Solomon (a..k.a. Koheleth) sets out his great quest for wisdom in these verses, but all of the wisdom that the wisest man of all time managed to collect, wasn’t worth very much. Here’s an example:
Suppose you went to the movies, and when you got to the front of the ticket line you said, “One please,” and then handed the cashier your American Express card.
“I’m sorry,” the cashier says, “But we don’t take American Express. We accept cash, VISA, MasterCard and Discover.”
“But I only have American Express,” you reply…
Guess who isn’t going to the movies today?
Like an American Express card, human wisdom is nice to have; certainly wisdom beats stupidity any day, but it doesn’t get you into heaven, nor will it bring you into God’s presence: That simply is not something human wisdom can do for you.
Solomon notes that after seeing all of the things that go on under the sun, none of them are much good for anything. Again the NIV uses the word “meaningless.” Again I can’t help but think “meaningless” isn’t quite strong enough, “futility” seems more on the mark here to me… or just plain “worthless.”
Take particular note of verse 15:
What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.
Do you see the construction here? Notice the two poetic clauses separated by a semicolon? This is called a Hebrew parallelism, and it is very important in interpretation. Those two clauses are parallel which means that they mean the same thing, and this is quite handy to keep in mind if one or the other isn’t quite clear. The first of these is simple enough at first glance: “What is crooked cannot be straightened” except for the fact that “crooked” is rather ambiguous, don’t you think? Crooked in what sense? Does he mean that it’s curved somehow, or maybe he means corrupt… or maybe its curve signifies corruption… or who knows what he means?
Since these clauses are parallel, we can look at the second one: “what is lacking cannot be counted” and here we find a little riddle we can solve easily. If something is lacking, then it isn’t there, so you can’t count what is lacking, since it isn’t there. If you have $20.00 in your hand, then you can’t count $30.00 since the other $10.00 isn’t in your hand. Thus, we can see that he means that “you can’t straighten what is crooked” means that it just isn’t straight, say a stick of wood, and you can’t make it straight with all of the wisdom in the world, because it is what it is: crooked. Now that we have the parallelism figured out, go back to verse 14:
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
To explain the totality of the meaning of this verse, the author used the parallelism in verse 15, and when you put these together here’s what you have:
After examining everything that is done in this world apart from God, all of them are meaningless, futile, vain, of no account… and nothing is going to change that.
(Pretty cool, don’t you think? These Hebrew parallelisms are found throughout the poetic books; Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the prophets)
In the remaining verses of our text, the author uses this same technique again to tell us that not only is all of the activity he found “under the sun” meaningless, but so is the pursuit of wisdom itself.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief. (1:18)
The wiser he became, the more he realized that none of this mattered, and that made him even more miserable than ever.
As the next chapter begins, our Teacher examines the pleasures of life; what will we discover there? Much pleasure, or maybe much folly?