After establishing his main point in 1:2 that all is vanity; that life in a fallen world is short and vain, the author of Ecclesiastes begins to search for meaning in life through a variety of avenues. Like Lewis and Clark, the Preacher seeks uncharted land. Surely there is something more out there. Surely there is hope and joy in the world after all. Surely not all is vanity. Without knowing what he will find, the Preacher launches into the unknown with one goal in mind: find meaning in life.
He begins his journey on the path of wisdom. And this seems like a good place to begin. If anything in life can provide meaning, something as holy and good as wisdom should do the trick. Many of us understand how self-pleasure, alcohol, success, and power could easily be abused. It makes sense that things such as these would not and could not provide ultimate meaning and satisfaction (2:1-11). But what about wisdom? Before jumping into the passage, we need to make a couple initial observations about wisdom.
First, wisdom is an attribute of God. God is wise. It is essential to his being. Paul writes of the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27). God’s wisdom is manifested in creation and redemption. God created the world in wisdom and nothing displays his wisdom quite like his redemption of fallen men and women. Wisdom resonates truest and fullest in God. And all wisdom outside of God finds its source in God.
Second, wisdom is a gift of God to people. God created mankind in his image. In part this means that we share some attributes with God. Wisdom is one attribute of God that he gives to us. We can be wise. According to the Bible, we should be wise. Christians should especially be marked by wisdom.
We should be surprised then when we read the Preacher refer to his use of wisdom to pursue meaning in life as “striving after wind” (1:14). He writes, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” (2:15). Wisdom itself is good. God is wise. As his image-bearers, we can be wise. “There is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness” (2:13). But wisdom as a source for finding meaning and satisfaction in life will always fail us.
Wisdom is a good gift, but a puny god. When we seek significance and satisfaction in wisdom, we are looking for it to provide what only God can. No matter how much wisdom you accrue in your life, it will always fall short of your hopes. Finding meaning and happiness through wisdom is as hopeless as catching the wind. God’s inscrutable providence smashes our wisdom. There are just some things only God will know. Wisdom is grieving. The more you know the more you know you don’t know. Wisdom is ultimately powerless because sometimes knowing what to do and how to do it just isn’t enough.
What’s worse, wisdom can’t save us from our deepest problem—death. So, if wisdom itself can’t satisfy our desire for meaning, and if wisdom itself can’t save us from death, then what good is wisdom anyway? Hear the words of the Preacher: “How the wise dies just like the fool!”
When we fail to live by the limits of wisdom, we will ask it to do what it was never meant to do. Wisdom is a gift to enjoy and utilize for God’s glory, not a god to provide ultimate satisfaction and salvation. Only Jesus, the ultimate manifestation of God’s wisdom, can provide what our hearts are desperately seeking. In the wisdom of God, Jesus died to bring us life, was shamed to bring us glory, and defeated death by dying. Hope, joy, and life are found in him alone. And only through him can we rest in God’s wisdom and relentlessly pursue wisdom for the purpose of bringing him glory.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.