Summary: In today's lesson, we learn that apart from God, we will not gain anything from wisdom.
Dr. David A. Hubbard, former president and professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, told the following story in his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes:
I hated to dampen their sparkling spirits, but I had to help them face reality. Year after year I went through the experience. It was during the time I served as a teacher at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Each fall I had the privilege of addressing the entering class, eager as they were to savor their new experience, zealous as they were to pursue their course of learning.
I hated to weigh down their buoyant minds, but I had to help them see what they were in for. What do you want to get out of college? I would ask them. Spiritual inspiration? Great! I am all for it, but if that is your main goal you should go to summer conferences and deeper life retreats. What do you seek in college? Fun? Good times? Friendships? Recreation? Fine, I would answer, but you would find all of them in your local country club—and for far less money. What is it you are looking for in these halls of learning? Information? Facts? Knowledge? Excellent! I heartily approved, but would you not do better to buy a comprehensive encyclopedia and memorize its data in the comfort of your own home?
I could not guarantee that the bright, bubbly men and women in the freshman class would gain spiritual inspiration, wholesome recreation, or useful information, though I hoped and prayed that their cup would be filled with these daily. What I did guarantee was something quite different, something totally unexpected. “You can be sure,” I promised them, “that one thing will happen to you, if your college education really takes: your capacity for suffering will increase.”
Dr. Hubbard was sharing with his students the same message that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes shared with his students several thousand years ago. The Preacher knew full well the vanity of wisdom, the meaninglessness of wisdom, the futility of wisdom—apart from God.
Listen to how the Preacher put it in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18:
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes about Deep Thought, the powerful supercomputer that is tasked with determining the Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It takes the computer a long time to check and double-check its computations—seven and a half million years, to be exact—but eventually it spits out a simple, unambiguous answer: the meaning of life is 42.
“Forty-two!” someone yells at the computer. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” Deep Thought replies, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Everyone wants to know the answer to the meaning of life. But to get the right answer we have to ask the right question.
That is why we are studying the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. We are studying this marvelous book to learn the answer to the meaning of life and how to live a meaningful life.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us the answer to the meaning of life and how to live a meaningful life. And fortunately, it takes a lot less than seven and a half million years!
The Preacher, also known as Qoheleth, opened the book of Ecclesiastes with an introduction of himself (1:1), statement of his theme (1:2), and a poetic summary of his theme (1:3-11). His theme is simply that all is vanity.
The Hebrew word for vanity means “vapor” or “breath.” It refers to that which is meaningless, futile, ephemeral, and passing.
So the Preacher’s theme is that everything in life is meaningless. However, the Preacher eventually gives a corrective. He says that everything in life is meaningless without God. His ultimate purpose is to show that we can live a meaningful life only when we live it in a right relationship to God. If we don’t live our lives in a right relationship to God, then indeed everything in life is meaningless. But, if we do live our lives in a right relationship to God, then everything in life is meaningful.