A Sorry State of Wisdom–Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

The electric bill comes in the mail toward the end of a long, hot July. You know that the number on that bill is going to look like the national debt of Costa Rica, and you know that you spent far too much money on fireworks and meat to throw on the grill. As you hold the envelope in your hand, it feels heavier than a couple pieces of paper could possibly be.

I no longer get bills in the mailbox, and I haven’t had a budgetary crisis like that one for many years, but I’ve been to that place, holding that envelope. And what did I do with that beastly thing? I threw it into a pile of other unopened mail. If I didn’t open it, then somehow it wasn’t quite real. If I didn’t open it, then I could pretend that it wasn’t about to be a budget implosion for me.

That scenario is what comes to mind when I read the remainder of Ecclesiastes 1:

I said to myself, “See, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind.
    For with much wisdom is much sorrow;
    as knowledge increases, grief increases. –Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

Wasn’t it Solomon who said so many good things about wisdom? We’re supposed to gather wisdom and make it our constant companion. So what has happened to this guy? How does he go from saying that gaining wisdom should be job one to associating wisdom with sorrow. How is this not a colossal contradiction that once and for all proves that the Bible is just a pile of nonsense that needn’t be taken seriously?

To answer that question, we have to look at Ecclesiastes in a manner quite unlike the piecemeal approach that I’m taking. We have to consider the entire context of the book and then broaden out even more to see the broader context of the book within the canon of scripture.

Would it be painful for the recipient of that inflated electric bill to open the envelope? Of course it would. But is that person better off living in ignorance of the unhappy truth of his debt? Of course not.

Similarly, can it be painful to possess great amounts of wisdom and knowledge? Indeed it can. In fact, just yesterday, my wife and I became aware of some knowledge that brought us pain. And our understanding of God’s wisdom made that knowledge painful when people who didn’t possess that wisdom would have brushed off the information. So wisdom and knowledge bring pain, but are we better off not having those things?

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve opted for knowledge and “wisdom” by listening to the serpent. Their route to knowledge bypassed–in fact ran against–God. Similarly for us, wisdom and knowledge gained in the absence of God are indeed sorrowful “achievements.”

Seeking God’s kingdom first, means placing the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom second or below. Only then can it be a blessing.

How to Stop Worrying and Influence People–Ecclesiastes 1:12-15

Dale Carnegie had it all figured out. To “win friends and influence people,” you need to follow a few simple steps. Then, to “stop worrying and start living,” you do a few other things. Millions of people read Carnegie’s books that promised how to do these two things, and many of them found a certain measure of wisdom and success in their pages.

There’s the story of the man who was digging ditches on a county chain gang and happened upon the first Carnegie best-seller. That man, after applying the principles in those chapters, promptly became the president of the third largest railroad in the United States.

Okay, I made up that example, but, dating back to when Carnegie first started making a name for himself teaching public-speaking courses in New York YMCAs, he presented testimonials that were similarly dramatic. Dale Carnegie, it seems, never read Ecclesiastes:

I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to examine and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind.
What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted. —Ecclesiastes 1:12-15

Our world is full of people who have applied their minds to examine and explore all of the matters of this world. Let’s look at a few who were contemporaries with Dale Carnegie.

  • Sigmund Freud, as the father of much psychology, aimed to plumb the depths of the human mind and help people deal with such matters better.
  • Charles Atlas, the great comic-book advertised seller of a fitness program, tried to turn 98-pound weaklings into strapping specimens of health.
  • Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor, developed and detailed the “value-investment” system that lies behind the success of Warren Buffet.
  • Henry Ford, the great mass-producer of automobiles, revolutionized the way that much of life in the world is lived both through his innovations in industry and his popularization of cars.

I could go on, but these four will suffice. And they have one thing in common. They’re all dead. While their “under heaven” wisdom still influences life today, it is ultimately a pointless thing, a thing God has given people “to keep them occupied.”

Wait, is that right? Is all this “under the sun” wisdom just the divine equivalent of magazines in a doctor’s waiting room? Although it isn’t stated explicitly, this idea is embedded in Genesis 3:17-19 when God consigns Adam to eat by the sweat of his brow. Essentially, God seems to allow us, after we have turned from him, to seek our own way and discover how poorly that works.

Don’t think that I don’t appreciate the “under heaven” wisdom builders. Whether we know it or not, Graham and Ford, plus many others, have helped to create the prosperous world that we enjoy today. But if wisdom is restricted to that which is under heaven, then it is temporary and ultimately futile. If our prosperous world is the best outcome of our prosperous world, then life is, as Koheleth would say, futile.

Want to know How to Stop Worrying and Start Living? There’s an answer, but Dale Carnegie apparently didn’t know it.


Nothing New Under the Sun–Ecclesiastes 1:8-11

What is the point? I wake up and wash my face. I brush my teeth and apply deodorant. Sometimes I shave. Interestingly enough, a tube of toothpaste and a stick of deodorant both last me almost exactly four months. I’m not sure why I measured that, but I did. Shaving soap–I use a brush–will last for around 14 months. That suggests that I’ve been through 168 tubes of toothpaste in my life. The three cakes of shaving soap I have tucked in a bathroom drawer ought to just about be running out at my 60th birthday.

In the 31 years that I’ve been teaching college English, I’ve probably stood before more than 250 writing classes. Another 70 or 80 lie in my way before I retire. Each class has around 22 students, each of whom turns in four or five papers, papers reflecting the same sort of immature thought patterns and assumptions. Is it any wonder that I sometimes don’t spring out of bed in the morning?

Koheleth must have felt somewhat the same way in Ecclesiastes 1:8-11:

All things are wearisome,
more than anyone can say.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Can one say about anything,
“Look, this is new”?
It has already existed in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of those who came before;
and of those who will come after
there will also be no remembrance
by those who follow them.

As impatient as we can be when we are young, as we age we realize that life is long. Typically, that long life involves doing the same things day after day after day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day without Sonny and Cher singing on the alarm clock every morning.

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” That’s one of the more famous lines from Ecclesiastes, and all you have to do is turn on cable news to confirm the truth of this statement. The details may have changed but you’ll have the same sorts of people–often the exact same people–saying essentially the same things in response to nearly every supposed news item.

We watch TV and movies with the hope of seeing something new, but rarely do we find it. In fact, when things are truly new, truly surprising to such a degree that they delight us, it just underscores how numbingly the same most of what passes for entertainment can be. The same can be said for food and for music and for a host of other things.

But should we truly seek novelty? Is there anything wrong with the fact that there’s nothing new under the sun?

I think that what Koheleth tells us here is that our minds are not satisfied for long with the things that are under the sun. So if there is nothing new there, then we’ll wind up feeling like he does. The problem, I’d suggest, is that if we’re looking for our thrills “under the sun,” then we are bound to disappointment. We’ll keep adding new riches and new wives (I’m thinking of Solomon here) but still find nothing but a nagging sense that there ought to be something more.

And there is something more, but Ecclesiastes doesn’t want to address it directly.

Which Circle of Life?–Ecclesiastes 1:5-8

Can you hear the song playing? If you can’t, you’ll probably have it stuck in your head after this:

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love.

Apparently, Solomon didn’t see it like this. As we progress deeper into Ecclesiastes, we find “the Preacher” using some of the same imagery that The Lion King made inspiring in its opening song. But where Disney brought a tear to our eye with that imagery, Solomon makes it a pointless, purely mechanistic universe.

The sun rises and the sun sets;
panting, it returns to the place
where it rises.
Gusting to the south,
turning to the north,
turning, turning, goes the wind,
and the wind returns in its cycles.
All the streams flow to the sea,
yet the sea is never full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.–Ecclesiastes 1:5-7

So what’s the difference? Although I’m not going to completely affirm The Lion King’s theology, the difference between that film and what Ecclesiastes seems to be saying hinges on the fact that the Disney product actually has something like a theology and a point to the universe, unless we’re supposed to believe that the sudden burst of sunlight at 3:32 in the video is just a coincidence. “Till we find our place,” the song proclaims, the clouds allowing the sun through on “place.”

What is our place? If we take the opening verses of Ecclesiastes at face value, then we might be listening to the likes of Richard Dawkins, people who claim that we live in a completely unguided, completely accidental world. Why do we have creatures as diverse and wonderful as a lion and a baboon? According to them, it is pure random chance, spiced up with natural selection.

The Preacher points to the sun, wind, and streams. They seem to be going somewhere, but that appearance of purpose is like the appearance of design in life. It’s just an illusion. In fact, those three forces wind up right back where they started their cycles. In these verses, the “circle of life” has no more point than the spinning horses on a carousel.

If we were to buy into the idea that nothing has a point, then really the only rational way of life would seem to be the pursuit of pleasure espoused by Epicureanism. If there’s nothing bigger than me, if the cycles of nature are indeed going nowhere, then why shouldn’t I be as selfish as I want? Why shouldn’t I hate my neighbor and my enemy if it suits me? Why shouldn’t I take and take to get as much of what I want as I can get?

If we believe that the circle of life is of no more significance than the spinning of a pinwheel, which seems to be where Solomon is taking us, then why wouldn’t we be mired in despair, moaning about everything being pointless?

Without God, the circle of life is spiraling toward the death of the sun and the depletion of our natural resources. I’ll opt for Simba’s circle above that, but God has a better one still.

Grass and Flower–Ecclesiastes 1:3-4

My great-grandfather, John W. Browning, homesteaded land in Howell County, Missouri. Seven years on the land allowed him to fill out some paperwork and receive a title to the property. During those years, he and his wife, the marvelously named Illinois Inman Browning, lived in a 16-by-18-foot house with seven of their eventual ten children. And for seven years of hard work and improvement to the property, John and the family received ownership of 160 acres, worth some $250 to $300 (or roughly the value of the improvements he had made to the farm).

Sometime between receiving the land patent in 1894 and the the 1900 census, those Brownings moved off to Oklahoma where they lived for over 40 years, still tending the soil, watching as one child after another moved away. According to his obituary, John was a man of faith, but all indications are that the was unable to read, so he didn’t take in the next bit of Ecclesiastes:

What does a person gain for all his efforts
that he labors at under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.–Ecclesiastes 1:3-4

We can get exceptionally invested in the short term. I receive a raise at work or the price of Netflix stock rises. Suddenly I feel as if things are working out exceptionally well, but when we take that longer view, what does it matter? Take the case of William Rockhill Nelson. This businessman founded the Kansas City Star, amassing a very noteworthy fortune. And what did he gain? The newspaper business is circling the drain. Nelson’s family has died out. Yes, his name remains on the Nelson-Atkins Museum, but is that really gain for Mr. Nelson?

Work, it seems, is pointless. But of course I can’t just quit my job, because I really enjoy the money that they send. When Johnson County Community College first hired me, I threw myself down on the floor of my office at KU. This was my big break. Now, 27 years later, I’m not unhappy that they made that call, but I realize that at the end of the day, my retirement account will be the most lasting legacy of that employment. It might outlive me, but it won’t outlive my wife.

Today, somebody new is farming (or just living on) John Browning’s land in Howell County. New media has left the newspapers struggling for survival. Younger English teachers have filled in the ranks of my department at the college. “A generation goes and a generation comes.”

What “the preacher” does not say in these verses is that there is something that is not simply futile, something more than a vapor. Isaiah had it right:

“All humanity is grass,
and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flowers fade,
but the word of our God remains forever.”–Isaiah 40:6,8

The difficulty for us is to focus ourselves on something beyond the futile. We’re to look not on the grass and the flowers that constitute our work and life but on the word of God.

Vanity, Futility, Meaninglessness–Ecclesiastes 1:2

I wasn’t raised in a barn, but I live in one now. As I write this, I’m in the basement of a 110-year-old dairy barn, in the area where Fred Redburn used to milk his cows. Fred owned 80 acres of what is now suburban Independence, Missouri. His cows ranged from the present 35th to 39th Streets. That takes us back more than 100 years. If we go back 200 years, this land was most likely wooded. Missouri statehood lay two years in the future and no one had laid claim to this tract.

Today, although the barn is still standing strong, the rest of that 80 acres is dotted with several dozen houses, mostly built in the 1970s. The cows are long dead, and whatever milk they produced has been used up. All of the work that good craftsmen and laborers put in on this property has mostly faded into faint memory. That takes us back to Ecclesiastes.

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”

That’s how the Christian Standard Bible renders Ecclesiastes 1:2. Others have gone different directions: “Meaningless!” (NIV), “Vanity of vanities” (KJV), “Nothing makes sense!” (CEV), “Pointless” (ISV), among others. That famous King James “Vanity of vanities follows the Hebrew, which employs a common biblical pattern of forming a superlative (the most extreme comparison) by saying “Song of songs” or “King of kings.” In other words, this “vanity” is the most “vanity-like” of all vanities.

But what on earth is vanity in this sense? Does it relate to somebody who is thinking way too highly of themselves? Is it that person who has to constantly coif their hair? Is it a piece of furniture with a mirror attached? None of our common usages of “vanity” capture the 1611 use of the word.

The Hebrew word, hebel, means, literally, vapor or breath. The metaphorical use of it is fairly easy to see. Like a vapor of condensation from my breath on a cold morning, anything that is a hebel will quickly fade away.

As I get older, I recognize that my works, for the most part, do not last very long. When I mow the grass, it immediately begins growing again. When I change my car’s oil, it will need changing again in a few months. And that car will, despite my best efforts at maintenance, eventually cease being useful. My most clever teaching ideas from the beginning of my career are useless today. My blog posts are read by a handful of people and then quickly forgotten. My improvements from diet and exercise, if not maintained, will quickly fade and even if they are maintained will gradually, as I age, disappear as my end is in the grave.

So we can see the futility of human life. Maybe I pass on good things to my children. That’s worthwhile, but they’re going to die eventually also. Everything and everyone is destined for death and decay. Futility, vanity, meaninglessness!

Ecclesiastes has introduced a demoralizing thesis statement. We have to ask ourselves why this book is in the Bible. But that’s a question for another day. For today, we should just reflect on the many futile things that make up our lives.

A Pointless Beginning–Ecclesiastes 1:1

One of my favorite things to say to Penny is a line from Forrest Gump, uttered in my best “Forrest” voice: “Mama, what’s my destiny?” She actually turned it around on me Sunday, writing it on a church bulletin in response to something the pastor said. Today, I’ve decided to take my destiny down a different path for a season.

It’s been a good while since I have worked my through a biblical book, so I decided to jump back in by looking at a simple one: Ecclesiastes. Let’s start at the beginning, Ecclesiastes 1:1:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.

At the risk of giving things away, this book, starting with my next entry, is going to take a thorough tour of meaninglessness and, as the King James Version puts it, “vanity.” With that on the horizon, we have to ask ourselves, looking at this first verse, what sort of a teacher this might be who would push a steady message of pointlessness.

But let’s back up a little bit more. Who is this teacher? The text does not name him as Solomon, but what other son of David served as king in Jerusalem? Unlike Song of Solomon, which can be read to be authored by someone else about or in honor of Solomon, Ecclesiastes is pretty clearly either written by Solomon or a fraud.

We certainly can’t explain what sort of teacher delivers this kind of a lesson (especially since we haven’t heard the lesson yet), but we can give the teacher (or preacher) a name. That’s a start.

But of course many Bible scholars, especially the sort who are skeptics of the Bible and desperately in need of publishing things that will get them tenure in their secular academic posts, will opt for the second option, calling Ecclesiastes a fraud, written under a false name. These people have lots of letters after their names and are widely respected by the likes of the Society for Biblical Literature. In fairness, they are incredibly learned and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Are they then correct?

To answer that, I’d like to go out to my garden. A few minutes ago, I stepped out there and completed a job for Penny, uprooting a well-established bush. After digging all around the bush and severing what roots I could, I needed to pry it out.  My problem was that I did not have a solid spot, a fulcrum, on which to base my shovel. Stealing a stone from a nearby wall, I created my fulcrum and, after a few minutes of struggle, had the bush out of the ground.

A fixed point, a fulcrum, is a vital thing. If I cannot believe a plain statement in the Bible, fixing my mind on it and applying some leverage, how can I believe anything in the pages? Certainly I can study the book as a cultural artifact of ancient Israel, but to understand it as a guide for life, as a help to discovering my destiny, I have to be able to depend on something. Should verse one of chapter one prove untrustworthy, then the Bible–or at least Ecclesiastes–is indeed meaningless.

With that said, let’s prepare to see tomorrow what Solomon has to tell us about life. Spoiler alert: It’s meaningless.