The Great Search: From Busy Emptiness to Meaning – Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:26

My favorite picture is in the Vatican – the Raphael arcade painting called the “School of Athens”. It is a graphic illustration of the search for truth. The two men walking in the center recall Plato (the older) and Aristotle. Because Aristotle trusted observation and empiricism over all things, he points to the earth, claiming that TRUTH is found by observation of things physical. Because Plato found truth in the metaphysical, he is pointing to the Heavens. The tension between the two was well known even long ago. In this lesson we examine the first sermon that exposed the emptiness of rationalism and experiential empiricism apart from the revelation of truth from God. In other words, life’s experiences and my greatest thoughts are empty when not flooded with God’s truth! (1:1-2:26). The lesson is in OUTLINE FORM, designed for Bible teachers…

Prologue (1:1-3) Author and Thesis

1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 3 What advantage does man have in all his work, Which he does under the sun?

The Greatest Problems of Life (1:4-11)

1. Purposeless Monotony (1:4-7)

1:4 A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever. 5 Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there again. 6 Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns. 7 All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.

2. Unfulfilled Busyness (1:8-11)

1:8 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. 9 That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? Already it has existed for ages, Which were before us. 11There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance, Among those who will come later still.

Years ago on a TV show, a guest appeared that was a body builder. As he entered the stage with his huge muscular body the crowd went crazy as the body builder began to flex his muscles and show his power. The first question asked of him was this: “What do you use all those muscles for?” Without answering, the body builder again stood up and began flexing his muscles while the crowd cheered wildly. A second time, the question was asked, “What do you do with those muscles?” Again, the body builder flexed his muscles and the crowd became almost ecstatic. After asking three times, “What do you do with all those muscles?” the body builder just sat in silence. He had no answers. The man was all power but his power had no purpose other than to show off and bring attention to himself.

Key Principle: Only a life that is lived in a walk with the God that created us has meaning!

The Search for Solutions (1:12- 2:11)

1. Personal Commitment to Search (1:12-13)

1:12 I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.

2. Personal Observations (1:14-15)

1:14 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

3. Personal Experimentation (1:16-2:10)

• Experiment #1: Search for Meaning in Practical Knowledge (1:16-18)

1:16 I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. 18Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

• Experiment #2: Search for Meaning in Pleasure (2:1-3)

2:1 I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. 2 I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” 3 I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.

We were once happy to have a TV with 3 channels, now there are over 500 and we can’t find something to watch! We’ve went from black and white to widescreen plasmas and we still can’t be happy.

• Experiment #3: Search for Meaning in Accomplishments (2:4-11)

2:4 I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6 I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and I had home born slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8 Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines. 9 Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10 All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. 11 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.

A minister, a Boy Scout, and a computer expert were the only passengers on a small plane. The pilot came back to the cabin and said that the plane was going down but there were only three parachutes and four people. The pilot added, “I should have one of he parachutes because I have a wife and three small children.” So he took one and jumped. The computer whiz said, “I should have one of the parachutes because I am the smartest man in the world and everyone needs me.” So he took one and jumped. The minister turned to the Boy Scout and with a sad smile said, “You are young and I have lived a rich life, so you take the remaining parachute, and I’ll go down with the plane.” The boy Scout said, “Relax, Reverend, the smartest man in the world just picked up my knapsack and jumped out!” Some people are smart and dumb, all at the same time! For someone so wise, you wonder how they could be so dumb. I mean this is a man with 700 wives and 300 concubines! He lived and excessively extravagant lifestyle. He even “fell off the wagon” at the end of his life (1 Kings 11:9-13). (adapted from A-Z Sermon Illustrations).

Solomon was a man of great means.

• He had more money than he could spend
• He had more power than he could exercise
• He had more material possessions than he could enjoy
• He had more accomplishments than any of his predecessors
• He had more wisdom than any before or after him
• He had more wives and concubines than he could please… he had everything a person of the world could want and plenty of it! Yet he discovered that without a walk with God, it all was vanity, meaningless, worthless, futile, empty.

What is it you think that you don’t have that would make you happy? More money, more power, more sex, a bigger house, a nicer car, recognition, fame or fortune? Here is a man who had it all and said it was empty!

A rich man was determined to give his mother a birthday present that would outshine all others. He read of a bird that had a vocabulary of 4000 words, could speak in numerous languages and sing 3 operatic arias. He immediately bought the bird for $50,000 and had it delivered to his mother. The next day he phoned to see if she had received the bird. “What did you think of the bird?” he asked. She replied, “It was delicious.” (sermon central illustrations).

Personal Observations (2:12-26)

1. My knowledge didn’t affect lasting changes to the world around me (2:12-13).

2:12 So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? 13 And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

2. Both the wise and the foolish live with the same issues (2:14-15).

2:14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. 15 Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.”

3. Both the wise and the foolish meet the same end (2:16).

2:16 For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!

4. When life is about what I have done it is bitter and hard (2:17).

2:17 So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

5. Even my accomplishments have lost their luster (2:18-23).

2:18 Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. 20 Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun. 21 When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. 22 For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.

Clarence Darrow, the great criminal lawyer of another day, had among his friends a young minister. This seems strange, because, as you remember, Darrow was usually thought of as an atheist, infidel, agnostic, or what have you. They were talking one day and Mr. Darrow became reminiscent. He talked of his career and some of the famous trials in which he had been the lawyer for the defense. He said, “This has been an exciting life.” He made at least a comfortable fortune and he guessed he might be regarded as somewhat of a success. Then Mr. Darrow asked, “Would you like to know my favorite Bible verse?” His friend said, “Indeed I would.” Mr. Darrow said, “You will find it in Luke 5:5. ’We’ve toiled all the night and have taken nothing.’” He added, “In spite of my success that verse seems to sum up the way I feel about life.” No matter what one does in life, no matter what position he may obtain, no matter what he might come to own…if he leaves God out, the time will come when life itself will rise up and mock him with the word — nothing — nothing! (sermon central illustrations).

6. A fulfilled life is one that acknowledges:

a. Labor and accomplishment are a gift from God that allow us to be part of a larger plan than our own lives (2:24).

2:24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God.

b. A thankful spirit that counts blessings brings peace to the heart (2:25).

2:25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?

c. God blesses those who walk with Him, and uses the things built by others who walk in darkness to bless a godly man! This is no comfort to the lost man (2:26).

2:26 For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

“In The Purpose Driven Church, author Rick Warren said, “Genuine spiritual maturity includes having a heart that worships and praises God.”

Only a life that is lived in a walk with the God that created us has meaning!