Imagine that you just graduated from a Masters’ degree program and received a promotion at work as a result, and someone asked you, ‘What does it matter?’ with reference to your graduation and promotion. You might be taken back by the brashness of their question but you’re a polite person so you respond by saying, ‘Well, it helped to equip me to do my job better and now, as a result of taking a position of greater responsibility, I take home more money to benefit my family.’ You think you hit their underhanded, off-speed, softball pitch of a question out of the park. But they don’t. Unmoved, they unleash a series of existential questions with more than hint of nihilism to boot: ‘So what? What does it really matter if you do your job a little better and bring home a little more money? So you make someone’s day potentially a wee bit brighter? Eventually darkness will set in and your ‘momentary brightness’ will be eclipsed and forgotten by the pain of life’s tragedies. And what exactly does a little bit more money do for your family? Add a little bit more activity, entertainment, and comfort to your fleeting life? You won’t even remember 1% of it when you’re on your deathbed and neither will those you spent that time with.’ It’s at this point you realize why this person doesn’t have many friends. He lacks a filter but he is asking questions that demand an answer. In the final analysis, what profit is there in wisdom – whether it be intellectual or moral?
Well, two times in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, most likely Solomon, spoke of the vanity of wisdom (1;12-18; 2:12-17). His argumentation sounds like the aforementioned fictional character. You wouldn’t think that wisdom would be vanity, especially when you see the way that the Book of Proverbs speaks about wisdom, but that’s the case being presented here. Let’s see, then, how Solomon deconstructs the supposed satisfiers of wisdom-getting and ‘wise living.’
First, in chapter one, he said that he “gained more wisdom than all who were before [him] in Jerusalem” (vs.16b). No, it doesn’t sound humble but remember it was accurate (1 Ki. 3:12) and it was an understatement (4:30; 10:23). And it wasn’t like this wisdom was useless. He called wisdom good (Eccl. 7:11), said that it provides protection and preservation (vs.12) as well as more strength to a wise man than ten rulers (vs.19). So it wasn’t useless, but it was, in his final analysis, meaninglessness – a mere grasping after the wind (1:17c). Not because he couldn’t attain some measure of answers; the problem was the more knowledge he attained the more his sorrow increased (vs.18). The more he learned, the more life seemed so random and arbitrary. The more he learned, the more he wearied his body without the satisfaction of metaphysical sensibleness. The more he learned, the more he saw and came to find that “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered” (vs.15). To him chasing wisdom was like a rat scurrying in a maze to get cheese. All the running and cheese-hunting did nothing but satisfy a rodent’s momentary appetite; and all wisdom did was satisfy some momentary need that appeared for a moment, only to be eclipsed by others and swallowed up by nothingness.
But there was the other kind of wisdom that he sought – a moral wisdom – “Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness” (vs.13). And at that point it’s again looking like he might have turned a corner, thinking that purpose is found in wise living. After all, he could say that it was better than folly. And isn’t it? Isn’t it better to live a sober life than a drunken life? Isn’t it better to be faithful rather than adulterous? To have self-control rather than to lack it? And so on. So, if wise living is better than foolish living could it provide more ultimate meaning? Well, rather than discoursing on the benefits that wisdom brings to one’s life or to the lives of others, Solomon jumped right to the matter that drove him to abject bleakness: whether it was the wise or the fool he perceived that the same event happened to them all – death (vs.14)! It drove him to ask the question – why, then, was I more wise (vs.15b)? He was essentially asking – what did it get me? And he decided it was vanity (vs.15c). After all, per his argumentation, the wise will be forgotten at some point in the days ahead (vs.16a) and the wise will die as the fool dies (vs.16b). All of that became an impetus for him to (get ready for it) hate life (vs.17a). I mean he put it plainly – “Therefore I hated life” (vs.17a). And with that we get to the heart of Qoheleth’s issue: it looked like the recompense and inevitable end (emphasis on the word “end”) for the wise and the fool was the same.
If one’s eyes closed in death never to be opened again, the Preacher’s assessment is valid. If everything is transient nothing is ultimate. If all is temporary and there is no eternity, then all is vanity. If the Preacher could have gotten ‘over the sun’ he would have seen that right now counts forever and that it is of paramount importance to have God’s wisdom and live wisely (1 Cor. 1:24; Eph. 5:15; Col. 4:5). True wisdom isn’t an abstract end in itself; rather, true wisdom points to wisdom personified (1 Cor. 1:30). Hint: it’s One greater than Solomon (Mt. 12:42), a resurrected Savior in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:23). To find Him is to escape eternal punishment, as well as living an earthbound life with a view that cannot get ‘over the sun.’ When wisdom personified is found, further heavenly wisdom is needed to respond to persecutors (Lk. 21:15), serve effectively (Acts 6:3), better understand God (Eph. 1:17), properly discern His will (Col. 1:9), steward time well (Eph. 5:15,16), teach effectively (Col. 1:28), and in sum, live a life whose fruitfulness will have an impact of eternal importance and beget grace-granted heavenly rewards for those who are saved by faith alone in the person of Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), crucified and resurrected. So wisdom-getting and ‘wise-living’ is vanity when it’s an end in itself; but when it is a means to the end of pleasing God and serving people for the glory of God, it’s ripple effects continue well beyond the here-and-now and into eternity.