In Singapore, 1996, there was an accident that a cruiser ship crashed into a tanker. The cruiser left the harbor at around 10:30pm, it hit the tanker at around 11:30pm, and it was returned to the harbor at around 1:05am.
When I saw the news, I have only two thoughts – if you were a passenger onboard, hoping for a good holiday, but within one hour you had the accident and returned to the harbor, how would you feel? Would you complain about the cancelled vacation, or would you give thanks to God that no one died? The other thought is, the cruiser vacation is a 3-day-2-night trip to the sea – literally nowhere. And it came back from nowhere in an hour. This resembles the life of many people – we sail to nowhere like the cruiser ship.
To many of us, there is an absence of meaning and purpose in life. R.C. Sproul once wrote, “It is not by accident that the greatest crisis in secular philosophy in 20th Century is not a question of metaphysics. It is not a question of epistemology; it is not a question of philosophy or the history of philosophy. But it is a question of the significance of man.”
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What is man? What is life? These are the precise question in the Ecclesiastes. The Kohelet asks, “What is the answer of life?” it is a profound question because in Jewish culture it is important to search for wisdom, and so is for the Kohelet. Who is this Kohelet to discuss about wisdom being the answer of life? In verse 12, he introduces himself as the King of Jerusalem; and in verse 16, about his credential, he wrote “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” So, most scholars agree that the Kohelet is King Solomon.
Solomon is famous for his wisdom, but there is more. Once I was told by a Sunday school student that he is also famous for the 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the description in 1 Kings, these girls are no ordinary girls but princesses from other countries which wanted to be politically allied. It means that King Solomon is both great and powerful. Where did his wisdom come from? In 1 Kings Ch. 3, it says it is from God: God appeared to Solomon in his dream, and ask what he wishes to have. Solomon says, “Oh LORD I don’t have enough wisdom to lead Your people, please give me wisdom.” God says, “You do not ask for wealth, you do not ask for long life, and you do not ask for your enemy’s life, so I give you wisdom along with wealth and fame.” So Solomon became the wisest king ever, and therefore he has the credential to discuss wisdom here.
But in verse 13, Solomon says that God has given men “unhappy business” to deal with. In one translation, “unhappy business” is translated to “heavy burden”; in another translation, it says “grievous task”; or in today’s terms, a “lousy job”. What is a “grievous task”? Any task “under the sun” is a grievous task. But in the context Solomon seems to mean something else – to search for meaning of life. Verse 13 actually means “I (Solomon) have spent my time, my heart, my philosophy – literally everything – to search for the meaning of life. But the task of finding such meaning becomes a lousy job.” To find meaning of life, human wisdom is not the answer.
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There was a time that I took a chance to ask Siri (AI helper in iPhone) what the meaning of life is. Siri replies, “I don’t have life, why ask me?”
I asked Siri the second time, “what is the meaning of life?” Then Siri gave me the definition of “Life” from a dictionary.
I asked Siri the third time. Siri replies, “To think of question like this.” Indeed, that’s kind of true; the meaning of life is to think of the meaning of life.
I asked Siri the fourth time; she replies, “I give up.”
But I didn’t give up.
I asked Siri the fifth time, “what is the meaning of life?” Siri jokingly says, “All evidence suggests that it is chocolate – Life is like a box of chocolate… (a quote from the movie Forrest Gump)”
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Siri cannot answer this question, and so is human wisdom. It is because there are fundamental flaws in human wisdom. In Ecc. 1:12-18, we can see THREE deficits in human wisdom.
A. The Futility of Human Wisdom (1:15)
Human wisdom is that which without power, and it leads to crisis of helplessness. To Solomon, it is not the absence of wisdom that troubles him; it is the impotence of our wisdom that puzzles him. He says, human wisdom is impotent for two reasons: (1) it lacks true discernment and true understanding because life is a confusing conundrum; and (2) it lacks the resource by which to integrate life and supply what is lacking in life.
The impotent of human wisdom is given in the first part of verse 15: “What is crooked cannot be made straight…” He saw the futility of human actions and the futility of human faults. In verse 14, he says, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” In other words, it is totally meaningless and futile. And in the second part of verse 15, “…and what is lacking cannot be counted.” It means certain resources are beyond our reach; it is in the hand of God.
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Many people try to put life into a neat filing system. But life is complicated and full of confusion; life cannot be found in a neat filing system even if we want our life to be tidy. So you cannot find a neat categorical filing system for your complex life. I remember a pastor says, “I have a biblical filing system.” His students ask what “biblical” means, since his office is such a mess. The pastor says, “My office is seek-and-you-shall-find system!!” Truth is, sometimes our human wisdom gives no answer. We are helpless, and we have to find God for answer.
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5 years ago, I needed to travel all around the world for meetings. I faced so many circumstances that I can find no answers. Once I was in London, and the Heathrow International Airport was closed for 3 days due to a huge snow storm. I needed to fly to another city for a meeting. But there is no solution – the airport was shut down. I wanted my friends to drive me and my wife to the airport. My friends told me, “It is useless; the airport is shut down.” Then I told him, “Please take me to the airport; I believe in God and prayer.”
When we arrived at the airport, I told my friend to go home, but he said, “What if the plane won’t take off? Who can drive you home?” I told him again, “No problem; I believe in God and prayer.”
When we entered the airport, we could barely walk because it is like a war-torn zone – people are sleeping or sitting on the floor, and everything is a mess. When we finally made it to the check-in counter, there was even more people and there is no queue. I pray to God, “God, I have no idea what can I do; I have no answer, but I believe you have Your answer.” Like a miracle, a stewardess came and took my hand with my wife, and we went onboard – and we didn’t even know each other!
Once onboard, my wife said, “don’t get happy too soon; we may not be able to take off, or we may have to deplane.” Once again I said, “I have no answer, but I believe in God and prayer.” We prayed together until we took off, arriving to the next city on time. We don’t have any power to do anything, but God have.
In another occasion, I went to Taiwan; there was a typhoon coming. Similarly, my friends would not let me go, but I still asked them to take me to the airport, because “We don’t have answer, but god has and we believe in prayer.” Soon, the typhoon somehow stuck in the ocean, and we safely took off; once we flew away, the typhoon hit Taiwan. God always have His answer.
And there were explosions in Kenya. In San Paulo, Brazil, missionaries were kidnapped. In Jakarta, I saw a riot with my own eyes; that day we have to take the back door of the airport to take a car to the venue. In Africa, there was an outbreak of Ebola. My friends say, “How can you go to Africa? Ebola is spreading there.” I don’t know the answer, but I believe in God and prayer. Later, W.H.O. declared that quarantine is required because the epidemic had gone through several countries. The churches prayed that Ebola outbreak will break – and God did it, and the quarantine is lifted. All representatives from 23 countries were able to attend that conference. Human wisdom has no power and answer in this, but God have.
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Someone suggests that education is the answer to the society. But it is not true also. In 1850, Horace Mann, a famous educationist, sold his idea of higher education to the US – he said, if the US government builds lots of schools and emphasis education, within 100 years, there will be no more poverty and social problems in US. After 160 years, we still see poverty, homelessness and massive social problem everywhere in the US. Human wisdom and education is not the answer. Someone once said, “If you take a man who steal nuts and bolts from a railway and educate him, he will eventually steal the entire railway.” It is true because you can educate someone with information, but you will not see the transformation that only God can do.
A famous writer, C.S. Louis, once wrote, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” Don’t get me wrong; I still believe in education. But thinking that education is the ultimate answer is a fallacy. Malcolm Muggeridge, a social critic and philosopher, once said something profound: “Whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from outside, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions… [in the second half of the 20th Century], Western Man decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down…” in short, Human wisdom and education is not the answer to meaning of life.
B. The Foolishness of Human Wisdom (1:17)
“And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.” It is wisdom without purpose, and it leads to crisis of hopelessness. In verse 17, what is that “this” Solomon referring to? Someone may think of “wisdom” because it appears in the first part of the verse. Similarly, someone says it may mean “madness” or “folly”. But I think that “this” means something else – it refers not to a noun but the verb of “searching”, “searching for meaning”.
So, the author is actually saying, “I don’t know if wisdom is the meaning of life. What if it is not? If wisdom is not the answer, maybe folly – the opposite of wisdom – is the answer. So I have to search for the distinction between the two extremes. I have to find sane and insane people; I have to compare genius and idiots. But this attempt is ultimately futile and chasing wind, because human wisdom maybe madness.”
If our wisdom has no purpose, it is wisdom without a moral compass. Human wisdom fails because it is not God wisdom. This is secular humanism, and it consists of FOUR core beliefs:
(1) Man is the measure of all things, first proposed by Pythagoras, a philosopher in 5th Century BC Greek.
(2) Life comes from evolution but not creation.
(3) Since life comes from evolution but not by God, there is no absolute truth.
(4) God does not exist.
In secular humanism, the concept of “God does not exist” can be explained in one of three ways:
(1) There is no God.
(2) There was God, but God is now dead.
(3) God is totally irrelevant to us.
This becomes a great concern in discipleship in church, because many Christian think like secular humanists. Obviously, Christians will not think of “there is no God”, but many live lives as if God is irrelevant to their life. We will not verbally say it out, but we are living as if God is irrelevant. A writer describe this view as a “parachute God” – we embrace Him only when we have an emergency; other than that, God is irrelevant to our life. And some many of us think God is an add-on to our busy life rather than the center of our life. But Jesus is not prominent but pre-eminent in our life. We should never think that God is irrelevant in our life. We must know that we don’t have the answer, but God has.
C. The Frustration of Human Wisdom (1:18)
The third deficit of human wisdom is frustration – wisdom without piety, and it leads to a crisis of hypocrisy. Can you see the three things? Wisdom without power, wisdom without purpose, and wisdom without piety. Wisdom without God is not the answer of life. In verse 18, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” What human wisdom brings us is sorrow. When technology advances, fallen men will only create mass destructive weapon. Wisdom without God is not just futile, but also frustrating and powerless.
Everyone heard of a proverb of “ignorant is bliss”. There was a boy who brought his report card to his father. Father read what the teacher wrote: “If ignorant is bliss, your son will be happy for his whole life since he is ignorant.” Julian Huxley, the founder of American Humanism Association, once sayd, “You must depend on yourself, because there is no God.” Solomon, the wisest man, would reply, “It sounds like wisdom, but it is foolishness.” To think like a humanist, your moral compass will be lost, and your conscience will be sealed.
Take the example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “father of enlightenment”, a philosopher who influenced the French Revolution. While he is a philosopher or even an educationist, he is a moral degenerate. He cheated his wife for 16 years, living with his mistress in Paris. He had 5 sons, and he loved none of them but to put them to orphanages when they were still infants. He rejected all his sons. He was a brilliant but ignorant man. He was not a stupid man; he was a great philosopher and was highly educated. That’s why Solomon would say “madness”; wisdom without God is without piety.
So I ask you: how should we live? Where is our moral compass? Should we find our purpose and meaning of life in God? Or should our life be aimless and purposeless? You make your choice tonight. You can choose between human wisdom or wisdom of God. Wisdom of men brings no satisfaction, and is madness and folly without God. But if you choose wisdom of God, you must return to the Holy Scripture, because the Holy Scripture is the Word of God. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament point to Jesus. Apostle Paul says Jesus is the wisdom of God. Today the greatest Christianity need is to think of the wisdom of God.
Don’t live aimlessly like the cruiser ship. Let your mind be enlightened by God. Siri has no answer of life, but the Bible does. Let us live a God-centered life. Let this wisdom in the Bible bring us to Jesus, then you will have wisdom from above.
LORD, we need wisdom in our life, otherwise there is no purpose and no meaning, we aim to nowhere like the cruiser ship. God, please help us from the defective human wisdom, but direct our life and heart to you.
LORD, please teach us to see the floor of human wisdom. I don’t want wisdom of the world but Yours. Please guide me, because Your Word speaks to our heart with deep and profound wisdom. Show us meaning of life in Jesus, for there is life in Him, there is wisdom in Him, there is meaningful purpose in Him. Help us lay hold of Jesus, because when we have Jesus, we have everything.
We pray in your precious name, Amen.