Can I Find Meaning?

As we find in the book of Job and all wisdom literature antecedent to the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the writer of Ecclesiastes seeks to tie the particular events of this life together by some larger purpose. When viewed in light only of the particulars that come under our observation we are left with mystery, frustration, emptiness, and eventual cynical detachment or ascription to superstition and false deities. True wisdom will go beyond intellectual challenges and the quest for significance and present comfort and happiness and find that the problem is neither intellectual nor existential but fundamentally one of virtue and absolute morality. We are guilty violators of an eternal moral code sustained by an infinitely glorious being; either we will deservedly suffer commensurate consequences for our evil or a ransom will be provided.


I. The writer establishes his identity and his qualifications to write about the emptiness of all that is in the world when the world is viewed as an end in itself.

A. He is a king, in Jerusalem, over Israel, a son of David. Verse 1, 12.

B. He was not weighed down with conflict, but had greater possessions than any before him including David, and had leisure and sufficient wealth to do everything his superior intelligence could devise. 1:13, 16; 2:9, 12 – “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem, My wisdom also stood by me” (2:9).

C. He knew that after him the only possibility was for decline and dissolution of all that he had accomplished. (2:18, 19) Compare 1 Kings 11:11-13; 12:1-24. Whether Solomon was predicting this fracturing of the kingdom and the immediate fall into an increasing corruption and instability is uncertain; but the event of the division between Rehoboam and Jeroboam surely perfectly exemplifies Solomon’s observation: “Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor.”

D. He valued intelligence and the ability to reflect on the meaning of all the particular events of human industry, art, and the pursuit of pleasure, but knows that it could only lead to cynicism if isolated from a larger wisdom than itself. (1:18; 2:14, 15; 12:9-12). This is an unusual piece of literature in the canon of Scripture. Here we find a man that is wise give himself to temporality of all sorts with the intent of having empirical evidence that vanity is all that can be expected from a life given over solely to personal gain and pleasure. He engages in foolishness for the sake of wise observation—“My wisdom also stood by me” (2:9). He uses himself as a guinea pig for an experiment.

E. It is difficult to conclude that this is anyone but Solomon


II. Verses 1-4 – This preacher draws the conclusion of all his investigations before he displays the wild variety of options he has investigated. This conclusion is sub-final to that drawn in chapter 12, but shows the futility of finding ultimate satisfaction even in the most superior and extravagant of worldly accomplishments. The meat that perishes, and indeed all that is strictly of this world perishes, is not worth our ultimate concern; only the meat that endures to eternal life can give true prosperity (John 6:27).

A. He leaves nothing out of his observation of vanity. Everything is like a vapor, said the Preacher of this book. Many times the things that one accumulates will last beyond him, for even one’s life is but a vapor (James 4:14). If the accumulations of the ages do not perish before the Day, at that time, “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). The person that lifts up his soul to these things (Psalm 24:4) will suffer loss on that day when the corruptions of this world are eliminated.

B. Labor with an eye to worldly gain cannot endure. If one labors for the finest of material things, every moment of enjoying them will pass as they pass, and when the moment is gone it is no more; if one labors for the approval of this age and does not have an eye to the glory of God in all he does, then his reward will be fully manifest in this age, and that only for a short while until his accomplishment is superseded by another.

C. The labors and glory of an entire generation soon will be past. Nothing is final in itself but only a stepping stone to a more splendid accomplishment. “The earth remains forever” (4b) means from the perspective of the successive generations of the sons of men it continues to stay even though they pass. It will all be burned up and will give way to a new heaven and a new earth, but this earth will not perish before the final generation of mankind has lived its last day in time before the onset of eternity.

  1. Verses 5-7 – The writer gives examples of the regularity of the motions and rhythm of the earth. These things continue since the creation, have been so from generation to generation. And will not cease. This powerful regularity and the cause and effect, predictably reasonable relationship established by divine wisdom has led some to believe in the impossibility of an interruption in this process by what the Bible calls signs or miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the turning of water into wine, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the impregnation of a virgin, or the resurrection of a dead person. Peter refers to such persons in 2 Peter 3: “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Those in Peter’s writing say so in scoffing at the predictions of a judgment to come; others do it to render incredible the biblical assertion of the origin of the earth by divine power, its continuance by that same word of power, and its final demise and renovation according to the divine will and power. The writer of Ecclesiastes does not deny those things, but shows that if we measure our significance in terms of earthly things, we will achieve nothing, for the cycles of the earth will endure far beyond our short occupation of this place and our presence will have changed nothing.
  • The cycle of the earth-sun relationship of day and night and those alterations of the earth’s seasons dependent on it were established in the beginning and will continue to the end (Genesis 1:14-19; 8:22). It seems that well-defined seasons were not established until after the flood and the alteration of the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Wind dynamics such as the jet stream and other interactive air currents continue and provide the amazing variety of weather patterns experienced on earth; they transcend any human generation and witness to the consistent but wildly variegated providence and sustaining power of God.
  • Water also witnesses to the constancy and breadth of providential arrangements of the natural order. Water is maintained at a virtually equal level throughout history, but moving from one place to another through the process of evaporation, distillation, and condensation, keeping rain falling on the earth, the streams and rivers flowing to the ocean, and the ocean giving back, never filling, because of the constant process of evaporation. It is fascinating but unchallengeable. The process will last far beyond the life span of any generation and will see the rising and falling of cultures, empires, brilliant men, and represents a more profound and ingenious mechanism than the most advanced technology of any inventive age.
  1. Verses 8-11 – One can find no meaning in the accomplishments of human ingenuity and observation when it yields only a manifestation of those things that are observable in nature, or a harnessing of the potentialities resident in the natural order, both personal and impersonal.
  • Neither the eye nor the ear can find satisfaction in any of the sensory experiences that come day by day. A work of art seen may give a sense of wonder but can not end the need for more experiences of art. Symphonies and great choral works enter the emotions through the ears but, once heard, must be replenished or replaced by other such experiences. We yearn for more satisfaction in our situation in this world than the world is capable of giving. This sense of futility sets the stage for the affirmation of the prophet, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4) Paul has both these texts in view as he reminds the Corinthians, “’What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10). Empirical investigation can yield only knowledge of this world, but truly satisfying knowledge is given only by revelation, that is, the knowledge of God in his infinite mercy to such vain and sinful creatures as we are.
  • Augustine’s City of God demonstrates the futility and flawed character of all human civilizations; all are built on pride and concupiscence. One after another arises and, through the flaws endemic to fallen human nature, they crumble to be replaced by another; which also will be superseded by another. The weaknesses that destroy them are a false confidence of being able to sustain greatness by unaided human power and that the marks of greatness and success are all measured in terms of present human happiness and pleasure apart from reference to the glory of God. An entrepreneur, or artist, or writer, or scientist, may take temporary satisfaction in his labors but soon his labors will be replaced by another just as zealous for creativity, innovation, and recognition as those of the generation preceding. One builds upon another so that the earlier appears simplistic though it may be truly elementary and necessary for all other advances. None, however, puts an end to the process; it is repetitive but never gives rise to a final resolution. “There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still” (1:11).


III. Verses 12-18 – The man who knew too much.

A. He tells of his strategy to “to seek and search out by wisdom” every possible activity of man. His short conclusion about the attempt is “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (1:13). He expands this experience in 2:1-8

B. He affirms that he had in fact exhausted every possible option for discovering, within the ongoing activities of this world, the answer to a human quest for satisfying happiness and again asserts, “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14). He expands this experience in 2:9-11.

C. He used every resource of his wisdom and understanding to evaluate even the relative usefulness of the polarities of wisdom and folly—“I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (1:17)–, and, when seen as an activity of man in the context of a closed universe, he saw both of these as striving after wind. He expands this experience in 2:12-17 (“So I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly” 2:12).


IV. Chapter 2 – The description of Solomon’s attempt to give a rational exploration of every conceivable human avenue to meaning

A. Chapter 2, verses 1-8 – Solomon gave his virtually inexhaustible wealth and his superior intelligence and understanding to an empirical investigation of every activity of man to discern what, if any, among them would produce a lasting sense of satisfaction and fulfilling purpose (“Till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” 2:3). Note that in this relentless quest to push to the limits of human experience (“whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them” – 2:10), he professes that his evaluation is intentionally guided by wisdom: “my mind was guiding me wisely” or “my heart still guided me with wisdom” (2:3) “Also my wisdom remained with me” (2:9)

  1. He sought meaning through laughter and pleasure and found it vain.
  2. He sought fulfillment in wine and folly – presumably this “folly” is particularly connected with a life of inebriation, the kind of folly that puts life on hold by an artificial disconnection from day by day responsibilities. The cloud of pressure and consistent responsibility is ignored and replaced with foolish quest for exhilaration.
  3. He surrounded himself with marvels of natural beauty surrounding exquisite dwelling places. If a well-designed house and beautiful landscaping could bring happiness, then Solomon would have found it in optimum doses.
  4. Humans that were at his beck and call both for labor and for pleasure tended to all the needs of his massive and multiplying estate as well as his own purposefully insatiable grasp for pleasure and entertainment. Men and women slaves, full choruses of singers and concubines populated his kingly dwellings. His eyes, his ears, and his flesh never lacked the opportunity for immediate fulfillment whenever he desired.
  5. Material possession of livestock and rare and precious metals superabounded as he took advantage of his power and international relations to multiply (“the treasure of kings and provinces”) every conceivable sign of dominance and preeminence in opulence.

B. Verses 9-11 – Solomon was a one man wonder of the world. After 2 Chronicles 2-7 described the process of building and dedicating the Temple, chapters 8 and 9 give a summary of the greatness of the wealth and wisdom of Solomon. The Queenof Sheba said, “I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And, behold, half the greatness of your wisdom was not told me; you surpass the report that I heard.” 1 Kings 4:29-34 tell of al the intellectual accomplishments of Solomon both in literature and in scientific knowledge gained through empirical investigation. Here he gives his personal summary of what he did—“I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem”—and concludes, “and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind” (2:11).

C. Verses 12-17 – This experimenter with life turns to consider the relative values of wisdom and folly. By wisdom here he does not mean that ultimate wisdom that consists of a knowledge of God and delight in all his ways, but the ability to discern the most productive ways of negotiating human relationships and making the most of personal gifts and opportunities. By folly, he means, not necessarily the pleasure seeking superficiality mentioned above (verse 3), but the failure to apply oneself with foresight and energy to the affairs of daily life and personal relationships.

  1. He learns that wisdom makes a person get ahead in this life and accomplish things that are pleasing and to discern the most profitable paths for gain. “There is more gain in wisdom than in folly.” It is better to walk in light than stumble in darkness when one is seeking to find a life that has ample provision for sustaining friendship and the necessary food and raiment. As in Proverbs 24, the sluggard fool has his vineyard overgrown with thorn bushes and its protective wall is broken down.
  2. But in the end, if one’s wisdom has all been consumed in the pursuit of earthly advantage only, when death comes the wise man is not different from the fool. “How the wise dies just like the fool!” When the wise man observes this reality, he concludes that even wisdom, oriented only to this age, “also is vanity.” So meaningless does all this seem that the writer said, “So, I hated life.” Such is the conclusion when even wisdom is pursued with only a temporal goal in mind. A thoroughly perceptive grasp of this vain and superficial quest led Solomon to express the most ultimate kind of despair, “So I hated life” (2:17).

D. Verses 18-23 – Solomon realized that all the ingenuity concentrated on the elaborate lifestyle and the opulent possessions soon would be a matter of deep frustration. He hated life, for he had come to hate “all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.” If the purpose of any activity is isolated merely to its value in this world as a demonstration of the shrewdness and ingenuity of its factor, its doer, finally it is but vanity. Paul, learning well the lesson of Solomon’s quest, said, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

  1. Though his toil and wisdom built and sustained this empire of impressive proportions, soon one that did not have his abilities would become heir of them; then what would happen. A person of lesser ability will not be able to maintain that which depended on the peculiar wisdom and power of Solomon. Even these great accomplishments were temporal (18, 19).
  2. The Temple, calling forth the most concentrated planning and the matching of skill with task, would be destroyed. Solomon’s was destroyed by the pagans of Babylon.
  3. Even the nation itself would be divided. His son indeed was a fool and thought that he could wield the power of Solomon without the wisdom or the proven credibility of Solomon.
  4. Though Solomon had labored and applied his understanding to the development of marvelous gardens, buildings, music, and literature—and an unprecedented peace for the nation—he was unable to enjoy it because of a fear that another would gain the pleasure without the understanding, or the one succeeding him would destroy what he had built. “Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor. . . . even at night his mind does not rest” (2:20, 23).

E. Verses 24-26 – This is the first acknowledgement of the place of God in transforming the view that we take of earthly things. Seeking to find finality or immortality in that which is perishable leads only to sorrow and hatred of the mirage of satisfaction seen those things that merely tantalize in the temporal.

  1. We should enjoy all that God has given us in the context of its temporality and use it for the most temporal joy it affords, but constantly seek its usefulness for eternal things. Ecc. 2:24-26; See also 3:9-13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 10:17.
  2. The New Testament gives instructions about riches and earthly things and their proper enjoyment in 1 Timothy 4:3, 4; Phil 4:12; Luke 12:13 (rich fool) Luke 16:1-13 (unjust steward). We find that though fading to emptiness and judgment when used purely for earthly advantage (James 5:1-6), wicked mammon can be transformed to eternal value (Luke 16:9; Galatians 6:6-10; 3 John 5-8) when used to manifest love for our neighbor and to support those who work for the proclamation of the gospel.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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