Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Those whose memories go back to the 1970s may recall a phrase from the BBC Monty Python series: ″My brain hurts!″ Thinking can be painful, not just because of the effort involved, but because the conclusions we reach may be unwelcome. Perhaps there should be public health warnings along the lines of ″Think before you think!″ Or: ″Do you really want to think things through to the end? Is that the way to happiness and contentment?″
In today's verses the Teacher describes his experiences: I tried to make sense of everything I saw happening around me (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13); after all, surely Israel's king ought to know what's going on! My impression was one of utter futility (v. 14). Humans seem to be trying to catch the wind! They try to bend the world to their purposes. They struggle to bridge the gap between the way the world is and the way they would like it to be (v. 15), usually with unhappy results.
This seems to be the point of the statement in 1:13 that God has laid a ″heavy burden″ on humanity. It is not that God intended for our lives to be a perpetual struggle; far from it (see Genesis 1-2). If life seems a ″heavy burden″, it is because we humans so persistently refuse to face reality, ignoring God's purposes and causing ourselves frustration through our foolish schemes (see Ecclesiastes 7:29).
The Teacher continues: I tried to dig even deeper; after all, I was known for my great wisdom (1:16-17). I asked: What are the roots of wisdom? What makes one action wise and another mad? It almost seemed to me that we are better off being mad and foolish! That way, we at least spare ourselves the pain that comes to the clear-sighted (v. 18): ″For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.″ Or, as we might put it, ″Ignorance is bliss.″4
This is a shocking conclusion. The Bible generally prizes wisdom. Creation is said to reflect God's wisdom (Proverbs 3:19-20). Jesus is described as the embodiment of wisdom (Colossians 2:3). Throughout the Bible we are urged to seek wisdom (see Proverbs 3:13-18; 4:5-9; James 1:5) and make wise choices (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20). But here, the Teacher simply tells us: No, the only thing seeking wisdom will give you is a headache.
The Teacher is, of course, speaking in general terms. Later chapters will provide concrete examples of human folly, and today's passage is certainly not all the Teacher has to say about wisdom. But to begin with, he simply wants to challenge us: take a good look at what happens in this world; take a good look at yourself. Why do you do the things you do? What drives you? Why? And, how can you make sense of it all?
It is a provocative and unconventional teaching method. Are we willing to rise to the Teacher's challenge?
4On Ecclesiastes 1:16-18, compare Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 41-42.
The Teacher says people often try to bend the world to our purposes and struggle to mould the world according to our desires, and that this is futile. In what ways do you see this happening around you, in society, at work, or in your family?
As Christians, how can we avoid ″chasing after the wind″ (Ecclesiastes 1:14), engaging in pointless activities?