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. – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 ESV
Solomon established the theme of his book in verse two: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He is the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly. He is addressing his audience with words of wisdom and worldly experience, expressing what he has learned after years of living on this planet. And his words are intended to shock and surprise us. After all, he is the king of Israel, and one of wisest and wealthiest men who has ever lived. He ruled over one of the greatest nations of the world, populated by a people who had been chosen and set apart by God. He lived in an opulent palace, surrounded by treasures of all kinds. His was a life marked by luxury and a lavish lifestyle that made him the envy of every man on earth, including other kings. And yet, as he stood at the end of his life, looking back, he could not help but recognize that all his wealth, wisdom, and worldly goods had resulted in vanity.
But what does that term mean? The NLV and NIV translate it as “meaningless.” The Hebrew word is hebel and it can best be described with terms such as “vapor” or “breath.” It conjures up the image of something that is without form or substance. It is here one minute and then gone another. Like fog or dew, it appears and then disappears, leaving no trace that it ever existed. It’s not so much that it’s without meaning, but that it lacks sustainability. It seems that Solomon is attempting to describe the transitory nature of life. Just look at the descriptions he used in the opening verses.
A generation goes, and a generation comes… – vs 4
The sun rises, and the sun goes down… – vs 5
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns… – vs 6
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full… – vs 7
There is a certain futility to life because it all appears to be cyclical in nature. These are the words of a man who is near the nadir of his life, and who recognizes that all his many accomplishments and acquisitions will amount to nothing when he is gone. His words would be echoed by James centuries later.
How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT
It was this somewhat morbid perspective that had led Solomon to pen this book. But it is doubtful that his only motivation was to journal his dying thoughts. These are not the ramblings of a depressed man mired in self-pity, but the reflections of a wise man who had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path of life and was warning those behind him not to make the same mistake. At this stage of his life, he describes himself not as a king, but as a preacher, a bearer of vital news, whose sole intent is to instruct others and to open their eyes to the realities of life. His role had changed. In fact, he describes his kingship in the past tense. He had been the king of Israel and he had lived in Jerusalem. It is not that he was no longer king when he wrote this book, but that he was looking back with a sort of detached perspective, viewing his life from the outside. His is a message based on hind site, the wisdom that comes from analyzing something from retrospect. Solomon is contemplative and more objective than he had ever been in his role as king. As he nears the end of life, his position and possessions mean little to him. He is an old man nearing death, who knows that his days are numbered and that his title and treasures will do him no good when he is gone. Which is what lead him to conclude:
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV
Solomon had spent his life acquiring everything from wisdom and knowledge to wealth and women. He had been the consummate collector and consumer. He openly admits:
“I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” – Ecclesiastes 1:16 ESV
But Solomon’s quest for knowledge had been all-encompassing, including the pursuit of madness and folly. He will refer to these two things several more times in his book, always linking them together. What Solomon means by these two words is essential to understanding the rest of what he has to say in this book. Madness and folly are not references to mental illness, but to moral perversity. For Solomon, wisdom and knowledge represent his pursuit to know truth and righteousness. He was on a quest to discover the meaning of life and to find significance for his life. But when he didn’t find what he was looking for, he turned to immorality. In some sense, Solomon used his brain and his body in an attempt to find meaning in life. He pursued information by using his intelligence, but he also pursued experience by utilizing his physical senses and fulfilling his passions and desires.
Solomon describes his life in stark terms, stating:
I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 1:13 NLT
Notice his words: Everything done under heaven. He had no barriers. He had removed the guard rails from his life, allowing himself the right to experiment with anything and everything, in a vain attempt to discover meaning and significance. But what is glaringly missing is any mention of God. He was not looking to God for meaning. He was not pursuing God for fulfillment and satisfaction. It had been God who had made him king and granted him his wisdom and wealth. But Solomon had an insatiable desire for more. He was not satisfied with God.
It brings to mind the scene in the Garden of Eden after God had made Adam and Eve. He placed them in the garden and surrounded them with everything they would need for life, including an intimate, unbroken relationship with Him.
8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. – Genesis 2:8-9 ESV
They had it all. There was nothing they lacked. And the only thing God denied them was access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He had warned them, “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”(Genesis 2:16-17 ESV). In other words, they could even eat of the tree of life. In fact, I believe it was the fruit of this tree that provided them with eternal life. As long as they ate it, they would live. Life was not forbidden. But the knowledge of good and evil was. They were to avoid that tree, under penalty of death. God had told them that violating His command by eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree would result in death. And it seems that the death to which He referred was not an immediate extermination of life, but the slow, steady decline that comes with aging. They would suffer a spiritual death, an immediate separation from fellowship with God, but also a physical death, that would come as a result of their removal from the garden and their inability to eat of the Tree of Life.
It’s important to note that, when Satan tempted Eve, he twisted the words of God, accusing Him of having said, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden.” But that was a lie, and Eve corrected him. But even she got it wrong, because she inferred that God’s ban had included instructions not to even touch the tree. But Satan had responded, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV). He contradicted God. He called God a liar and painted him as nothing more than a cosmic killjoy. Satan presented the real goal in life as that of pursuing the knowledge of good and evil. He portrayed knowledge and experience as the twin values that make life truly meaningful. His portrayal of good and evil was not an attempt to set up one against the other, but to present them as equally valuable and significant.
And that seems to be the thought behind Solomon’s strategy for life. He tried it all. He dabbled in wisdom, but also in madness and folly. He tried his hand at the righteous life as well as the wicked. And none of it worked. None of it satisfied. This was a man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He denied himself nothing. He was an extremist. But when all was said and done, he found himself extremely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. He had eaten a steady diet from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He had seen the forbidden fruit and wolfed it down. And while Solomon was much the wiser for his efforts, he was far from content. Which is why he so sadly concluded: “The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 NLT). He knew things God never intended him to know. His eyes had been opened to things God had never meant for him to see. Satan had convinced Solomon that God was not enough. He had tempted Solomon to believe that God had been holding out and that the real meaning in life was to be found outside of God’s will, not in it. And now, the wisest man who ever lived, was looking back on his life, recognizing that it had all been a lie. Solomon had taken his eyes off of God and had placed his trust in anything and everything but God. And it had all proved to be vanity.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson