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Previous article in this series: January 15, 2011, p. 185.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (please read)

In a world of constant change under the judgment of God upon sin, all things come to vanity. This is the reality of a fallen world. Nothing satisfies so that it truly fills the heart, because the things of this life are not an end in themselves. Only that which God does in Christ can truly satisfy.

To understand this takes spiritual knowledge and discernment. It is in this context that the preacher, which is Solomon, stands forth as an instructor in wisdom. God set him as king over Israel in Jerusalem. When anointed as king, he had sought of God the gift of wisdom to rule God’s people, and God gave him that gift. It is from that viewpoint that, having set forth the principle of vanity, Solomon would now also stand before us as the preacher among God’s people to teach us wisdom. He sets before us, as it were, his credentials as a preacher and instructor in wisdom—spiritual credentials, of one to whom God had given the gift of wisdom in an extraordinary degree.

That gift was not automatic; it was one that he developed through the exercise of thought, discernment, and contemplation. He tells us as the preacher, “And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13). He says, “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly” (Eccl. 1:17). Wisdom is knowledge applied with skill. As Solomon speaks of it in Ecclesiastes, the focus is on knowledge and understanding put to use in the things of this life. The focus is “concerning all things that are done under heaven.” He would set before us certain aspects of a believer’s world-and-life-view of the things under the sun and our place and calling in them.

That seeking of the things that are done, that searching of them by wisdom, of what is wise and what is folly, involves a serious spiritual effort. It also involves study and reflection upon the relationships of life, the place of things—earthly treasures and possessions—and their proper use and end. He has in view man’s natural life, its science and discovery, and yet with spiritual discernment. By nature we often walk through the world about us without really seeing it. Solomon did more than simply observe the things of life. He writes, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun” (Eccl. 1:14). That is, his mind was engaged in analyzing, and seeking to understand them.

He did so, moreover, not only to understand what was wise but also to understand what was madness and folly. His searching had an antithetical character. That does not mean that he entered into all the world of sin around him, by walking in sin. The argument is sometimes made that one cannot understand something unless one has directly experienced it. That is not true. We do not need to experience sin to see it as sin. But observing sin and its consequences in the world does belong to a believer’s contemplation of the world he lives in.

Solomon did indeed enter into all the activities of life and labor and will speak of it in the next chapter in Ecclesiastes, but what he sought was to know and understand the place of them. Wisdom takes knowledge and puts it to practical use. Yet the wisdom of which he speaks is not mere practical common sense, for he speaks of giving his heart to seek and search. The heart is the spiritual center of a man’s life. The heart of a child of God, though he is a sinner, holds within it the fear of God, his creator, the reverence of faith, which is the spiritual foundation of true wisdom. That wisdom we are to seek. Its practical use has a spiritual dimension to it.

The world of men is also engaged in searching the things that are done under the sun so as to understand them. Sinful fallen man engages in science and develops technology and art. He develops his man-centered philosophies. He seeks to understand the nature of things: the psychology, form, order, and design of things. Searching out by wisdom, though it be the wisdom of this world, is done by the wicked also. Solomon points this out. It is something given to men. He says, “This sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith” (Eccl. 1:13). The text could also be translated, “to the sons of Adam.”

In forming man of the dust of the ground and giving him the breath of life, God gave to man dominion over the earth as a rational moral creature. As he was created in the image of God, he could exercise that dominion in the service of God. But man, now fallen, has lost the spiritual substance of the image and the right to exercise that dominion. He cannot in himself serve God, for he stands at enmity with God by nature. His wisdom he cannot use aright.

The impulse in man to seek out in the creation the things that are done still remains. We sometimes refer to this impulse in the original state of righteousness as the “cultural mandate.” The trouble with that term is that it sets the matter forth as being first of all a commission. Rather, this impulse is first of all something increated in man’s nature, something “given” to the sons of man. The calling to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth was not given to man alone. It was given likewise to the fish and the birds (Gen. 1:22) and is imbedded in the creation itself. That impulse is one “given to the sons of men” by God, though in man, it is given to him as a rational moral creature.

But in a world that lies fallen under the curse, this impulse is a “sore travail” that God in His judgment hath given to the sons of man. The wisdom of this world does seek out the order of things and develops the creation. It also seeks understanding and searches out a wisdom. The wisdom of this world, as it is from below and not above, is “earthly, sensual, devilish” ( James 3:15). It turns to “madness and folly.” For fallen man uses his knowledge, skill, and wisdom in the service of sin. He strives for mastery with his neighbor. He walks in covetousness and envy. He heaps and gathers, as Ecclesiastes will show, and does not ask, “whose shall those things be.” Jesus may well have had Ecclesiastes in view when He summarized this madness of pride and folly in the parable of the rich fool. For death, and the judgment, stand before the fool of this world.

The preacher would have us as God’s people to see, “behold ,” as those who walk through the labor and toil of life and through the same sore travail in a fallen world, that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit” for a reason. That reason is “that which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered” (Eccl. 1:15). The world does not want to see this or hear it. They strive in the pride of the flesh to make the crooked straight. They believe that man in his wisdom can supply that which is lacking. And when they fail, as they must in the vain madness of the world’s wisdom, it leads them to despair.

We too need to see the problem. The solution cannot come from man. It cannot be found “under the sun.” Only God, the creator and savior of His people, can make that which is crooked straight. God’s grace, wisdom, and mercy alone can supply an answer. He would impress on us this reality of the world about us, not to lead us to despair, but to seek God our creator. In a world fallen in sin, what is lacking cannot be numbered; you cannot count it all up or reckon it. Man cannot cure it.

The preacher’s example testifies that it is so, as he will show us in coming chapters. He speaks in a manner that reflects on his own understanding. He says, “I communed with mine own heart, saying Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: Yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge” (Eccl. 1:16). Solomon will call to mind his many works and the labor and toil in them. He reminds us of his riches, wealth, and honor in coming chapters. Could Solomon in all his glory and wisdom make that which was crooked straight? Could he by his toil supply what was wanting? The answer is manifestly, no.

Also he as a child of God, with all of his gifts and abilities, in all of his earthly glory and power, could not supply what is lacking. It is not in man to do so. This is reality, not pessimism. Sin, after all, is that which is crooked and bent. Sin is that which is lacking in goodness and virtue. Man cannot take away sin. The effect of sin in a world under the curse of God upon sin is that the whole life of the creation and of man lies in the midst of death. Man cannot cure it. He cannot deliver himself from the vanity of a world that lies in the midst of death.

In this connection he points also to the limitations of wisdom itself, particularly as he will speak of it, from the practical point of view of living from day to day in a world that is subject to vanity. He had “more wisdom,” than others. He studied to know wisdom. He says, “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly” (Eccl. 1:17). Did wisdom itself find a cure? Did his study and development of his gifts and exercise of wisdom in his works supply what was wanting? No, rather he says, “I perceive that this also is vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 1:17).

Why? He gives the reason, “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl. 1:18). Understanding the vanity of a world lying in the midst of death causes sorrow. Growing in that understanding in spiritual wisdom and discernment increases sorrow. This is true, and the preacher will show us more fully what he means by this also in coming chapters. This does not mean we should flee from knowledge, for the sorrow of which Solomon speaks works our spiritual good. It leads to spiritual sobriety in a true assessment of life. It leads us to hold loosely to the things of this world and put them in the proper perspective. It must lead us to the cross also, where the only answer to a world that lies in sin and death can be found. This sorrow is ultimately bound up with turning to the Lord in repentance, that in His grace we might walk daily in the fear of the Lord.