Ecclesiastes 1: 12-18; 2: 12-17; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31 (texts); Ecclesiastes 9:13-16
May 12, 2013 • Download PDF Sermon
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, our opening study on the Book of Ecclesiastes was the introduction. In it, we surveyed how the author looks at all the aspects of life, and calls all things “under the sun” as “vanities” or “meaningless”: wisdom, pursuit of pleasure, work, and life and death itself.
Edwin Walhout, a retired CRC minister, has written an essay in The Banner, the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church about “progress in theology.” Because he believes that evolution is an “established fact,” he says Christianity must re-examine its cardinal doctrines of creation, especially of Adam and Eve and original sin. He says that “sustaining this doctrine is extremely difficult when we take seriously the human race as we know it today sharing ancestry with other primates such as chimpanzees.” If there is no Adam and Eve, then there is no original sin.
So he says, “If the doctrine of original sin needs to be revisited, theologians need to consider whether our understanding of Jesus also needs to be revised. Does the theory of evolution have any implications for how we understand Jesus’ ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension?….” In short, these doctrines must be jettisoned in favor of the “progress in theology” over God’s Word. Slippery slope is so real when it comes to slipping down from creation to evolution to unbelief to apostasy.
Walhout’s view reflects the conflict between earthly wisdom and divine wisdom, between man’s wisdom and the wisdom of God. He believes more in his own so-called wisdom than wisdom that comes from God and his infallible Word.
Our text today tells how the teacher in Ecclesiastes devoted himself to seeking human wisdom, to “seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” He says that he has “seen everything that is done under the sun,” and he concludes that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (verse 14). Knowing wisdom from foolishness is also meaningless. He did not find any satisfaction in gaining wisdom and knowledge.
This is very surprising to us who have been schooled to think, “Knowledge is power.” To be sure, many people in our culture today despises wisdom. Entertainment, fun and games are elevated above knowledge and wisdom. We see this in the pursuit of mindless electronic games and movies. But over and against culture, those who seek after knowledge and wisdom have much more to gain in life and work than those who seek after pleasure.
But in the next chapter he extols the virtues of wisdom over foolishness, saying, “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly” (Eccl 2:13). Yet, two verses later, he again concludes that wisdom is meaningless since, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also.” Why is he so pessimistic about being wise? Because, in these texts, he speaks only of earthly wisdom, and not even considering divine wisdom. As we shall see, divine wisdom is the opposite of earthly wisdom, and is not meaningless.
The Meaninglessness of Man’s Wisdom
In the first few verses of our text are a couple of evidences cited by many that Solomon wrote this book. He first writes that he was king of Israel in Jerusalem, and second, he had great wisdom that surpassed all people in his kingdom. We know that when God asked him what he wanted most in this world, Solomon did not ask for great wealth or fame or long life. He asked for great wisdom so he can govern his kingdom wisely. As a result, God gave him not only great wisdom, but all that he didn’t ask for: great wealth and fame.
The Teacher devoted his heart to “to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” God favored him to give him this devotion to seek knowledge and wisdom. Not many people in the world today seek knowledge and wisdom. In many churches, people are devoted more to seeking wisdom through feelings, experience and meditation, rather than through searching, analyzing and thinking about facts and knowledge. This is why gnosticism and Eastern mystic religions are favored by many evangelicals—transcendental meditation, contemplative devotion, and touchy-feely worship services full of sentimental and romantic music.
But the Teacher desired knowledge and its application, not feelings which lead to irrational decisions, so he can be a wise king. And this search is a difficult venture in a sinful world. Our decisions in this world are always tainted with our subjective feelings and experiences. We don’t like a certain church because “we don’t feel the Spirit there,” or “we’re not free to express our emotions there.” We like testimonies about experiences more than gospel-centered preaching because we are “touched” by the stories.
In addition to being hindered by a lack of rationality and a lack of desire for knowledge by people around us, the search for knowledge and wisdom itself is difficult. From elementary to high school to college, students all say, “It’s so hard!” This is why the Preacher says that his search for wisdom “is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man.” It is a “heavy burden” (NIV), a “sore travail” (KJV), a “grievous task” (NASB) in this fallen world.
Why does he say that the search for wisdom such an “unhappy business”? The Teacher says that he has “seen everything that is done under the sun.” And even with all his knowledge and wisdom from all that he has seen and experienced, he concludes, “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (verse 14). Why is he so downcast over wisdom? The Teacher lists three things.
First, he says, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (Eccl 1:15). What are these “crooked” things that cannot be made “straight”? Thankfully, we can find out easily, since the Teacher uses this saying again in Ecclesiastes 7:13, “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” These are the works of God, the very good things that God has made in creation: true righteousness, holiness and knowledge of God, marriage between a man and a woman, and pleasures resulting from joy in work.
But maybe he referring to the corrupt or bad things in this world that resulted from man’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden. Contrary to Walhout’s unbelief, Paul says, “sin came into the world through one man,” Adam (Rom 5:12). Even these “crooked” things were ordained by God after sin entered the world. All our knowledge and wisdom, all the wealth, and all the science and technology that man has in this world cannot solve any of the world’s problems and life’s brokenness.
We watch and read about all of life’s problems all over the world—violence, poverty, immorality, corruption, wars, disease, abuse of drugs and alcohol— and we are helpless and hopeless to do anything about it. No matter how much knowledge, how much wealth, how much compassion the Teacher had, his kingdom surely did not even come close to getting rid of these common problems.
Then the Preacher also says, “what is lacking cannot be counted.” It is unclear what he means, but an educated guess would be related to knowledge and wisdom. No matter what great wisdom he possesses, the Preacher will never have a complete picture of what life is all about. In this fallen world, man’s knowledge will always be incomplete, just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:9, “we [only] know in part.” Until the end of the age, we will always be asking the deep questions of life. “What happens next?” “If God is good, why did this happen to me?” Is he/she God’s will for me?”
Second, because his wisdom cannot answer all of life’s questions, the Preacher even tried to know “madness and folly” (verse 17). What might be this madness and folly that he pursued? If this was Solomon, he must be referring to his harem of hundreds of pagan women who turned his heart and mind away from God and into idolatry. Did this foolishness give him satisfaction? Did his vaunted wisdom and knowledge prevent him from this madness? Again, he concludes, “this also is but a striving after wind.”
If madness and folly are also meaningless, then the Teacher has no recourse but to return to wisdom. Since he has already concluded that wisdom is vanity, he says, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Eccl 1:18).
In tomorrow’s national and local elections, we see and hear all the promises that the candidates make about making things better. Some of them are wise, many of them are fools who don’t even know what they’re talking about. Would any of them make a difference? Would any of them make things right? I doubt it very much, because it looks like the problems of crime, poverty, exploding population, and corruption are insurmountable, and even increasing daily. Television and newspapers carry too much knowledge of these problems for our little minds to process—the pain, loss, hardship and grief in this world are too much to think about.
Today we honor all the mothers in this fallen world. As mothers, we go through suffering, pain, and disappointment. Some of our own children go through the same things. Some of them become rebellious, and leave the church or the Christian faith altogether. Within a family, the mothers are the ones who shoulder all these burdens. And pastors and elders who truly know their flock can only do so much to ease the pain and comfort those who are in sorrow. The more they know the individual’s or the family’s problems, the more they feel for their flock, and the more they see how they can’t do much to comfort or help them in their time of need.
The third problem with wisdom, according to the Teacher, is seen in verses 12-17 of Chapter 2. Contradicting what he has already said about the vanity of wisdom, here he praises wisdom, “There is more gain in wisdom than in folly.” He makes an analogy between wisdom and light and folly and darkness, “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (verse 14). Paul also uses this analogy in Romans 1:21-22, saying that unbelievers “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They claim to be wise from their human understanding, but “they became fools.”
These are the best words for wisdom that the Teacher has so far. So it is not surprising that he again goes back to his pessimism. The wise and the fool have the same lot, “And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them” (Eccl 2:14). And what event is this that awaits all, wise and foolish? “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Eccl 2:16). The wise who walks in the light and the foolish who walks in darkness both have the same destination: death. And after death, it doesn’t take long for people to forget them.
This seems to be unfair and frustrating to the Teacher. What’s the use of living life wisely, even walking in God’s light, when we all meet the same end as the foolish and evil people in the world?
All of these shortcomings about seeking knowledge and wisdom—the unsolvable problem of sin, the vanity of pleasure, and death that comes to all—leaves him saying, “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me” (Eccl 2:17). Is he giving up on life? He answers later in 3:13 that life can be enjoyed, “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Eccl 3:13). And life itself is better than death, “But he who is joined with all the living has hope … For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward” (Eccl 9:4-5). He is not giving up on life and wanted to end it all, but in all of these, life is extremely disappointing for him.
So how do we go from disappointment and despair to a hopeful and meaningful existence?
The Power of God’s Wisdom
From what we have read so far, it seems that the book of Ecclesiastes was written to discourage its readers. That it’s there so that we may conclude that there is no reason for living in this world. It may drive us to foolishness and madness. It may even drive us to desperation and hopelessness.
But is meaninglessness the only theme or purpose of the book? No, because at various points in the book, he writes that meaning and purpose in life is not found in man’s wisdom, but in fearing God, “God is the one you must fear” (5:7), and “It will be well with those who fear God” (8:12). We need God and his divine wisdom, and in his concluding words, he says, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). No matter how much knowledge and wisdom we have, the only thing that matters is fearing God and obeying his commandments.
The Teacher is right: one’s own wisdom, power and riches are meaningless. The only thing that gives meaning to life in this world is understanding and knowing the LORD, “who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” And we are commanded to practice the same things, for God delights only in these things (Jer 9:23-24).
Wisdom is an important theme in Paul’s letters. He uses the word “wisdom” 27 times, and “wise” 18 times. In our New Testament reading, he uses these two words 12 times in 14 verses.
Paul next says that even if God’s wisdom were foolishness, it is far wiser than the wisest men on earth. So he says that God uses what seems to Jews and Gentiles as foolish and not wise—the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected—to save his people from sin and death and God’s wrath. To unbelievers, the gospel is foolishness. But to us who have been saved, it is power of God unto salvation, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18; cf Rom 1:16).
Solomon wrote Proverbs, and in Proverbs 1:7, he writes a most familiar saying, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Proverbs 9:10, he writes again, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” True wisdom begins with reverence and submission to God and his Word. Truth is found in no other name than through Yahweh, the LORD. In contrast to the wise, “fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
James also makes a stark contrast between earthly wisdom and divine wisdom. In James 3:13-18, he says that earthly wisdom results in bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, lying, disorder, and every kind of vile practices. He even calls earthly wisdom “unspiritual” and “demonic”! So be forewarned: every teaching that is contrary to divine wisdom found in God’s Word is from Satan! Evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage are all demonic. False teachings, heresies, prosperity gospel, seeker-sensitive worship, corruption and disorder in the church are demonic!
But divine wisdom results in the opposite:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher does not end in saying that knowledge and wisdom are meaningless. In fact, he praises wisdom in Chapter 9 verses 13-16, he tells a parable to illustrate the importance of wisdom:
I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege works against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.
A small city is attacked by a mighty king. But there was a man in the city, insignificant because he was poor, but he had wisdom. And by his wisdom, he saved the city from defeat. Yet, after his heroic deed, the city forgot about him and his wise words of salvation.
Could this be pointing forward to Christ? He became poor for our sake, “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). He left his glory in heaven and humbled himself to save his people from sin, to give them a new holy city that came down from heaven. And he himself is the wisdom of God, “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”(1 Cor 1:24). Paul repeats this in Colossians 2:3:
In [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Christ is the preeminent storehouse of divine wisdom and knowledge. Paul’s words echo Solomon’s Messianic words in Proverbs 2:3-7:
yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity.
The Word of God, the gospel of Christ, is a treasure of gold and silver (Psa 12:6; 19:10; Prov 3:13-15). So the kingdom of heaven that Christ preached is likened to a treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great value (Matt 13:44-46).
Not only is he the storehouse of all wisdom and knowledge. Christ—and his Word—is the wisdom that gives salvation, “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Therefore, those who are in Christ have “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
But to unbelievers—those who do not fear God but rebel against him, “those who are perishing,” those who despise the gospel of Christ—“the word of the cross is folly” (1 Cor 1:18). These are the ones whom the psalmist calls the “fool” who says in his heart, “There is no God.” Having no wisdom from above, they are “fools” who are “corrupt, [who] do abominable deeds” (Psa 14:1). For them, wisdom, even life itself, is vanity and meaningless.
But not for us who have Christ. We await that day when we will all have full knowledge and wisdom (1 Cor 13:12). We look forward to praising God in the heavenly city: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12).
And while we wait for Jesus our blessed hope to return, let us remember him in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.