The Never Ending Chase (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

The Never Ending Chase (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

The Preacher has opened the book with a word about the vanity of life. Everything is meaningless and frustrating when it is viewed from “under the sun”, apart from any reference to God. The key verse from last week was: Ecclesiastes 1:3.

He went on to point out how nature is mundane and monotonous. It feeds the sense of ceaseless routine that never amounts to anything. The sun rises and sets, the wind blows around and around, the streams continuously flow, but nothing really every changes. The constant motion never leads to anything that is truly new. We are no better off than any other generation. And we will simply become another generation that will soon be forgotten.

Once again the Preacher will speak about his frustrations, this time he focuses on wisdom, the search for knowledge and understanding.

Ecclesiastes 1:12–18

One of my favorite childhood movies was The NeverEnding Story. It opens with a boy named Bastion, whose mother died and his father neglects him. Shortly after the opening scene Bastion is being chased by bullies until he finds an antique book store to hide inside. He comes across a book called The NeverEnding Story. The book immediately captures his attention. In the end, Bastion actually becomes a part of the story. As he continues to read, he notices the characters are actually referring to him. In fact, their entire world is based upon his imagination (including Atreyu’s horse, Artax, who died in the Swamp of Sadness and all the other life threatening events that followed).

At this point, the book fills in some important details that the movie lacks. When Bastion enters the story and saves the world of Fantasia from destruction by “the Nothing,” he is given an amulet that allows him to wish whatever he wants. But the catch is that whenever he makes a wish, he loses a memory from his human life.

Throwing caution to the wind, Bastion makes the most of his life in Fantasia. When the initial excitement begins to wane he creates enemies for himself to defeat, which begins to have consequences for everyone else living in Fantasia.

Ultimately, he betrays his friends and continues to pursue his selfish ambitions until the only memories he has left from his human existence are his parents and his name. These too, he is willing to give up in order to enjoy more adventures of his imagination.

The moral of the story is, of course, up for debate. But it seems to me the author is considering the nature and mystery of existence. His portrayal implies that there are limits to our knowledge as well as limits to our enjoyment of life. Bastion had no control over his childhood circumstances (death of his mom, emotional neglect of his dad), but his choice to escape their memory altogether had radical consequences. The pursuit of pleasure is oftentimes at odds with the pursuit of knowledge.

The Preacher is saying something quite similar in this passage. His search for wisdom was an attempt to escape the frustrations of life. But that search had been filled with an increasing level of frustration and sorrow.

Apart from God, the ongoing pursuit of human wisdom is never satisfied and never satisfying.

1. The Chase for Wisdom (13-15)

2. The Consequences of Wisdom (16-18)

In each section the Preacher provides a testimony of his own experience followed by a proverb (15, 18).

› With that in mind, let’s look at…

1. The Chase for Wisdom (13-15)

The entire section from Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26 is an argument that follows a classic form of speech, sometimes called “the chase technique.” Fred Craddock describes the technique as “Not this, nor this, nor this, nor this, but this.” The Preacher points to several avenues man looks to in search of meaning, and at the very end of his argument he provides the solution.

This morning, we will only look at the first example that we turn to in order to find the meaning of life – namely, wisdom. And because it is such a common pursuit, especially for people who like to study and think (like many of us), I thought we would consider this one on its own.

We’ll come back to verse 12 later on, but look with me at verse 13:

Ecclesiastes 1:13

The Preacher will use the phrase “under heaven” interchangeably with “under the sun” (see the next verse). It doesn’t have any more spiritual significance. Heaven, in this case, is simply used to refer to the sky. The Preacher is referring to his search for meaning by observation. He has whole heartedly sought to understand “all that is done under heaven.”

Then, for the first time, the Preacher acknowledges God. But he describes God as one who simply keeps humans busy with a cruel game of hide and seek. God hides the truth from people so that they have to spend all their days seeking out understanding. As soon as you grasp one truth, you become perplexed by another.

Now, that might be how his search for wisdom felt at times, but this is not ultimately where the Preacher remains. His mention of God, at the very least, is indeed an acknowledgment of his sovereign oversight of the world. And, in the following chapter, the Preacher will make it clear that God gives “wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:26).

But, considering his search apart from God, the Preacher admits:

Ecclesiastes 1:14

The Preacher compares the search for wisdom to a “striving/chasing after wind.” It is a fruitless endeavor. It is a phrase that will occur another six times and is only found in this book. The picture is of one attempting to herd the wind. Trying to corral it or contain it.

No other Old Testament author uses this word with this sense. Interestingly enough, it is only used in the first half of Ecclesiastes. Its last use will be 6:9, which does seem to mark an important division in the book. We will have to consider the significance of that when we get there, but for now, it is enough to note its usual link with “vanity”.

Part of the reason the Preacher considers life under the sun as vanity, is because he feels somewhat helpless attempting to enact any change.

Ecclesiastes 1:15

Today we might say something like: “You can’t change the hand you’ve been dealt.” He says it again later on…

Ecclesiastes 7:13

The point is, no one is able to reverse what God has done. If God chooses to make something crooked, we have no hope of making it straight. Again, we should point out, this isn’t a reflection of God’s perfect creation, but of creation in its fallen state. It is the fall of mankind, the sin of our first parents, that brought “thorns and thistles”:

Genesis 3:17–18

We might add the existence of hurricanes and cancer to the list. These “crooked” aspects of creation will remain apart of this world until Christ returns to right all wrongs.

This is a point Paul acknowledges plainly in the New Testament:

Romans 8:20–21

Note that Paul agrees with the Preacher regarding the futility of creation. But he also points out God’s goal in subjecting creation to futility, namely the hope of being “set free from its bondage to corruption.” Paul goes on to point out the impact this has upon man:

Romans 8:22–23

The groaning of creation is joined by our own inward groaning for adoption and redemption. In other words, the chase for wisdom increases within us a greater desire to receive the reward.

But, until that day, according to the Preacher, if something is lacking in our comprehension, we are not going to be able to account for it or do anything about it.

› The chase for wisdom is not only ceaseless, but we must also face…

2. The Consequences of Wisdom (16-18)

Well, as I mentioned last week, although some have linked the author of Ecclesiastes with Solomon, it is far from certain that it is him. The biggest factors are that he doesn’t use his own name, as he does in Proverbs and Song of Solomon, and the language points to a post-exilic period that was much later than Solomon’s reign. However, the following passage is where many think Solomon is intended.

Ecclesiastes 1:12

Not only was he king, but he was a very wise king:

Ecclesiastes 1:16

This would be a fitting description of Solomon considering this is what he prayer for:

1 Kings 3:9

And it is what God granted:

1 Kings 3:12

However, the facts remain the same. Solomon is not mentioned and the language points to a later date.

Sidney Greidanus writes:

The Teacher seeks to give added weight to his message by casting it in the experiences and words of the great king Solomon. King Solomon, of course, was widely known for his wisdom and his great works.

The Preacher seems to be donning the persona of Solomon for the purpose of making his point. It makes sense that he would use the primary example of wisdom in the Old Testament. But, as we will see, the life of a wise king is not without its own set of perplexities.

Ecclesiastes 1:17

Like Bastion’s fading memory, our ability to retain all that we learn is impossible. We grasp an understanding of one subject, and then another, only to be forced to let go of one in order to grasp the next. In order to understand wisdom, the Preacher needed to consider its related opposites of “madness and folly” (both of which we will see more of in the next chapter). But this would amount to an endless pursuit, a never ending chasing after the wind.

In other words, our knowledge has limitations, and those limitations will continually frustrate us.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

The Preacher introduces another outcome of this endless pursuit. Not only will we be filled with frustration and vexation, but our sorrow/pain/suffering will also increase. What? Not only is the pursuit of wisdom endless, but it is the cause of much of our emotional and intellectual suffering.

More knowledge only means that we have a bigger understanding of the problem. With all of our gain in wisdom, we aren’t any closer to a solution.

For those who limit their search for meaning to everything “under the sun”, the pursuit of wisdom remains a popular strategy. Dean Chavooshian recently published a book titled, The Pursuit of Wisdom: A Chronological Inquiry of the World’s Most Influential Seekers of Wisdom in the Fields of Theology, Philosophy, and Science

His argument is that each of the fields of study are deepened by their dependence upon one another. What we can learn from any particular theologian or philosopher must be supported by scientific research. Each field compliments the other.

In one sense, his book is an argument against the skeptic who has denied the pursuit of purpose altogether. But, his response is to suggest that we can find our own sense of purpose through any number of avenues (as long as the philosophy is confirmed by science). After a survey of history’s greatest thinkers we’re left with a defense for the ongoing study of meaning and purpose.

We’re right back where we started, but apparently now we’re supposed to be content with the endless pursuit…

Thankfully, Christianity offers something more concrete. Solomon is an important figure in revealing how. Solomon was the wise Davidic son who ruled during a time of peace, but he is a mere shadow of the true King of peace Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself, told us this:

Matthew 12:42

And once we have placed our faith in Jesus, once we have tasted of the living waters, we can hear Paul’s instruction to:

Colossians 3:16–17

Wisdom is an excellent pursuit that we should seek, but it isn’t to discover the meaning of life, rather it is to extend the reach of the gospel into the lives of those who believe.

› In summary…


Apart from God, the ongoing pursuit of human wisdom is never satisfied and never satisfying.

In Confessions, Augustine prayed “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

Only in Jesus Christ do we find the rest our hearts have always longed for. Only in Jesus do we hear the promise:

Matthew 11:28–30

Jesus Christ does not end our pursuit of wisdom, but does fill it with satisfaction. Let us come to him to find true and everlasting rest!