The Search is Over: “Discovering the Painful Truth” – Ecclesiastes 1-2

u2It seems that every generation has a writer, whether lyricist or poet, who expresses another form of the same thought: “We were made for more and we know by the yearning inside that doesn’t seem to find fulfillment in the things of this earth.” From Augustine to C.S. Lewis, from Bono to the Rolling Stones – this truth has re-emerged every few decades. For my generation, it was probably most profound in the words of the Irish rock group “U2” in their song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” from their 1987 album. The song has been critically acclaimed and is considered one of the best of that era. Bono’s hard-pressed vocals are one reason, to be sure. Yet, there is something more enduring about the song than just outstanding vocal parts. It seems the song lands on a deep sentiment embedded in most all its hearers: we have a deep inner itch for something this world doesn’t seem to scratch. The song bellows into the night about the reality that the bard has experienced much of life – but he still hasn’t found the experience that could satisfy his deepest longing.

He laments the fact that ultimate satisfaction doesn’t seem attainable in this world. His choice is to cynically give up, or keep searching.

The thought isn’t original to the lyricist, but it is a truth that strikes a cord, over and over, in every place it is exposed. C.S. Lewis articulated the same idea in his book Mere Christianity, where he framed one of his many arguments for the existence of God upon on our dissatisfied state as it regards our deepest longing. Listen to his basic argument:

A baby feels hunger; well there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, chap. 10).

Lewis’s argument was reframed by the philosopher Peter Kreeft this way:

Every natural innate desire corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire, but there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth and no creature can satisfy. Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire. This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.” (Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL, 1994), pp. 78-81, also see his “The Argument from Desire” on (accessed Jan. 1, 2006).

This isn’t a new idea at all.

• In the Confessions, St. Augustine said it this way: “Thou, O Lord hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee

• The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal offered it this way: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.

“All that is well and good,” you say. “But, we didn’t come here for a philosophy lecture!” My response is, “Perhaps you did!” As you open your Bible to the book of Ecclesiastes, you will find the Hebrew title shows up in the first verse, and it suggests an oration from a philosophical mind, albeit one filled by the Spirit of God. The book opens:

1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

The term Qoheleth is translated preacher, and refers to an orator of important truths. In a sense, what you will learn today is the conclusions of an incredible mind that searched carefully for an answer. In another sense, you will be listening to words that dropped from God’s very heart onto the page.

I should warn you about the truth you are about to hear, to help ease the sting of it. Bono, Augustine and Pascal all agreed with Solomon. They all shared a truth that is not at all fun to encounter until you have found the resolution to the problems it presents. That truth is…

Key Principle: After searching the world for meaning – we have to admit it cannot be found here. Life has meaning; it just isn’t clear without Heaven’s perspective.

In a nutshell, the truth is: If you are a deeply reflective person, you can’t find lasting satisfaction on the earth – it isn’t here. It exists, and you can find it – but you have to look where it is, and not where it is not.

S0000146 School of Athens--detail of Plato and Aristotle. Image licenced to Kathy Nakamura ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA by Kathy Nakamura Usage : - 3000 X 3000 pixels (Letter Size, A4) © Scala / Art ResourceThis problem has plagued deep thinkers for ages. My favorite picture is in the Raphael Room of the Vatican Museum, and is called the “School of Athens”. It is a graphic illustration of the search for truth, meaning and significance. 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. Solomon had long before settled the issue, but the two walking Greek philosophers weren’t exposed to God’s Word concerning the place to find what you are looking for. We have that opportunity as we look into the record Solomon left for us…


Solomon opened with his Observation of a Key Truth (1:1-3)

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?

Solomon pursued many things in his life – just as we all do. For most of us, our first pursuit is the quest to get our thumb into our mouth! As we grow, our quest expands to being able to use a bathroom dependably, and (some time later) to learn to drive. Life is filled with quests, accomplishments and struggles to get what we want. Underlying the quests of fortune, fame, power or pleasure, there is a singular pursuit – that of MEANING.

Without meaning, the other ends just keep us busy on the way, without any unifying significance.

The truth is: If you really think about it, you know you were made for more than what is on this earth, and what can be experienced in a mere century in an ever-flawed body. Your life wasn’t designed to fleet by without purpose – it was designed to MEAN something. Solomon’s opening doesn’t sound all that inspiring!

First, let’s get our mind around who the writer of the original record was.

• He was a Preacher – so he at least thought he had something to share you may need to know.

• He was a King – so he has had more experiences in his collection than many of us can claim. He had the resources to test his hypothesis and time to think about it, because he wasn’t trying to keep children from wandering onto the pool deck or trying to keep his boss happy all week long.

His message: “Life is vain” was probably no more popular in antiquity than today– but his first hearers knew he offered more wisdom and experience than anyone around him.

His premise is tough: “Life under the sun has no meaning.”

No matter what you have heard, he was absolutely right. It doesn’t. Search, and you won’t find it. That is what most people are doing. Don’t get lost in the words…The point of his observation is not that life has no meaning, but that the pursuit of meaning is at the heart of our life, and the answer isn’t found on our century long journey of experiences on a broken earth. That is his key observation that acts as a gift to us.

Listen to the way he groans about the meaningless and monotonous life of a rich and reflective man (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7):

Ecclesiastes 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.

Look at his observations:

• People come and go, and the most important people of today will be dust tomorrow.

• The cosmos operates the way it does, and little we do has impact on the process.

• The winds blow and we don’t control them – or much of anything.

• The earth seeps from below, only to rush back to the sea – and little we do changes any of it.

With every breath, you hear it. We don’t seem to count that much. We are here today, and gone tomorrow. That CAN’T be all there is to life!

Solomon continued with the sense of unsatisfied accomplishment (1:8-11).

Ecclesiastes 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.

Again, you feel the weightiness behind his words…

• Life is tough and leaves you exhausted.

• No matter what you have, you always want more.

• Nothing seems to change. It is the same problems, generation after generation.

• When we think we have found something new, it shows itself to have all the same issues as the old things we had before. In one way we improve life, and in another we create problems we didn’t once have.

• We work really hard to build something, but it doesn’t last and no one recalls who did all the work anyway!

Our lives slip away and we don’t seem to know why we spent so much, worked so hard, accomplished to much – and then were largely forgotten anyway.

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.

In the face of what felt like a meaningless life full of unsatisfying accomplishments, Solomon set out on a search for solutions to the apparent lack of meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11).

He started by taking the whole pursuit seriously and making a personal commitment to search (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13a)

Ecclesiastes 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…”

Note this wasn’t a light approach to find answers. He used rich wisdom and the best apparatus for exploration that was available in his time. He recognized the size of the task, and didn’t offer less than his best focus and effort. At the same time, he knew immediately there were limitations to his search. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 1:13b “…It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 4 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.”

He admitted up front three things:

• The problem of man’s meaning isn’t a simple one.

• The lack of meaning seemed obvious.

• He couldn’t change what was – he could only uncover the truth of what it was.

Solomon began the search with three personal experiments (1:16-2:10)

First, he chose to try to find meaning in the world of learning.

He sought practical knowledge that could lead him to lasting satisfaction (1:16-18). Like many who have sought degrees, one after another, he posited:

Ecclesiastes 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. 18 Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

He said, in effect, I took on the quest through academic learning. I observed, studied, rehearsed and learned. I listened to the grand debates and sought the deep words of the sages – but some of them sounded a bit crazy! Worse yet, the more I knew about life, the worse I felt. As I learned of the depths of the quagmire of humanity, I just got depressed – because I couldn’t fix it all.

Second, he sought to find meaning in physical pleasure and mirth (2:1-3).

He decided to back away from the academics for the Friday night party scene on campus. The booze flowed, and the heaviness washed away a bit…but not for long. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 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.

Solomon said he launched into pleasure with the gusto of a modern American – but he found it wasn’t a deep and lasting fulfillment. He tried comedians, and they were funny, but the laughter didn’t stay with him long before the reality that fun was fleeting set back in. He looked at the time he spent on the pursuit and felt as guilty as you and I when we blow four hours online with nonsense memes and counted it a wasted afternoon! He thought he would experiment with wine and try to see how much was the right amount to really enjoy life – but he couldn’t find a lasting happiness in it all. He put on weight and had a lot of headaches – and thought this just wasn’t working!

Let’s face it, our natural state is one of dissatisfaction. 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 went from black and white to wide flat screens and we still can’t be happy. They cannot make enough entertainment to make life satisfying. There are only so many rides at the park, only so many flavors of ice cream to savor, and only so many jokes to laugh at. After a while, it all blends together…

Seeing learning and pleasure as wasted time, he decided to build something (2:4-11).

Solomon decided monuments and accomplishments would be his saving grace. He recorded:

Ecclesiastes 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.

Look at what he did:

He built houses, farms, gardens, parks, ponds, forests, industries, herds and flocks, fine collections and commodities. He added to his reputation and was in all the best periodicals. He lived a thrilling and fast-paced life on the jet set. Yet, when the lights went out, when the crowds didn’t shout his name, when the last deal was done and the party was over – he felt empty. He didn’t feel full because people wanted to be him. He didn’t feel smart because he experienced so much. There he sat – unsatisfied and tired.

May I ask you something personal? What is it you think that you don’t have that would make you happy? Is it more money, more power, more pleasure, a bigger house, a nicer car, or greater recognition by your peers?

Solomon said you can’t buy find or make what you are seeking! If you found it, you would misuse it anyway…

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.” (Adapted from sermon central illustrations).

People pay a pile of money to speak to the world’s richest investors. If you could sit and chat with Solomon about his personal observations, wouldn’t that be worth your time? (2:12-26)

You cannot chat with him, but you can hear some of his deepest reflections. Take a look:

First, Solomon said: “My knowledge didn’t affect lasting changes to the world around me” (2:12-13).

Ecclesiastes 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.

I found that no one gained from my personal search what I gained, and it wouldn’t take mankind to a higher level. In fact, people picked off a few morsels of my understanding and torqued it to live their own way – it was nonsense.

Second, Solomon admitted, “Both the wise and the foolish live with the same issues so I don’t see the great advantage to understanding everything on earth.” (2:14-15).

Ecclesiastes 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.” 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!

He made the honest point that smart and stupid people both face the same six foot hole at the end of life. Knowledge doesn’t make the end different at all – and it doesn’t guarantee anyone will even recall your unique contribution to the journey of men!

Third, Solomon noted: “When life is about what I have done it is bitter and hard, and even what I accomplished lost its luster.” (2:17-23).

Ecclesiastes 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. 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…

Solomon moaned on. He wasn’t thrilled with his experimental life. He hated it. It didn’t deliver. All that work, and there was no lasting satisfaction as he peered down at his gold retirement watch. It just wasn’t worth it.

Clarence Darrow was a famous criminal attorney who was a noted agnostic. Late in his life, he happened upon a young minister and befriended him. He talked with the younger man of his career and some famous trials in which he had argued. He said, “This has been an exciting life.” He was comfortable in fortune and guessed he was regarded as somewhat of a success by his peers. 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).

By now, you have probably about had enough of this depressing set of observations! Yet, Solomon didn’t leave us hopeless. He established that meaning wasn’t found HERE, but he didn’t believe meaning COULDN’T BE FOUND. It could. It was. There is ONE in Whom happiness and everlasting satisfaction can be found.

Solomon ended with the place where he discovered satisfaction:

Ecclesiastes 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. 25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? 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.

Look carefully at his words:

First, a fulfilled life begins when one acknowledges that his work, his labors, his very life came from God, and its purpose is found in His Creator’s design. God has the larger plan into which we are to fit. He asked: “Do you honestly think it is possible to be satisfied without finding it in what God made you for?” (2:24-25)

Second, a fulfilled life recognizes that God has made the world for us to enjoy INSIDE our relationship with Him. Without that relationship, we scurry around and work busily for things that won’t last and won’t satisfy. (2:26)

The Bible makes a simple claim, and you can test it with your life. After searching the world for satisfaction and meaning – you will they cannot be found here. Life has meaning; it just isn’t clear without knowing the Creator personally.

C.S. Lewis said it another way:

Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. ~ C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory, pg. 42)

She sat at the end of the counter, tired. The lines that etched from the outside of her eyes across her temples were like carved roads across a barren landscape. She looked worn behind the face of leather. She told of her life: three marriages, three children, five homes bought and sold, countless hours at work. She puffed her cigarette and looked out the window. “What was it all for?” She couldn’t believe that it was nearly over, and she still didn’t know.

The truth is, she may be your next door neighbor. She may be sitting a row ahead of you right now. She might even be you. Don’t waste your life on a useless pursuit to find meaning and satisfaction. Stop now. The answer isn’t here. Look up! It is only found in the One Who made you.