I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.
I thought to myself, “I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem; I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas; however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind! For with great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
The Preacher knew of what he spoke. We do not have to like it, but we do well to seek to understand and respect his witness.
The Preacher has testified that all things are hevel: a vapor, futile, even absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). He understood time as a cycle; nothing is really new under the sun, all things have already been done beforehand, and later generations have forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11).
The Preacher now sets forth his purpose. He spoke of himself as Qohelet, the Preacher or Teacher, even though he was king over Israel in Jerusalem; thus we understand him to be Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:12; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12:9). He wanted to understand human effort and striving on the earth. He understood it to be the burdensome tasks God has given to mankind to keep them occupied, and yet they are all futile (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).
The Preacher introduced us to one of his favorite images which exemplify the futility of life and deeds under the sun: a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). To strive or chase after the wind represents sheer folly: how could you catch the wind? It continues to blow across the earth; you cannot expect to grab ahold of it; and even if one could theoretically capture wind, it would immediately cease being the wind!
Humans bristle at the thought that all their work ultimately does not mean much and that we strive after wind. We tell ourselves motivational and uplifting platitudes about how what we do will influence and shape the world. We seek to satisfy desires and enjoy the good life. We recognize we have various challenges and difficulties but want to imagine that if we just had a little more money, a little more time, or worked on ourselves just a little bit more, we would be able to overcome them and get what we want.
Can we all think of people who have profoundly influenced our lives and our patterns of behavior? Absolutely. Is the Preacher thus wrong? Not in the grand scheme of things. What has become of all the “influencers” of four or more generations ago? They have been forgotten, just as the Preacher expected (Ecclesiastes 1:11). To seek after meaning and renown in the works of this world is to strive after wind: fame and meaning are ephemeral vapors which will not last.
Likewise, to live for the future and expect things to get better with just a little more this or that is also a striving after wind. If you do come into a little more money, there will always be more reasons to spend. If we work on ourselves a little bit, we will find other problems. We can never fully overcome our limitations, challenges, and difficulties; the “ideal” or “good life” is futile, absurd, and a striving after wind. One can pursue it all day long; whatever one captures will cease being what is desired after being obtained. Thus, indeed, all that is crooked cannot be made straight; what is lacked will never be fully satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:15).
The Preacher continued with an extraordinary claim: he had become wiser and more knowledgeable than those who had ruled over Jerusalem before him (Ecclesiastes 1:16). We might be skeptical of such a “flex” and boastfulness, yet God indeed had given Solomon great wisdom (1 Kings 3:12-13, 4:30). Furthermore, his goal is not to vaunt himself as much as it is to establish credibility for what he was saying. Humans understandably resist what the Preacher has to say; they would be tempted to wonder who the Preacher was to make such claims and why we should accept them. The Preacher spoke thus of himself to establish his bona fides: he has explored wisdom and knowledge. He has greater depth of experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Will we thus consider what he has to say?
Surely a man as wise and knowledgeable as the Preacher would thus affirm the great power and importance of wisdom and knowledge. Yet when he compared wisdom and knowledge with folly, or attempted to know both wisdom and folly, he considered them also a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:17)!
How could the same man who so exalted wisdom over folly in the Proverbs here consider all of it a striving after wind? The question, as always, is to what end? Paul rightly warned Christians that knowledge can make arrogant (1 Corinthians 8:1); we must remember that it also ultimately is a striving after wind, since what we learn dies with us, and of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom there is no end. Furthermore, was Socrates wrong when he considered that all he knew was that he knew nothing, for the more he learned, the more he recognized he had to learn?
The Preacher recognized frustration and grief attended to knowledge and those with wisdom consign themselves to heartbreak (Ecclesiastes 1:18). Consider Cassandra of Greek legend: she was able to see the future, but whenever she would speak of it, she would not be believed. A similar curse comes to all who have reliable wisdom and knowledge. One would like to think wisdom and knowledge would be heeded, yet many people’s livelihoods depend on them not accepting such wisdom and knowledge. Folly parades in the streets seemingly unmolested and those with insight are left to mourn and weep. Such is how it feels today; yet in truth, such is the way it has always been. Perhaps this is part of the reason the old adage declared ignorance to be bliss! From the beginning knowledge has come with a curse, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that wisdom and knowledge will save the day. To this end the author of Proverbs thus reminds us of the limitations of the wisdom and knowledge he so thoroughly exalted in its pages. It can only go so far, and it causes great grief when one perceives how well wisdom is considered and honored.
Thus the Preacher has established his central premise: human life under the sun is futile and a striving after wind. We look for meaning where none will endure; we want permanence where there is nothing but vapor and wind; we want to hang our hat on some certainty, some form of advantage that will endure, and find them all flawed, limited, and ultimately hopeless. It will all be forgotten in the end. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the Preacher is not wrong about this life. Such is why it is so important for us to invest in what God is accomplishing in the Lord Jesus Christ so we may obtain eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry