Ecclesiastes 2 – Life In View Of Death
A. The pursuit of pleasure tested – and found lacking.
1. (1) The summary.
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity.
a. I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you”: The previous section saw Solomon look for the meaning of life in wisdom – wisdom as it can be understood apart from eternity. He found no meaning in skillful, wise living under the sun. Now he continued his search for meaning and tested a life of pleasure and amusement.
i. “The Preacher is not testing pleasure so much as himself.” (Eaton)
b. Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure: Solomon tested life’s meaning in mirth and pleasure. He tested the theory many live under today; that the meaning of life is found in more and varied pleasures, entertainments, and excitements.
c. But surely, this also was vanity: The Preacher will shortly explain how he came to this conclusion; but he tells us the result of the testing at the beginning.
2. (2-3) The search for meaning in pleasure.
I said of laughter – “Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.
a. I said of laughter – “Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish”: Solomon tested the life lived for laughter, pleasure, and fun. Like a modern celebrity he ran from party to party, entertainment to entertainment. At the end of it all, he judged it to be “Madness” and without accomplishment.
i. Laughter: “A superficial gaiety, used of the ‘fun’ of a game (Proverbs 1:23) or a party (Ecclesiastes 10:19), or the ‘derision’ which Jeremiah suffered (Jeremiah 20:7).” (Eaton)
ii. Mirth: “Thoughtful pleasure, the joy of religious festivals (Numbers 10:10, Judges 16:23), gratitude in serving the LORD (Deuteronomy 28:47), or the proclamation of a king (1 Kings 1:40).” (Eaton)
iii. Yet, Eaton is careful to add that “the distinction cannot always be sharply drawn.”
iv. Clarke on laughter and mirth: “He tells the former to her face that she is mad; but as to the latter, he thinks her so much beneath his notice, that he only points at her, and instantly turns his back.”
b. I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine… and how to lay hold on folly: The Preacher lived a life satiated with the pleasures of wine and light, frivolous amusements. He wanted to see what was good for the sons of men to do if this life was all there was.
3. (4-8) The search for meaning in work and accomplishments.
I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.
a. I made my works great: The Preacher looked not only for meaning in amusements, but also in great and legitimate accomplishments. He tried to give life meaning through the satisfaction that comes through building and organizing and improving one’s environment.
i. “As if he had over-reacted in turning to futile pleasures, he now gives himself to the joys of creativity.” (Kidner)
b. Gardens and orchards… male and female servants… herds and flocks… silver and gold: If building, improving, and amassing great riches and accomplishments could give true meaning to life, the Preacher would have found it.
i. Special treasures of kings and of the provinces: “1. The taxes levied off his subjects. 2. The tribute given by the neighboring potentates. Both these make the ‘peculiar treasure of kings;’ taxes and tribute.” (Clarke)
ii. Musical instruments of all kinds: “The final item in the list may well refer to Solomon’s wives and concubines, but the Hebrew word does not occur elsewhere in the Bible.” (Wright) The NIV translates, “Harem” and the RSV “Concubines.” The word might be related to the Hebrew word for breast. According to Wright, a Canaanite word of similar form is used to translate the Egyptian word for “concubine.” However, the traditional Jewish rendering is musical instruments.
4. (9-11) The analysis from the search.
So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun.
a. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem: Solomon’s accomplishments rightly lifted him to prominence, and he had whatever meaning fame could bring to life.
b. Also my wisdom remained with me: In all of this Solomon did not lose his wisdom or ability to genuinely assess meaning and fulfillment – at least in an under the sun sense.
c. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure: This is even more significant coming from Solomon, who had the resources to grant whatever his eyes desired, and every pleasure of his heart.
i. “How many are there that have died of the wound in the eye!” (Trapp)
d. For my heart rejoiced in all my labor: We might say that the Preacher lived this period as a hedonist, but as an intelligent one. He looked for legitimate pleasures in life, such as the rightful pleasure one takes in the accomplishments of hard work (my reward from all my labor).
e. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done… indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind: Solomon examined his life lived for pleasure – even legitimate pleasures – and saw that it too was meaningless. All was vanity. There was no enduring, eternal sense of meaning to life lived for these earthly pleasures and accomplishments.
i. “This is as modern as ennui [a feeling of dissatisfaction and uselessness] of every human soul which seeks knowledge, mirth, wealth, life – and forgets God.” (Morgan)
B. The certainty and cruelty of death.
1. (12-17) Death makes equal the wise and the fool.
Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly;
For what can the man do who succeeds the king? –
Only what he has already done.
Then I saw that wisdom excels folly
As light excels darkness.
The wise man’s eyes are in his head,
But the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I myself perceived
That the same event happens to them all.
So I said in my heart,
“As it happens to the fool,
It also happens to me,
And why was I then more wise?”
Then I said in my heart,
“This also is vanity.”
For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever,
Since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come.
And how does a wise man die?
As the fool!
Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
a. I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly: The Preacher continued to search after meaning and life, and followed the lines of wisdom and madness and folly further, unto their ending point.
b. For what can the man do who succeeds the king: Solomon here spoke of himself as the son of David (Ecclesiastes 1:1); yet he also spoke of his own successor (who turned out to be Rehoboam, 1 Kings 11:43). Of both, Solomon understood that the new king can do only what he has already done. Even for a king, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
c. Wisdom excels folly… Yet I myself perceived that the same event happens to them all: The Preacher saw the meaninglessness of even wise living, pleasure, and accomplishment in a life lived under the sun – apart from the knowledge that eternity is real and God matters.
i. No matter how wise one is or is not; how much they do or do not accomplish; or how much pleasure one has or does not have, the same event happens to them all: they all die. Given the Preacher’s premise – that eternity and God do not matter – this is the only possible conclusion.
ii. “Everything may tell us that wisdom is not on a par with folly, not goodness with evil; but no matter: if death is the end of the road, the contention that there is nothing to choose between them will get the last word.” (Kidner)
d. As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me, and why was I then more wise: If death ends it all, then this life is robbed of true meaning. Even the good and great accomplishments of this world are unbelievably temporary, and therefore ultimately meaningless. The wise man dies just as the fool. Truly, the Preacher looked at this and said, “This also is vanity.”
e. Therefore I hated life… for all is vanity and grasping for the wind: Given his premise of life under the sun, Solomon hated life because it was so meaningless (vanity and grasping for the wind).
i. Adam Clarke says that life is more literally lives. “The lives, both of the wise, the madman, and the fool. Also all the stages of life, the child, the man, and the sage. There was nothing in it worth pursuing, no period worth re-living and no hope that if this were possible I could again be more successful.”
ii. Therefore I hated life: “If there is a lie at the centre of existence, and nonsense at the end of it, who has the heart to make anything of it?” (Kidner)
iii. “He has no illusions, though by rights it is we who should have none – we who have heard from the secularists themselves that our very planet is dying.” (Kidner)
2. (18-23) Death defeats all accomplishments.
Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.
a. Then I hated all my labor… because I must leave it to a man who will come after me: Not only did Solomon hate life under this thinking (Ecclesiastes 2:17), he also hated his very accomplishments, saying of them, “This also is vanity.”
i. The idea that Solomon might leave all his work and material wealth to a fool seemed to trouble him. This concern was well founded, because after Solomon’s death, Rehoboam turned out to be a fool in many ways (1 Kings 12, 1 Kings 14:21-31).
ii. “Alas! Solomon, the wisest of all men, made the worst use of his wisdom, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and yet left but one son behind him, to possess his estates and his throne, and that one was the silliest of fools!” (Clarke)
b. There is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it: Under his premise, death haunted Solomon. Not in the sense that he seemed afraid to die, but he despaired of how death (if that ends existence) makes all meaningless.
i. I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun: “The only conclusion is that it is all useless. An abyss of despair results. He ‘allowed [his] heart to despair’ (as the Hebrew verb may be translated). This is one of the most moving points of the Old Testament, the antithesis of the New Testament’s ‘not in vain in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 15:58).” (Eaton)
c. All his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest: If death robs our work of meaning, then life is indeed sorrowful, work is burdensome, and there is no rest or relief from the despair of a meaningless life. Surely, this also is vanity.
i. Actually, it’s worse than vanity. The Preacher also observed that in an under the sun world, this is a great evil.
ii. The Preacher hints at a vital question: why does this bother us so? If this is indeed man’s lot and always has been; if every thought of an eternal meaning to life is a wish and a fantasy, then why does that idea cause discontent in most everyone? Man may wish he could fly like a bird, but there is little sense of meaninglessness in the heart of a man or woman because they cannot fly like a bird. This is because man was not designed to fly like a bird; but he is designed for eternity.
iii. “Incidentally, this bitter reaction is a witness to our ability to stand clear of our condition and to weigh it up. To be outraged at what is universal and unavoidable suggests something of a divine discontentment, and hint of what the great saying in 3:11 will call ‘eternity’ in man’s mind.” (Kidner)
C. How to live life “under the sun.”
1. (24-25) Keeping a good attitude despite despair.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?
a. Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink: This thought is prominent in Ecclesiastes, being repeated some five times. It seems that the Preacher advised us how to make the best of a bad situation. If life really is as despairing and meaningless as he has shown it to be, then we should simply accept that true meaning is impossible to find, and simply find contentment in moderate and responsible pleasures.
i. This thinking is prominent in our day. Few people live for true, eternal meaning in their life; so they live with under the sun rules. They try to work hard, to enjoy life, to have fun, to be nice, to not get caught doing wrong, and they try not to hurt anybody.
ii. This thinking may work in making a bad situation better; but it gives no true meaning to life in light of eternity.
iii. “This may seem to savor of epicurism, as may also some following passages of this book. For which cause some of the old Jew doctors were once in a mind to hide this whole book out of the way, and not suffer the common sort to see it any more.” (Trapp)
b. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God: We again see that the Preacher is no atheist; he certainly believes in God. But the God of the Preacher is not the God who matters and gives meaning to life as it is connected to eternity. The God of the Preacher simply teaches us to make the best of a bad situation.
i. “Everything is vanity. To live under the sun is to decide at last that the natural thing to do is to take what comes. Materialism necessarily becomes fatalism.” (Morgan)
c. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I: Given the Preacher’s premise, his life should be the best in a meaningless world. He could enjoy this world of despair better than anyone else. Yet his life was almost infinitely poorer than the most humble life lived with true meaning.
2. (26) Perhaps the seeming injustice of this world may work to one’s favor.
For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
a. God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good: Solomon reflected on how sometimes it seems that what the sinner has gathered and collected is given to him who is good before God. This might seem unjust, but even under the sun, sometimes injustice seems to work in one’s favor.
i. “The fact that in the end the sinner’s hoard will go to the righteous is only a crowning irony to what was in any case vanity and a striving after the wind.” (Kidner)
b. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind: The Preacher knew that his seeming redistribution from God’s hand was not enough to give true meaning to life lived under the sun.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission