When I’m ridin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
I can’t get no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction, no satisfaction.”
There are other lyrics but I thought I’d spare you. I think you get the point. “Can’t get no satisfaction” became a hit, way back in 1965, for the Rolling Stones. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it makes a perfect title for the Book of Ecclesiastes. Aged 72, Mick Jagger appeared in the news again this week, still it seems, seeking satisfaction. He is not alone. I am sure we’ve all had plenty of first hand experience that confirms that satisfaction is temporary.
Do you remember your very first chocolate Easter egg? Your eyes grew wide as you saw its size. Then as you tried to hold it in your little hands, you sunk your teeth into it. And you discovered one of the simple facts of life. The egg was hollow. Isn’t that experience repeated over and over again through life? We grasp at the sweet things—possessions, promotion, pleasure and power —and find after a while they are hollow, with nothing inside.
Life can often seem empty, hollow, meaningless.
Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest analysis of life lived “under the sun”. In this profound if disturbing book, Solomon takes us on a reflective journey through his own life. He explains, sometimes with humour, sometimes with a little cynicism, how everything he tried, tested, or tasted was “meaningless”—useless, irrational, pointless, foolish, empty. And remember, these words were written by someone who had it all – privileged status, tremendous intellect, enormous power and unimaginable wealth. Although the tone of Ecclesiastes is generally negative and pessimistic, the book is actually filled with practical wisdom. If, that is, we can learn from Solomon’s experience and not try and repeat the same experiments to find we have, at the end of our lives, reached the same conclusions.
The key to Ecclesiastes is found in that little expression “under the sun” which occurs around 30 times in the book. Life is utterly futile and meaningless, “under the sun” unless and until we discover life is a gift from God to be lived under the authority of His Son. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes that exposes the futility of life is there for one purpose: to lead us to seek and find meaning and fulfilment in God alone.
Solomon does indeed affirm the value of knowledge, relationships, work, and pleasure, but only in their proper place, seen from an eternal perspective, above the sun. All of these transitory things must be seen in light of eternity. As we study this profound book together over the Summer, we will rediscover the true purpose of life.
In chapter 2, Solomon shows that ultimate meaning in life is not found in knowledge, money, pleasure, work, or popularity. True satisfaction comes once we realise that God has a purpose for our lives. The emptiness and futility evaporate when we discover that he uses our experiences to shape and mould us to become like his Son, Jesus Christ. Chapter 2 has three main sections.
Searching for meaning through pleasure (2:1-11).
Searching for meaning through knowledge (2:12-16).
Searching for meaning through work (2:17-23).
Lets consider them one at a time.
The Search for Meaning through Pleasure
“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labour, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
Raised in the royal palace as the prince regent, with status and privilege, and without the need to work, for a living like most of us, Solomon conducted a series of experiments to find the meaning of life. First he tried pursuing pleasure. He undertook great projects, bought slaves, herds and flocks, he amassed great wealth, he acquired singers, added many concubines to his harem, and became Person of the Year in Jerusalem. We may blush at some of the pleasures Solomon sought but they are remarkably similar to the exploits of the rich and famous regularly featured on the front pages of our tabloids today. Some of his community projects such as the pools, gardens and parks around Jerusalem were indeed worthy causes but even these were futile when pursued as an end in themselves. Solomon concludes this first experiment:
“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
Solomon built a glorious temple, an extensive empire, and a very large family. But these were all short lived. In Psalm 127, Solomon also concluded, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain..” (Psalm 127:1)
We too can so easily become consumed with seeking pleasures. We can convince ourselves that fulfilment is just round the corner, with the next promotion, the next tax break or pay rise, or the next relationship. “Chasing after the wind” sums up much of human endeavour, doesn’t it? We feel the wind as it blows across our skin, but we can’t catch hold of it or hang on to it. Chasing after the wind is about as fulfilling as chasing virtual Pokemon. You may not yet be addicted to Pokemon but are you pursuing some other pleasure as your god? Or are you pursuing God, who gives meaning and pleasure? What is your motivation in life?
Without God as our foundation, all is ultimately meaningless, a ”chasing after the wind.” Searching for meaning through pleasure is futile. That was Solomon’s first experiment.
2. The Search for Meaning through Knowledge
“Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16)
Solomon had plenty of time on his hands to study. The Book of Kings tells us, “Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.” (1 Kings 4:30). Commentators tell us this would have included geometry, medicine, astronomy, architecture, mystical philosophy, psychology, jurisprudence and presumably theology too. Solomon was renowned throughout the ancient world for his wisdom and intellect. But after all his research, after all his experiments, Solomon concluded that even having great wisdom is futile since everyone must eventually die.
Unless we pass on our wisdom to our children, our knowledge dies with us. Unfortunately, Solomon does not appear to have been successful there either, at least with his family. The quest for knowledge can for some people be very addictive. I grew up in a home with few books. The local library was hallowed ground. Perhaps that is why I developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and became a junkie for second hand books. When I became a Christian my thirst turned to theology books. At college we were given Jim Packer’s list of essential books to buy. The symbol SS next to certain titles denoted “sell your shirt” to buy, which I did readily. Charles Spurgeon’s, 19th Century “Commenting on the Commentaries”, became bedtime reading, and I learnt to recognise which evangelical authors to buy and which to avoid. I wanted commentaries on every book of the Bible and on every doctrine. Days off involved prospecting for gold in obscure second hand book shops, competing with friends to be the first to find the religious section. Then the digital age brought the possibility of owning entire theological libraries available on CDs, then online in the cloud. But now CDs, DVDs, hard disks and memory sticks are so last Century.
Dutch scientists at the Technical University of Delft have developed rewritable memory that stores information via individual chlorine atoms on a copper surface, atom by atom. The team has been able to reach a density of 500 Terabits per square inch. That level of density would allow all books ever created to be stored on a single post stamp. It wont be be very long before you will be able to own a copy of every book every written in history and carry it with you on a wrist band or on a mini heads up display. The desire for not just further knowledge but total knowledge can be tantalisingly addictive. But Solomon reached the conclusion three thousand years ago that the pursuit of academic research, with the gaining of higher and higher qualifications or just accumulating back copies of National Geographic Magazine, will never satisfy.
True wisdom comes in realising that memory, intellect, knowledge and wisdom is temporary.
It is as fragile as a computer hard disk about to crash. As transient as the electrical impulses of the human brain just before the lights go out. Death is indeed the ultimate equaliser, no matter what inventions, no matter what discoveries, scholarships, or academic awards you have achieved. The first conclusion Solomon makes is that searching for meaning through pleasure is futile. His second? That searching for meaning through knowledge is pointless also. Solomon conducted a third experiment.
3. The Search for Meaning through Work
“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26)
Solomon also discovered that hard work bears no lasting fruit for those who work solely to earn money and accumulate possessions. As he grew older, Solomon increasingly realised that he could not take his legacy with him. He realised he would leave it to his many children who had done little or nothing to earn it. And we know what happened on Solomon’s death. His heir, Rehoboam listened to his friends rather than to his father’s advisors. Solomon’s legacy was torn apart, his vast empire fragmented and his people sent into exile.
Now, Solomon is not questioning the value of hard work. He is not undermining the importance of taking responsibility for the physical and spiritual welfare of our families. But if our life’s work is just one long ego trip “hey look at me”, “look at the car I drive” “look at my house”, if our labours are about building a name for ourselves, rather than glorifying God, then Solomon has a sober warning. “to the sinner God gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.” (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
Death is indeed the great equaliser. Perhaps that is why we tend to be less idealistic and more philosophical the older we get. We realise why we “cant get no satisfaction”, this side of eternity and so we stop trying. This morning I hope we have all learnt from these three experiments Solomon conducted.
Searching for meaning through pleasure is futile.
Searching for meaning through knowledge is pointless.
Searching for meaning through work is foolish.
So what is the answer? I think you know it already.
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).
True enjoyment in life comes only as we intentionally seek God, and put into practice his wisdom for living. Instead of living “under the sun”, place yourself under the Lordship of the Son of God, learn from him and you will indeed find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29). Let us pray.
With grateful thanks to the authors of the notes found in the Life Application Bible and Derek Tidball’s “That’s Life: Realism and Hope for Today from Ecclesiastes” (IVP)