Some would call the generation we live in today the “me” generation as though this was something new under the sun. Yet the “me” generation has long and continuing roots in the past. The Preacher shows this thinking was in his heart well over 2,000 years ago.
The Preacher had just noted in the previous verses what his conclusions about getting wisdom. Instead of making thinks better, it actually made it worse. Here is the Preacher standing in judgment over all rather than God. When God created the heavens and the earth, he pronounced them “good” or in the case of humans “very good”. But the Preacher here knows better than God does. He calls the creation empty and human wisdom the chasing after the wind. So he thinks. And in this, he does not stand alone. It is a shared ego trip.
Starting in chapter 2, the vocabulary the Preacher uses is very telling. In eleven verses, the Preacher uses “I” twenty-four times as subject. The use of “me” and “myself” adds another twenty times that the Preacher refers to himself. Forty-four times the Preacher proclaims “It’s all about me. It’s all about what I have done and thought.” Yet for this ego trip, the Preacher comes up with a very dismal conclusion about trying to find meaning in self-indulgence, just like he did in his search for wisdom.
The Preacher tried every way possible to fine meaning from pleasure. Besides the usual trio of wine women, and song in which many try to find meaning, eh tried to find joy in in materialism. The Preacher amassed alcohol, concubines, singers, slaves, silver, gold, and buildings of various sorts used to indulge his pleasures. And for a while, the Preacher said it was a source of joy. But in the end, when he took the time to evaluate these things, his conclusion was empty and profitless chasing after the wind.
When anyone makes himself/herself the center of the universe, disillusionment will set in. Self-centeredness is a form of idolatry. When God is not the center of the universe, then all pursuit becomes empty. The world would be shocked at such a conclusion as Solomon gives. Here is a man who had it all, as far as the world is concerned, yet like the stars of Hollywood who chase after every hedonistic pleasure they can, ends up with nothing. The preacher would be the envy of the town. He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, a lifestyle which lures many to covetousness and ruin.
Commentators are divided over whether Solomon dabbled into these things to excess or just experimented with things like wine. If the former is understood, then the type of philosophy he tried is known as Epicureanism to us today, although it is older than that philosopher. In this case, pleasure and lack of anxiety was a measured affair that had the long term in view. An Epicurean would refrain from pleasures that ultimately caused pain. If as I think that the Preacher did was to indulge his every fantasy. This is called Hedonism, or pleasure for pleasure’s sake. The emphasis on this is lifestyle can be summed up with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. If there is no ultimate long-term reality other than death and being forgotten, then “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
Solomon’s disrespect for the long term proved fatal to his reign and his legacy. Soon after his death, the kingdom was divided. His live for today philosophy utterly failed him. He had followed the message advocated nearly three centuries later by the rock group The Grass Roots. Don’t worry about tomorrow, live for today.
If one were to look at things, the self-centered view is at the root of a great number of the world’s philosophies. It is at the root of existentialism, a philosophy which has spread like a plague. The now is the only reality we have and we have to make meaning for ourselves of it. Postmodernism is another name for a self-centered view of life. Postmodernism casts its caustic skepticism against any system of truth that in any way is seen as making exclusive claims on the self. Instead of a unifying truth, there is a myriad of truths. Systems of truth and meaning have to be “de-constructed”. The meaning of everything is determined by the hearer. It isn’t what the author says, it is what the listener makes out of the speech act. If a man says “The earth revolves around the sun” the listener can understand the speaker as saying “The green sun is made of pink Toyota’s”. According to Postmodernism, both as speaking something equally true.
When we look at Postmodernism, we can see that it cannot survive as a philosophy. It would lead to total anarchy. It is cultural and personal suicide. One can see from Ecclesiastes that it will lead its followers into a futile grasp for the wind. It is a vacuum that will have to be replaced with something. The question is, replaced with what? Who will win out in imposing the new meaning of things?
We don’t have to be experts in every form of human philosophy to see that they all lead to the same end. The truth of God revealed in Scripture is opposed to all of them. There might be some degrees of flavoring in the way they are expressed, but the end of them is the same, death and futility. To the Greeks, all their pursuits of the winds of meaning ended up in a general skepticism. This is no different than the conclusion of many physicists today that the universe is expanding into nothingness.
One of the best intellectual schemes of history was created in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In an attempt to create unity upon which common scientific knowledge could be made had to exclude all things from this realm of science. This realm was the domain of phenomena. Anything which could not be subject to human experimentation was put into another realm called nouemenal. God by definition was excluded from the universe and put into a separate realm of which no one could know anything about. This meant that God or not God was not important to Kant.
Unfortunately, Kant also had to put the human mind in the realm of nouemena as well. This means that we cannot know ourselves either. Whether we exist or not does not matter to the realm of phenomena either. We are unable to answer the question of what happens to our nouemenal self when we come to the end of our phenomenological self which is more easily stated “What happens to us when we die?” By separating the realms of mind and objects, we end up with the seeds of meaningless. When we bring Kant to his natural conclusions, all is vanity and chasing the wind.
I know what I have said to this point is rather dense and hard to understand. The good news is that you do not have to. You just need to know that human philosophy are sophisticated ways of saying nothing at all. It is helpful to know some of the details so that you can lead someone along their line of thinking to the inevitable dead end. Paul says that God has reduced all human wisdom into foolishness by the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. Why put your effort into something that leads to futility? This is irrational. For all the human pride in being “rational” beings, it itself leads to utter irrationality. One philosopher says, “I think, therefore I am.” Another says, “I am, therefore I think”. The last philosopher says, “I am. I think”. We cannot even prove be reason that we exist. If we follow the philosophers of this world, we cannot end up in despair of even ourselves.
What we must learn is there is an alternative to trying to find meaning or purpose in life apart from starting from one’s self. This is to find meaning for everything centered in God who is above all. The good news is that there is a God who has revealed Himself to us, both in the things that are made and through the Scriptures. What we need to know about God and ourselves has been given to us. We need not be blinded by being limited to life under the horizon of sun, imprisoned by Immanuel Kant and the philosophers of the world. The Preacher clearly shows us the end of such a pursuit.
Paul tells us in Romans that all people know God because He has put the knowledge of Himself into man. Paul does go on to tell us that we have all suppressed this knowledge, but it remains. We see the remains of this in the militant atheist who spends his life fighting what he says cannot and does not exist. Even the atheist knows there is a God, a God who has created all things, including man, a God who is calling them to account for their actions. No matter how much they try to explain this away, the knowledge of God remains in them. It has been as Calvin notes, infixed in their very being.
We have also been given the Scripture. The natural man demonstrates that he or she knows it to be the Word of God by the violent reactions they have against it. The Bible gives the correct perspective of things. As Calvin puts it in his Institutes that we know who we are because God has told us who we are. He has told us we are creatures, that we are sinful creatures. The Christian also knows they are Christians who have been redeemed in Christ. Because it is God himself who names us and it is God who gives us life, we can only have meaning when our lives are oriented God-ward.
We will study a lot of different ways people pursue in order to fill the God sized hole they have in their hearts. This information is important to us in that we can meet the person we are evangelizing and help lead them on their false way to its futile conclusion. From there, we can offer the only alternative there is, Jesus Christ. So far we have seen that the Preacher’s pursuit of wisdom and pleasure have led to despair and futility. We cannot build our Christian philosophy on either of them. These foundations need to be demolished and a new building built on the only sure foundation, Jesus Christ, needs to be built.
Maybe by know, you may be beginning to see how important the Book of Ecclesiastes is for us and why it is included in God’s Word. We are starting to see that it is important to put anything the Preacher says in its proper context. The Preacher will make some orthodox sounding statements of God, but others will make us wonder, and they should. When this happens, we must realize that he is speaking from an under the sun perspective about God. This is the way the natural man thinks as well. We don’t build our doctrine of God upon the false ideas of men, but from God and His word alone. Any statement of God in Ecclesiastes must be subjected to what we call the analogy of Scripture. In other words, we must test what the Preacher says about God with what the rest of Scripture says about God in their proper contexts as well.
Solomon concludes this passage that his pursuit of pleasure was the grasping after the wind. The wind of the world is empty noise. But we belong to the realm of another wind, the Holy Spirit which the Triune god has given to us. We do not grasp this wind, but it grasps us and holds us tightly. This is the Spirit whom Jesus says leads us into all truth. We indeed follow the wind of the Spirit who gives us our meaning, something the preacher was grasping for.