Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (ESV)
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 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.
14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
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.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
The historian now becomes the philosopher as Solomon tells how he went about searching for the answer to the problem that vexed him. As the king of Israel, he had all the resources necessary for “experimenting” with different solutions to see what it was that made life worth living. In the laboratory of life, he experimented with enjoying various physical pleasures (2:1-3), accomplishing great and costly works (2:4-6), and accumulating great possessions (2:7-10) only to discover that all of it was only “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv).
But before launching into his experiments, Solomon took time to try to think the matter through. He was the wisest of all men and he applied that God-given wisdom to the problem. He devoted his mind wholly to the matter to get to the root of it (“seek”) and to explore it from all sides (“search”). Dorothy Sayers wrote in one of her mystery novels, “There is nothing you cannot prove if only your outlook is narrow enough.” Solomon did not take that approach
What would it take to make you happy? What if you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Donald Trump? Would this make you happy? What if you had the success of Oprah or Martha Stewart? Do you think you could be happy? What if you had the brains of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking? Do you think you could be happy? Let me guess. Your answer is, “I don’t know, but I’d sure like to give it a try.”
A few people have been able to possess wealth, success, and intelligence just as I described. Solomon, the third king of Israel, was one of them. In some ways he had everything. He had a thousand wives and concubines, enormous wealth, international respect, and unparalleled wisdom. What he didn’t always have, however, was a reason for living. He didn’t always have happiness. He fits the pattern of the highly gifted, extremely ambitious person who climbs the ladder of success—only to contemplate jumping off once he’s reached the top.
In the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes chapter one, Solomon examined three broad categories in his search for the key to life: human history, physical nature, and human nature. Now in 1:12-2:26, he narrows his search to his own personal experience.40 In a sense he takes us on his own spiritual sojourn as he searches for satisfaction in life. In the memoirs that follow Solomon informs us that he sought satisfaction in four broad categories, but wound up empty-handed.
Satisfaction cannot be found in education (1:12-18).
In this first section, Solomon states that even the best education is powerless against life’s enigmas. In 1:12-15, he begins seeking wisdom externally: “I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind41 to seek and explore42 by wisdom43 concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God44 has given to the sons of men45 to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works [intellectual] which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.46 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
Solomon begins by giving his credentials once again (1:12; cf. 1:1). Why does he reiterate his position as king? To remind us that he is a man who had everything this world could offer. If anyone could have found satisfaction in life, it was Solomon. After citing his credentials, Solomon states that he purposely set out to find the ultimate principles behind everything in the universe (1:13).
I assume he studied literature and art, psychology and sociology, astronomy and physics, and theology and philosophy.47 But he found his search to be a “grievous task,” for there are so many things that yield no answers, even when assaulted by the highest of human intelligence. Everywhere Solomon turned with his knowledge and wisdom he found hebel (1:14).48 Things that were crooked to his mind he couldn’t straighten out; and there were many gaps he couldn’t fill in (1:15).49
In 1:16-18, Solomon transitions to seeking wisdom internally.50 He writes, “I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized51 that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” If Solomon were alive today, he would say, “You’ve heard of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Morons!”52
Solomon’s point in 1:16 is that he is the wisest man that has ever lived, yet he still couldn’t find satisfaction in education and learning. At first glance, it is natural to assume that Solomon’s quest led him to observe insanity. However, in Scripture both “madness” and “folly” imply moral perversity rather than mental oddity.53
Having felt that he had mastered intellectual pursuits, Solomon decides he will seek to understand the pursuit of pleasure. These verses anticipate 2:1-11, where the actual pursuit of physical pleasure is described, but here he means that he examined the life of pleasure from a philosophical standpoint. Yet, in the end, he finds that much wisdom leads to “much grief” and “increasing pain.” Every pursuit for wisdom and knowledge under the sun is like “striving after wind.”
Have you ever tried to catch the wind in your hands? It is impossible. In fact, it is a ridiculously futile waste of time. It can’t be done! This is exactly Solomon’s point. Wisdom “under the sun” fails to satisfy the soul. This observation actually demonstrates Solomon’s wisdom, for the more knowledge we acquire the more we realize just how ignorant we are. As Socrates himself said, “I am the wisest of all Greeks, because I of all men know that I know nothing.”
The more we are educated in current events, the more serious the world’s problems appear. The better we understand the vastness of our universe, the more insignificant we become. In other words, increasing knowledge often compounds our sense of futility.54 T.S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”55
[So the pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas. Now we will see that…]
Here are some of his tentative conclusions: Life is tough, but it is the gift of God (v. 13).
He described life as a “sore travail” (“grievous task,” nkjv) that only fatigues you (“may be exercised”, nkjv). Of course, when God first gave life to man, the world had not been cursed because of sin (Gen. 3:14ff). Since the Fall of man, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs” (Rom. 8:22, nkjv); this is one reason why life is so difficult. One day, when our Lord returns, creation will be delivered from this bondage.
While sitting in my backyard one evening, I heard a robin singing merrily from atop a TV aerial. As I listened to him sing, I preached myself a sermon: Since early dawn, that bird has done nothing but try to survive. He’s been wearing himself out hiding from enemies and looking for food for himself and his little ones. And yet, when he gets to the end of the day, he sings about it!
Here I am, created in the image of God and saved by the grace of God, and I complain about even the little annoyances of life. One day, I will be like the Lord Jesus Christ; for that reason alone, I should be singing God’s praises just like that robin.
Life doesn’t get easier if you try to run away from it (v. 14).
All the works that are done “under the sun” never truly satisfy the heart. They are but “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv). Both the workaholic and the alcoholic are running away from reality and living on substitutes, and one day the bubble of illusion will burst. We only make life harder when we try to escape. Instead of running away from life, we should run to God and let Him make life worth living.
The ultimate door of escape is suicide, and Solomon will have something to say about man’s desire for death. Some specialists claim that 40,000 persons commit suicide in the United States annually, and an estimated 400,000 make the attempt. But once you have chosen to live and have rightly rejected suicide as an option, then you must choose how you are going to live. Will it be by faith in yourself and what you can do, or by faith in the Lord?
Not everything can be changed (v. 15).
It is likely that Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs (1 Kings 4:32), quoted a popular saying here in order to make his point. He makes a similar statement in 7:13. If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left with which to live our lives! And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up in bankruptcy.
In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.” Ken Taylor paraphrases verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been” (tlb).
We must remind ourselves, however, that God has the power to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking. He cannot change the past, but He can change the way that the past affects us. For the lost sinner, the past is a heavy anchor that drags him down; but for the child of God, the past—even with its sins and mistakes—is a rudder that guides him forward. Faith makes the difference.
When He was ministering here on earth, our Lord often straightened out that which was twisted and provided that which was lacking (Luke 13:11-17; Matt. 12:10-13, 15:29-39; John 6:1-13). Man cannot do this by his own wisdom or power, but “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Solomon was looking at these problems from a vantage point “under the sun,” and that’s why they seemed insoluble.
Wisdom and experience will not solve every problem (vv. 16-18).
Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reason. First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway. (In fact, if He did, we might not understand them!) Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
If anybody was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person. He was the wisest of men, and people came from all over to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34). His wealth was beyond calculation so that he had the resources available to do just about anything he wanted to do. He even experienced “madness and folly” (the absurd, the opposite of wisdom) in his quest for the right answers. Nothing was too hard for him.
But these advantages didn’t enable Solomon to find all the answers he was seeking. In fact, his great wisdom only added to his difficulties; for wisdom and knowledge increase sorrow and grief. People who never ponder the problems of life, who live innocently day after day, never feel the pain of wrestling with God in seeking to understand His ways. The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we know we are. This only adds to the burden.
“All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Choruses From ‘The Rock.’ ” An old proverb says, “A wise man is never happy.”
All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3). When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but, since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows. It has been that way with man ever since. Whether it be jet planes, insecticides, or television, each advance in human knowledge and achievement only creates a new set of problems for society.
For some people, life may be monotonous and meaningless; but it doesn’t have to be. For the Christian believer, life is an open door, not a closed circle; there are daily experiences of new blessings from the Lord. True, we can’t explain everything; but life is not built on explanations: it’s built on promises—and we have plenty of promises in God’s Word!
The scientist tells us that the world is a closed system and nothing is changed. The historian tells us that life is a closed book and nothing is new. The philosopher tells us that life is a deep problem and nothing is understood.
But Jesus Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), and He has miraculously broken into history to bring new life to all who trust Him.
If you are “living in circles,” then turn your life over to Him.
41 The phrase “I set my mind” (1:13, 17) is what is known as an inclusion (i.e., the bracketing off of a passage by beginning and ending a section with the same or similar word or phrase). The use of this particular inclusion again emphasizes Solomon’s personal experience.
42 The word translated “seek” (darash) means to penetrate to the very core of a matter, while the word translated “explore” (tur) means to investigate a subject on all sides. In his quest for satisfaction, Solomon did his homework—he did a thorough job.
43 “Wisdom” (chokmah) in this context does not refer to living life with God in view. It means using human intelligence (“under the sun”) as an instrument to ferret out truth and significance.
44 Ecclesiastes does not use the divine title Yahweh, God’s covenantal name (Exod 3:14-15). Instead, the book uses the word Elohim for God twenty-eight times, a word that stresses His sovereignty over all creation. The wisdom writers often use Elohim when they wish to speak of universal truth instead of truths that are peculiar to God’s covenantal relationship to Israel. Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 782.
45 Most of our Bibles have translated the Hebrew word adam (“man”) as “men.” The phrase then reads: “It is a grievous task which God has given the sons of men to be afflicted with.” Yet, Solomon seems to be alluding to Adam and the effects of the Fall. Therefore, the idea is: On account of Adam’s fall, the sons of Adam seek and explore in pursuit of the meaning of life, but to no avail.
46 “Striving after wind” is only used in the book of Ecclesiastes. Seven of its nine occurrences follow hebel (“vanity,” futile,” etc.) statements (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). Constable suggests, “This phrase ‘striving after wind’ occurs frequently in Eccl 1:12-6:9 and is a structural marker that indicates the end of a subsection of Solomon’s thought (cf. 1:17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 10.
47 A universal theme in wisdom and philosophic writings is that the life of wisdom is the highest of all callings. In Plato the task of the philosopher is the purest of all. Here, however, it is a grievous task (we could translate the phrase as a “lousy job”). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
49 Solomon observes that it is God who has “afflicted” us with this task. This is significant because the “affliction” that we experience should be the very thing that drives us to God, the ultimate goal of living.
50 The external and internal divisions come from Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
51 The phrase “I realized” and its synonyms occur frequently in Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 2:1, 3, 14, 15; 3:17, 18, 22; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1).
52 This is a great line from Vicini in the classic movie Princess Bride.
53 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
55 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23.