Can wisdom produce purpose? (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23)

Is there any value in wisdom? And if so, how is that value obtained?

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon mentions “wisdom” or “wise” more than fifty times, yet never does he find any satisfaction or peace or joy in wisdom. For Solomon, wisdom is a god who cannot speak (Psalm 115:5), a scarecrow in a cucumber field (Jeremiah 10:5). For wisdom you can seek, but wisdom cannot speak. Solomon has put all his chips on the spot called “WISDOM,” and when wisdom fails him (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23), his only course of action is to hate life (2:17). Solomon believed that wisdom could promise him purpose, but that is not true. Wisdom does indeed have value, but the value of wisdom is only available to the one who already has a purpose.

PURPOSE IS THE MAIN THEME OF ECCLESIASTES

The study of Ecclesiastes has long fascinated me. Although a relatively short book, it is nevertheless profound in the questions the author asks about life and about death and about meaning. I have concluded that the dominant theme of this wisdom book is the search for purpose. Until a person lays hold of their God-given purpose in life, they will be forever restless and dissatisfied.

In Ecclesiastes 2:21, we read

When there is a person who has labored with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then gives his legacy to one who has not labored for it; this too is futility and a great evil.

Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill only yield a legacy to one who has purpose, because these are mere tools to be used to reach a goal. Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill are never an end in themselves, but are deployed to fulfill a meaningful desire. Of what value is all the knowledge in the world if that knowledge is not useful in accomplishing your purpose?

The main point is this: Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill can never yield purpose. These will support a purpose, but they can never produce a purpose. For all his immense wisdom, King Solomon missed this point, and so do many others. All the resources in the world will not benefit the one who has no God-given purpose.

PURPOSE MUST PRECEDE WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE AND LABOR

Purpose precedes labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill as automobile precedes gasoline.

A map is only necessary when you have an intended destination. Just so, you need only employ wisdom when you are moving toward a previously chosen purpose.

How do you set your GPS if you have not decided where you are going? And the world’s best GPS will never determine your destination. In the same way, you must already have a purpose if you are to get any value out of wisdom.

It is “vanity” and a “striving after wind” to believe that labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill can give you a fulfilling purpose.

It is foolish to ask a caterpillar or a turtle to fly. Just so, it is foolish to ask labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill to produce your purpose. You are asking the impossible. It is not a question of discipline or effort or determination. It is a matter of ability. The most disciplined turtle will never fly. The turtle may plummet but fly he never will. Just so, all the labor and wisdom and knowledge and skill in the world will never produce purpose.

SOLOMON MISSED IT

Solomon invested all his time and effort and determination to develop his wisdom and knowledge, and only when he had grown old does he realize that, without a God-given purpose, all his most keenly developed wisdom is mere “vanity” and “a striving after wind.”

How do we make sure that we do not make the same mistake that Solomon made? How do we make sure that, as we approach the end of our days, we do not decide that we hate life (Ecclesiastes 2:17), and that “everything is futility and a striving after wind?”

A LIFE OF PURPOSE

Avoiding a meaningless life begins with bowing down before the Lord Jesus Christ and crying out to Him for salvation. He who would have a life of purpose must first embrace the God who gives purpose. So first, repent and believe.

All those who come to the Lord Jesus in repentance and in faith have received a new purpose for their life. As a believer, you now have a Bible which guides you into new obedience so that you glorify God with your redeemed life. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, so you are now able to hear God as He speaks to you and guides you. With all the rest of God’s redeemed people, you have the purpose of glorifying God in all you do. All believers have this purpose, and this purpose is fulfilling and satisfying and lifelong.

But the Lord who saved you is also the Lord who saved you for His unique purpose. That is, every believer has been chosen and saved for a purpose that no one else can accomplish (Ephesians 2:10). Among the great joys of being a follower of Jesus is finding that unique place where you sense that you are fulfilling God’s unique purpose for your life. After years or even decades of searching and sanctification, the Lord has sovereignly placed you in a place of great usefulness and service. I believe this is what “purpose” means, to find that place where God is most glorified by the life that we live for Him.

SDG                 rmb                 5/20/2021

Is our search for significance vanity? (Ecclesiastes)

So, I hated life!” “I hated all my work at which I worked!” These would be deeply disturbing statements from anyone, because of the misery that is revealed by them. There must be deep anguish of soul when someone says, “I hated life.” What makes these statements more troubling and even more baffling is that they were said not by someone who had led a life of failure and aimlessness and dissolution, but by a man who had lived what many would envy as an ideal life. Immense wealth and pleasure and fame and accomplishment, and yet somehow the result is an exclamation of, “So I hated life (Ecclesiastes 2:17).”

This introduces us to the complex book of “Ecclesiastes” in the Bible, a book that explores the question of whether it is possible to have meaning and significance in life when death seems to erase it all. The author, who I will refer to as Qohelet (Hebrew for “preacher”), appears to have mastered life and to have sucked all the juice out of his life well-lived. Building projects and wisdom, pleasures and accumulating wealth; he seems to have succeeded in everything he attempted. But there is one problem Qohelet has failed to solve: DEATH. All his grandest successes “under the sun” shrink into insignificance in the face of this one failure: “I will die.” Death renders life vain (“Vanity of vanities”). Death erases all that life wrote. Death trumps life, and life’s house of cards collapses. And so Qohelet views all effort, indeed, all of life to be just so much “striving after wind.” Is Qohelet right? Is life a pointless striving after wind since death awaits us all? If Qohelet is wrong, where does his error lie? Can we refute his statements or his conclusions? Better still, do we have a solution to his dilemma?

WHERE DOES QOHELET MISS THE MARK?

            First, let me say that I believe that Qohelet is driven by a search for significance, and the primary obstacle to anyone’s lasting significance is that event that concludes life, namely DEATH. If a person’s death does indeed erase all accomplishment and destroy all significance, as Qohelet assumed, then having significance in this life seems impossible. Qohelet accepted the ideas that death is final and that no purpose or significance transcends death, but I believe both of those ideas are false.

            Qohelet has realized late in life that performing all the right things “under the sun,” and even performing them very well, will not bring significance. Nothing “under the sun” can provide significance, because nothing “under the sun” is meant to provide it. Qohelet has focused his search along the horizontal plane, on what can be found “under the sun,” but significance is found vertically, in looking up.

It is also true that accomplishment never produces purpose. Rather, meaningful accomplishment flows out of purpose. First you receive the mission or the purpose, then you pursue those things that accomplish that mission. Qohelet got the order reversed.

            Finally, it seems to me that the Preacher lacks a compelling “why” for all that he is accomplishing. He has amazing abilities that allow him to achieve astonishing things, but his motivation for these comes from within himself, and is not given him from above. Qohelet needs a motivation that is greater than his own ambition, a God-given motivation.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

            As one who has long contemplated my own significance and who has wrestled with Qohelet’s arguments, I have several thoughts to offer about solutions to these questions.

            I do not create my significance by what I do, nor is my significance achieved by my own effort. That is because significance is not manufactured from within, and thus is not to be found “under the sun,” but significance is given by the Lord who reigns over all and is humbly received by the man or woman who loves the Lord.

            My significance is a derived significance. By myself, my life is relatively insignificant. That is why my significance must be derived from another, from one who is infinitely significant. For I joyfully serve the living God and, through faith in Jesus Christ, I have come into a loving relationship with Him, and I derive my significance from His infinite majesty. I am an adopted child of the King of kings, and nothing I could accomplish in a thousand lifetimes would be more significant than that. And since I am in Christ, and Christ lives forever, death has lost its threat and the grave can no longer frighten.

            If we search for significance “under the sun,” we will always be “striving after wind.” But those who fear the Lord and worship the One who is worthy of all praise will find true contentment. They will rest in Him and rejoice in Him and receive with joy and thanksgiving the good things He provides and praise His name. They rejoice in hope now in this life “under the sun,” knowing that after death they will be forever rejoicing with Him.

            In short, significance is found in bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus and humbly and obediently walking with Him through life here “under the sun,” and then forevermore in heaven.

SDG                 rmb                 11/19/2020