DEAD END AHEAD
Week of September 4, 2005
Background Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:26.
Focal Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:13, 16-2:8, 18-22.
Biblical Truth: Efforts to find ultimate purpose or meaning in philosophical or intellectual pursuits, physical pleasures, accumulated possessions, or personal achievements all prove futile.
Introduction to Ecclesiastes.
The Preacher sets forth the theme of his book in verse 2: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word translated vanity is “hebel” (1892) and is used thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes. It is clearly the main thought of the book. But it is a difficult word to translate. It basically means “wind” or “breath”, but, depending upon the specific context, it implies vanity, senselessness, transitoriness, purposelessness or meaninglessness. This sense of futility attaches to just about every aspect of our lives: pleasure (2:1-2); property (2:4); knowledge (2:12-16); wealth (2:8; 5:8-15); work (2:17-23); success (4:13-16); youth (11:10); frustration (4:4, 7-8); loneliness (4:9-12) and death (3:19; 11:8). To summarize, “hebel” appears to focus attention on the emptiness or worthlessness of life due to its transitory nature. The Bible brings out repeatedly the futility of this life (e.g., James 4:14; Romans 8:20). But over against the seeming futility of our fleeting existence stands the majestic unchangeableness of the infinite and eternal God with His promise of redemption. The Psalmist beautifully brings out this truth in 102:24-28.
The Preacher seems to be promoting the idea that everything really is vanity. We must remember that he is constructing an argument (even an apologetic) designed to lead us from one way of thinking to another that is radically different. He therefore starts with the wrong idea so that he may lead us to the right one (e.g., 12:1, 13). He means to expose what we nowadays call the secular view of life: a life without any absolutes, a life without the certainties of the revelation of God’s Word, a life lived out of values generated by man without reference to God, a life that expects lasting satisfaction from earthbound things. He wants to show how such a life can only be meaningless and must end in disillusionment in time, not to mention eternity. He seeks to bring out into clear view the chief good, the true happiness of man: both in what it does not consist (wisdom, pleasures, honors, wealth) and in what it does consist (the enjoyment and service of God).
The book of Ecclesiastes is especially relevant for our world today. The Preacher gives a vivid presentation that life “under the sun” is bankrupt of any significance lasting beyond the moment. Modern existentialism basically teaches the same position expounded by the Preacher in 1:2: all of life is meaningless. But, while existentialism has no solution for this meaninglessness other than to accept it, the Preacher reaches an entirely different conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). While there is no meaning “under the sun” (1:14), the Preacher finds meaning and significance in a life lived in a personal relationship with God.
Dead End of Intellectual Pursuits (1:13, 16-18)
 And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.  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.”  And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.  Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain. [NASU]
 “To seek and explore” represents two different types of searching: one penetrating in depth, the other going out in extension. The first verb (from the root-idea of grinding, testing) signifies to investigate an object which one already has in hand, to penetrate into it, to search into it thoroughly. The second verb (from the root-idea of moving round about) signifies to hold a survey, look round in order to bring that which is unknown, or not comprehensively known, within the sphere of knowledge. Thus this search that the Preacher sets his mind to is not some casual seeking out of information. He dedicates himself to this task of finding “all that has been done under heaven”. Notice that wisdom is the means (by wisdom) of this searching and inquiry. And in verse 18 we see that wisdom and knowledge are parallel and result in grief and pain. “Under the sun” introduces the sphere into which it extends; which is the world of men. But that which offers itself for research and observation there brings neither joy nor contentment, but only grief and increasing pain.
“A grievous task which God has given.” This is the first mention of “God”. Instead of the covenant name, Yahweh, the Preacher uses Elohim as the name for God throughout his book. In Proverbs, Yahweh is used seventy times compared to five times for Elohim. The emphasis in Ecclesiastes appears to be more on God’s sovereignty in creation and providence than His covenant relationship through redemption as we find in Proverbs. Clearly in this verse the emphasis is on God’s sovereign control over all mankind’s search for knowledge. But why has God afflicted us with such a grievous task? And why would the search for knowledge be described as a heavy burden?
[16-18] Having now gained a result in his investigation and research by means of wisdom (14-15), the Preacher reaches the conclusion that wisdom itself is nothing; that striving after wisdom and knowledge brings with it no true satisfaction. But compare Isaiah 28:29 where God has made His counsel wonderful and His wisdom great. And in Romans 11:33 where Paul exalts the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God. The result of the search for wisdom and knowledge to lift man up will always result in the meaninglessness and vanity that the Preacher describes in our passage. But the search for wisdom and knowledge that has God as its object and motivated by the heart’s desire to know Him above all else always results in a doxology like Paul’s in Romans 11:33-36, where the seeker will bow in awe and in worship to such a God whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are unfathomable. So it is not the search itself that results in a “dead end” but it is the search for the wrong reasons. Is not this the reason why God has given this “grievous task” to mankind? To show that apart from Him all seeking and striving after wisdom and knowledge is useless and to bring us to Him as the only source of a wisdom and knowledge that satisfies the heart and gives meaning and purpose to life (cf. Isaiah 33:6). To labor in the belief that we shall solve the problem of the meaning of life, outside a personal trust in God and feeding upon His Word, is to institutionalize futility and clothe our life with the frustrating reality that we may be always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:7).
Dead End of Physical Pleasures (2:1-3)
 I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility.  I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?”  I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. [NASU]
Here the Preacher describes his grand experiment into pleasure and its total failure. He introduces his experiment by a dialogue with his heart. He proposes a test, the goal of which is to determine if pleasures provide an adequate justification for human existence. He does not imply in verse 2 that all laughter is to be squelched as an evil; rather, as a solution for the basic problems of life (above all the problem of death), it is a total failure. His attempt to embrace folly while still being guided by wisdom was an attempt to indulge in pleasure without being consumed by it (v. 3). He wanted to know if rationally controlled indulgence in pleasure gave meaning to life. But to suppose that happiness is the creature of circumstances is man’s common delusion. True joy has its own character. It centers in truth. If we are not seeking heavenly pleasures, we shall soon be pursuing those that are shadowy and delusive. Self-discipline and self-distrust are the laws of self-preservation.
Dead End of Accumulated Possessions (2:4-8)
 I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself;  I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees;  I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.  I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.  Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men – many concubines. [NASU]
In these verses, notice how frequently “for myself” appears. This is the “gospel” of selfishness. It is the mentality that we see on the bumper sticker: “He who has the most toys, wins.” The Preacher’s possessions included buildings, horticulture, business, wealth and the arts and entertainment. No element of possessions seems to be lacking. And yet the result is barren indeed (2:11). The pleasure-seeker can never be a pleasure-keeper because pleasure in worldly things is always fleeting. The satisfaction addict is no more able to say “I have had enough, I am satisfied” than is the drug addict. There is never enough in this world to satisfy us. We soon tire of one pleasure and move on to seek pleasure in other things. But the meaning of life is not found in the possessions of this life, but only in God the Giver of life itself. As Augustine wrote: “How can you find a happy life where there is no life?” God created us and our life is only from Him.
Dead End of Personal Achievements (2:18-22)
 Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.  Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.  When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil.  For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? [NASU]
The Preacher will no longer live by the myth that hard work and well-earned wealth validate one’s life. Obsession with fulfillment through work and accomplishments ultimately leads to the crisis point at which one’s whole life is seen to have been lived for nothing. Not only the man’s possessions but even the skill and intelligence by which he acquired them are nullified by death. Note in verse 18 what brings on this hatred of “all the fruit of my labor”. It is the realization that he must leave all his accumulations in the hands of someone else. Death not only robs him of the enjoyment of all of his achievements, but forces him to turn over everything to someone who has not worked for it. Not only does the Preacher see this as vanity but also as a great evil (v. 21). The point in verse 22 shifts from what happens to his wealth after he dies to what happens to the man himself as he strives to achieve wealth. He sees now that there was nothing he could do to guarantee its permanence. Isaiah 55:2-3 provides us with the only answer to this dead end: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according to the faithful mercies shown to David.”
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why did the Preacher find knowledge and study frustrating? (1:12-15)?
What light do Genesis 3:17-19 and Romans 8:20 shed on these problems?
2. Instead of seeking knowledge apart from God we are called upon to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). What does that mean for your thinking in every area of life?
3. What is the lie of pleasure? What are the tricks that come along with the lie of pleasure, and how does pleasure cheat you? We are told by sociologists that about 20,000 times a day you are hit with an image or idea promising you pleasure in this world, whether through print media, through radio or television or internet. What practical ways can we guard our minds from the attacks of our culture to indulge in worldly pleasure-seeking? [It is important to make the distinction between pleasure and worldly-pleasure. The Preacher is describing worldly-pleasure in this passage. Pleasure is not evil since God has created us to experience and enjoy pleasure in Him, the Giver of all His gracious gifts. But worldly-pleasure turns away from seeking pleasure in God and pursues pleasure apart from God. In discussing practical ways to guard against worldly pleasure, move the discussion beyond just the basic practical suggestions (turn off, don’t look, etc). Remember that the only way to overcome and conquer the temptation of worldly-pleasure is found in the power of the Spirit working in and through God’s Word. But it is not just the reading, studying, memorizing, hearing the Word, etc. that is needed, even though meditating upon God’s promises and obeying His commands are very important. But the primary focus of this Word-centered activity must be on knowing the God who is revealed in His Word. As John Piper has written: “The fundamental reason that the Word of God is essential to joy in God is that God reveals himself mainly by his Word” (When I Don’t Desire God, p. 95). Piper then quotes John Owen concerning the pleasures of sin: “If the heart be filled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirableness upon them all; it leaves no seeming beauty, no appearing pleasure or comeliness, in them” (p.94). So it is important to bring out the truth that in the Word, the Spirit reveals the beauty and desirableness of God to our hearts and minds. Only when our desire for the pleasures of God is greater than our desires for worldly-pleasures will we truly be able to find and enjoy lasting pleasure.]
The Pundit’s Folly, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust.
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Duane Garrett, The New American Commentary.
Ecclesiastes, Charles Bridges, Geneva Series of Commentaries.