Chasing the Wind (Ecclesiastes 2)
By David Feddes
This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Ecclesiastes 2:24-25
“I can’t get no satisfaction. I try, and I try, and I try, and I try. I can’t get no satisfaction.” Those words from the Rolling Stones could be the theme song of our age. They speak for a great many of us.
Take a rich and famous person like Paul Newman. After playing the leading man in countless movies and being a sex symbol for decades, after driving race cars and starting a successful company, was it enough to satisfy him? Paul Newman said, “I look like I’m having a lot of fun, and I am. But I should be having more fun than I’m having. In work, I’m not happy because it will never be good enough.” And what about the publicity that make his life look so grand and glamorous? “They make that up about you,” says Newman, “but it has nothing to do with you.”
But we don’t have to listen to the Rolling Stones or look at Paul Newman. We just have to look in the mirror. Many of us have to admit that we “can’t get no satisfaction.” We sometimes think we’d be happy if only we could reach our dream. But all too often, we do reach our dream—and it turns out to be a nightmare. There’s nothing more depressing than getting everything you ever wanted—and then finding out that it’s not enough and that you wanted the wrong things all along.
In Ecclesiastes 2 the Bible gives us the journal of a man who knew that feeling. He went on a quest to find out what makes life worth living, and he had the resources to try anything. In Ecclesiastes he labels himself simply as “the Teacher,” but from what he says about himself, it seems that he was really King Solomon: a ruler, scholar, billionaire, and playboy, all rolled into one. Nothing could stand between him and his dreams. He did everything he felt like doing and got whatever he wanted; and still he came up empty. If a movie were made of Ecclesiastes 2, the theme song would be “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
The first thing he tried was the first thing many of us try: pleasure. Maybe the secret of life is simply to have as much fun as possible and enjoy yourself as much as you can. As he puts it,
I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish.” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives (v. 1-3).
The Teacher could hire the funniest jesters to make him laugh, and still today we have no shortage of comedians. Some of them are so funny that they make us laugh about sexual filth and ruined families and nasty bosses and corrupt rulers, even as these things are wrecking our lives. But after awhile the laughter seems hollow. We begin to suspect that the main reason we laugh is to keep ourselves from crying.
But maybe there’s another way to fill the empty spaces and cheer ourselves up. How about alcohol? The Teacher says, “Been there, done that.” He enjoyed party after party with the best booze money could buy. But the party life didn’t satisfy him. Maybe you’ve seen beer commercials that show people laughing and drinking together and saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Oh, really? If it doesn’t get any better than this, says the Teacher, if life is nothing more than laughs and drinks, then we’re in the middle of a meaningless muddle.
That still wasn’t the end of the Teacher’s pleasure trip, however. After all, silly comedy and wild parties are mainly for the young and the foolish. More “mature” folks get their thrills from more “mature” pleasures, like building a dream house or having lots of power and money. The Teacher says,
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees (2:4-6).
You may dream of an ideal house in a lovely neigborhood or beside a lake. Well, the Teacher didn’t just build a house; he built houses. And he didn’t look for a nice neighborhood; he built the neighborhood, with all those gardens and parks and fruit trees. He didn’t look for a place beside a lake; he simply built the lakes himself by constructing reservoirs. But it wasn’t enough.
So he checked out the pleasures of power and wealth. It can be a delicious feeling to be the person in charge, to have people working for you and taking orders from you. The Teacher took that feeling to the limit. He didn’t just have employees; he had slaves. “I bought male and female slaves,” he says, “and had other slaves who were born into my house” (2:7). No corporate boss could possibly match Solomon’s power over others.
Nobody could match his income and assets, either. He says, “I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces” (2:7-8). Elsewhere the Bible says that Solomon took in about 25 tons of gold every year, not to mention his other income (1 Kings 10:14). If power and money were the answer, this man would have been happy. But he wasn’t.
Maybe, though, he missed something on his pleasure trip. What about sex? These days we’re bombarded with the message that sex is the supreme pleasure and source of happiness. Did the Teacher somehow overlook sex? No, when he says he tried everything, he means everything. He says, “I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man” (2:8). The Bible says that Solomon had 700 wives, plus 300 more women hanging around just in case (1 Kings 11:3)—he had a thousand of the loveliest women to be found. What some people can only fantasize about or lust after in magazines, videos, and internet sites, Solomon did, with an endless variety of women.
And what was the result of his pleasure trip? Being a realist, he’s not about to lie. He doesn’t say it wasn’t any fun. Of course it was fun! But it wasn’t fulfilling. He was still as empty and unsatisfied as ever. Here’s how he puts it:
I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (2:9-11).
Have you ever eaten cotton candy? You know, the fluffy, sugary stuff you buy at circuses or carnivals? The first few bites taste wonderful. The next few bites taste okay. But by the time you’ve eaten half of it—yuck! You’re sick of the stuff. It’s even worse if you’re really hungry. It’s all sweetness and no nourishment. The moment it touches your tongue, it melts to nothing, and your stomach is as hollow as ever. A little cotton candy may taste fine once in awhile, but it’s not much of a meal.
That’s what pleasure is like. Some pleasures are okay, and they may taste great for awhile; but when you’re hungry for meaning and fulfillment, trying to live on nothing but pleasure can get downright sickening. Pleasure alone can’t satisfy a hungry soul. When you’re really hungry, you don’t need more cotton candy. You need a sandwich. You need the bread of life.
The Teacher tried every possible pleasure and came up empty. So he decided to look for fulfillment elsewhere. How about education? Maybe the main point of life is to learn as much as you can and to be more knowledgeable than anyone else.
If that were the case, then Solomon had it made. He was brilliant. He had amazing understanding of people and politics. He was a poet and songwriter. And not only did he excel in the humanities, he also knew the sciences better than anyone. According to the Bible, Solomon studied many varieties of plants and animals and gave lectures on what he discovered. He was the foremost scientific authority of his time. People came from all over just to hear him speak (1 Kings 4:29-34).
But what did it all amount to? Knowledge has advantages, but is it the ultimate answer? The Teacher says,
Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! (2:12-16)
It’s better to be smart than stupid, no doubt about it. Education is better than ignorance. There’s a night and day difference between the two. But does it really make any difference in the end? Everybody ends up dead, and one corpse is no smarter than another. Your I.Q. and your report card and your academic degrees aren’t likely to be inscribed on your tombstone.
Maybe you’ve heard it said, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” But Ecclesiastes sees it from a different angle: Tough times last; tough people don’t. They die. Everybody dies. And your level of education doesn’t make much difference in a coffin. Is that morbid? Maybe so, but it’s also realistic. To know what makes life truly meaningful, you need something that can take you beyond the unavoidable reality of death. And education can’t do that.
So, then, if pleasure isn’t the answer, and education isn’t, what is? Someone might pipe up and say, “How about work?” But what kind of answer is that? If you’re a sober, hard-working type, you may have agreed that pleasure is meaningless. “Amen! You tell ‘em, preacher. We’ve got way too many people chasing pleasure.” But is it any better to be a workaholic? At least pleasure seekers have some fun once in awhile. But to work just for the sake of working? That’s the dumbest idea yet! As the Teacher thinks about work and striving for success and achievement, he gets really gloomy. He says,
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. (v. 17-21)
No matter how hard you work, no matter what you accomplish, you can’t take it with you. And as if that’s not bad enough, you can’t even leave it behind! It just disappears. You leave the results of your hard work to someone who hardly works, and who know’s what he’ll do with it? He might ruin everything. You may be working hard so that you can leave it all to Junior—but who knows how stupid Junior is going to be? As the Teacher puts it, “who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?”
Perhaps when Solomon said this he was looking over his shoulder at his own son, a bonehead named Rehoboam. During Solomon’s reign, his political brillince made the nation of Israel larger and greater than ever before. But when Solomon died and his son took over, boneheaded Rehoboam soon ruined it all. He made stupid decisions that split the splendid kingdom Solomon had built, and things were never the same again (1 Kings 12). All of Solomon’s grand achievements came to nothing.
You can’t take it with you, and you can’t even leave it behind. So what does all your work amount to? “What does a man get,” asks the Teacher, “for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.” Stressful days and sleepless nights, ulcers and insomnia—that’s the payoff for the workaholic.
What a depressing picture! Pleasure, education, hard work—all meaningless, all empty. Why would God direct anyone to put such depressing stuff in the Bible? What’s the point? Well, the point isn’t, “Get depressed.” It’s “Get smart!” In a way Ecclesiastes 2 is almost an unnecessary part of the Bible. You can learn these things from experience. But why do that to yourself? There’s an old saying that experience is the best teacher. But it’s also the nastiest teacher. Why not listen to the Bible instead of learning from bitter experience? Why keep chasing the wind until you wake up one day to find that you’re frustrated and empty and hate life?
If you’re chasing pleasure or education or work in an attempt to find true satisfaction, give it up. The Teacher had more fun than you’ll ever have. He was smarter than you’ll ever be. He worked harder and achieved more than you ever will. But it wasn’t enough. He found out that he needed something else, something he could never get on his own, something only God could give. In Ecclesiastes 2 we read the journal of a man who tried to find satisaction in pleasure, education, and work, but ended up feeling like he was chasing the wind. At the end of the chapter, however, a glimmer of light shines through. The Teacher realizes that satisfaction is not impossible. He says,
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind (2:24-26).
True happiness comes not from chasing what you don’t have but in being able to appreciate what you do have. And how can that happen? Only as a gift from God. “For without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Now we’re finally getting somewhere. Now God is in the picture. True happiness is received, not achieved. It’s a gift, not something you can earn. It comes from God, not from your own efforts. Trying to grab happiness for yourself doesn’t work. Without the Lord, you’ll be empty and unsatisfied.
I remember watching a boy open a Christmas present. He excitedly tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box to see what was inside. Then his face fell. He stared in disbelief. The box was empty! His mother had forgotten to put the gift into the box before she wrapped it. Tears began to trickle down the boy’s cheeks. His mother realized what she had done, of course, and she rushed off to a closet shelf to get the gift for her son.
In the same way, pleasure, education, and career achievements make nice wrapping paper, but they’re empty if they don’t come with the gift of satisfaction. It’s not that these things are bad; they’re just not enough. Wrapping paper is nice, but only if there is something more inside. So, too, pleasure, education, and work can be good things—but only if there is something more inside.
And who can give us that “something more”? Only God can. In fact, the “something more” that we need is God himself. As St. Augustine put it, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our hearts have a hunger the size of eternity, and only something the size of eternity—or rather, Someone the size of eternity—can satisfy that hunger. Without him, we “can’t get no satisfaction.”
In order to be satisfied and fulfilled, we need the fullness of God himself. And God’s fullness is found only in Jesus Christ. Jesus is often presented as the one who solves our crisis of guilt by dying in our place. And that’s true—thank God it’s true. But Jesus isn’t just the solution to our crisis of guilt. He’s also the solution to our crisis of emptiness. He’s not just the source of forgiveness; he is also the source of fullness. “For,” says the Bible, “in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ” (Colossians 2:9-10).
Our society has become so ignorant of God’s will that sin is hardly even talked about and many people don’t feel any crisis of guilt. But even when the crisis of guilt is forgotten, the crisis of emptiness won’t go away. It’s possible that you know so little of the Bible and so little of God’s standards that you don’t realize that you’re a sinner in God’s eyes. All you know is that you can’t get no satisfaction. Your heart is hollow and hungry.
Even if God lets you get some of the stuff you’re chasing, he won’t let you feel satisfied. You can’t find happiness apart from God, and you can’t find God apart from Christ. So if you don’t have a relationship with the Lord, stop chasing the wind. Trust in Jesus. Ask him to forgive your sins and turn you from sin. Welcome him as your fullness and your very life. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34).
But what if you already know Jesus? Well, Ecclesiastes doesn’t just speak to those who ignore God. It also speaks to Christians. If we’re honest, we too have to admit that we still have hollow spots in our hearts. All too often we’ve thought that we could look to Jesus for forgiveness but then look elsewhere for happiness and fulfillment. We get almost as obsessed with pleasure or education or work as the world around us—and then we wonder why a sense of emptiness gnaws at us. It’s time to stop chasing the wind. Let’s not only look to Jesus’ death for forgiveness; let’s also look to Jesus’ life for fulfillment. Then, instead of complaining that we “can’t get no satisfaction,” we can say with the Bible, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.