The Search for Meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-26)


The movie City Slickers is a comedy about a man who’s 39 years old and in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He’s friends with two other guys who are also experiencing a mid-life crises, so they go on a cattle drive in Colorado. There’s a fascinating scene that goes something like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [anything].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That’s what you have to find out.

And that really captures the pursuit of many of our lives. Almost nine years ago, I remember seeing stacks of the book Purpose-Driven Life at Costco. One of the reasons the book was so popular, I think, is because it tapped into our search for meaning. A few years later, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people read the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. After a tough divorce, the author searched for meaning and transcendence in various places.

There’s something in us that resonates with this search. We all long to find meaning in our lives.

This morning I’d like to invite you to join the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, a man who was also on this search. It may surprise you to learn that the Bible has something to say about our search for meaning. We’re not the first to search for the meaning of life. Not only this, but it turns out that we haven’t shifted too much in where we search for meaning.

In the passage we have before us, we join the author on a quest to find meaning. And the author takes us in three different directions in the quest for meaning. The passage before us reminds me a little of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a deliberate attempt to explore all the options to see if they provide what we’re looking for.

When I was a boy, I drew up designs for a go-cart. I took them to the local garage and showed them to a mechanic who was impressed by my design. He was actually pretty impressed. I came home all encouraged but did nothing, because I had no way to turn my design to reality.

It’s like that with the quest for meaning. We could draw up plans to try to find meaning in a number of different areas, but we probably wouldn’t get too far because our resources are limited. It’s not a big problem for the author of Ecclesiastes. We’re going to see in this passage that he’s uniquely qualified to try to squeeze meaning out of life in some areas in which we wouldn’t have the means. Solomon is doing us a huge favor. He’s conducting a costly experiment, so we don’t have to.

The teacher shows us three of the ways that we try to find meaning in our lives.

First, we try to find meaning in our wisdom.

Verses 12 to 18 describe the Teacher’s quest to find meaning through wisdom. “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven,” he writes (Ecclesiastes 1:13). His quest was comprehensive. He wanted to understand life, to know as much as he could, to examine life’s questions and to get knowledge. The scope is breathtaking. He wants to seek and search out all that is done under heaven. This is not a cursory search; it’s a comprehensive one. The Teacher wants to get to the bottom of things and to achieve wisdom. Not only that, but he wants to understand folly as well, according to verse 17. It’s as if the Teacher is trying to find what he’s looking for by looking under every rock. No stone is unturned.

This is an admirable quest in many ways. It’s what lies at the heart of our educational system, our universities and bodies of higher knowledge. There’s great prestige in becoming an authority in your field. Our schools, libraries, and bookstores are all part of this quest, and it’s a good one.

But wisdom, according to the Teacher, doesn’t ultimately satisfy our quest for meaning. For one thing, some things are just inscrutable. No matter how much wisdom we have, we won’t be able to figure things out. That’s what he means when he says in verse 15:

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

There’s another problem with trying to find meaning in our education. Verse 18 says:

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The picture he paints is that of irritation, or frustration verging on anger. This is true to life. One man said that gaining wisdom “leads a man to find out many disturbing things that may militate strongly against his peace of mind.” Or to put it in a way you may have heard, sometimes ignorance is bliss. The more you know, the more wisdom you gain, sometimes the more disillusioned you become. To quote John Cheever, “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”

So we don’t find our meaning through wisdom.

Second, the Teacher says, we try to find meaning in pleasure.

In the first 11 verses of chapter 2, the Teacher tries to find meaning in pleasure. Having failed to find meaning in wisdom, he looked to pleasure. In verse 1 he says, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’” Verses 2 to 8 describe all the things he tried: comedy, alcohol, all the finer things in life. He had the best houses and gardens and all the accouterments. On top of that, he had women. He had more sexual partners than anyone could imagine. He had it all.

I love how Philip Ryken puts it:

Wine, women, and song – the Solomon of Ecclesiastes had it all. Today his face would be on the cover of Fortune magazine, in the annual issue on the wealthiest men in the world. His home would be featured in a photo spread with Architectural Digest – the interior and the exterior, from the wine cellar to the lavish gardens. Pop stars would sing at his birthday party; supermodels would dangle from his arms.

We face this every day. I don’t think anyone here expects to experience all the pleasures that the Teacher did. But Ryken continues:

Generally speaking, we live in better homes than he did, with better furniture and climate control. We dine at a larger buffet; when we go to the grocery store, we can buy almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world. We listen to a much wider variety of music. And as far as sex is concerned, the Internet offers an endless supply of virtual partners, providing a vast harem for the imagination.

The result is that he lived a better life than anyone else. Verse 9 says that he lived harder than anyone who had gone before him. But this, too, did not satisfy. He says in verse 11:

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

The Teacher still found it empty. Ironically, the harder we go after pleasure, the less pleasure we find. It’s never enough. Joy Davidman said: “Living for his own pleasure is the least pleasurable thing a man can do; if his neighbors don’t kill him in disgust, he will die slowly of boredom and lovelessness.”

So he’s tried wisdom, and he’s tried pleasure, and neither one has satisfied.

Third, we try to find meaning in our work.

We define ourselves by our careers. A lot of us try to find meaning in our lives through work. The Teacher pursues this option as well. But he gives up on this option as soon as he begins.

For one thing, you have to leave your work to someone else eventually, and that person may be a fool. Those who come after you could end up wasting everything that you’ve spent a lifetime building. “Who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:19).

Not only that, but work doesn’t really provide the soul security that we need. We’re meant to work, but when we ask too much of our work, it consumes us. Read verses 22 and 23:

What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

Can you relate to this? Barbara Brown Taylor decided to limit her work to 40 hours a week back in 2000. Listen to what she said:

I do not mean to make an idol of health, but it does seem to me that at least some of us have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we are running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see the least. When we lie down to sleep at night, we offer our full appointment calendars to God in lieu of prayer, believing that God—who is as busy as we are—will surely understand.

We live our lives at full speed and hardly have anything left at the end. And even what we have left may be lost as it’s passed to the next generation. The Teacher doesn’t find the meaning that he needs even in his work.

It’s looking pretty bad, but it gets even worse. I skipped a section. In verses 12 to 17, the Teacher realizes that there’s another problem: death. Read verses 14 and 15:

The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also.

At this point the Teacher considers the great equalizer. Even if you are able to make sense of life and achieve great wisdom, you still have to face the one thing that happens to everyone: death. Haddon Robinson recounts having stood at the graveside of a man who had a working knowledge of 34 languages. Most people know one or two languages; some people know a few more; this man knew nearly three dozen. Yet in the end it didn’t matter. He was dead just like everyone else in the graveyard. In death, we’re all alike. Alexander the Great saw his friend Diogenes, a philosopher, standing in a field, looking intently at a pile of bones. When Alexander asked what he was doing, Diogenes said, “I am searching for the bones of your father Philip, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.”

So we come to a familiar question in chapter 2 verse 22. It’s similar to a question he asked in chapter 1. “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” You can become well-educated, you can get the best of life, you can have it all – but in the end, are you really ahead?

This is important for us to learn. Remember City Slickers? “Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [anything].” It’s your job to find out what that one thing is. Well, the Teacher has told us that the one thing isn’t wisdom, and it isn’t pleasure. It’s not comedy or having the best of everything. It’s not sex. Meaning isn’t found in wisdom, pleasure, possessions, or work. They’re dead ends if we are going to find the meaning of life.

Well, it’s not looking too good, is it? If none of those are the one thing, then what is?

The Teacher surprises us as we come to the end of chapter 2:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Just when you’re expecting more bad news, the Teacher gives us a hint of good news. What does the Teacher say? By themselves, wisdom and pleasure are not enough to provide meaning. But then something changes. What makes the difference? God does! According to verse 25, nobody can find true meaning apart from him. Ray Stedman put it best:

Isn’t it strange that the more you run after life, panting after every pleasure, the less you find, but the more you take life as a gift from God’s hand, responding in thankful gratitude for the delight of the moment, the more that seems to come to you.

But even here there’s a distinction. The Teacher makes a distinction between two kinds of people: those who are under the favor of a gracious God, and those who are lost in their sins. It’s the first time the Teacher has brought up the subject of sin.

This means that if you’re here this morning, and you haven’t experienced the grace of God evidenced at the cross, you’re still in your sin, and your life is still caught in the cycle of vanity. But there is the offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and with it the one thing that we’ve been searching for – meaning that can’t be found anywhere else.

Meaning isn’t found in wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Let me say that again: Meaning isn’t found in wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. And nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the gift of his Son, who has come to give us life more abundantly.

“Do you know what the secret of life is? This….One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [anything].” Not wisdom, not pleasure, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Those who experience all that life has to offer are still left empty. But those who experience all of this with God have discovered the only thing that can truly satisfy the hunger of the soul.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada