Life is hebel. It is brief, absurd and meaningless. Consider Juicy Fruit – A gum with a phenomenal taste that only last for a few seconds. The satisfaction found is quickly gone.
Creation reflects the futility of life in its continued cycles and in the fact that it remains unmoved over time. Man not only realizes that life is futile but as well is unable to answer the problem, find anything to satisfy the problem, learn anything to fix the problem or come up with any new ideas to solve the problem.
Man is left with a complete inability to find purpose and satisfaction. (1) Man cannot answer the problem. (2) Man cannot find anything to satisfy. (3) Man cannot learn anything that will satisfy. (4) Man cannot come up with any new ideas.
Solomon desired to search out an answer to this problem and as we leave the first 11 verses of chapter 1, we follow the beginning of his lifelong search.
Solomon’s Gift of Wisdom. Prior to jumping into Solomon’s reflections of his pursuit for happiness and fulfillment in wisdom, let us remember the very familiar story of God’s gifting to Solomon wisdom.
1 Kings 3:5–12 (ESV) 5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.
1 Kings 4:29–34 (ESV) 29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men…and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. 34 And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
Under the Sun. Solomon desired to study, wisely – and here’s the key – everything under the sun. Once again we see the problem in Solomon’s approach. His search is only for those things ‘under the sun.’ This Hebrew word (darash) means to “seek with care, inquire, require.” This word is used a number of times throughout the OT and many of those times speak of how man is to seek after God.
Deuteronomy 4:29 (ESV) 29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Psalm 9:10 (ESV) 10 And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.
Psalm 34:4 (ESV) 4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
These passages are in contrast to that which Solomon was seeking after. His diligent study for fulfillment was only in those things that were ‘under the sun.’
Conclusion for all time. Solomon established that his conclusions will be the correct conclusions for all time. He has already stated (1:9-10) that there is nothing new under the sun. If there is nothing new under the sun and Solomon studied everything under the sun, there is nothing beyond the scope of Solomon’s study. Therefore, his conclusions are valid for all time, and this leaves modern man with the inability to find something new with which to be satisfied.
It is an unhappy business or burdensome task. The statement that a search for knowledge is “unhappy business” flies into the face of both ancient and modern philosophical thought. Plato thought that the task of a philosopher was the highest of callings. We can see throughout time that man has held in high esteem intellectual pursuits.
Socrates and his disciple, Plato (5th Century BC). Socrates said that his wisdom was “limited to an awareness of his own ignorance.” He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path that a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it.
Epicureanism (4th – 3rd Century BC). Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures. Simply put, pleasure was the greatest good, but he the way to attain this pleasure was through living modestly, gaining knowledge of the world, and limiting one’s desires.
Scholasticism (12th – 16th Century). Scholasticism originally began to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. It is not a philosophy or theology in itself, but a tool and method for learning which puts emphasis on dialectical reasoning.
Age of Reason (17th Century). (1) Existentialism rejects that life has any inherent meaning and desires that each individual theorize their own subjective values. (2) Rationalism believes that knowledge can be gained through man’s reasoning. (3) Empiricism claims that knowledge comes through the senses or experiences.
Enlightenment (18th – 19th Century). The Enlightenment suggested that reason allowed a philosopher to obtain objective truth about the universe.
Modernism (19th – 20th Century). Modernism begins with the finite “I.” It does not assume God. At best God is allowed to be the conclusion of the argument. Modernism began with convincing and appropriate arguments and then added carefully controlled methods. The product of this was generated truth and this truth was universal truth. 
Postmodernism (20th – 21st Century). On the other hand, postmodernism begins with the finite ‘I’, but each ‘I’ is different than every other ‘I’. This thought would posit that there are no secure foundations. Foundations are only ‘self-evident’ within the given culture. Those foundations were the products of finite beings and are therefore finite in themselves. Therefore, objective knowledge is unattainable. All truth claims are only true for some people.
You may want to plead with me at this moment – please stop! I don’t care to understand different philosophical thought. Yet, there is a point. As we view this very brief, shallow and potentially inaccurate history of philosophical thought, the point remains unhindered. Man has always sought after wisdom. Man has for all times desired to establish, through study and the intellect, an approach to life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Very few of those studies seriously take into consideration God, and they are nearly exact replicas of Solomon’s futile search.
This grievous task is given by God. What does it mean that this task was given by God? There seem to be a few acceptable implications in the statement that this task was given by God. (1) The statement seems to imply God’s sovereignty over His creation. (2) As well, God has given His creation a desire to be fulfilled. The task given to man is not to find wisdom but to find fulfillment. Solomon in this case tried to find fulfillment through wisdom. God has given us a task that can only be accomplished in Him. We acknowledge this task in the very fact that we are constantly searching for purpose and fulfillment. God desires that we come to the end of ourselves and realize that for true satisfaction to be found, it can only be found in Him. Augustine wrote, “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
This grievous task afflicts men. The idea that this task afflicts men follows close on the heels to the fact that all men have this desire to find fulfillment, and that no man can find it in himself.
Ecc 1:13 (ESV) It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
Ecc 1:13 (NET) God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied.
Ecc 1:13 (KJV 1900) this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
Ecc 1:13 (NLT) I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race.
It is likened to striving after wind. Solomon attempted to achieve this grievous task that is given by God to man. He, through wisdom, searched everything under the sun. His conclusion after having done this search is that the search itself was like striving after the wind. One would obviously conclude that no one can catch the wind. In this context it wouldn’t matter if they did; if they were to catch it, they would find they still have nothing.
A Proverb quoted in support. We find that verse 15 is the end of this first reflection of Solomon. He offers a proverb (we do not know if it is his own, or quoted from another source) to support what he had come to conclude.
Ecclesiastes 1:15 (ESV) What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. (cf. 7:13-14).
That which is ‘twisted’ refers to a problem that cannot be solved, and that which is ‘lacking’ refers to lack of information (i.e. missing data cannot be taken into account and thus contribute toward finding an answer). Some problems cannot be solved, and some information we can never find. The intellectual more than anyone else should be aware of the futility of the human position. No matter how he or she searches, the intellectual cannot answer some fundamental questions of life. The implication behind this is that God’s ways are inscrutable.
In chapter 7 we find a similar thought, but in this passage God is the one who bends or twist life and thought. Who is man that they might straighten that which God bent?
Ecclesiastes 7:13–14 (ESV) 13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Read verse sixteen. With a bold claim of having more wisdom than all in Jerusalem prior to himself, he establishes that if he could not find wisdom, no one can.
The vanity of madness and folly (Ecc 1:17). There is a shift of subject in verse 17. It appears that Solomon is still searching for fulfillment and he continues to do so through the medium of wisdom, but the subject of his search is now foolishness or the pursuit of pleasure. While Solomon will discuss the vanity found in a life of pleasure, at this point it appears that he is examining or observing (not so much experiencing) how much satisfaction might come through a life of pleasure.
Imagine a train yard. The goal destination is the land of fulfillment. Solomon decides to take the engine of wisdom on the track of philosophy to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. This trip failed miserably (vs. 13-15). He now decides to take that same engine of wisdom, but now chooses the track of pleasure to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. We will see that this trip as well ended in utter failure.
It is likened to striving after the wind. This is the same conclusion he had drawn about his attempt to find satisfaction by obtaining philosophical wisdom. In similar fashion, either he caught the wind and found nothing or never caught the wind. In other words, either he understood the satisfaction found in pleasure and found it to be empty, or he never could obtain satisfaction through pleasure. Solomon discusses this at much greater length in chapter two of Ecclesiastes.
A Proverb quoted in support (Ecc 1:18). The meaning of this proverb is very similar to the proverb in verse thirteen. As man searches for fulfillment outside of God, human wisdom and knowledge only result in pain and grief. Therefore, Solomon concludes, “knowledge is grief.” In similar fashion, we modern philosophers might say, “ignorance is bliss.” Roughly put – if knowing stuff stinks, just don’t know anything; and you’ll be happy!
It is important that we understand that Solomon is not espousing that all of the areas in which he searched were pointless, but that without God they were unfulfilling. It is not true that wisdom and even pleasure carry no worth, but a complete focus on them for satisfaction will be fruitless and vain.
It seems apparent that God wants man to come to the end of himself. Often man only comes to find God when he has come to the end of his own ability. Man has the opportunity to go directly to God, but often chooses every other path looking for satisfaction.
This search could be as bold as an attempt to find fulfillment in the studies of philosophy. This search could be as subtle as trying to answer all the questions left unanswered in divine revelation (i.e. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility). This search might look like a sincere study of scripture without a study of the God of scripture. Do you desire to know scripture academically, or do you desire to know God personally? How often do you meditate on the person of God? How often do you meditate on the things of the world? Do you think they will bring you more satisfaction?
Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as a look back on his feeble attempts to be satisfied apart from God. In reverse fashion, there are many people who would admit that they first attempted to find satisfaction with God and didn’t, so they sought other places. What was the problem?
Does God in His sovereignty not allow some to be satisfied in Him? Are those people not truly searching for God, but using God as a rouge to find contentment? Are those people wanting acceptance and they use religion to receive it? We often may throw out clichés such as, “Well, you just didn’t do it right” or “You didn’t go to church enough” or “You didn’t read your bible enough” or “God would have satisfied if you had done it right.” I would imagine that most of you have determined to only find satisfaction in God. Do you ever feel unsatisfied? Why?
 D. A Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 93–94.
 Ibid., 95–98.
 The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Christian Literature Company, 1886), 45.
 Garrett, NAC, 290
 This search is nearly identical to that of Epicurean thought.