In chapter 1, Solomon essentially states that life is meaningless. This is the starting point of his thesis, which ends with him declaring that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). He thus states dogmatically that, despite what carnal men say, a clear purpose exists for life, and the concepts of materialism do not drive God's purpose for this world.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Seven): Contentment
The modern-day descendants of Israel seem to exhibit an especially high degree of idealism and perfectionism. These are not inherently bad traits, because God indeed requires us to strive to be perfect and to live according to His ideals. Sometimes, though, we can create stress for ourselves when we have expectations of perfection because, as Solomon teaches, our world is not perfect.
God has blessed the nations of Israel tremendously, and with those blessings comes the ability to overcome many obstacles. Yet there are aspects of our surroundings that are simply broken—words cannot be unsaid, deeds cannot be undone, and crookedness cannot be straightened.
This axiom in Ecclesiastes 1:15 is connected to the previous verse, which speaks of “all the works that are done under the sun,” giving verse 15 its context. All the works of man—everything in this kosmos, this world apart from God—include a crookedness that cannot be rectified. The number of things lacking in all of man's works is so great as to be uncountable.
By way of definition, the Hebrew word translated as “crooked,” 'avath (Strong's #5791), is used less than a dozen times in the rest of the Old Testament. Its basic meaning is “to wrest,” which is “to forcibly pull something from a person's grasp” or “to obtain by wrenching with violent, twisting movements.” In essence, it is the assertion of one person's will against another's, and the result is damage that can never truly be repaired.
In other places, 'avath is linked with the perversion of justice (Job 8:3; 34:12). It can mean wronging someone or dealing perversely with someone (Psalm 119:78). It indicates turning things upside down or upsetting the natural order of things (Job 19:6; Psalm 146:9). Finally, it can refer to subverting someone in his cause and falsifying the scales (Lamentations 3:36; Amos 8:5).
Solomon is saying that, once the natural order of things has been upset by this willfulness, it is essentially impossible to make those things right again. The order of things cannot be equalized (which is what the word translated as “straight” means), even though there may be a salve that can be applied. When something has been wrested from another—when one person's will has been asserted at the expense of someone else's—it sets things into motion that cannot be equalized. A measure of crookedness will always remain in man's works.
Thus, because of human nature and willfulness, anywhere we find human actions, we also find disorder and incompleteness. We see irregularity and deficiency. Not only that, but we also discover mankind's utter inability to truly fix them or fill in what is lacking.
David C. Grabbe
The book's first eleven verses do not provide much in the way of hope for one's life, but Solomon is not yet ready to explain more fully. However, he is looking for some explanations because, unlike an animal, man is created in the likeness of God and has a spirit. A man, therefore, looks for meaning in order to have some direction for living his life. Unlike animals, man does not merely exist within the narrow parameters of instinct. Though his life is difficult, man has an inner, God-given drive that his life is going somewhere. Solomon will later provide further insight into this drive.
The first mention of God appears in verse 13, and Solomon directly states that He gave us the grievous task of living by wisdom. One thing that he clearly counsels us on, and also shows by his personal example, is that God does not want us to run from life's difficulties but to meet them and do our best to overcome them. The ultimate escape is through suicide, but some attempt to escape through various addictions, and others simply give up and let others take care of them, as some are now using the government.
Verse 15 contains one of those blunt facts of life that all need to deal with without allowing themselves to become cynical yet also remaining realistic. When Solomon states, "What is crooked cannot be made straight," he is referring, not to anything material like a piece of steel, but rather to the circumstances and events of communal life. An obvious example is that the past cannot be changed. An injustice might be resolved or an apology given, but many lasting effects remain.
The Living Bible paraphrases this verse as, "What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been." We must remember, though, that God has the power to straighten out what is twisted and to supply what is lacking, yet even He will not change the past. However, He can change the way the past affects us, which is most encouraging to those who believe.
We do not understand very much. Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:13: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am known." In Romans 8:28, in the same chapter in which he expounds on the futility of life, he says, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose."
Thus, by looking at it through the eyes of faith, we can know about life to some degree, but at this point in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is warning us that it contains a great deal of inequity, disappointment and discouragement, evil, apparent injustice, and pain. Nations enter into wars without our permission, governments and their systems are corrupt, the courts are unfair, and businessmen lie and steal—all clearly caused by the minds and hands of men. There is so much of this, he says, it is beyond count. God could easily stop these events, but He does not!
Is it any wonder Paul says in Galatians 1:4 that Christ "gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father"? One of the unwritten questions in Ecclesiastes is, "Why does God not stop these things?" It is not answered completely either, so verse 16 shows Solomon searching for where he might find it.
Sometimes, he seems remorseless in his effort to make us think, but even the wisdom of Solomon cannot break through on the basis of human reason. He sets his mind to study and meditate on resources that he already has on hand to further expand the possibilities of greater understanding.
When he writes in verse 17 that he set his heart "to know madness and folly," he means that he will search for answers by exploring the opposites of wisdom so that, he hopes, the contrast might reveal a deeper, clearer understanding of wisdom. The Hebrew term translated as "madness" is somewhat misleading because it is closer in meaning to "recklessness," indicating error in thinking. It is not the type of recklessness that would bring bodily injury, but it could mislead his search for factual truths.
Verse 18 shows that his efforts were not only unsuccessful but left him somewhat frustrated. Why? He does not give an answer because he has none, and he has none because he is searching under the sun. The truth is that some extremely important facets of this mystery of the ages that Solomon is investigating must be revealed from above the sun.
The conclusion to Ecclesiastes 1 should prove to us that wisdom and experience will not solve every problem in life. We must understand and live with the reality that God is not obligated to explain our problems to us. We are the sinners who chose, as Adam and Eve did, to accept Satan's deceitful offer that, if they would listen to him and eat the fruit, their eyes would be opened. They indeed gained a great deal of experiential knowledge, but their experiences also alienated them from God. We cannot expect any different result.
Life may seem monotonous and meaningless, but for those called by God, it need not be. Life now is a tremendous blessing. We must accept the reality, though, that we must live by faith in God's promises. Following His resurrection, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Jesus Christ is "the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:24). In His mercy, He has miraculously broken into our lives to prepare us for His Kingdom. We must take up the challenges that He has presented, cease living our lives running in circles, and head straight for the Kingdom of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part One)
When Solomon speaks of crookedness, he is not specifically speaking about sin. In fact, some crookedness is actually good, because it is created by God (Ecclesiastes 7:13)! But in general, sin and crookedness overlap in many ways because, when one person is wrenching something from another, whether physically or metaphorically, sin is almost always involved. It is the “way of get”; it is an act of self-centeredness.
On a human level, the crookedness in the world began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam upset the order of things by heeding the voice of Eve rather than the voice of God. He made a choice, and that choice introduced crookedness into the relationship between God and man. What Adam made crooked could not be made straight by any subsequent human action.
In fact, the more people there were, the more crooked the world became until finally God intervened by, not only drowning most of mankind, but also by shortening the human lifespan. In doing so, He dramatically reduced the amount of time during which any single person could make things crooked. Yet, even with only his allotted three-score and ten or perhaps four-score, each man has plenty of time to make things crooked in his and others' lives.
Crookedness began on a human level with Adam, yet it goes back even farther, to another being who was in the Garden (Ezekiel 28:13). The crookedness in God's creation began with a created being, Satan, whose heart was lifted up, who thought of himself more highly than he should. After his own heart and will became crooked, he began wresting the wills of other angels, then those of mankind. He is the source of this kosmos—this anti-God world—as well as human nature, and thus wherever those are found, we can also expect to find some crookedness.
What this means is that, even though God has redeemed us, any place in our lives that the world still holds sway, or any area where we allow human nature to get the upper hand, something will be made crooked. Our will will assert itself and be manifested in a perversion of justice, in wronging someone, in turning a matter upside down, in dealing deceitfully, or in upsetting the relationship with God by overlooking His will for us.
David C. Grabbe
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Ecclesiastes 1:15: