Pentecost Season: Shepherding the Wind; Ecclesiastes 1:12-18


Prayer: Our Lord Christ, in You are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We pray that the word of Christ would dwell in us richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in our hearts to God. For this is our prayer, O Lord. Amen.

Sermon: People of God, Ecclesiastes is an apologetic against nihilism and fatalism. Ecclesiastes is not about the meaninglessness of life, it’s about trusting God to control what we cannot. The preacher says life is vapor, because we are not called to be in control of our lives, we are called to live faithfully and place our cares on the Faithful One.

In our passage this morning, Solomon speaks much about wisdom and knowledge. He has gained wisdom both by prudent men and foolish men; the slothful and the diligent.[1] Solomon devotes himself[2] to search and explore wisely all things done under heaven. If there is anyone who can search things out, it is Solomon. He has received wisdom not only from man, but as a gift from God. This is a kingly wisdom. He searches out the earth. He seeks all things that are under heaven and he concludes that it is an unhappy business that God has given to keep us occupied.

Remember how much the book of Ecclesiastes differs with another well-known wisdom book, the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs,[3] life makes sense. In fact, as one scholar has mentioned  about Proverbs: “wisdom enables you to function well in the world.”[4] But Solomon is a multi-perspectival king. In other words, he does not see life only from one perspective, but from various perspectives. This is why he is the wisest of all kings. This is why he is the picture of true wisdom, wisdom, which is found only in Christ.

Solomon knows that Proverbs is about the strength and ultimate benefits of wisdom, this is why he calls us to marry wisdom and to be in relationship with wisdom in Songs of Solomon, but he also warns us about the limitations of wisdom in Ecclesiastes.[5]

This is the perspective from maturity. One who knows that while there is great joy in wisdom, wisdom in and of itself does not produce joy. Solomon is recording for us his own frustrations with the results of his magnanimous research.  And he realizes that his labor and toil “is useless for gaining leverage…it is fleeting and vaporous.”[6] Solomon says it is an unhappy business to toil on earth. What does Solomon teach a nation of workaholics? What does he teach a people that work 80 hours a week for years and then decides to put in a few extra hours of work on the Lord’s Day instead of being with God’s people in worship? Solomon teaches us what the law teaches us: To rest. Certainly Solomon’s reference to sun and moon and stars[7] take us right back to the creation narrative. In the garden man worked with purpose. He employed his wisdom and found life meaningful and full of joy. After the fall, man lost this perspective.

There was a wake-up call in the death of Abel, whose name means “vapor.” His death signified that life is not always controllable; that life after the fall sometimes would simply not make sense. Sometimes you will work and work and work only to lose it all. It seems Solomon is calling us to accept the realities of the curse in Genesis 3. That life under the sun is like shepherding or chasing the wind.

Do you see the picture?

In the garden, Adam and Eve were given the responsibility to shepherd the animals. They were called to have dominion over them; to name them. It was a sinless view of shepherding. But after the fall, all things became difficult. Man now bears the burden that he brought upon himself. “God has laid a heavy burden on men and women, a burden that is his own doing; he has twisted the world and it cannot be untwisted.”[8] His toil and labor is like shepherding the wind.   “How can man shepherd the wind, rule it, control it, make it do his bidding?”[9] The Only One who can shepherd the wind is the True Shepherd. Solomon affirms this later in Ecclesiastes. It is the Shepherd who gives all good gifts; it is He who makes life meaningful.

What do we say about wisdom and knowledge? Are wisdom and knowledge virtuous? It has to be, otherwise Proverbs is a false book. But is wisdom and knowledge a means in and of itself to control life, to make straight what is crooked? The same Solomon who encourages us to pursue wisdom is the same Solomon who warns us about the dangers and limitations of wisdom.

From verses 16-18, Solomon focuses on the nature of wisdom. In the first section, the text reminds us that all toil is vapor; it is like shepherding the wind. Sometimes no matter how much we labor, life is a painful reminder of the fall.

Solomon will prove that not only is toiling under the sun an unhappy business, but that wisdom under the sun is also like shepherding the wind. If the first section Solomon addresses workaholics, in this section he addresses the arm chair theologian. The one who not only enjoys accumulating books, but the one who takes delight in exhausting his mind and body by reading. Solomon counsels against this. In chapter 12, he says that “much study is a weariness of the flesh.”[10] “There is an old German proverb that says: With Great knowledge comes a great headache.”[11]

In verse 17 Solomon writes that he has applied himself to know these things. He has pursued wisdom and also madness and folly. What does this mean? Why would someone pursue both wisdom and madness? Perhaps he studied both in order to differentiate between what is true and what is false.[12] Or perhaps it is possible that as he was pursuing wisdom, he became so overwhelmed that it almost led him to madness and folly. However that is understood, Solomon’s point is that it is like shepherding the wind. He makes the same observation. You cannot control wisdom. The more you seek it, the less you have it. And the more you have wisdom; it never seems enough to answer life’s ultimate uncertainties. It is like chasing the wind. You think you have an excellent theory, only to find out that your colleague has a better one. You think you have it all figured out, then someone shows up that knows more than you, articulates better than you. Solomon says “What is crooked cannot be made straight.” This is the result of the curse. Life will always in one way or another be complicated.  Since the world is crooked, do not attempt to undo what has been done

Solomon concludes this section in verse 18: “For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

This is what we call in Hebrew a parallelism. Wisdom in line 1 parallels with knowledge in line 2. Vexation in line 1 parallels with sorrow in line 2. This is a very common way of expression in the Hebrew. It is emphasizing one idea is two different ways.

Solomon is not opposed to wisdom; he is opposed to too much wisdom. This is God’s way of moderating man. Do not eat too much, do not drink too much wine, do not exercise too much; this is God’s way of saying, there are limits to what we acquire and what we do in life.

One writer analyzes the pursuit of wisdom in this manner: “There must be a great deal of pains taken to get it, and a great deal of care not to forget it; the more we know the more we see there is to be known, and consequently we perceive with greater clearness that our work is without end, and the more we see of our former mistakes and blunders, which occasions much grief.”[13]

The more knowledge you have of this world-system, the more discouraged, perplexed you become.  The more wisdom you accumulate the more vexed, irritated you become.

So, what is the end of the matter? How are we to then live?

It is possible that Solomon’s words in this text may lead some of us to misunderstandings. But this is not meant to lead to confusion. In fact, if you are confused, you now have more reason to say to your God: “I simply cannot make sense of this world, but I place all my hope in You.” If this is your reaction, then you have understood the words of Solomon.

Solomon is not saying that we are not to toil or labor or that we should not seek wisdom or knowledge, no. He wants you to pursue these things in the context of the True Shepherd. This is Solomon’s way of saying what St. Matthew says: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” The end of the matter is that if God is concerned about the grass of the field, how much more will He not care for you?

Solomon speaks to the New Covenant Church by encouraging us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

The writer tells us to be careful with the temptation of idolatry. You become what you worship. If you exalt wisdom, wisdom then will become your god. If you exalt work, work then becomes your god.

Life cannot be controlled. Man will always fail at controlling this world. It is like shepherding the wind.

Let us be careful with the abuses of our labor.

a)      Life is filled with exceptions. It is possible that sometimes you may have to work 60 hours a week, but let that be an exception. Do not neglect your families as a result or the gathering of the saints.

b)      Do now allow the Lord’s Day to be an extension of your work week. Rest with God’s people, worship with God’s people, and commune with God’s people.

c)       Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Eat and drink with delight, but never forget the words of Solomon: “These are the gifts of God.” Delight in God’s provision.

Let us be careful with the abuses of wisdom.

a)      There is a tremendous temptation within the Reformed faith to gain great wisdom. And indeed we have a rich heritage of prolific writers. But let us not forget that much wisdom can be vexing. The more man pursues wisdom the more he desires it. He will treat it like a god.

b)      There is also a sense in which man sometimes pursues wisdom, which he does not need. It is a well-know n fact that some Christians want to give an answer to the occult, so they delve into occultist literature only to get caught up by the evil it offers. My advice is stay away from that forbidden literature. Some of us may be tempted to pursue wisdom and knowledge in order to become more effective in our evangelism. But sometimes we become so acquainted with scientific, biological or whatever type of data, that we lose sight and interest in God’s special revelation. Remember that science is not sharper than any two-edged sword, only the Word of the Living God is.

c)       We are encouraged to pursue wisdom, but we must be very careful that we pursue it correctly. We must pursue it, not because through wisdom we will find God, but because through God we will find wisdom.

Solomon points us to the greater David’s Son, Jesus Christ who is true wisdom. In him there is no vexation and no sorrow. In Him there is joy and delight for He is the beginning and the end of the matter.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, chapter 1.

[2] Throughout this sermon I have relied on two central translation of Ecclesiastes 1: a) Jeff Meyer’s translation and b) Tremper Longman’s translation. Though Longman inadequately interprets Ecclesiastes, his translations are valuable.

[3] Some of these thoughts come from James B. Jordan BH work on Ecclesiastes provided for the BH Conference of 2005.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Insights from James Jordan.

[6] Jeff Meyers, A Table in the Mist, pg. 50.

[7] Ecclesiastes 12.

[8] Jeff Meyers, pg. 51.

[9] Ibid. 52.

[10] Ecclesiastes 12:12.

[11] Taken from Jeff Harlow, used originally in Jeff Meyers’ commentary on Ecclesiastes.

[12] See Tremper Longman, NICOT, Ecclesiastes, pg. 84.

[13] Matthew Henry, Commentary on Ecclesiastes chapter 1- On-line version.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Audio, Ecclesiastes, Sermons/Pentecost. Bookmark the permalink.

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