomon, king in Jerusalem, in the first 11 verses describes the weariness of working, the monotony, the repetition of life under the sun. Not a very encouraging introduction to a sermon, and very pessimistic. Who wants to hear such a message ? The strange thing about this sermon by Solomon is that it we rarely find it boring and pessimistic . In fact, it fascinates us. It makes something come alive in us. A good number of you have come to me after our recent expositions , and have said to me that you really appreciate Solomon’s perspective. I suspect that he speaks to us , because his experience is also our experience!
Well, why does Solomon speak like this?
He clearly is a man who thinks deeply about life . He has an inquiring mind. He is not satisfied by simply living the life. And so in 1:13 he tells us : “And then I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” And then follows the first mentioning of God. “ 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 the wind.” ( v.13b,14)
His conclusion? It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man . Let us stop here and consider. What is the cause of this unhappiness of the children of man? Solomon says that it is God ? But why would God make man who is created in His image unhappy? The answer is found in Genesis 2 &3 . The children of man are the descendants of Adam and Eve who were made happy and contented, but who fell under the curse of disobedience (Gen 3) after they had disobeyed God’s explicit instruction in Genesis 2:16,17 : 16] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” When Adam and Eve disobeyed God everything that God said came true . You read about it in Genesis 3:16-19. Man’s work is cursed. His life is filled with pain and dissatisfaction. He dies and returns to the ground from which he was taken. So God cursed man. He handed man over to an unhappy business, but it was man , when he still had a free will to obey God that brought this upon himself. Man brought this evil upon himself , and everything that Solomon describes now is tainted by this fact! He actually makes the point in 7:29 : “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes”.
In support of this discovery , Solomon quotes a Proverb: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Man without God has become a crooked creation . Man without God is lacking , and notwithstanding the fact that man has God’s creative energy invested within him, yet he cannot ultimately enjoy his work and creative energy- it simply feels hollow – a chasing after the wind . God is not in it . Man without God is a living corpse, like beautiful music written on a sheet but without an orchestra to play it , a painting outlined in pencil by a masterful artist who never makes the picture come alive by applying paint to the picture.
Man has been given of God’s creative energy and intelligence and wisdom, but it is like the pieces of a puzzle that he cannot fit together, and so Solomon concludes the first chapter with these words : “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge , increases sorrow.” (v.18). So very profound ! John F. Kennedy understood this when he said : “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.” The more you know, the more that knowledge oppresses you, particularly when you cannot put God into the center of that knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge without God can drive one mad . I showed you this last week from the life of Friedrich Nietzsche . Searching for more evidence of this hypothesis, I came across this 2007 documentary called “Dangerous Knowledge” by David Malone in which he looks at the lives of four brilliant mathematicians – Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing – whose genius has profoundly affected us, but which drove them insane and eventually led them all to commit suicide.
Georg Cantor, a great mathematician whose work has proved to be the foundation for much of 20th-century mathematics believed he was God’s messenger and he was eventually driven insane trying to prove his theories of infinity.
Ludwig Boltzmann struggled to prove the existence of atoms and this eventually drove him to suicide. Kurt Gödel, the introverted confidant of Einstein, proved that there would always be problems which would defy human logic. His life ended in a sanatorium where he starved himself to death.
Finally, concerning Alan Turing, who was famous for deciphering the German codes during WWII, and who was considered to be the father of computer science (and convicted in 1952 for being a homosexual), according to Malone , died trying to prove that some things are fundamentally unprovable.
When we remove God from the center of an intellectual pursuit, we are not safe with our thoughts . They may drive us to insanity and suicide.
In Ecclesiastes 2:1 -23 we find Solomon’s personal testimony continues as he not only gives himself to a life spent in the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge (1:12-18) , but also to a life of unrestrained pleasure (2:1-3), and to the construction of magnificent buildings and gardens (2:4-6). He has buys many slaves to serve him. He has great possessions of animal livestock (2:7). He owns a wealth of silver and gold (12:8a). His legendary wealth is described in in 1 Kings 10. The queen of Sheba is dazzled by his wisdom and wealth: “And she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. (1 Kings 10:6-7 ESV).
Furthermore, Solomon has endless entertainment and endless sex : “I got singers, both men and women and many concubines…” (v.8b). Again , 1 Kings 11:1-8 comments on this , and v. 3 in particular is very telling : “He had 700 wives , princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God…”
Never before had a king of Israel so much prestige and so much wealth. Never was Israel so revered by the nations of the world. Solomon says : “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem…” (v.9)
He had the position and the means to pursue all that his eyes desired (v.10). In fact , he made it his goal to give himself to unrestrained pleasure. He says ….” I kept my heart from no pleasure”. He also confesses that, “ my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was the reward for all my toil” (v.10). Was all that Solomon did enjoyable? Yes !Let’s get this straight – he had fun, and I believe that every fallen man and woman under the sun secretly ( and not so secretly) envies and desires his life style. That’s the stuff that the tabloids and the glossy magazines are made of ! What do they pursue ? What sells ? The reports of the lives of those who pursue wealth and unrestrained pleasure !
But what was his surprising conclusion in response to all this ? “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity, and a striving after wind (lit. “shepherding the wind”) and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (v.11)
The search continues !
“So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly…”(v.12). He begins to consider life philosophically. He begins to question the meaning of searching for wisdom itself (v.12 ff). Is it better to live as a wise man or a fool? He decides a wise man is better off than a fool. A wise man avoids many pitfalls; a fools falls into them . It is not difficult to see which way of life is preferable . “But here is the sad point “, says Solomon : “The wise man and the fool both die in the end – so there is no advantage in being wise after all”. This thought fills Solomon with bitterness : (v.17) “ so I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me , for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Do you get the point ? You work , you get wealth, you apply wisdom, you “live to the max”, as the young people say, and in vv 18-21 he speaks about the meaninglessness of his work ( he mentions toil/labour - 8 times ). This man wasn’t an arm chair philosopher. He worked hard. He built , he invested and he produced (at least he was the driving force behind it all). Anyone who works at the top of any organization knows how exhausting such work can be. Delegating work does not mean an abrogation of responsibility- the buck always stops with him. But Solomon gets to the point where he says to himself: What’s the point of it all ? I will leave this all to a man who comes after me- and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool ? (v.19) . … This also is vanity. When he saw this, his heart was filled with despair (v.20). Everything is left to a person who essentially did not labour for all this hard work- and who will probably squander it . So , what’s the use of all this striving , he asks ? (v.22) A man may work and worry and lose sleep- but in the end … for what ? This also is vanity (v.23) .
What’s the point of it all ? Nothing under the sun brings lasting satisfaction-
· Not a high level of education with a string of degrees behind my name
· Not a fat accumulation of material things.
· Not entertainment , food and sex
· Not considering yourself wise – you die in the same way that the fool does.
· Not in taking your work too serious . Someone else will take it over and run it into the ground .
Interim conclusions and an ultimate conclusion
(i) Interim conclusion
· All these things are vanity !
· They are all a striving after the wind ( shepherding the wind)
· They are nothing gained under the sun
(ii) Ultimate Conclusion: (vv 24-26)
Here comes the first bit of God centered counsel and encouragement from the mouth of Solomon for our severely challenged life in a fallen world. Given this fact that everything if pursued for its own sake is filled with so much meaninglessness, Solomon now asks : How then do you work ? How then should you think ? How should you eat and drink?
The answer is given in v. 24& 25 : “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,  for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? Put God at the center ! Eat and drink and work ( and everything else- your entertainment , your marriage , your children….) . remembering that it is God who provides your daily work and your daily bread. That thought is repeated in 3:12 &13 . And this is precisely what Paul also teaches the Corinthian church : “So , whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31)
And then, also take note of this final verse :
 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
A God fearing man (cf. 5:7) walks through life with a God centered perspective, and the fruit of this life is godly wisdom, knowledge and joy. And it totally satisfies the man of God. He has God , and with God he has everything.
However the man who does not fear God ( the sinner) works (gathers and collects) ultimately only to lose what he gains. He has pockets with holes (Hagggai 1:6) ! And eventually he will lose everything to the meek who please God , for it is the meek alone that will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). His life is ultimately wasted and meaningless.
Where does Solomon’s sermon leave you? Are you dissatisfied and disillusioned with life? Just plodding on? Hanging on for who knows what? Or have you adopted a defense mechanism whereby you just bury your head in the sand – choosing to ignore the realities which will sooner or later catch up with you?
Or have you seen the truth about God at the center of everything? Then praise God with all your heart , for you can face your many challenges in a fallen world with the knowledge that beyond it all is the God who is in control. Amen .