Human ineffectiveness. 1:13-18


In 1:13-2:26 the Preacher outlines his search for the meaning of life. He looks for it in pleasure, wisdom, work... Yet, like everyone he must die and this inevitability destroys the worth of his quest. He concludes that existence, in itself, cannot provide meaning; at best it can only be enjoyed. In our passage for study, the Preacher introduces his search for meaning and points to its sad conclusion. To find meaning in existence is like trying to catch the wind.

The passage

v13. The Preacher has set himself the task "to search and to explore" the meaning of existence by examining everything that is done on earth. He will do this through wisdom, the methodology evident in Proverbs, although he concludes that even wisdom is meaningless. His outlook is pessimistic; as far as he is concerned, it is a thankless/unhappy (lit. "evil") task that God has set him. Such a search may keep us busy (lit. "to keep them occupied"), but there is no joy in it because there is no solution.

v14. So why is the search so "evil"? After researching (lit "observing") the expanse of human experience (lit. "all that is done under the sun"), the Preacher concludes that "the whole mess is meaningless/emptiness" ("vanity", AV). He illustrates this meaninglessness with the image of "chasing after the wind."

v15. The Preacher quotes a proverb to sum up the situation on earth. It is self-evident that there is something fundamentally wrong with existence, and as God is its creator, there is nothing we can do about it. Things are bent and things are missing, and we just have to accept it.

v16. Solomon was wealthy and wise and the Preacher obtusely links himself with this wisest of men. He is not actually patting himself on the back, rather he is implying that if the wisest of the wise cannot find an answer, then no one can.

v17. The Preacher centers his examination on wisdom. This is the Proverbs type of Wisdom which sets out to show how a person can find satisfaction in life through the application of wise practical advice. The advice often does work (do good and good will follow), but the Preacher is looking for authentic existence and substantial satisfaction and he finds that Wisdom does not meet the challenge. He examines the expanse of practical knowledge and its application, compares it with the opposite, "madness and folly", and concludes that both wisdom and folly are a "chasing after the wind."

v18. Concluding with a proverb, the Preacher makes the point that the increased knowledge which comes with learning only compounds the problem for it only increases frustration and pain (mental anguish). The greater the wisdom, the greater the emptiness.

The meaning of life

According to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy the answer to the meaning of life is 42. Are we just random electrons floating in space? In Australian poetry, the Sentimental Bloke left it at "livin and loven", but in the end it's 42!!



The Preacher is quite sure that there is no substantial meaning to be found in the day-to-day business of existence; all we are going to find is something akin to 42. Certainly wisdom is 42, nothing but emptiness, for in the writing of books there is no end. We will find enjoyment in life, but not meaning. For the Preacher, substantial meaning is found only in God, 12:1-7. Without God there is no authentic life, just existence. Without going into details the Preacher tells us that authentic life is found in "the fear of the Lord", in "respect toward God." We have to wait till the New Testament before we have any real understanding of this authentic existence.

There are two particular truths in the New Testament which reveal the true nature of authentic existence and as such provide us with the meaning of life:

i] Life provides us with the opportunity of coming into a loving relationship with the living God in Christ. It's all about "knowing" God, becoming "one" with God, or in simple terms, becoming Jesus' friend. Being born again, as a gift of God's grace through the instrument of faith in Christ Jesus, is the prime purpose of life. This quest in life stands above all others and only in its realization will a person find substantial existence, meaning and satisfaction. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God", Ps.42:1. To deny our inner drive toward God, is to promote frustration. To satisfy this drive through knowledge, work, wealth, sex..... is to find nothing but meaninglessness, a chasing after the wind.

ii] Life prepares us for our reign with Christ in eternity. When the apostle speaks of ministry in his letter to the Ephesians, he touches on life's shaping role. A Word ministry serves to "prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ", Eph.4:12-13. On finding Christ and being made perfect in him, our task is to press toward the person we are in Christ. This process involves understanding God's Word, applying its truths in our day to day existence, failing, even rebelling, but picking ourselves up and pressing on. In this way life prepares us for eternity, it schools us. As fire removes the dross from precious metals, so life prepares and moulds us for our reign with Christ. Slowly we learn to apply such principles as faith, hope and love, we learn the art of Christ-likeness.

So, authentic life is found only in God. As for life itself, enjoy it for what it is.


"He who adds to knowledge adds to pain", discuss.

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