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Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #3 Disgusted with Life? Ecclesiastes 2

22 Feb

“There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.Napoleon is supposed to have made that statement after his humiliating retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. The combination of stubborn Russian resistance and a severe Russian winter was too much for the French army, and its expected sublime victory was turned into shameful defeat.

As part of his quest for “the good life,” King Solomon examined everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the great laboratory of life, he experimented with one thing after another, always applying the wisdom that God had given him (vv. 3, 9). In this chapter, Solomon recorded three stages in his experiments as he searched for a satisfying meaning to life.

Satisfaction cannot be found in pleasure (2:1-11).

(Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NIV)  “I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. {2} “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” {3} I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. {4} I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. {5} I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. {6} I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. {7} I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. {8} I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man. {9} I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. {10} I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. {11} Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

In this section, Solomon describes his grand experiment into pleasure and its total failure. He followed the philosophy of the advertising slogan, “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get.” He grabbed for all the pleasures of life. But after some time he realized that the “gusto” was less fulfilling and did not taste so great.56 In the first eight verses, he speaks of at least six kinds of pleasure he tried in his effort to find satisfaction.

  • Humor (2:2). Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’”57 Solomon mocks “laughter” as “madness.” I don’t know if the comics he listened to were as bad as the ones we see on TV today, but if so, I’m not surprised he labeled it “madness.” Do you really think the leading comedians of our day are sincerely satisfied with life? Has humor given them an inside track on human happiness? Hardly.58 It is easy to seek to lose ourselves in comedy and entertainment whether it is in a theater, in front of our TV, or on-line. Although it can seem like a great escape, it leaves us empty in the end.
  • Wine (2:3). Solomon writes, “I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” Many people assume Solomon was a “party animal” who got drunk like a skunk. Not so! He was too smart for that. Getting drunk for pleasure is about as dumb as jumping off a ten-story building to enjoy the breeze. Rather, Solomon was a connoisseur of fine wine, but he clearly states that he didn’t drink so much that it would prevent his mind from guiding him wisely. Rather, wine became a socially acceptable way to loosen up and enjoy people and conversations. Yet, he states that it is futility.

Solomon had the means and the authority to do just about anything his heart desired. He decided to test his own heart to see how he would respond to two very common experiences of life: enjoyment (1-3) and employment (4-11).

Enjoyment (2:1-3).

The Hebrew people rightly believed that God made man to enjoy the blessings of His creation (Ps. 104, and note 1 Tim. 6:17). The harvest season was a joyful time for them as they reaped the blessings of God on their labor. At the conclusion of his book, Solomon admonished his readers to enjoy God’s blessings during the years of their youth, before old age arrived and the body began to fall apart (12:1ff). Eight times in Ecclesiastes, Solomon used the Hebrew word meaning “pleasure,” so it is obvious that he did not consider God a celestial spoilsport who watched closely to make certain nobody was having a good time.

Solomon specifically mentioned wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment. It takes very little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (2:8b). But when the party was over and King Solomon examined his heart, it was still dissatisfied and empty. Pleasure and mirth were only vanity, so many soap bubbles that quickly burst and left nothing behind.

Perhaps many of the king’s servants envied Solomon and wished to change places with him, but the king was unhappy. “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful,” he wrote in Proverbs 14:13, “and the end of that mirth is heaviness.”

Today’s world is pleasure-mad. Millions of people will pay almost any amount of money to “buy experiences” and temporarily escape the burdens of life. While there is nothing wrong with innocent fun, the person who builds his or her life only on seeking pleasure is bound to be disappointed in the end.

Why? For one thing, pleasure-seeking usually becomes a selfish endeavor; and selfishness destroys true joy. People who live for pleasure often exploit others to get what they want, and they end up with broken relationships as well as empty hearts. People are more important than things and thrills. We are to be channels, not reservoirs; the greatest joy comes when we share God’s pleasures with others.

If you live for pleasure alone, enjoyment will decrease unless the intensity of the pleasure increases. Then you reach a point of diminishing returns when there is little or no enjoyment at all, only bondage. For example, the more that people drink, the less enjoyment they get out of it. This means they must have more drinks and stronger drinks in order to have pleasure; the sad result is desire without satisfaction. Instead of alcohol, substitute drugs, gambling, sex, money, fame, or any other pursuit, and the principle will hold true: when pleasure alone is the center of life, the result will ultimately be disappointment and emptiness.

There is a third reason why pleasure alone can never bring satisfaction: it appeals to only part of the person and ignores the total being. This is the major difference between shallow “entertainment” and true “enjoyment,” for when the whole person is involved, there will be both enjoyment and enrichment. Entertainment has its place, but we must keep in mind that it only helps us to escape life temporarily. True pleasure not only brings delight, but it also builds character by enriching the total person.

Employment (2:4-11).

Next, Solomon got involved in all kinds of projects, hoping to discover something that would make life worth living. He started with great works (4-6), including houses (1 Kings 7), cities (2 Chron. 8:4-6), gardens, vineyards, orchards and forests (1 Kings 4:33), and the water systems needed to service them. Of course, Solomon also supervised the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5ff), one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world.

He not only had works, but he also had workers (7a). He had two kinds of slaves: those he purchased and those born in his household. He might have added that he “drafted” 30,000 Jewish men to work on various projects (1 Kings 5:13-18). His father David had conscripted the strangers in the land (1 Chron. 22:2), but Solomon drafted his own people, and the people resented it (see 1 Kings 12).

Of course, Solomon accumulated wealth (7b-8a), in flocks and herds (1 Kings 8:63) as well as gold and silver (1 Kings 4:21 and 10:1ff). He was the wealthiest and wisest man in the whole world, yet he was unhappy because activity alone does not bring lasting pleasure.

There can be joy in the doing of great projects, but what happens when the task is finished? Solomon found delight in all his labor (2:10); but afterward, when he considered all his works, he saw only “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11). The journey was a pleasure, but the destination brought pain. “Success is full of promise until men get it,” said the American preacher Henry Ward Beecher, “and then it is a last-year’s nest from which the birds have flown.”

We must not conclude that Solomon was condemning work itself, because work is a blessing from God. Adam had work to do in the Garden even before he sinned. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, niv). In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon exalted diligence and condemned laziness; for he knew that any honest employment can be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). But work alone cannot satisfy the human heart, no matter how successful that work may be (Isa. 55:2).

This helps us to understand why many achievers are unhappy people. Ambrose Bierce called achievement “the death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.” This is often the case. The overachiever is often a person who is trying to escape himself or herself by becoming a workaholic, and this only results in disappointment. When workaholics retire, they often feel useless and sometimes die from lack of meaningful activity.

Solomon tested life, and his heart said, “Vanity!”

  • Projects (2:4-6). Solomon writes, “I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.” Solomon tried to create his own Garden of Eden. His buildings, vineyards, gardens,59 and irrigation canals are legendary. Solomon’s temple is known to be one of the most magnificent buildings of all time. It took 153,000 workers seven years to build.60 However, it took them thirteen years to build Solomon’s own house! Imagine what you could build with unlimited resources and 100,000 plus workers. Imagine what it looked like! But did all this beauty satisfy? No, it didn’t. The projects described here don’t seem to resemble an ongoing job or trade as much as leisure projects. The house-building, tree-planting, and reservoir-constructing in Ecclesiastes might correspond to a new shed, some tomatoes, and a sprinkler system in your backyard—on a grander scale than we’re used to, certainly, but the intended result of personal enjoyment is the same. Yet, this will never satisfy.
  • Possessions (2:7-8). Solomon writes, “I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.” He bought more and more slaves and even bred them. He amassed larger herds than anyone before him—the real measure of wealth to the average man. He collected gold and silver and all manner of luxurious gifts from other kings and countries. So great was Solomon’s fortune that silver and gold were soon regarded in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kgs 10:27; 2 Chron 1:15). Not one of all the above good things brought satisfaction or joy. For centuries, the old saying that “money can’t buy happiness” has been espoused by many, but few ever live their lives as if there is any truth to this statement—in fact, quite the contrary. As one wise pundit with deep insight put it, “All I want is the chance to prove that money can’t buy happiness.”61

The classic movie Citizen Kane illustrates this point. In the film, you watch the character Charles Foster accrue an incredible amount of wealth, until it ultimately destroys him. As Foster is progressively tainted by his desire for wealth, power, and pleasure, there is a recurring shot of a fireplace in his home. As the wealth grows and becomes more destructive, the fireplace gets bigger and bigger until in the last few frames, it is the largest thing in the movie. The fireplace is always burning and consuming. By the end of the movie, the fireplace takes up almost an entire wall of his house.

Foster’s life is nothing but this raging inferno that never, ever is consumed until he dies. And when he dies, all his possessions are burned. The viewer watches his entire life go up in smoke. The only difference between Foster and most of us is that his stuff produced a lot of smoke. He had a big trash bag. We will have little-bitty trash bags. But in the end, it all goes up in smoke.62

  • Music (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided for myself male and female singers.” He didn’t need an iPod; he had live musicians with him whenever he wanted. Can you imagine having your favorite musician or band travel with you wherever you go? All you have to do is snap your fingers and they are at your beck and call. This too is futile.
  • Sexual Pleasure (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided the pleasures of men—many concubines.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. One thousand women available to him any time of the day or night! Surely that ended his search for satisfaction, didn’t it? Well, it ended his close relationship with God, but it didn’t end his quest for meaning and significance. It only left him bored, empty, and frustrated. Several years ago, I read an article about Hugh Hefner in Christianity Today. The author explained that Hefner is completely desensitized to sexual activity due to excess. Even though he owns the Playboy mansion, for many years he has not had a sexual relationship with a woman. What a glaring example of the futility of immorality.

Solomon summarizes his pursuit of pleasure with his own analysis in 2:9-11: “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.63 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” I cannot help but think here of Jesus’ question in Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Solomon would answer, “Nothing. It profits him nothing at all.” Solomon says, “It won’t work. You can earn more, spend more, collect more, drink more, eat more, sin more, you name it, but none of those things will put meaning into life.”

Solomon hated life (ECCL. 2:12-23)

(Ecclesiastes 2:12-23 NIV)  “Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? {13} I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. {14} The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. {15} Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” {16} For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! {17} So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 “I turned myself to behold” simply means, “I considered things from another viewpoint.” What he did was to look at his wisdom (12-17) and his wealth (18-23) in light of the certainty of death. What good is it to be wise and wealthy if you are going to die and leave everything behind?

The certainty of death is a topic Solomon frequently mentioned in Ecclesiastes (1:4; 2:14-17; 3:18-20; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2-3, 12; 12:7-8). He could not easily avoid the subject as he looked at life “under the sun,” for death is one of the obvious facts of life. The French essayist Montaigne wrote, “Philosophy is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death.” Only that person is prepared to live who is prepared to die.

[So far we have seen that the pursuit of knowledge is futile and the pursuit of pleasure is futile. Now Solomon will tell us that…]

Satisfaction cannot be found in wisdom (2:12-17).

It’s been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. That’s what Solomon is doing here. Solomon has already talked about wisdom and knowledge at the end of chapter one, so perhaps he is going back to the subject rather than pursuing a new topic, but I prefer to think that his previous discussion dealt primarily with the acquiring of knowledge or education, while now he is more concerned with the application of wisdom and knowledge. Solomon shares two important principles.

  • The wise man and the fool die alike (2:12-14). Solomon writes, “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king [Adam, the ‘king’ of creation] except what has already been done? And 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. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.” Solomon concedes that wisdom has certain advantages over ignorance. However, despite its advantages, even the remarkable gift of wisdom falls under the general condemnation of hebel. The grim reaper stalks the wise and the fool, the righteous and the wicked, the believer and the unbeliever. Death is the great equalizer, and if it makes no distinctions, then why bother to be overly wise? Why not act the fool if we all end up in the same grave anyway?
  • The wise man and the fool are both forgotten (2:15-17). Solomon writes, “Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.’ For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.” The intellectual’s real hope is that he will achieve lasting fame and be long remembered for his great contributions. Solomon pronounces all this to be an illusion. Future generations will no more remember the scholar than they will the beggar on the street. In fact, a good case could actually be made for the fact that fools are remembered longer than the wise. At least the crazy get more press. And what is Solomon’s response to all this? He says in 2:17, “So I hated life.” Notice carefully that he doesn’t say, “So I hate life,” but “I hated” This is not his final conclusion, not even his present outlook, but it was his attitude when his pursuit of wisdom turned up a dry hole—he despaired of even living.

Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we are thankful to God for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries. Yet, there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry, diseased, and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.64 We spend millions on AIDS awareness, yet people who “know better” regularly engage in promiscuous sex. We have more consultants and experts in business than ever before, yet bankruptcies continually occur. We have learned about fat grams and exercise routines, yet we are the most obese nation in the world. Books on parenting and marriage appear regularly, yet families seem to struggle as never before.65

[Solomon has pursued education, pleasure, and wisdom. His personal experience takes him on one more excursion, but the result is the same.]

Satisfaction cannot be found in work (2:18-26).

{18} I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. {19} And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. {20} So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. {21} For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. {22} What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? {23} All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.”

Since both the wise man and the fool will die, what is the value of wisdom? For one thing, we can leave our wisdom for the guidance of the next generation; but how can we be sure they will value it or follow it? “What can the man do that cometh after the king?” suggests that it is folly for successive generations to make the same “experiments” (and mistakes) when they can learn from their forefathers; but they do it just the same! There is nothing new under the sun (1:9); they can only repeat what we have already done.

In spite of the fact that all men must die, wisdom is still of greater value than folly. They are as different as night and day! The wise man sees that death is coming and lives accordingly, while the fool walks in darkness and is caught unprepared. However, being prepared for death does not necessarily relieve Solomon of his burden about life; for it takes a person a long time to learn how to live, and then life ends. All of this seems so futile.

Both the wise man and the fool die, and both the wise man and the fool are forgotten (v. 16). Solomon’s fame has remained, of course (1 Kings 4:29-34; Matt. 6:28-30); but most “famous” people who have died are rarely mentioned in ordinary conversation, although their biographies are found in the encyclopedias. (I note that some of these biographies get smaller from edition to edition.)

“So I hated life!” concluded Solomon, but he was not contemplating suicide; for death was one thing he wanted to avoid. “I hate life and yet I am afraid to die!” said the French humanist Voltaire; Solomon would agree with him. Life seemed irrational and futile to Solomon, and yet it was still better than death. We might paraphrase his statement, “Therefore, I was disgusted with life!”

The healthy Christian believer certainly would not hate life, no matter how difficult the circumstances might be. It is true that some great men have wanted to die, such as Job (Job 3:21-7:15), Moses (Num. 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:3), but we must not take these special instances as examples for us to follow. All of these men finally changed their minds.

No, the Christian should “love life” (1 Peter 3:10, quoted from Ps. 34:12ff), seeking to put the most into it and getting the most out of it, to the glory of God. We may not enjoy everything in life, or be able to explain everything about life, but that is not important. We live by promises and not by explanations, and we know that our “labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Not only did Solomon hate life, but he hated the wealth that was the result of his toil. Of course, Solomon was born wealthy, and great wealth came to him because he was the king. But he was looking at life “under the sun” and speaking for the “common people” who were listening to his discussion. He gave three reasons why he was disgusted with wealth.

First, you can’t keep it (v. 18). The day would come when Solomon would die and leave everything to his successor. This reminds us of our Lord’s warning in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:7-10. A Jewish proverb says, “There are no pockets in shrouds.”

Money is a medium of exchange. Unless it is spent, it can do little or nothing for you. You can’t eat money, but you can use it to buy food. It will not keep you warm, but it will purchase fuel. A writer in The Wall Street Journal called money “an article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness.”

Of course, you and I are stewards of our wealth; God is the Provider (Deut. 8:18) and the Owner, and we have the privilege of enjoying it and using it for His glory. One day we will have to give an account of what we have done with His generous gifts. While we cannot take wealth with us when we die, we can “send it ahead” as we use it today according to God’s will (Matt. 6:19-34).

Second, we can’t protect it (vv. 19-20). It’s bad enough that we must leave our wealth behind, but even worse that we might leave it to somebody who will waste it! Suppose he or she is a fool and tears down everything we have built up? Solomon didn’t know it at the time, but his son Rehoboam would do that very thing (1 Kings 11:41-12:24).

Many people have tried to write their wills in such a way that their estates could not be wasted, but they have not always succeeded. In spite of the instruction and good example they may give, the fathers and mothers have no way of knowing what the next generation will do with the wealth that they worked so hard to accumulate. Solomon’s response was to walk about and simply resign himself (“despair” v. 20) to the facts of life and death. As the rustic preacher said, “We all must learn to cooperate with the inevitable!”

Third, we can’t enjoy it as we should (vv. 21-23). If all we do is think about our wealth and worry about what will happen to it, we will make our lives miserable. We do all the work and then leave the wealth to somebody who didn’t even work for it (v. 21). Is that fair? We spend days in travail and grief and have many sleepless nights, yet our heirs never experience any of this. It all seems so futile. “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” (v. 22, niv)

At this point, Solomon appears to be very pessimistic, but he doesn’t remain that way very long. In a step of faith he reaches the third stage in his experiment.

Now a significant number of people will agree with me on this point, for all of us at one time or another lose interest in our work and wonder if it’s even worth it. But let’s see the reasons behind Solomon’s analysis. Again, Solomon shares two critical principles.

  • You can’t take it with you (2:18-20). Solomon writes, “Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.” It’s a pretty sure bet that Solomon was a Type-A personality. He’s like many Americans today. It’s easy for some of us to work, work, work, strategize, plan, skip vacations, miss out on family time and leisure, and work, work, work some more. Then, when everything is in place, when all the ducks are in a row, wham! We die and have to leave it all to others. That is a fact that applies to every one of us. King Tut tried to take it with him, and we smile at the futility of his effort. But millions after him have acted as though they could take it, amassing great fortunes while fearful of spending them lest they die penniless.
  • You can’t control it when you’re gone (2:21-23). Solomon writes, “When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” Some people amass great fortunes, not for their own benefit but for their children’s benefit. But there’s no guarantee that the child will show the same wisdom that the parent showed. Typically, large fortunes are squandered by those who inherit. More often than not it also ends up destroying relationships. Leaving our loved ones too much might be worse than leaving them too little.

The disappointing reality is that significance cannot be found in work. Some time ago, an aspiring television star was given a shot at a network series. He went to the NBC studios, saw his name on a parking space, found the crew treating him like royalty, and admired the star on his dressing room door. The series pilot was shot in five days, but television executives rejected it. When the young actor left, no one said goodbye, the name was gone from his parking space, and his dressing room was locked. “All the success was like smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t get a handle on it; like cotton candy, once it was in my mouth it was gone.” Our culture is a cotton-candy world—sugary and seductive—a pink swirl of empty calories. Today you might be the “flavor of the month,” with Hollywood or Wall Street at your command.

Tomorrow your pockets may be as empty as your soul.66 If you don’t believe me, ask Britney Spears.

Solomon, the Preacher, has taken us on his search for satisfaction through the pursuit of education, pleasure, wisdom, and work. Each effort he has judged to be futile. None of these areas, when pursued for their own sake, are able to provide meaning and satisfaction in life. So he concludes this entire section in 2:24-26 with these words: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give67 to one who is good in God’s sight.68 This too is vanity and striving after wind.”69

At first glance, 2:24 almost appears that the Preacher has flipped and is telling us that since life is hebel, the best thing you can do is to gorge yourself, get drunk, and tell yourself that your labor is worthwhile, even though you know it isn’t. But that is a serious misunderstanding of his point. Solomon is saying that eating and drinking and laboring, while devoid of ultimate meaning in and of themselves, are infused with meaning and purpose and happiness and satisfaction, when done in accord with God’s regulations and with His blessing. What spoils these activities is our greediness to get out of them more than they can give or our tendency to do them to excess.

Nevertheless, God longs for us to enjoy these activities. He wants us to enjoy a good meal with friends. He encourages us to drink in moderation. He expects us to have a positive attitude toward work, for “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”70

God also wants us to realize that He will grant three gifts to those who please him: wisdom, knowledge, and joy. But to the sinner who persists in trying to remake God’s world, there is also an outcome: “a chasing after the wind.” This reference to the chasing of wind is to the frustrating activity in which the sinner works night and day to heap things up only to find in the end that he must, and as a matter of fact does, turn them over to the one who pleases God.71 This again demonstrates the utter futility and transient nature of life.

Picture your hands out in front of you, cupped together, palms up. In your open hands are all the things He has entrusted to you—money, cars, a home, furniture, everything. All of these are His gifts (Jas 1:17). We are the stewards, and faithfulness is our charge. That means our hands must never close over the gifts, but remain open so that He may use them as required—and refill our hands.72

The main conclusion of Solomon’s search is: Get satisfaction from God’s gifts. Satisfaction is a gift from God, just like salvation. When we can take our education, our pleasure, our wisdom, and our work as gifts from God, then our search has found its goal. And all the good things that God has in store for us are ours. Death will take none of that satisfaction.73

He accepted life (ECCL. 2:24-26)

This is the first of six “conclusions” in Ecclesiastes, each of which emphasizes the importance of accepting life as God’s gift and enjoying it in God’s will (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:9-10). Solomon is not advocating “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith. Rather, he is saying, “Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.” Paul gave his approval to this attitude when he exhorted us to trust “in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17, nkjv).

Solomon made it clear that not only were the blessings from God, but even the enjoyment of the blessings was God’s gift to us (v. 24). He considered it “evil” if a person had all the blessings of life from God but could not enjoy them (6:1-5). It is easy to see why the Jewish people read Ecclesiastes at the Feast of Tabernacles, for Tabernacles is their great time of thanksgiving and rejoicing for God’s abundant provision of their needs.

The translation of v. 25 in the King James Version is somewhat awkward; the New American Standard Bible is better: “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” The farmer who prayed at the table, “Thanks for food and for good digestion” knew what Solomon was writing about.

The important thing is that we seek to please the Lord (v. 26) and trust Him to meet every need. God wants to give us wisdom, knowledge, and joy; these three gifts enable us to appreciate God’s blessings and take pleasure in them. It is not enough to possessthings; we must also possess the kind of character that enables us to usethingswisely and enjoy them properly.

Not so with the sinner. (The Hebrew word means “to fall short, to miss the mark.”) The sinner may heap up all kinds of riches, but he can never truly enjoy them because he has left God out of his life. In fact, his riches may finally end up going to the righteous. This is not always the case, but God does make it happen that “the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Prov. 13:22). At their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites spoiled their Egyptian masters (Ex. 3:22; 12:36), and throughout Jewish history their armies took great spoil in their many conquests. In fact, much of the wealth that went into the temple came from David’s military exploits.

It is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (“meaningless, a chasing after wind,” niv) for the sinner to heap up riches and yet ignore God. Apart from God, there can be no true enjoyment of blessings or enrichment of life. It is good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy.

This completes the first section of Ecclesiastes—The Problem Declared. Solomon has presented four arguments that seem to prove that life is really not worth living: the monotony of life (1:4-11), the vanity of wisdom (1:12-18), the futility of wealth (2:1-11), and the certainty of death (2:12-23). His argument appears to be true if you look at life “under the sun,” that is, only from the human point of view.

But when you bring God into the picture, everything changes! (Note that God is not mentioned from 1:14 to 2:23.) Life and death, wisdom and wealth, are all in His hands; He wants us to enjoy His blessings and please His heart. If we rejoice in the gifts, but forget the Giver, then we are ungrateful idolaters.

In the next eight chapters, Solomon will consider each of these four arguments and refute them. At the end of each argument he will say, “Enjoy life and be thankful to God!” (See the outline.) In his discussions, he will face honestly the trials and injustices of life, the things that make us cry out, “Why, Lord?” But Solomon is not a shallow optimist wearing rose-tinted glasses, nor is he a skeptical pessimist wearing blinders. Rather, he takes a balanced view of life and death and helps us look at both from God’s eternal perspective.

“Life isn’t like a book,” says Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship ministry. “Life isn’t logical, or sensible, or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived in the midst of that mess.”

Solomon will provide us with that theology.

It’s up to us to live it—and be satisfied!

———————————————-

 

56 Kurt De Haan, “Why in the World am I Here?” (Grand Rapids: RBC, 1987), 8.

57 Identifying Eccl 1:3; 2:2; and 6:8a as verses that present questions that “are among the most [sic] important questions in the book,” Miller observes: “Toil, pleasure, wisdom. In one sense, each of these is a rhetorical question: by implication they make a statement that there is no surplus for toil, that pleasure accomplishes nothing, and that the wise have no advantage over the fool. Yet, their form as questions raises the possibility of an answer and Qoheleth finally does supply one in each case: he eventually allows for value in toil (2:24; 3:13; 4:9; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]; 11:6); he urges that to seek pleasure accomplishes little (2:1), although life without it is worthless (2:24; 3:12-13; 4:8; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]), and it is particularly to be found in companionship (4:8-9; 9:9); he says finally that though wisdom has limitations, it preserves life (7:11-12; 9:16-18; 10:10). By delaying his answers, Qoheleth raises tension and uncertainty for the reader.” Douglas B. Miller, “What the Preacher Forgot: The Rhetoric of Ecclesiastes,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 229.

58 Prov 14:13 states, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.”

59 One of the reasons we love gardens is because man was first made in one. It was the only place on earth that was completed, then Adam and mankind was given the task of cultivating the rest. Gardens are an echo of home.

60 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.

61 Tim A. Krell, “Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life”: unpublished paper (3/1/1996).

62 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 31-32.

63 Davis writes, “In 1:3, the author directs his readers’ attention to what is arguably the key question of the book: ‘What advantage does man have in all his work which he does [works] under the sun?’ (NASB; emphasis, mine). In our current section of the book, the author begins to address the amal (noun — labor, toil, trouble; verb — to work, to labor, to toil) concern of that question. Throughout the book (though significantly more frequently in the first half of the book [30x] than in the second half [5x]), the author utilizes the various grammatical forms of amal (labor) 35 times, 15 (i.e., nearly 43%) of which he uses to drive the thought of the latter portion of chapter 2 (vv. 10[2x], 11[2x], 18[2x], 19[2x], 20[2x], 21[2x], 22[2x], 24). Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

64 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23-24.

65 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 35-36.

66 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 39.

67 The word “give” (nathan) appears in Ecclesiastes with God as its subject eleven times.

68 Solomon is not speaking of believers and unbelievers. It is speaking of those who please God or are displeasing to Him. Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 26-27.

69 This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7-12:1a).

70 Preaching Today citation: John Ruskin, Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 4.

71 Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 293.

72 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 41.

 

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

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