Ecclesiastes, Education, and the Pursuit of Meaning
If you read Ecclesiastes carefully, Solomon is not saying that knowledge and learning are bad; he’s saying they’re incomplete.
Ecclesiastes is part of the Hebrew wisdom literature. It is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon of Israel, who lived and ruled in the 9th century BC. Yet the questions with which the writer wrestled are still relevant, 3,000 years later. It’s the same stuff that college students, songwriters, philosophers, and lay people still wrestle with today.
There’s a word that’s repeated all through the book—some translations use the word “meaningless”; some translations use the word “vanity”; but the most literal translation of the Hebrew word is “vapor”—like your breath on a winter day. Which means at least two things: First of all, everything in life is very temporary. Like your breath—you see it, and then it’s gone. And then also, it means that just like you can’t grasp your breath, there is a universal tendency to try to grasp and understand life, and yet every time we try to do that, it seems to elude us. So listen for that concept today.
Solomon was passionate to find meaning and happiness in life, and in today’s passage he talks about one way that he tried to do that. So let’s look at this passage. Actually it’s two passages—Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 and chapter 2:12-17. Here’s what Solomon wrote…
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
And then in chapter two, he picks up this same theme:
12 Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
and also madness and folly.
What more can the king’s successor do
than what has already been done?
13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.
14 The wise have eyes in their heads,
while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
that the same fate overtakes them both.
15 Then I said to myself,
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself,
“This too is meaningless.”
16 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise too must die!
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The two main ideas I want to address are Pursuing Wisdom and Redefining Wisdom.
First: Pursuing Wisdom. In all of the Bible, the person who’s most famous for his wisdom is Solomon. This is his claim to fame! The most famous example of that is in 1 Kings chapter 3. Two young women who lived in the same house and who both had an infant son came to Solomon for help. One of the women claimed that the other woman accidentally smothered her own son while they were sleeping and then switched the two babies to make it look like the living child was hers. The other woman said, “No—the living baby is mine—I did not swap the babies.” And they brought their case before Solomon.
So he called for a sword. And he said, “There’s only one fair solution: we’ll cut the baby in half, and each of you gets half.” And the boy’s true mother said, “No! Give the baby to her, just don’t kill him!” And the other woman said, “No—it shouldn’t belong to either of us. Go ahead and split it.” And Solomon said, “This is the real mother. Because the true mother would never let her child be hurt.” And the case was solved. That’s pretty good, right?
Solomon was a street-smart, savvy person. He was also well-educated because he grew up in the home of a king. The point is that he was highly qualified—probably as qualified as anyone has been—to understand life from an intellectual perspective.
And under this first point of Pursuing Wisdom, he talks about three things. First, Its Scope. In verse 13, Solomon specifically defines the realm, or the scope of his search—look what he says: “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.” And then in verse 14 he says “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun.” Solomon uses that phrase “under the sun” over and over in this book—and here’s what he’s saying, “I limited my search to what I could see with my eyes and perceive with my senses. So I’m talking about things that are empirically provable.”
And maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute—are you telling me King Solomon of Israel didn’t have God as part of his worldview?” And I think the answer is, in Ecclesiastes, he’s talking about a time in his life when he was either doubting deeply (which can happen to anyone); or possibly, he was so confident in his intellectual ability that he tried to make life work without any assistance from God.
And because of that, Solomon is a great example of where our culture is rapidly moving. Did you see the Pew Research report that came out a couple of weeks ago? There is a growing group of Americans who say, “I don’t identify with any faith; I reject the concept of faith.” And many of those same people say that the only source of really reliable knowledge is science. Peter Atkins, who was a chemistry professor at Oxford, represents this view well—he said, “There is no reason to believe that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.”
So even though Solomon lived well before the age of modern science, this is basically the approach he took. He says, “I’m not going to rely on some outside, supernatural source. I’m going to leverage my mind and my education and the power of human reasoning to find happiness and meaning in life.”
But when he threw himself into that, he found out that approach has its limits. And he expresses that in two ways. The first way is in chapter one verse 15. He says: “What is crooked cannot be straightened…” Which is a very poetic way to say: Life is confusing—it’s crooked; messed up; twisted …and there are questions in this life that even a brilliant person like me can’t get straight. And then he says “what is lacking cannot be counted.” In other words, “This thing I was searching for—meaning in life—was still lacking. And you can’t count or add up or build anything when you’re starting with nothing.
He also expresses the limits of this search in chapter two, verse 16: “For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” This is depressing, isn’t it? He says, “Look—consider a guy who gets an elite education and devotes himself to lifelong learning and then consider another guy who watches reality television all day, and both of them will wind up the same in the end: dead.” Right? No matter how wise you are, you’re going to die. They’re going to put you in a box or burn you up, and after a few generations no one will even know you existed. Unless they’re doing some genealogical family tree project for school, and my great, great, great grandchildren are going to ask their parents, “Who was this Dave Gustavsen?” And their parents will say, “I have no idea. Just do your homework.”
The most brilliant thinking will not unravel life’s biggest questions, and it won’t help us avoid death.
And therefore, when that’s the realm we function in, here’s how that affects us personally—let’s talk about its End Result. We’re looking at these two passages today, and the last verse in each passage is really a summary of each passage. So look at the last verse in chapter one—verse 18: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” What a poignant thing to say! In some ways, the more we learn about the world, the more sadness we will have. So if this is true, that means the most brilliant, educated people might be some of the least happy people. It’s like they know too much. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
And then at the end of the second passage—look at Ecclesiastes 2:17,“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Like a vapor that you just can’t grab. And I hated life.
There was a really interesting opinion piece written in the Harvard student newspaper a couple of years ago, in February 2013. And the author, who was an economics major, was trying to figure out why Harvard students have higher-than-average rates of depression and suicide. And his theory was: it’s because they’re so smart. And he quotes something that Woody Allen said: “It’s very hard to keep your spirits up. You’ve got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you.” And then this Harvard student writes: “My hunch is that being intelligent makes it harder to sell yourself a bill of goods.” Do you see what he’s saying? Less intelligent people can kind of deceive themselves and convince themselves that life has some meaning. But really smart people know better. They look at the universe, and they know in their gut that it has no meaning. And that realization is terrifying and so empty that it can lead to depression, and sometimes to suicide. With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
We have a little terrier/cockapoo mix named Maggie. And Maggie is a great dog, but just really not smart. A couple of years ago, we put in a little doggie door, right next to the sliding glass door that leads to our backyard. So Maggie can go in and out without us having to open a door for her—it’s great. The problem is, about once a day, Maggie stands in front of the sliding glass door and waits to be let out or let in. And her doggie door is right next to it; but she forgets. She’s like Dory—remember on Finding Nemo? Every day she forgets everything she ever knew. And every time we have to say, “Maggie—use your door!” And she tilts her head, like, “What?” And then finally she goes over, like, “Hey—there’s a little dog-size door right here!” So you see my point, right? She’s low on the IQ scale. But…she’s so happy. I mean, she’s always wagging her tail and licking people and chasing squirrels. She loves life!
And there is a part of me—and I think there was a part of Solomon—that thought this: I’d rather be dumb and happy—like my dog—rather than being smart and miserable. Because that way, I just wouldn’t know any better, and I could live out my life in blissful ignorance. So when all my Ivy League friends are worrying about global warming and world peace and the emptiness of life, I would just say, “Whatever, dude. It’s happy hour!”
So maybe that’s the answer: wisdom is overrated; stop thinking so much; and you’ll be happy!
But as tempting as that is, I don’t like that answer. Because in my heart, I know wisdom is not a bad thing. I know knowledge is a good thing. And we Christians need to be very careful here. Because sometimes Christians have a reputation—and sometimes we deserve it—for being anti-intellectual. When we say, “I don’t care what science has discovered; I’m going to stick with the Bible.” That’s a dangerous and foolish attitude. Because if we’re really interested in pursuing truth, we should be grateful for biology and chemistry and physics and all the other beautiful tools for understanding our world. And if we believe Scripture is true, we should have no fear of exploring truth through science and other scholarly pursuits. Our friend, Jennifer Wiseman, is such a great example of this spirit—because she is a brilliant astronomer with an advanced education and all of her learning hasn’t weakened her faith; it’s strengthened it.
If you read Ecclesiastes carefully, Solomon is not saying that knowledge and learning are bad; he’s saying they’re incomplete. So maybe if my wisdom and knowledge are leading me to depression, there’s something I’m missing. So let’s talk about Redefining Wisdom.
Remember the way Solomon defined his search? He limited it to things you can experience and prove with your natural perception, with human reason, under the sun. But something huge happened in history: God chose to enter into our closed system, in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And in the teaching of Jesus, and in the pages of the Bible, we are invited into this larger reality.
Specifically, the New Testament defines wisdom much differently than Solomon did in Ecclesiastes. And the classic place that’s explained is in 1 Corinthians, chapter one, starting in verse 20. Listen to this:
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
See, according to the Christian faith, the essence of wisdom is not how much you know; it’s Whom you know. The essence of wisdom is not a philosophical system; it’s a Person. So Paul, who wrote this, says, “We preach Christ crucified.” That’s the center of our message. That’s the core of wisdom. Jesus, giving up his life on the cross. When you see that—when you make that personal and make that the center of your life, you’ll become truly wise.”
Why? What does “Christ crucified” have to do with being wise? That’s a whole sermon series in itself. But let me just give you a few quick thoughts.
When I realize that Jesus came to do that for me, I realize there’s a God who loves me, and so my life must have value and meaning. It’s not just an empty vapor.
When I realize that my problem was so serious that someone needed to die for me, it makes me profoundly humble and aware of my own capacity for darkness.
When I realize that God was satisfied with the death of Jesus in my place, and based on that he forgave me of all the ways I’ve offended him, it makes me quick to forgive people who offend me.
When I realize that Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again on the third day, it gives me hope for the future—because even though I will physically die, just like Solomon reminded me, I know that’s not the end.
Do you see how “Christ crucified” has the power to change the way we think about life? And Paul says that message is so simple that it’s offensive to people. It’s sounds foolish and dumb. Some people will say, “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?” But it’s the essence of real wisdom.
Now I’m going to be completely honest: what I just said, I can’t prove. I can’t scientifically or logically prove that Jesus is the missing piece that we need in our lives. I can show you evidence for the life of Jesus. I can give you historical support for the reliability of the New Testament documents. I can talk about the unlikely growth and survival of the early church within the Roman Empire in the first couple of centuries A.D. I can point to the ways I’ve seen Jesus affect the lives of people I know in extremely positive ways. But I can’t prove it.
Ultimately, there’s a step of faith required. Not a blind leap. But a step of faith.
Some of you have read Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi. About a boy who survives a shipwreck and winds up on a little life boat with a tiger and some other animals. And in the book, the main character, Pi, says there are really two ways you can look at life. You can view it as a closed system—with no supernatural involvement—everything’s limited to what we can prove and verify. Or you can choose to embrace what he calls “the better story.” You can recognize that life just doesn’t make sense without a larger perspective, where God is behind it and involved in it. That’s the better story. And even though he doesn’t land on a purely Christian view of reality, he makes a valid point: the nature of life is that all of us have to choose which story of reality we’ll embrace.
Now, does that mean that if we embrace Jesus Christ all the mysteries of life will be solved? All our questions will be answered? No. But they look different. I like the way C.S. Lewis said it: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” When Christ is at the center, life just looks different. You don’t have all the answers, but you have value and self-knowledge and forgiveness and hope, to name just a few things. And best of all, you have a relationship with the living God.
So, please hear the warning of Solomon, even if you have an elite education and an intimidating level of intelligence: apart from God it will not make you happy or satisfied. In fact, it might lead to misery. So if you’re feeling some of that emptiness, maybe it’s God calling you to consider the better story of Jesus Christ, crucified for you.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
BONUS | Francis Collins & Phil Vischer
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection