In the book of Ecclesiastes we are told that life should not be expected to be self-fulfilling because life only has meaning when it is lived in a right relationship with God. Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, summarized this at the beginning when he said, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). The meaning of the word Vanity, as used by Solomon throughout this book, is best described as fleeting and frustrating. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is an old man who captures the vain attempt of mankind’s longing for relevance and meaning in a sinful world. This brings us to Solomon’s first attempt at finding meaning in a meaningless world: Wisdom. He writes: “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:13-14).
Wisdom is Vanity Because the World is Crooked
Solomon illustrates the problem of wisdom in this world in chapter 1, verse 15: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, what is lacking cannot be counted.” Our present world is fleeting and frustrating because it is crooked. What does Solomon mean by crooked in the book of Ecclesiastes? Crooked has a few possible meanings: 1) Evil, 2) Twisted/Bent, and 3) Inscrutable/Mysterious. So, which is it? Crooked, in this verse and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, means inscrutable because the second part of the verse has the same understanding. Consider how the Good News Version translates Ecclesiastes 1:15: “You can’t straighten out what is crooked; you can’t count things that aren’t there.” Wisdom suffers in an enigmatic world.
Wisdom is Vanity Because it Increases Sorrow
The false presupposition of modern man is that knowledge and wisdom will free us from the futility of this world. Mankind tries to straighten what is bent by trying to figure everything out (Wisdom). Wisdom, however, is fleeting and frustrating. Wisdom is good, but sin has distorted wisdom. You will not find relevance and meaning in wisdom. Solomon tells us “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecc 1:18). We are told that the more we figure out, the unhappier we will be.
How did the world get in this condition? We read in Ecclesiastes 7:13: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked?” The world is crooked/bent because God made it that way? God did not originally make the world this way, the world became subject to futility (Rom 8:20) after Adam and Eve rebelled against God (Gen 3). What is bent by nature cannot be made straight by man. It has to be reformed by its Creator.
Wisdom is Vanity Because it Over Promises
Before we go much further let us define some key terms. What does Solomon mean when he speaks of wisdom in Ecclesiastes? Solomon tells us that wisdom is fleeting and frustrating when it is “according to worldly standards” (1 Cor 1:26). Because the world is crooked/bent, wisdom is fleeting and frustrating. Solomon “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (2:12). What is remarkable is that wisdom cannot be considered apart from madness and folly. What does this mean? First, wisdom is better than foolishness (2:13). There is more gain because wisdom helps us see the world in a more productive way. Just as it is better to have light in the dark than to have no light; so too it is better to be wise than a fool. Second, while wisdom is better it alone cannot keep you from suffering the same events that happen to a fool. Also, wisdom alone cannot keep you from dying. You can be wise and end up in the same place as a fool. Solomon concludes: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:16-17).
Wisdom is Vanity Without God
Worldly wisdom tries to fix man’s problems, but only exacerbates them. It promises answers but fails to provide solutions. One common example in our time is the wisdom of education. There are some who believe that the answer to man’s problems is education. Nelson Mandela went so far as to say, “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.” There are few who doubt that education can be very beneficial, but education alone cannot change the world. Without a change of heart, all education will do is create smarter criminals. We do not need to make everyone smarter, we need everyone to surrender to Jesus Christ. We need the Holy Spirit to regenerate our hearts so that we find our satisfaction in Jesus Christ and serve Him. We need repentance. Some believe that the government holds the answer to man’s problems. Let’s give the government more and more power so that they will take care of us. No government–Republican or Democrat–can solve our problems. Sure, a good and wise government can help and a wicked government can hurt; but man’s hope is not found in the capital but in the cross.
Solomon applied his heart to wisdom but found it to be vanity. Therefore, we conclude that wisdom, to have any meaning and purpose, must come from God Himself through His Son Jesus. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Wisdom that is found under the sun is fleeting and frustrating so we need “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). The wisdom of God is enduring and powerful. Wisdom is good as long as it begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10).
Let us seek to be as wise as possible, with the understanding that our wisdom must be rooted and grounded in God. We must see the benefits and limitations of wisdom in this world that is fleeting and frustrating as we look to Jesus who will bring the world to come.