In this sermon, Pastor Dave Capoccia begins looking at Solomon’s epic experiments with wisdom and joy in Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26. In part 1, Pastor Dave looks specifically at Solomon’s experiment with wisdom in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 and explains that Solomon’s failures in his epic quest for wisdom show the vanity of pursuing knowledge as a means of lasting gain in our fallen world. Pastor Dave outlines two key parameters in Solomon’s great wisdom experiment.
- A Comprehensive Study (vv. 12-15)
- A Consummate Student (vv.16-18)
As we turn to the Word, let me just pray one more time. Lord God, speak to us from your Word. Give us Your wisdom. Help me to be able to declare it. Amen.
One life lesson that has always stuck with me has to do with credibility. I remember preparing a Bible study one time and I happen to read this one article written by Christian author on the topic of singleness. This author, who was married, was writing to single people and counseling them that they should be content in Christ, not idolize marriage, and use their special time of singleness as a time of service for the Lord and for others. He laid this out in his article. It was a very sound biblical exhortation. But what amazed me about the article was actually the replies to the article at least from several persons. A number of single Christians wrote back angry critiques of the article. The gist of their critique was this – how can you, a married person, give advice to single people? It’s really easy to talk about being content in Christ when you’re married. It’s not so easy when you’re single. That was the gist of their complaint. They felt that the author didn’t have enough credibility to speak on the topic of singleness. But what was supremely ironic about these complaints, these critiques, several things. These single persons, first of all, assumed that married people couldn’t remember what it was like to be single and thus had no credibility to talk about it, which is not true. They also assumed that you need present experience of a thing to be able to credibly talk about it. A authoritative source like the Bible somehow doesn’t count as a way to speak credibly about something, which is also not true. But probably the most egregious aspect of it is that this article was actually written by the author when he was single. It was only reposted later after he got married.
But truly, when we hear difficult advice or instruction on a sensitive topic, we want to make sure that the one speaking to us has enough credibility. We’re looking for that person to have an objective source of authority that he’s basing his word on. For us as Christians, that’s the Bible. But we would also prefer, we would really love if the person had life experience that’s illustrated and confirmed what the Bible says, what that objective source says.
When it comes to book of Ecclesiastes, this book has opened with some difficult instruction. And there’s more of it to come. And so listeners to this instruction, especially young people, would be tempted to respond to the author by saying – well, who are you? Who are you to say what you do? Where’s your credibility? Why should I listen to you, old man? Our author is aware of this. So as we and as he moved into the next section of Ecclesiastes, our author is going to present us with his credentials. We’re going to see that not only does our author have divine authority, divine affirmation objectively to say what he says, but he also has the experience. A personal life of tragic frustrations and failed pursuits underscores what he says.
This way our author is not only going to persuade us to listen to the discoveries that he has made, but he’s also going to persuade us that if we attempt to go down the same path that he did, we’re not going to find any different results. Rather, we are to learn from his mistakes. Listen to him and learn from his mistakes because there is a better and happier way to live. That’s what our author ultimately wants to show us.
The title my message today is Solomon’s Epic Fail Part 1. King Solomon is our author in Ecclesiastes. So far in this boo,, we’ve heard Solomon’s startling thesis and his opening general argument. Just to review, if you have your Bibles and you’re open to chapter 1, you can see this yourself. In Ecclesiastes 1:2 we hear the thesis. Solomon emphatically states that all of life is vanity, literally vapor. The word is “hevel” in Hebrew. All of life, everything in it, is like a breath of air, a puff of smoke, insubstantial. It’s impermanent, just goes away quickly. It’s ultimately incomprehensibly. You just can’t understand it or wrap your mind around it.
This is the thesis, and Solomon immediately supported this startling assertion by directing us just to observe the world around us, which is what we see in Ecclesiastes 1:3-11. He says look the earth coils in an unsatisfying circle. Man toils in the same unsatisfying circle. Man experiences nothing truly new, and man doesn’t remember the past. This is observable, people. So can man find any true game, lasting profit in this world to make his toil all worth it? Solomon says – No, it’s obvious. Just look around. It’s all vanity.
Now this is all foundational material. I’ve said this before, but this is all foundational material for what’s to come in Ecclesiastes. Solomon has to break down our wrong ideas about work, about wisdom, about joy, before he can build them back up again. Because there is a right way to approach work and wisdom and joy. They’re not useless. They’re not evil in this world, but they are limited. And you have to see just how limited in a very stark way.
That’s what he’s doing at the beginning of the book. Ultimately he wants to bring us to the place, and I mentioned this to you in our introductory sermons. He wants to bring us to a place where we’re no longer looking for life itself to provide us gain. We’re not looking for profit from this world, but actually gaining God. Thus life becomes to us a gift that we humbly enjoy rather than a means to gain.
But with all this foundational material, with this opening argument, Solomon then proceed to a second argument. This is what I would say still part of the foundation. The second argument appears in our next section of text, kind of a long section, from chapter 1 verse 12 to chapter 2 verse 26. And this is an argument by way of personal testimony. Solomon is going to share with us about his own life. We are going to hear from this passage that Solomon has chosen to conduct his life like a laboratory. He’s going to use himself in his own experiences to specifically test wisdom and to test joy to see if there’s a way to leverage those to lasting profit in this world. And he’s going to share with us not only what his experiments were, but the results that he got.
We can summarize what the message will be in this upcoming long section in this way – in Ecclesiastes 1:12 to 2:26, Solomon explains his two disappointing experiments with wisdom and joy so that you will listen to his words and learn from his mistakes. The basic purpose, that’s what it’s all about going forward in this next section. He’s trying to show you – you can listen to him. He’s got the credibility, but also don’t make the same mistakes that he did. There’s a better way for you to live. Learn from his experiments.
Today we’re only looking at part one of this longer section. Originally I intended to go from 1:12 to 2:11, but I think it actually be more profitable for us to just focus on 1:12 to 1:18. This is the section that describes Solomon’s first experiment with wisdom. So let your eyes glance over there. What we’re going to see in looking at this section is the parameters of Solomon’s experiment with wisdom and also his preliminary results. And I’ll tell you right now, spoiler alert, it doesn’t go well. Solomon will have more to say though about wisdom and reflecting on his experiment later on in chapter 2 verses 12 to 17. We’ll get there, just not today.
So here we see and we’ll read through it verse by verse in a moment, in chapter 1 verses 12 to 18, Solomon’s experiment, his epic experiment with wisdom. And this is a good place to start if you’re going to try and figure out the good of life, the gain in life. We need a plan. You need to actually understand your situation. You need to start with wisdom and knowledge, and Solomon does so, as we would expected him.
Now I say this is his experiment with wisdom, but we better define that term before we go on, because what comes into your mind when you think of wisdom in the Bible? You’re probably thinking of godly wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, right, say the Psalms and Proverbs. You make a distinction in your mind between knowledge and wisdom. Yeah, that guy is intelligent. He knows a lot but he’s not wise because he doesn’t follow God. That’s true. The Bible does speak of a kind of wisdom like this, but it also speaks more broadly about wisdom, and that’s actually what we see in Ecclesiastes. The word for wisdom in Hebrew is actually the word hokma, it’s kind of fun to say. And it does generally refer to understanding, knowledge, skill, discernment. Now there is a kind of wisdom that is specifically godly skill, godly discernment, but hokma is usually used in just that more general sense. That’s what we’re going to see in Ecclesiastes. That’s what Solomon is going to do his experiment with.
This more general understanding can come from multiple sources. It can come from God and His revelation. It can come from human wise men. Or it can come just from personal observation and experience. He’s going to use this discernment that he has and that he’s amassed to conduct an experiment. It’s important that we see this because otherwise we’ll get confused later on when Solomon uses wisdom that actually goes against God. That’s because it’s the broader sense of wisdom.
Now one other thing to note before we look at the passage, and that’s its structure. You may have noticed from the reading earlier, verses 12 to 15 and verses 16 to 18 basically follow the same pattern. Two points, two key parameters of Solomon’s experiment with wisdom, but they both follow the same pattern. He announces the key parameter in the beginning of each section. He admits a preliminary conclusion of disappointment, and then he gives a short proverb to illustrate why wisdom failed. So we’re going to see that in each one of those two sections, and that’ll basically be the two points of the sermon today.
Here’s the main idea of our smaller passage. We’ve seen the main idea of the larger section. The main idea of the smaller passage is this – Solomon’s failures and his epic quest for wisdom show us the vanity of pursuing knowledge as a means of lasting gain in our fallen world. That’s the main idea. I’ll say it again. Solomon’s failures in his epic quest for wisdom show us the vanity of pursuing knowledge as a means of lasting gain in a fallen world.
Let’s take a look at the first key parameter of Solomon’s experiment with wisdom. And this is in verses 12 to 15. That key parameter is number one – a comprehensive study. He is arranging his experiment. First key parameter is – let’s have a comprehensive study.
We’ll start now reading in verse 12. Solomon says:
I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Notice this is the first time the author uses the first person pronoun in Ecclesiastes. I, he says. He’s now speaking to us personally. He wants us to give our attention to his personal perspective. Notice he calls himself the Preacher again, but he also adds a certain other biographical detail about himself. He says – I have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. Now it’s interesting that he says this because for most of the book he doesn’t mention the fact that he’s a king. Some people go wild with this. They are like – oh it’s because Solomon is not really the author. This is just somebody pretending to be Solomon temporarily. We’ve already seen that that’s needless speculation. And we going to see later on it doesn’t make sense to even with the argument of this passage.
It is true that Solomon doesn’t want to emphasize his kingship. He’d rather just wants to listen to him as a teacher. Listen to what I say, not just because I’m a king. Listen to me as a wise teacher. But it does mention the fact that he’s the king. Why? Because it’s going to show how he was able to go about his experiments the way that he did, both of wisdom and joy. I was a great king, so I was able to do this. And specifically I was a Davidic king. This detail – king over Israel in Jerusalem, it again shows us that this must be Solomon, not some other king in Israel. This has to be Solomon because there were only two kings that fit that particular set of details over Israel. So he ruled over all Israel and the northern tribes, but from Jerusalem. Only David and Solomon did that. And the other details that we’ll see in this book, they fit Solomon better than David. This is why we say king Solomon of Israel, son of David, is our author. He’s the one who wrote Ecclesiastes.
So he has to mention to us that he’s a king. Don’t focus on that, he says. Focus on me as a preacher. But what did King Solomon choose to undertake? Look at verse 13, just at the beginning part. He says:
And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.
Solomon says – I set my mind, literally I set my heart. I firmly decided. I devoted myself. To do what? To seek and explore by wisdom. And here we see a rhetorical feature that we’re going to see again and again in this passage. That is two words with similar meaning used together for the sake of emphasis. Look at seek and explore. What’s the difference between those two terms? In english they’re pretty similar, and it’s the same in hebrew. Actually, both of the hebrew words could be translated seek or explorer. What’s Solomon trying to say? Not to focus on the nuances between those two terms, rather we are to combine them. He is saying – I basically search to the max. I explored to the nth degree. It was an all-out search by wisdom. That’s what I undertook. Solomon has investigated by every means imaginable and he’s explored every nook and cranny.
But what has he explored? All that has been done on under heaven. What does that mean? Well basically everything. Everything that there is or that happens in this world, he says I’ve sought it out. This includes what man does and has done, but also what happens to man and what just happened in the world by itself. Solomon’s testifying to us here in verse 13 that he devoted himself. He set his heart, set his mind, to discover everything that there was to discover about life in this world – an all outt search to know everything. That’s a pretty epic undertaking, wouldn’t you say? I mean, can you really do it Solomon? How amazing! How titanic! How grand! But then notice what Solomon immediately adds in verse 13 second part. He says:
It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
Well immediately we’re face with a little interpretive issue related to the pronoun at the beginning of the second half of verse 13. He says it is a grievous task. What is it? Is he referring to all the things that man does, that God has given these in general as a grievous task for man? Or is he referring to his own pursuit of knowledge and discovery specifically? I think the latter is the case because the beginning half of verse 13 seems to be talking about what happens in the world even beyond man. Therefore the only antecedent, the only idea that the pronoun it could refer to is his quest for discovery.
So Solomon, right after telling us I’ve conducted an all-out search, I’ve sought to do an all-out search, immediately makes a comment on it. Let me tell you about it. And what is he say? It is a grievous task. Or else we could translate it – it is a bad business. It is an evil occupation. It is a troublesome affair. Hey Solomon, did’t you mean to say that your quest for knowledge was joyful and exhilarating and exciting? You know, the joy of discovery? No. No, he says it was like a curse, a curse given to occupy and even afflict mankind. I went on this pursuit. We all have to do it to a certain extent, but it’s kind of like a curse. It’s a burden.
Notice whom Solomon identifies as giving out this burdensome task. God Himself. God has given this to man. God has given the task of discovery to occupy mankind. This is the first time God has been mentioned in Ecclesiastes. And the title here for God is Elohim – powerful one. This is the name that we’re going to see for God throughout the book. Solomon never refers to God as Yahweh in Ecclesiastes. Not that there’s anything necessarily against that title. He just chooses to use Elohim. It’s more universal that way.
So Elohim, God – why has God given this grievous task of study and discovery to mankind? Solomon doesn’t say. And we shouldn’t assume that Solomon is charging God with fault and saying this. Actually, what’s interesting is that by mentioning that God Himself has occupied man with this task, it suggests purpose. This wasn’t some accident. This wasn’t some chance thing that man has to do this. This was intended by God purposefully. Why? surely it has something to do with the fall and God’s judgement on man sin and the futility that came with that. But might there also be some ultimate good goal in mind in making man subject to a frustrating search, maybe to point him to something greater. Certainly, though, we’re already seeing that the outlook of Solomon’s all-out search is a little pessimistic. He says, yep I’ve conducted an all-out search and I tell you it was a grievous tasks.
In fact, we see a preliminary conclusion for this experiment with wisdom in verse 14. Look what he says there:
I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
Notice again, the testimony Solomon gives to the comprehensiveness of his search. How many of the works, how many of the happenings has Solomon seen under the sun? All of them. He says- you show me something, I already know about it. You can’t bring something before me I haven’t already checked out. I’ve seen it all. I’ve studied it all. And you know what the verdict is. Behold, Solomon says, look, see for yourself. Bring it vividly before your own eyes. All is vanity and striving after wind. We’ve seen the phrase all is vanity before in Ecclesiastes 1:2. He is saying all is hevel. All is vapor.It’s something you can’t grasp. You can’t keep everything. Everything in the world is like that, Solomon says. I know because I’ve studied it.
But then Solomon adds a parallel phrase to this vanity idea for emphasis. He says everything under the sun, every work, everything that happens is striving or chasing after the wind. That’s a phrase we’ve probably heard a lot. But just think about what a great image, what a perfect image to epitomize a futile and fruitless pursue. Even though you can’t see the wind, you can feel it. You can see its effects. But could you ever catch the wind? This is a goal only a naive child would attempt. I mean even if you knew where the wind was going and were following it, could you ever catch up to it? And if you could catch up to it, could you grab hold of it? And if you could grab hold of it, could you keep hold of it? And if you could keep hold of it, what would you have? Nothing but air.
Solomon says in my all-out search, my comprehensive search, I discovered that everything in life is just as frustrating and fruitless as trying to chase after and bottle up the wind. There is no lasting profit or satisfaction in it, not even in the quest to understand it. As a little punctuation to this first part of Solomon’s experiment with wisdom, Solomon gives a short proverb in verse 15. Look at what he says there:
What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Like many proverbs, the meaning of this statement is not clear at first, but it’s meant to be pondered, thought about, meditated on. What strikes me as particularly interesting about this proverb though is that it conflicts with what were some common sayings at the time. For example, there was an Egyptian proverb that said something like the following – a crooked stick can be made straight with careful effort. How optimistic, right? And apparently this proverb was used as an encouragement to teachers who had unruly students. Yes I know that little Moshe is a problem child in your class, but given enough patience and effort you can set him straight. Solomon’s proverb expresses the opposite sentiment. Sometimes, friend, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t straighten out Moshe. What is crooked cannot be made straight.
But Solomon doesn’t have simple pedagogy in mind. We’ve seen up to this point just from verses 13 to 14, he’s talking about everything that happens under heaven. All is vanity, Solomon says. And it’s a fitting application of a certain proverb. In other words, Solomon is saying of life in general – there are problems, even the most fundamental problems of this world, that cannot be fixed, no matter how hard you try and no matter how much you know. What is crooked cannot be straightened. You just have to accept it.
As for the second half of verse 15’s proverb, we don’t know of any parallels in the ancient world. And the meaning is even more puzzling than the first half because it seems so obvious. The truth seems so obvious. Of course you cannot count what is not there, duh. So what does Solomon mean by this? Again, think about the context of what he’s shared with us just this far. His experiment with wisdom, his all-out search for everything that is under the sun. In a sense, this experiment ,this search, it’s Solomon trying to count up the world, to assess it, calculate it, crunch the numbers, punch in the data, except he’s realized there a big hole in the data. Not a nothing, not a zero, but a deficit, a lack, a negative. How does one account for a lack and use it to calculate the rest of the data when one does not even know what the lack is? It’s like if someone were to steal a precious jewel from you that had never been valued. Do you really know what you had lost? How will the insurance company be able to reimburse you? They don’t have an ability to assess what you lost. It’s like trying to solve a crime with a key piece of information missing. You know that a crime took place, but the investigation can’t move forward until that key information that is lacking is provided.
Applying this idea to life, Solomon is saying though you do a thorough investigation of the world and its mysteries, you will discover that some solutions remain out of reach. There’s knowledge missing that cannot be recovered, knowledge that you need. You know there’s a lack, but you cannot count it or use it to find the greater answers. Solomon has more to say about his wisdom quest, but he’s already exposed for us some fundamental failures in it. He says my all-out search for wisdom only showed me how vaporous and profitless everything in the world is. My most fundamental problems of life cannot be fixed, and some of the most crucial pieces of information cannot be discovered.
So what then is the value of a search for wisdom? Is this teaching from Solomon relevant to our world today? Consider our current society’s obsession with knowledge and education. For every problem we face, what is the assumption? Give us enough time, give us enough bright minds, and we’ll figure it out. We’ll find a fix. We’ll find a solution. Are we seeing problems with racism, anger, sexual harassment? What we need is education. Put those offenders in a class. Put them in a training course. That’ll fix it. Are we seeing a rise in depression and suicide? Let’s just get our psychologists, our psychiatrists, our experts together to study the issue. We’ll come up with the theories, we’ll come up with the treatments, the therapies, the pills. We’ll fix it. What about death? Oh yeah, we’re not there yet, but we’ll figure it out. I read one scientist claim not too long ago – death is no longer a reality that is acceptable. It’s time that we overcame death. Well maybe science can bring us there. We can fix the problem of death through knowledge, through study. We haven’t gotten there yet, but someday we will. Even Solomon show us how misguided such thinking is.
What about you personally? How much do you trust in knowledge? Do you think that if you go to high school, college, graduate school, that you’ll discover all the answers to life’s problems? You’ll have everything figured out. Or do you think that if you just study the Bible enough, enough Christian books, enough parenting books, then you can make sure that every one of your children turns out well and becomes a Christian. Do you think that you could just read and read and read and read and read all the books that you’ll discover some secret, some outlook some view point, some philosophy that will satisfy your soul? Those philosophers, they say a bunch of interesting things. Maybe, maybe they can show me how to have happiness and fulfillment in life. Just got to keep reading. Do you think that?
We need to look at Solomon. He did a more comprehensive search than any of us ever will. And he concluded – friends, whatever you’re looking for is not there. Unless we say – but Solomon, you lived three thousand years ago. There’s a lot of new stuff today. You know, there’s more for us to study. Remember what he said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 – there’s nothing new under the sun. Upgraded versions, different combinations, but I’ve already seen it.
So the first parameter of Solomon’s wisdom experiment is a comprehensive study. Now let’s look at the second key parameter in verses 16 to 18. That is a consummate student. Consummate meaning superb, supreme, the best, unsurpassed, perfect. This experiment included a consummate student. Look at verse 16:
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.
Solomon switches here from discussing the epic bounds of his study to the epic preparation of himself as a learner. Notice he says – behold, look, and see it. See what? I have magnified and increased wisdom. Here again, we see two similar words used together for extra emphasis. We could translate them together as I greatly magnified. I supremely increased in wisdom. Solomon offers a comparison. He says – I increased more than all who were over Jerusalem before me.
Now a side note, this phrase trips up interpreters a little bit because they say overall in Jerusalem before you, you were just talking about how you were king in Jerusalem and that was only you and David. So wasn’t there only one person before you in Jerusalem? Isn’t it kind of silly for you to say over all who in Jerusalem before me? People go crazy with this – this is why Solomon is not the author and he’s just you know, whoever the speaker is, he’s just pretending to be Solomon temporarily and that’s why he lets his historical details like this slip. But I think this line of thinking is total foolishness because the whole point of this passage, as I think I’ve already been trying to make clear to you, is that he’s presenting himself as the wise man par excellence – the past the greatest. Solomon fits that bill. But some random wise man – why should we listen to him? Solomon was wiser than he was. He comes to a certain conclusion about life, so what? Maybe someone else knows more than you. But if Solomon really was, okay you can’t really argue with Solomon. As we’ll see more in just a bit, I don’t think that’s the answer. It’s not that this is proof that Solomon is not really the author. Rather I think there is a solution. It could be and some have suggested that this is just Solomon referring also to those who ruled in Jerusalem before even David did. There are plenty of people who ruled that city who are considered great men. He says I surpassed them. I think what is even more likely though is that this is just royal speak. Plenty of royal boast at this time all use the exact same language of Solomon does here, which is I have surpassed everyone who has ruled here before me. Such a boast does not require literally in that city. It just means any ruler up till now. Yeah, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Solomon says I surpassed them all in wisdom. Either one of those solutions I think is possible. The point is no one has possessed or amassed the kind of wisdom that Solomon has. Other kings would boast about it. Solomon actually fits the boast. He actually had the wisdom.
And notice that last phrase of verse 16 that just emphasizes that truth. He says – my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. Again two synonyms being used there in that phrase wisdom and knowledge for emphasis. Solomon is basically saying my heart has amassed incredible wisdom. I know and I know how to know. I’m a wise man and expert learner.
You might be like, okay calm down a little bit Solomon. Aren’t you a little full of yourself? Have some humility. Solomon is just telling it like it is. Solomon’s not like one of us. He’s not somebody we just managed to scrounge and get a little bit of wisdom. His wisdom was actually lavished on him by God Himself. I want you to see this. Take your Bibles and look at 1 Kings chapter 3. To give you the context here, Solomon has recently become king. He has stabilized his throne, gotten rid of some threats. God comes to visit Solomon in a dream and God asked Solomon – tell Me whatever it is you want and I’ll give it to you, because God loved Solomon. And Solomon gives an amazing reply, a humble reply and an extremely wise reply. He says – God what I need is wisdom. I need discernment in order to govern this great people of Yours. I know it’s a big responsibility. God, I need your widsom. Look at God’s reply in 1 kings 3 starting in verse 10. We’ll read down to verse 12:
Now it was pleasing in the sight of the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the lives of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you.
God says – I’m giving you lavish wisdom. In the timeline of history, you will stand out as a supremely wise man. And this is illustrated, if you just go further on in the chapter, with this draw-dropping verdict of Solomon gives over two harlots who are arguing over a baby. Or if you go further into chapter 4, at the end of chapter 4 you just hear about the amazing breath of Solomon’s knowledge. He’s writing songs. He’s writing proverbs. He’s talking about trees and animals. He has kings and dignitaries from all over the world visit his court just to listen to him and talk with him and ask him questions. He truly was the wise man par excellence. Solomon understood life and the world better than anyone, even us today.
You can go back to Ecclesiastes now. Having amassed such a trove of wisdom, look at what Solomon’s experiment further consisted of in Ecclesiastes 1:17. The first part, he says:
and I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly;
This is interesting. There’s that phrase again – I set my mind. I firmly decided. I committed myself. To what, Solomon? To wisdom, to know wisdom. All right, we’ve seeing that. Now notice the second part – and to know madness and folly. What’s the difference between madness and folly? You guessed it. Here again we have two terms that are pretty synonymous, used together for emphasis. He’s saying – I made it my goal to understand the most insane and even foolish things. Even sinful things I wanted to know and have understanding of that, along with wisdom. Now to that we might ask – what do you mean, Solomon? Are you saying that you’re just looking at this from the outside, you know like a Christian apologist might? We study Islam. We study Catholicism from the outside because we’re trying to get the word to the people inside. Is that what you’re talking about Solomon? Or are you saying that you went in to get knowledge from the inside? You participated in it. You experienced it. No, actually, I think the answer is both, because we’re going to see as we to go into chapter 2 that Solomon, for the sake of his experiment, he’s willing to go into sinful indulgence. He’s willing to even live in folly. And Kings says the same thing. Towards the end of his life, Solomon is not commended as one who continued to follow God but whose heart was led astray from God. He is not a man who acted with perfect godly wisdom in all of his life.
But it does show us his commitment to his experiment. I’m going to know everything. I want to know all wisdom and even madness and folly. Even the most insane ideas I want to know them. I want to understand them and I want to experience them, to see what good there is in them for men. Solomon clearly then is the consummate learner, the supreme student. He wants to thoroughly understand wisdom and folly so that he might see what gain there is for mankind. And could anybody have set up the experiment better than he did, a more comprehensive study, a more consummate student?
This is truly epic. He’s like a champion of knowledge, an ultimate champion on an ultimate quest. None of us will be able to top what Solomon is doing. Whatever the results are, none of us will be able to contradict them. We’re kind of just like cheerleaders sitting on the sidelines, who shout – Solomon, Solomon, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can. But could Solomon do it? Could he find true gain as the supreme wise man? Let’s not forget, he is also the blessed son of David. He’s got Davidic covenant and Davidic blessings and the blessings of being an Israelite also working for his favor. If anyone could do it, it’s Solomon. What does he say? Look at the rest of verse 17:
I realized that this also is striving after wind.
What a failure. What a defeat. What an epic fall. Man’s champion of wisdom confesses he couldn’t find any gain. He only found that his efforts and his amassed knowledge was as useless as chasing the wind. Solomon, how could this happen? How could even you fail when you were the best? Listen to his explanatory proverb in verse 18. He says:
Because in much wisdom there is much grief; and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.
Here is another short but ponderous set of lines that also might have a connection to ancient pedagogy, to training young students. There were plenty of sayings at that time that are similar to the saying we have today – no pain no gain. And what does that phrase mean? It’s going to hurt a little bit, but in the end you’re going to get something good for it. Yes, I know this learning is hard, that homework is hard, that studying is hard, but keep going because in the end you’ll find gain.
But again Solomon takes that popular idea and he totally turns it on its head. According to Solomon, pain is not the means of learning but the result of learning. Solomon declares – you know what you’ll get in your quest for knowledge and enlightenment? Ultimately sorrow and suffering. Astoundingly, this is the preliminary conclusion of Solomon’s experiment with wisdom. Friends, there is no gain to be found, only pain. Why? Solomon why do you say that increased knowledge only leads to increased sorrow? He doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think about it.
So take a moment now and think about it. Why should increased wisdom, why should increase knowledge result in increased pain? One writer I read mentioned an image he never forgot. He was attending a college party and he noticed a brilliant philosophy student sitting on one side, up against the wall. This philosophy student had a bottle of vodka in one hand and was rhythmically banging his head against the wall. Why does increased knowledge result in increased pain? Solomon will tell us a little bit in chapter 2, but here’s some reasons that I could think of. I’m sure there are more. When you have increased knowledge, you realize the limitations on learning that are present in this world. Some data is just missing. You also realize your own limitations and learning. You want to learn, you try to learn, but some things are just too hard for you. Or you learn it and then you forget it. Do you ever notice that? You also realize just how much evil, folly, and suffering exists in this world. What’s one of the most common types of stories that we see – coming of age right? These are kind of bittersweet stories or films because when you learn more about the world, yeah you need to in order to get by, but it’s a sad realization to just discover how much evil and danger and frustration there is.
I know one instance in my life that really drove this home to me was when I studied the history of modern china. I’m into history. I like to study history. And I realized I didn’t really know anything about China’s history and I found this excellent course about it. I was really excited. I want to learn more and get a better knowledge of the world. But as I learned what actually happened in china to create the modern state, I was filled with sorrow. I realized just what atrocities, what insanity has been pursued for the sake of some gain. Someone had a great idea that he thought would bring gain. And to bring it about, he and others sacrificed millions of human lives. It wasn’t something that I learned about and said I’m glad I know that. It made me very sorrowful.
This is what increasing knowledge does. Ultimately, knowledge brings pain and suffering because you realize that it won’t bring you true gain and all your effort to find true gain through knowledge is waste. How crushing such realizations are, especially to the one who is devoted to knowledge. Our society says – yes knowledge, that will get you where you need and where you want to go. Solomon says – actually it’ll just bring you more pain. People in the world taste this truth now and then and it drives them to despair. What about you? Have you realized the truth of what Solomon was presenting to us? If Solomon found no way to leverage his monumental insight into lasting gain or profit in this world, do you think that you will do better? No, no, I think I got an idea, Solomon, that’ll work. Don’t be so foolish. If you go through multiple levels of schooling, listen to all the podcast, read all the books, and attend all the seminars, you’ll never surpassed Solomon. This means that you’ll never find anything different than he did. You won’t find gain through knowledge.
So here’s Solomon’s first experiment laid out for us, his experiment with wisdom. Number one – Solomon conducted a comprehensive study. And number two – he was a consummate student. Yet devotion to wisdom did not bring him profit, lasting profit. But do you see why Solomon indeed has the credibility to say what he does in this book? He knew. He understood. He’s done the research. And do you see why there’s no point in attempting Solomon’s same experiments in our own lives? You’re not going to discover something different. And Solomon, by the way, doesn’t just give his findings, his opinion. The other Scriptures clarify for us – this is God speaking through Solomon. This is divine affirmation on what Solomon found. He says – that is correct.
Christian or non-Christian, knowledge will not bring you gain. So where does that leave us? Is wisdom useless? Is knowledge unprofitable? Is life pointless? Hopefully, you know by now from the previous Ecclesiastes sermons, that the answer is no. No, there is still a better way to approach life and to approach wisdom. This way does not crave endless knowledge. We don’t suppose that wisdom can do more than it can do. Wisdom is useful. As you saw even later in chapter 2, he says wisdom is better than folly by far. There’s just certain things it can’t do and you’ve got to realize that. Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean that you have suddenly all the answers or you have all the solutions. No, you still live in a hevel world. Some things are still crooked for you. Some data still lost, even for you and for me.
But there is still a better way. The way is that way that Solomon is going to keep coming back to in Ecclesiastes. A way that doesn’t look for gain in the world, but ultimately looks for gain in God. God is our gain. Christ is our treasure. He is our life and He is the way to life. And when we can believe that and live that, then life becomes colored by joy. Because you just take each day and every little thing in it as a gift, even our knowledge, even our wisdom. We don’t suppose that it can do more than it can do, but we’re grateful for what it can do. I didn’t make a dumb decision on that thing. Thank You God for give me some wisdom about that. I know ultimately that’s not going to transform my life, but it did help me in my little sojourn. Thank you God. That’s the way to gain people. That’s the way to the wise and happy life. But first you’ve got to see that on its own, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, discernment, it can’t bring you ultimate profit. I need you clinging to that. I heard you. Listen to the wisdom of Solomon, the wisdom of God through Solomon. And listen to what the New Testament says about Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 says:
But it is due to Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written: “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The way to wisdom is to humbly live in gratitude and fear before God, which ultimately finds its culmination in Christ. Do you have the wisdom of Christ? That’s the only way to true gain.
Solomon has more to say about wisdom and we’ll get to that, but first he wants to tell us about another experiment that he conducted – an experiment with joy or pleasure, which is what we’ll talk about next time we’re in Ecclesiastes.
Let’s close in prayer. Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for how You show us how even knowledge itself, wisdom itself is limited. And how You yet show us a greater wisdom. A wisdom that culminates in Christ. Lord, the wise way to live is in humble fear of You, not in independence even in our thinking, but Lord actually dependence on You. For any here who are not doing that, who insist they’ve discovered some secret they know they can find some secret of the truly happy and wise life, I pray that they would give that up and repented that foolish way of thinking, and they listened to You and Your kind words from Ecclesiastes. Lord I pray that we’ll be able to give You praise even now as we prepared to sing for how You are are wisdom and You are our gain, nothing in this world. In Jesus name. Amen.