I have always identified with Paul’s honest self evaluation recorded at the end of Romans 7 (7:21-25). Like Qoheleth, Paul wrote in first person about his experience and struggle as he attempted to reconcile his inner world and outer world. There, he spoke of his search for meaning and his struggle with moral victory. As a well trained Rabbi, Paul would have been familiar with the words of Ecclesiastes, and I believe his confession is informed by the ancient text.
Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, serves as a second introduction to the book, as Qoheleth confirms his authority for the claims he will assert throughout the book. In verses 1:12 and 1:16, he uses the Solomonic persona to emphasize the depth and breadth of his pursuit of meaning in life (for more on the book’s authorship, read the Introduction).
I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered. (1:13-15, NLT)
He began by saying he devoted himself to his search, connoting a sincere, heartfelt commitment to investigate everything under the sun, leaving no stone unturned. These words make me think of looking for a lost article that is valuable, like car keys or your wallet. When you recognize something of value is missing, you stop all other activity and search until you find them. There is a sense of panic mixed with frustration that is heightened each time you come up empty. When we find them, we are happy, and naturally want to share the story of how we lost the item and where we found it. Beginning in chapter two, Qoheleth will tell the reader where he looked for meaning. But before doing so, he reports that he never found it. His preoccupation with searching is, in his words, “a tragic existence,” for he feels as though every time he comes close to the discovery, God moves it. This heavy burden is not his alone. It is the burden felt by every human being.
So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. (1:17-18, NLT)
Qoheleth searched everywhere, from the heights of wisdom to the depths of depravity. He would begin with what he knew from where he was, and continued his search, stooping lower and lower to levels beneath his dignity. This exhaustive search amplified his frustration, to lead him to the assessment that “the more you know, the worse off you are.”
When one of my kids would come to me and ask for help to searching for something they had lost, I often would tell them, “It’s not lost, because everything is somewhere.” Qoheleth would argue, “It never existed to begin with.”