Chasing After the Wind

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
1. Chasing After the Wind (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18)
  • Can we find meaning in life at all?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • Viewed from the human perspective without God, life is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14)
  • No matter how one humanly comes at the question of the meaning of life, the conclusion is the same – meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11)
  • The greatest wisdom of man will not reach a different conclusion. (Ecclesiastes 1:14, 17)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • From your own human perspective, do you conclude that life is meaningless? Do your friends who do not know Jesus reach this same conclusion
  • What are some ways that people seek to find meaning in life that, ultimately, are fruitless?
  • Why can human wisdom not discover meaning in life?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • How does the author of the book describe himself? Why is this author “qualified” to write about the meaning of life?
  • What is the theme of the book? (cite the verse that states the theme.)
  • What examples of futility and meaninglessness does the Preacher provide in this chapter?
  • Why does the fact that things always seem the same lead to the conclusion of meaninglessness?
  • What does it mean to say that there is “nothing new under the sun?” (verse 9)
  • Why even ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?”
  • Why is the Preacher vexed and sorrowful? (verse 18)
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • Do you think about the meaning of life in general and of your life in particular? What conclusions have you come to?
  • Why is it a depressing thought to say that “… vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (verse 2)
  • Do people in your circle think about life as meaningless, and if so, why do t hey reach that conclusion?
  • Why is it actually a healthy thing to think about the meaning of life and to reach the human conclusion that all is vanity?
  • Do you find yourself thinking that everything is just all the same, over and over? Why do you think that?
  • Why is it important to know how those without God in their life might think about life?
  • What might you say to the one who says life is meaningless?
  • What provides meaning in your life?
  • What lessons have you learned from this chapter and how can you apply them to your life?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
The book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most difficult book in the Bible in that it seems misplaced. Indeed, as one commentator put it, it seems that the big question in the book is not whether or not God is there, but whether or not God cares! (so, David Guzik, in Blue Letter Bible) When one reads the book, verse after verse show only despair, futility and hopelessness. The text literally screams out that life is meaningless. Where is God in all of this? Yet that is really the point: from the perspective of human reason and wisdom, no matter which way one turns, life is meaningless; nothing matters; everything continues on and on, round and round; “striving after the wind” as the text puts it numerous times (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:11 & 17). But the “Teacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12) writes all of this, it seems, to draw one to the conclusion that one has to look from the outside to find meaning, and that ultimately, the only meaning is found in God (Ecclesiastes 12:13 & 14). thus, as commentator Michael Eaton states, the author “… defends the life of faith in a generous God by pointing to the grimness of the alternative.” (Michael Eaton, Ecclesiastes, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). And further, this “exploration of life's meaninglessness outside of knowing God thus becomes an invitation to know him.” (IVP Daily Bible Study) As we delve into this different book, then, be ready to be challenged by the questions and positions set forth, by the questions that the person who doesn't know God would be asking about life. And be ready to find that the ultimate answer is found only in God Himself.

Ecclesiastes is a type of writing called “wisdom literature.” This kind of writing was a staple of the ancient near east cultures. Wisdom literature dealt with existential questions about God, humanity, creation, evil and suffering, and such. The wisdom writings were either short, pithy insights (proverbs), dialogue, or extended reflections and essays. Wisdom literature is found in the Hebrew culture as well. Generally, the writings came from a set if individuals known basically as being “sages” who observed and commented on life based on wisdom that they discerned from observation of the universe and experience. These individuals became advisers to kings and other political figures, they were educators and counselors, and generally the public thought highly of them. The three principal writings of the Bible that constitute wisdom literature are Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (some include Song of Solomon and Psalms as wisdom literature). Wisdom literature is sometimes called “pessimism literature” as the viewpoints expressed in the writings are or can be dire and hopeless. The intent was not to “pep up” the reader; rather it was to make the reader think, even if the conclusions reached were not encouraging.

Who wrote Ecclesiastes? Most would say Solomon, king of Israel who followed his father King David. This conclusion is reached because the book itself purports to be written by Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12, 16), and the few statements about the author line up with the historical facts about Solomon, namely that he was king of Israel after David (I Kings 2:10-12), was the wisest man on earth (I Kings 3:9-12; 4:29-34) and the richest king of the earth at the time (I Kings 3:13; 10:14-29; II Chronicles 9:13-28). If, as some commentators suggest, the book was not written by Solomon, it was certainly written by an individual who was wise in his own right and with the overall approach of Solomon. For purposes of these Notes, we will take the position that Solomon was the author. Thus, Solomon is the one who calls himself the “Preacher” (so the English Standard Version in Ecclesiastes 1:1, 2 & 12. Other translations include “Teacher” or “Spokesman.”) The Hebrew word thus translated is “Koheleth” (which translates in Greek to “Ecclesiastes”), and the idea of the word is one who would gather and lead or speak to a group of people such as a congregation (thus the translation, “Preacher”). This “Preacher” writes of his inquiry into the meaning of life, and we can imaging that Solomon, with his great wisdom and riches, as having the time, inclination and resources to engage in this study of life from all angles, and then writing about his conclusions.

The verses covered in these Notes are basically the overview of the book; they identify the author and set forth his thesis and what his book is going to cover. The Preacher wastes no time putting his thesis, really his conclusion, up for consideration: verse 2 says it all, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Another translation of the word “vanity” is “meaningless.” The thrust of the word is nothingness, uselessness, emptiness, futility and meaninglessness. And the use of the phrase “vanity of vanities” is a typical Hebraism which is meant to express the intensity of what is being said. In our day, we might say something colloquial like, “Everything is really, really empty and futile … and I mean really!” In short, the Preacher is stating that life is without meaning, and he goes on to give some shape to the thesis by saying that work and labor is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:3), that time and people come and go and mean nothing (Ecclesiastes 1:4), and that nature and creation are nothing but the same monotonous thing over and over (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7). Then the Preacher sums up verses 3-7 by saying something like, “See what I mean? It's all weary and sameness; whatever you see and hear – it's just more of the same old, same old. The past fades, the future comes, and it's just the same over and over. Meaningless … just meaningless; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)

Then, the Preacher tells us that as king over Israel, he set his heart to search out whether the thesis is true (Ecclesiastes 1:12 & 13), and to do that he applied his world-famous wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:16 & 17a), and it was an unhappy task at that because he concluded that the thesis was true, no matter which way he thought about things or from which angle he pursued his investigation (“What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15)) The bottom line of all his inquiry and searching was that “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:14b) and “a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14b, 17b) In fact, the Preacher confesses that the application of great wisdom did not discover an answer but in confirming that life is meaningless, made him more vexed and sorrowful (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

The Preacher does not provide much, if any, hope for finding meaning. Indeed, since the search for meaning is being done on a purely human level, from a purely human perspective, it is not surprising that the conclusion is “meaninglessness.” Moreover, it seems that the “system” of life, so to speak, was intentionally constructed to lead to such a conclusion (Ecclesiastes 1:13b). There is just no meaning to life to be found on earth; all is vanity, even wisdom itself for all the good it did the Preacher. But the search … just what did the Preacher find when he searched everywhere and everything? Is he correct in his conclusion? The ensuing chapters will take us on the Preacher's search, and ultimately, to a remarkable conclusion at the very end of the last chapter of his book. But that will have to wait.

So in Ecclesiastes, we have a difficult and even depressing book. Yet we would suggest that it is a necessary book for the human mind. People have asked the questions about the meaning of life for ages past, still do today, and will do so in the future. As followers of Jesus Christ, those who know the answer to the meaning of life, we do well to put ourselves for even a moment into the heads of those who are asking these questions if only to understand where they are coming from. Why are they depressed? Why are they just partying with no thought for tomorrow? Why are they working so hard? And on and on the questions go. Why engage in all that effort if there is no meaning to it all? Well, if there were no meaning, then everyone could just do what they like, because it doesn't matter; or if they went all the way to the edge of despair given meaningless, then understanding that a person could end his or her life because it didn't matter anyway would make some kind of sense. But in the midst of the litany of depressing discoveries of the Preacher confirming that life is vanity, remember, yes remember, that life is not meaningless but is made new in Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10) with a guarantee of life that is not only present (John 10:10) but is to come (Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:5). Keep this truth firmly in mind as we move forward in our study of Ecclesiastes.