12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And I committed my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom regarding all that which is done under the heavens; the grievous business [which] God has given to the sons of man to be busied with. 14I have seen all the works which are done under the sun, and behold, all was vanity and a grasping of wind. 15[What is] bent is not able to be made straight, and [what is] lacking is not able to be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)
The Preacher, the king of Israel (again, likely Solomon) has undertaken the task of exploring all that is done on earth. He seems to have come away disappointed, for as he studies the world, and a person’s place and purpose in it, he reaches the conclusion that one’s lot is a grievous, or ‘unhappy’, business. Life continues to give the impression of emptiness; as vain an effort as “grasping the wind”.
The Preacher determines that God’s ways are outside of a person’s ability to grasp (something he will come back to in chapter 3) just as what is crooked or bent cannot be straightened or something invisible cannot be counted or accounted for. Thus, to pursue meaning in life is a vain exercise leaving one in doubt or despair.
God does not show us the answers to all of life’s questions. In this fallen world, there will always be mysteries; the unexplained and the unanswered. It isn’t that God does not desire us to know, but rather that He desires us to come to Him in faith precisely because we do not know.
The blessing for the Christian is that we have the completed canon of written Scripture, as well as the witness of the Holy Spirit, whereas the Preacher was more limited in the level of revelation God had given to that point. However, just because we have this fuller revelation does not mean we have, or need, any less faith. In fact, knowing more, we can perceive more deeply and more clearly the pain and tragedy of a fallen world—although we are no closer to answering the mysteries. We continue to bear the ‘unhappy business’; the burden of not knowing. And we continue to be frustrated at not being able to straighten the crooked or count the invisible. We must trust God that all is, in the end, not vanity.