Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun 4.15.18
Thank you for coming back. After last week’s sermon I thought some of you might have just decided to give up on life. After hearing Solomon say cheerful things like you’re going to live and die and no one will remember you or what you did.
I do hope you wrestled with the king’s central theme. He gives it and leaves it hanging for quite a while before he introduces any sort of hope. The original readers would have felt that despair; Solomon felt that despair; it’s good for us to feel the potential of that despair.
It’s a bitter dose of reality. To read this book is to face reality – reality about ourselves, this world, life. This book won’t let us escape it, or distract or relieve ourselves from it. It won’t let us change the channel, plug our ears, or close the book.
God had promised in 2 Samuel 7:14-15, his steadfast love did not depart from Solomon. He lovingly disciplined him by handing him over to his sin, and in time, (it is my belief), he was granted repentance. And he writes now, this book of Ecclesiastes, as an old man, probably near the end of his life, looking back with godly sorrow on time and life wasted.
Let’s listen to him again today as we look at “Life Under the Sun.”
Now, before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father in heaven, we need help understanding your Word, and we need help applying your Word. We know our minds would be dark without you, and we know our hearts would be cold without you, so ask that you would come and give us light and heat, and we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 1. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, (which you’re free to take with you if you don’t have a Bible of your own), you’ll find today’s text on page 355.
Before we begin, let me remind you of what Solomon said in the first 11 verses of chapter 1, which contain his introduction. In verse 2, he gave us a thesis statement; he gave us the central theme of his book – “All is vanity” – He’ll go on to say that word, “vanity,” 34 times, and he’ll use another term, “under the sun,” 26 times. Clearly, the central theme is: All of life under the sun is vanity.
Life is fleeting. Life is inscrutable. Life is monotonous. It’s short, absurd, and repetitive – It goes by quickly, its circumstances are inexplicable; it’s the same thing over and over and over. It ends up feeling empty and meaningless. And so for the average person, if sober and honest, life is, as Solomon writes in 1v8 “full of weariness.”
Now, in our text today Solomon begins to tell us how he reached that conclusion.
Look at verse 12 with me. The Professor is going to switch from telling his story in the third person perspective (he, she, they) to telling it in the first person (I, me) – Solomon is saying now “This is my story.” Verse 12:
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. There is a reminder of who he is. It’s Solomon, the last king over all of Israel, (hasn’t been one since), he calls himself “the Preacher,” but a better translation would be “the Professor.” He knows more, and he’s done more, than anyone.
And now, the first half of verse 13: 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.
Here’s what he’s saying – Early in his kingship, Solomon set out on an experiment, he says – “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.“ In other words – he decided to use all his wisdom, wealth and power to sincerely (he says ‘applied my heart’) pursue anything and everything this life has to offer. Anything and Everything – he says “all that is done under heaven.”
That is the experiment Solomon introduces here – He’s going to “seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” What is life all about? Is there joy here? Is there satisfaction here? Is there peace here? Is there meaning here? Are there answers here? He’s going to turn the big boulder of life upside down and see if there is anything underneath. He’s going to chase down every lead of satisfaction and see if it amounts to anything.
And he’s going to do that apart from God. There is no mention of God here, and that’s intentional. He’s put God in the dock. The context for his experiment is “under heaven,” “under the sun,” this earth, from horizon to horizon, excluding God and eternity. “I don’t need God for this. I’m cutting myself off. I have all the wisdom, wealth, and power. I’m searching out and seeking everything under heaven, not above.
This account is here, for our good, but it was not a noble experiment. Solomon’s heart had been temporarily turned (1 Kings 11) to false gods, and this will be a description of him falling away with his eyes wide open.
And think about it, isn’t that what most people are doing? We are all thinkers, and we are seeking and searching for happiness and satisfaction and meaning in this life. And most people are doing it apart from God.
So let’s listen to Solomon now tell us about his doomed experiment. He begins with a summary of his findings in vv13-14, which he’ll repeat in 2v11. The results are in, v13:
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. And we’ll see shortly, in chapter 2, that the word “everything” there is no exaggeration.
Pursuing Folly with Wisdom
But first, the Professor reminds us of something in these last verses of chapter 1. Something he mentioned back in verse 13 when he said “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”
In other words, he’s going to engage this experiment thoughtfully. He’s going to do it “by wisdom.” He’s going to keep his wits, he’s not going to check his brain at the door, he’s going to keep a good head on his shoulders.
Remember, Solomon is no idiot, he’s the wisest man of all time. So he, and this is very unusual, is going to pursue folly with wisdom. He’s going to be thoughtfully stupid.
Let me show you this pursuit of folly with wisdom. It’s here in vv15-18, but it’s also in 2v3, and 9:
3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, …
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
So he’s making this point clear – He pursued every pleasure under the sun, but he wasn’t the frat member doing it, he was the college professor.
And here’s the thing – it didn’t help. That’s the point he makes in vv15-18 here. Wisdom was no real advantage. Wisdom didn’t hold the key to the answers. Even wisdom didn’t untie the knots of life. Even wisdom didn’t bring true satisfaction. If anything, and we’ll see this, his wisdom will make things worse. Listen to vv15-18:
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Michael Eaton says about this verse, “No matter how the thinker ponders, he cannot straighten out life’s anomalies, nor reduce all he sees to a neat system… Frustration and perplexity surround the philosopher. His wisdom may help in some things, but it cannot solve the fundamental problem of life.” [i]
Wisdom can’t fix it. Wisdom can’t figure life out. Wisdom can’t make it meaningful. Wisdom can’t straighten what is crooked, because, listen to 7v13: Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? God has made it that way. The twists and turns and apparent absurdities in life are from God… And so we (William Cowper said) “scan his works in vain.”
Verse 16: 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. [Wisdom, madness, and folly don’t normally go together, but they meet in this man and his experiment, and what does he discover? Second half of v17] I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
Wisdom actually made things worse. Listen to verse 18:
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Douglas Wilson says “Of course, wisdom is a pain in the neck. Within these boundaries, wisdom can only show that God has determined to trap us in a meaningless existence. So any intelligent investigation of the world and its pleasures will only multiply sorrows (1:18). The fool thinks he is chained to a dungeon wall; the intelligent knows that it is actually a labyrinth. Pleasures, delights, sensations, and all their cousins, will only send a man, first on this fool’s errand, and then on that one. [ii]
So… here we go, Solomon is off to pursue madness and folly AND wisdom. He gives us the details in 2vv1-10.
Madness and Folly
Verse 1, here again is what he resolved to do: I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself. behold, this also was vanity.” Okay, so it starts with the King giving his heart permission to pursue anything it desires – Unbridled, unrestrained, uninhibited pleasure seeking.
Verse 2: But 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom —and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
He turns to laughter and pleasure and wine and (we’ll see in verse 8) women and music. He throws responsibility out the window. He throws work out the window, and commits himself to full indulgence.
And let me just say that nothing you have ever done, and nothing you will ever do, will hold a candle to what Solomon did. We get excited about our little dinner parties and barbecues, but they don’t compare to Solomon. He partied on an absolutely epic scale. Listen to 1 Kings 4:22-23:
22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. Historians have done the math and figured out this party was for 20,000-35,000 people.
“We have a bounce house.” “Bring your own beef. I’ll throw it on the grill.”
But, he found the party scene lacking. The lowbrow pleasure didn’t do it, so he went for highbrow. He took a shower, assumed responsibility, and started working hard. Verse 4: 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.
Solomon built the temple, that took 7 years. And he built himself a palace, which took 13 years. And he had to build homes for his wives. How many wives did he have? 700. But that’s not all, verse 5:
5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
“That’s a cute planter with your tomato plants and zucchini. Check this out, I planted a forest.” He didn’t build a pool, he built pools. Now, for those of you who enjoy work (which you should, and I do) can you imagine how satisfying that work would be. I’m satisfied when I mow a lawn, so I can’t imagine how good it would feel to plant Yosemite. Verse 7:
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
He had 40,000 stalls for horses. He had storehouses of treasure. Did you hear verse 8? “I got singers.” That’s what he said, literally, “I got singers.” We get excited about music we download and playlists we make. Solomon would just buy the bands and have them follow him around.
So Solomon did it all. He went lowbrow, he went highbrow. He went irresponsible and then he went responsible. He went unproductive, he went productive. He drank PBR and played cornhole, he drank champagne and played cricket. He did it all.
And now here is the height of his experience, verse 9:
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
Solomon says “If it felt good, I did it. If I wanted it, I had it.” Remember the 17th century poem quoted by Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society?”
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
Solomon gathered every rosebud. He seized the day. For most people, that sounds amazing. But listen carefully. Listen to the professor’s conclusion at the end of the experiment, (he said this remember in 1v13-14), here in verse 11:
11 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, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
The Experiment Results
There’s the bitter dose of reality again. He had it all, and at the end of the day, he concludes three things:
All was vanity.
[All was] a striving after the wind.
There was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Now, a lot of people have felt like that. Maybe even you. “I’m not gaining anything. I’m not going anywhere. I’m spinning my wheels. I’m restless. I’m discontent. I’m not satisfied.”
But many people squirm out from underneath that burden by thinking like this “But, If only…” “If only I had more money; If only I had a different job. If only I had a different spouse. If only this circumstance changed. If only I was successful. If only I was smarter. If only I was more independent. If only people listened to me.”
And here is what Solomon is saying – “Nope. That won’t fix anything. That won’t get you anywhere. You’ll get it, and you’ll still feel empty. You’ll get it and you still won’t be satisfied. You’ll get it, and you’ll still be restless.”
This is the point of what Solomon is saying today – it is NOT in man’s power to gain true satisfaction in anything in this world and this life.
In verse 10, Solomon said he found pleasure – “my heart found pleasure in all my toil,” BUT in the end it was fleeting and fraudulent. He couldn’t escape the vanity. He couldn’t find meaning. He had EVERYTHING and it DID NOT ultimately satisfy.
Conclusion | Striving after the wind
In conclusion, what are striving for? Are you trying to find satisfaction and meaning and peace and joy apart from God? Where are you looking?
Work, wisdom, money, success, pleasure, power, comfort, approval, acceptance, independence, education, control, a relationship?
According to the king here, you know what another word for all those things is? Wind. You’re chasing the wind.
In the 4th century, the great theologian Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
If you’re here today and you’re not a Christian, do you know God? Not the God of your imagination, but the God revealed to us in the Bible. Maybe you know him, but you haven’t given up your self-reliant life and turn to Jesus in faith. Why not this morning?
If you’re here today and you’re a Christian, what are you chasing? What are you pursuing? It should be Christ alone.
Regarding communion, Veritas Church welcomes all Christians who are willing to forsake their sin and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, and who are committed to this or another local church that proclaims the gospel, to receive the Holy Communion with us. We will have people who will serve you from the front. Please empty into the center aisle, come forward and receive the emblems, then return to your seat from the outer aisles, and wait for us to eat and drink together.
The pursuit of pleasure is not the problem. Solomon was seeking pleasure in the wrong place.
[ii] Douglas Wilson, Joy at the End of the Tether: The Inscrutable Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), 23.