Illustrations from Personal Experience to Evoke Sense of Vanity (1:12-2:23)

Vanity of Wisdom (1:12-18)

1:12 I, Qoheleth, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 1:13 I set my heart to inquire and to explore by wisdom everything that has been done under the heavens. It is a grievous preoccupation that God has given to the children of man with which to be preoccupied. 1:14 I observed all the deeds that have been done under the sun, and look!, all is vanity and a pursuit of wind.

1:15 What is made crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

1:16 I said to myself, “Look! I have increased greatly in wisdom beyond everyone who was over Jerusalem before me.” Now my heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge. 1:17 But when I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly I realized that even this is a pursuit of wind.

1:18 For in much wisdom is much vexation;
and an increase in knowledge is an increase in pain.

Qoheleth now begins to speak conversationally in the first person. He reveals that he had committed himself (“set his heart”) to a comprehensive philosophical investigation into human experience in this world (“to inquire and explore with wisdom everything ... done under the heavens”). What was he trying to accomplish? What did he want to know about human experience under the heavens? Why did he make his investigation comprehensive? The goal of any comprehensive intellectual study of observable phenomena is not just to understand the parts but also to make coherent sense of the whole. That is how the human mind works. Qoheleth was thus seeking a comprehensive understanding of human experience to make coherent sense of human life. He was thus searching for the meaning of life.

As we have seen, the most important ingredient of the meaning of life is a worthwhile overall purpose. For without such a purpose life does not make sense. But philosopher of religion Keith Ward adds, “When people complain that life is meaningless, they often mean they cannot see how the events that happen to them fit into any overall pattern. To see the meaning of a human life would be to see how its various elements fit into a unique, complex, and integrated pattern” (2000: 22). Thus, to have a truly meaningful life we must not only have a worthwhile purpose to live for but we must also be able to see how the different aspects of our life, especially the painful ones, contribute to that overall purpose.

Qoheleth’s comprehensive study covers both these ingredients of the meaning of life. He was trying to find meaning and purpose to different human experiences as well as to human life as a whole. He first made philosophical evaluations of his own personal experiences (1:12-2:26) as well as his personal observations (3:16-8:15). And based on these evaluations he made the philosophical conclusion that life as a whole is vanity (verse 14). As he recounts his findings in this speech he also seeks to show how this philosophical conclusion fits into a bigger coherent picture, one that presents the meaning of life. We will try to piece this picture together as we move along.

In a sense the present passage is the actual beginning of the speech. Here Qoheleth begins to recount his experiences and later his observations, interspersed with evaluations and admonitions, that finally concludes in the exclamation, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” in 12:8. Thus the announcement of the theme (1:2-3) and the vivification of it (1:4-11) can be viewed as the conclusion of the deliberations that begin at 1:12 and go all the way to 12:7. This is why we did not hesitate to use in advance examples of vanity from the later parts of Qoheleth’s speech when we explicated the meaning of his philosophical conclusion, “all is vanity,” first announced in 1:2. He is not saying that this conclusion itself constitutes the meaning of life. But, as just pointed out, even as he is showing how he came to this conclusion, he also shows how this conclusion fits into a bigger coherent picture. He could do this, and quite early in the speech (3:1-15), because he has already announced and vivified the conclusion beforehand (1:2-11).

The philosophical conclusion is simply an observable reality that would and should cause us, as it did Qoheleth, to search further for the meaning of life. For if everything is vanity, what is the point of living? How does this painful reality fit into the overall purpose of life? How then shall we live? But many today would just react to this reality with pessimism and conclude that life is meaningless. They would rather accept and endure this pessimism than to search further. Some do not even try because they do not want to consider or reconsider how they should then live, or they do not know where to begin. Others have tried before but found the attempt itself even more meaningless. Perhaps Qoheleth can help all of them. He speaks with such an authority that comes only with comprehensive investigation as well as incomparable wisdom and experience.

When he announced “All is vanity” as the theme of his speech (1:2-3), he used a poem to vivify the idea of profitlessness (1:4-8). Now, as he illustrates various pursuits of vanity, he repeatedly vivifies the idea of futility (of the pursuits): every human endeavor under the sun is like pursuing or chasing after wind (verse 14; also, 2:11,17,26; 4:4,16; 6:9). He is out to persuade us. We may not grasp the far-reaching implication of the theme of his message unless we first grasp it vividly in our minds. Then Qoheleth builds on it by evoking the sense of vanity in our hearts. For if his message does not also move our emotion how can he move our volition?

His illustrations of vanity from his own experience (1:12-2:23) start the ball rolling in speaking to our hearts as well. In this first illustration he confesses that the very intellectual effort that led him to recognize that everything is profitless is itself profitless! For having concluded that everything is vanity he also realized that human knowledge and wisdom could not do anything about it. Death will certainly confiscate whatever profits we may have gained under the sun. But in the mind of Qoheleth, death is not the only reason for the impermanence of human gains. He will soon highlight that our temporal profits can be lost even before we die (3:1-9). They may be lost immediately through calamities or crimes, if not through our own carelessness or foolishness. We live under the constant threat that whatever we value, including life itself, will not only be lost ultimately but may also be lost immediately. And this reality cannot be changed.

Qoheleth was an exceptionally wise man (verse 16). Yet even he feels helpless. He captures this sentiment proverbially: “What is made crooked [qualitative deficiency] cannot be straightened; what is lacking [quantitative deficiency] cannot be counted” (verse 15). In other words, human experience cannot be reordered so as to remove the constant threat and the certain reality of suffering loss. It is again very difficult to argue with Qoheleth. To fault him we are required to show that human knowledge and wisdom are able to prevent aging and death as well as calamities and sicknesses. And also overcome the moral, social, economic and political problems in human society by removing the selfish and criminal inclinations that characterize humanity (7:29).

The truly knowledgeable and wise will recognize more clearly the problem and realize more acutely the lack of solution. Thus, “in much wisdom is much vexation; and an increase in knowledge is an increase in pain” (verse 18). In other words, human wisdom does not even have immediate profit when it comes to solving the problem of the vanity of life. And this is true. It is in this sense that he declares in verse 17 that his intellectual effort “to know (the truth about) wisdom and to know (the truth about) madness and folly” is itself a pursuit of wind. What is expressed is again realism and not pessimism. This verse gives us a preview of Qoheleth’s investigation into his own experiences (cf. 2:12): the truth about wisdom in terms of the success it brings (2:13-23); and the truth about the pursuit of pleasure in terms of the satisfaction it fails to bring (2:1-11).

The comprehensive philosophical investigation that Qoheleth undertook is said to be “a grievous preoccupation that God has given to the children of man with which to be preoccupied” (verse 13). But most people would not personally undertake such an investigation. How then could he say that this is a preoccupation given to human beings? We need to look at the ultimate goal of Qoheleth’s investigation rather than the specific means he used to accomplish it. In other words, his philosophical investigation is only a specific expression of a more basic “God-given” preoccupation: the “relentless quest for meaning” propelled by the innate drive to “make sense of the world” (McGrath 2002: 11, 13). In his book, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl attests, “Man is always reaching out for meaning, always setting out on his search for meaning” (1978: 31). His affirmation that, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (1984: 121), has in fact formed the basis of a whole new school of psychotherapy known as logotherapy.

For most people, the means they use (often unconsciously) to express this preoccupation would be through the pursuit of pleasure and leisure (2:1-11), or of wealth and success (2:12-23), which may include power and popularity (4:13-16), or a combination of these. All these laborious pursuits are found to be profitless in terms of finding the meaning of life. No wonder Qoheleth declares that humanity’s search for meaning is a “grievous preoccupation.” No matter how one expresses this preoccupation, sooner or later he realizes the grievous reality about human existence and earthly experiences. He is forced to come to terms with the inevitability of vanity under the sun. How then should he proceed? In this speech Qoheleth shares with us an answer that he has found.


Blogger discovery said...

Can some one tells me why the great Almighty God make humans his image of his own creation to die ....At the end of everything is death ... a silence ... a end ... no one knows what death means ... do a life still continues in another world .. Why create life to die ultimately ....Why . My most perfect God

12:54 PM  
Blogger tfleong said...

Ecclesiastes does not directly address the question of why we have to die. It assumes the reality of death and teaches us how to come to terms with it. Nevertheless it does give a clue to the answer. Qoheleth says "God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices" (7:29). He is clearly alluding to the Genesis account of creation. In Genesis 1-3 we are told that God did not make human beings to die. But death came as a result of rebellion. According to the Bible physical death is not the ultimate. Yes there is life after death, even though Ecclesiastes does not say so explicitly. The Old Testament as a whole does not address this issue much. It is most clearly and explicitly mentioned in Daniel 12:2. Death does have meaning. In fact Ecclesiastes, by helping us come to terms with death helps us see the meaning of death, though in a limited way, since it does not discuss life after death. On this subject we need to turn to the New Testament, which teaches that death itself will one day be abolished. Read 1Corinthians 15.

9:22 PM  

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