Searchers: The Quest for Meaning

Luke Morrison • January 6, 2023


Many of us have seen the John Wayne movie The Searchers. This is possibly the best movie he made, in my opinion.

In this movie we see that after a long absence, the battle-scarred Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards turns up on the remote and dusty Texan homestead of his brother, Aaron. In high hopes of finding peace, instead, the non-talkative former soldier will embark on a treacherous five-year odyssey of retribution, when the ruthless Chief Scar’s murderous Comanche raiding party massacres his family, burns the ranch to the ground, and abducts his nine-year-old niece, Debbie. Driven by hatred of Indians, Ethan and his young companion, Martin Pawley, ride through the unforgiving desert to track down their lost Debbie; however, is the woman they lost and the prisoner in Scar’s teepee still the same woman the searchers seek?

In this movie he applies all he knows and uses every tactic and connection he has to find her. They go high and low on this quest. Then they find her.

Ethan, John Wayne, had said he was going to kill her because she was not going to be the same woman after being in Comanche captivity.

Yet, when they find her he chases her down and sweeps her up in his arms and says, “Lets go home Debbie.”

The movie ends with Ethan departing the homestead as he arrived – alone, clutching his arm – and the cabin door slowly shuts on his receding silhouette.

His search had ended and he was no better or worse than he began. He was still the same.

He had committed so many years and much time to this search and it did not change his life. He was still alone.

Too often we do the same in life seeking with what we have to find what life is about and what it does for us.

We end up much like Ethan, alone and just as lost as we were when we began the search.

This is what we see in this section of Scripture. Solomon set out to find meaning and worth by wisdom. This wisdom was a gift from the Lord as Solomon had prayed for wisdom above anything else and the Lord gave that to him. But he was seeking for something that this world cannot give.

The world cannot tell us what life is and why it matters. Not alone anyway it cannot.

We see this answer in this section from Eccl. 1:12-18

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:12–18 ESV

There is much in this short section so hold on and see what Solomon tells us when…

The Hunt Begins

In the hunt that Solomon began, we see an admirable task. Not much unlike the task the men in The Searchers did.

They were seeking the taken child and Solomon was seeking the answers to life.

He fervently searched out the meaning. He looked everywhere. He did this through wisdom, even though it was gifted him by God, it was still seeking from a naturalistic perspective. Seeking from nature what the meaning was. Which as we see leads to some interesting truth.

In verse 13 we see that he “applied [his] heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”

He was diligently seeking to understand life. To find why life is the way it is.

He wanted to know if there was more to life than just the few fleeting things that he had as the king. He applied his heart, which means that this search came from the very core of his being.

Not only this but it was comprehensive. The words to seek and to search show a supreme seriousness to his quest. He was diligent. he did not just settle for a quick and easy answer. He was committed even if the answer was not what he wanted. He was seeking truth. Blunt, unabashed, unvarnished truth.

This is why it is an admirable hunt.

It is because he sought to find answers to life while so many others are satisfied with the fleeting things of earth.

In just a minute we will see what he discovered and why even in the depression there is hope. This is not unlike the movie Searchers. The nephew wanted to find the girl but in that joy there was a depression waiting. He was afraid that Ethan would kill her. But as we just heard, in that depression their was joy.

We see this in Solomon’s quest because of what he declares.

But before that, how often do you get too hung up in fleeting things as the answer to life?

Like a job being the end all for you.

Or maybe it is in pleasing people.

Maybe in having the next best thing in technology or clothing or cars.

Is this stuff that is so so fleeting where meaning and worth are found?

No, obviously not because anything that is fleeting cannot be what gives us worth. There must be more to life than the material items.

There is a truth out there that will make us cringe.

It will make us crawl in a hole. It will devastate many misconceptions we have. Truth will do this to us and that is a good thing.

We need truth in life because a coddled and babied life only ends up in weak and pathetic lives.

The truth is what sets you free John 8:31-32 “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.””

And it is the raw truth that Solomon found and tells us in verses 14-18.

The first raw truth is…

The Bad Business of Man

In the rest of verse 13 Solomon tells us that what he discovered “is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”

The word “unhappy” does not mean that it is something that makes us unhappy.

Like a friend not being able to come by. Or maybe a bad day at work. A bad grade, a bad time in the barrel race, roping, or bucked off.

No, this term means “bad or evil.”

What he means is that life does not just make us unhappy because of some things we must do, but that life is evil in itself.

Think if you will about life for a second.

What happens here?

We live, we die.

We have good weather one minute then devastating weather the next.

We have good health then we have cancer in a matter of seconds it seems.

This life we have is a bad business for sure because we endure painful and troublesome experiences because this world is fallen. There is sin and because of sin there is death and death comes in many forms but the end result is the same for us all regardless how we die.

But this business we have to do, even though unhappy, is it about all of life and work, or is it about our innate desire to understand life?

I say it is both. I do because if you are not a blood bought believer in Jesus Christ, then all you do here and now is useless. A British publisher who wrote more than 20 books on literature, politics, and economics said that “I have achieved practically nothing.”

He said the world would have been exactly the same if he had played ping-pong instead of all the work he did. He called the approximate 150,000-200,000 hours of work he did “perfectly useless work.”

Now, if we are searching true meaning then we will see that we are called to seek the true meaning of life because we are created in the image of God and He has told us to subdue and take dominion of the creation.

We seek this in all the bad and grief because as Francis Schaeffer wrote, “All men … have a deep longing for significance, a longing for meaning … no man, regardless of his theoretical system, is content to look at himself as a finally meaningless machine which can and will be discarded totally and for ever.” Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), p. 98. in Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010).

The quest for this meaning is hard and troublesome just like the hunt was for the men in The Searchers. And all too often it does not give us the results we desired.

What the World Shows Us

Solomon makes a discovery about life.

In verses 14-15 he says that he saw everything under the sun and it is all vanity (meaningless, empty) and a striving after the wind (grasping the wind). That we cannot make straight what is crooked and we cannot count what is not there.

This is emptiness. The discovery is that life is empty. It cannot fill us and in all our human efforts, we cannot understand life.

To state this simply, we cannot understand everything. It is impossible and trying to comprehend things we were never meant to comprehend, will lead us to see all of life as meaningless just like that British author and publisher.

Just as the Lord said in Deut. 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

The world will show us exactly all it can, that in it is not meaning, but within the fact that there is something rather than nothing, we will begin to realize that there is something above it all that has meaning and purpose.

This is where it should lead us rather than down the path of some atheists. One infamous atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins has concluded that human existence is “neither good nor evil, neither kind nor cruel, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” (Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96. Ryken, 40.)

Thankfully Solomon did not conclude with that line but with one that points to meaning even if he does not understand. The crooked cannot be straightened and the lacking cannot be counted.

There are so many things we all want to straighten out that we can’t. There are things we wish we could bend back to shape but cannot no more than we with our bare hands can bend a crumpled fender back to normal.

Not only this but there are so many things we wish were here that simply are not. The lack in life is something we cannot count because it is beyond measure. It is beyond what we even realize we are missing.

This is why finding salvation in Jesus is so important.

The bitter will be made sweet, the crooked will be straightened, the lack will be filled to overflowing in Him in the end.

It is only through Him that this can be fixed because here we cannot fix it because we do not even know all that is missing and even if we did we would not know how to put it together.

Which leads to…

Where Wisdom Fails

Solomon continues to search even though he has discovered this misery. In verse 16 He speaks of the great wisdom he had and how it surpassed all before him in Jerusalem. Here he is just saying that his intellectual capacity surpassed all before him. This is true because God had blessed him with great wisdom. And He still could not find the meaning of life in the world.

In verse 17 He speaks of how he applied his whole being to know wisdom and madness and folly. But how that is like trying to grasp the wind.

Here he is seeking out the claims of morality. He is seeking to understand those who try to find meaning in life by becoming a better person.

Madness and folly is about those who live in disobedience to the Lord. They are not His but they still try to live a meaningful life by living good lives and a morally right life.

This type of living is meaningless and impossible to satisfy the soul. The claims of conventional morality fail and lead to nothingness.

Trying to be a good ole boy that is respectable is not what life is about. That type of living will not satisfy you anymore than eating Twinkies for every meal will satisfy your hunger.

You will be miserable and make others miserable because you do not know the one who has the meaning of life and who will guide you through life.

Then in verse 18 he speaks of where wisdom fails us when he said that with much wisdom comes much vexation (grief) and with much knowledge sorrow increases.

This last verse may be a bit confusing but it really is not. Solomon is not disparaging education, learning, and science. But what he is saying is that the attempt to find meaning in reason alone is hebel (vanity) and ‘striving after wind’. The term ‘striving’ may actually be related to the Hebrew verb that means ‘to pasture, shepherd’. In other words, one’s attempt to find meaning in reason alone is as futile as trying to shepherd the wind! It is like trying to herd cats! Life is fleeting and it is out of our control, and reason alone cannot bring it to bear. (John D. Currid, Ecclesiastes, Welwyn Commentary Series, 30.)

Basically, the more we learn the more we realize we do not know. Also, the more we learn, the wisdom we gain will give us a clearer view into the tragedies of life in a world marred by sin.

The old saying “ignorance is bliss,” goes away when we learn more of the truth of life.

Which this “leads a man to find out many disturbing things that may militate strongly against his peace of mind.” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 55, in, Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 43).

It does because we learn about the frailty of life and of all the evil in the world that is brought on by sin.

This wisdom gaining about life will make us upset and disturbed about life. “The more we know the more we see our own ignorance. And one can easily be led into despair because mankind truly knows so little. In addition, the more one knows, the more one becomes aware of the calamities of the world.” (John D. Currid, Ecclesiastes, Welwyn Commentary Series, 30.)

But it should drive us to go and be the church to all we see rather than sit and watch.

It should make us realize that there is more to this life and world than what is right here in front of us. There is so many people who do not know the Lord and are dying every day. We can reach out and reach them.

I am sure many here are saying that we know this and believe this and we do this, but you live life everyday for what is here like this is it and like meaning is found here.

This text here tells us that it is not and if we are living this way then we are basically telling God He is no good and that we know what is right and good and He does not.

If that is how you are living then you land in the same category as those Paul wrote of in 1 Cor. 15 who deny the resurrection and are to be pitied.

But there is more. There is so much more than this world and when you live for the next world that will be perfect in glory with Christ then we have…

The Hopeful Conclusion

So, we have a hopeless feeling about life being nothing more than a dreary and unpleasant business we must do.

That more wisdom about it causes more pain and grief.

Why then would we want to learn more?

Why not just live in ignorance?

Well, living in ignorance does not lead us to Jesus.

The purpose of this section is to drive us to despair and hopelessness.

If Solomon has done that, and I hope he has, then he has shown us that there is no hope, meaning, joy here. He has shown us the world from an earthly position and why that cannot satisfy or bring hope.

We can find meaning in life though.

This meaning is not found in work, secular reasoning, being good people, trying to live our best life now like every day is a Friday, trying to grow through self-help guru’s, or anything else because that will all end in vexation.

No, what gives meaning is Jesus Christ and His wisdom. In His wisdom given to us through the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in all who have believed, we can find meaning and live a life of purpose.

Christ came and took on all the vexation of this world for us. He came and showed us how to live. In Him is hope, love, meaning, purpose, and genuine wisdom.

One has said,

“If we follow Jesus and his wisdom, we will not keep trying to bend what is crooked back to our own purpose but will humbly submit to the way God wants things to be, just like Jesus did when he went to the cross and died for our sins (see 1 Peter 2:21–24). If we follow his wisdom, life will add up…[but] it may not always seem to add up on this side of eternity. Therefore, we need to be content to leave the final calculations to God. Jesus will see to it that all of God’s books balance in the end, including our own personal account, which he will reconcile by his own blood. Thus our present vexation will not last forever, including all the struggles we have to understand the meaning of life. Soon all our sorrows will be over. To our everlasting joy, we will be with Jesus forever, and we will find in him the answer to all our questions.” (Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 44.)

What are you searching for? What is it you are after?

Whatever it is I can tell you that you will not find it, at least if you do find it you will not have true meaning in it if it is without Jesus.