Welcome to this Ecclesiastes 2 Commentary!
Based on how we finished Ecclesiastes 1, we might think – Ah! What about wealth and pleasure? Good times!
Let’s explore that possibility in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
So, Qoheleth gives his summary in advance of what he found when he sought meaning in wealth in Ecclesiastes 2:1. Mirth and pleasure – he tried these – and his conclusion? Vanity, futile, meaningless. No meaning here, folks!
2:1 I said in my heart, Come now, I will prove thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also was vanity.
So, he kind of spoils the surprise. He tells us up front that there’s ultimately no satisfaction to be found in pleasure and wealth.
Laughter and Mirth
He goes on to question in Ecclesiastes 2:2 the value of laughter and mirth – they have no value in terms of being the source of meaning in life.
2 I said of laughter, It is mad; and of mirth, What doeth it?
And then he starts drinking alcohol! Because, maybe there’s some satisfaction and fulfillment to be found there. And it’s interesting what he says about this pursuit of his. The whole time he’s testing the value of alcohol, he says his heart is guiding him with wisdom.
Not Drinking for Pleasure Alone
Now, a less exacting figure than Qoheleth might drink for the mere pleasure of it. But what Qoheleth is admitting here is that he’s not drinking for pleasure. He’s drinking to test whether that pleasure is worth pursuing and whether it’s an activity that would bring meaning into one’s life. That’s what he says in Ecclesiastes 2:3 – he’s trying to find out what’s good for the sons of men to do with their lives under the sun.
3 I searched in my heart how to cheer my flesh with wine, my heart yet guiding me with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what it was good for the sons of men that they should do under heaven all the days of their life.
And – surprisingly – Qoheleth doesn’t actually relay his findings on that matter. Because the pursuit of wine is tied into the next several activities he tells us about engaging in. So, you need to wait until he describes everything else he’s pursued as far as wealth and pleasure. He’ll get to it.
All that Qohelet Did!
So, for now, let’s turn our attention to Ecclesiastes 2:4-8. Look at all the activities that Qoheleth did!
4 I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards; 5 I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit; 6 I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the forest where trees were reared; 7 I bought men-servants and maid-servants, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks, above all that were before me in Jerusalem; 8 I gathered me also silver and gold, and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I gat me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, musical instruments, and that of all sorts.
He made great works, built houses. He had vineyards, gardens, and orchards. He had trees and pools to water those trees. He bought servants. He had servants born in his house. He had more cattle than any before him who were over Jerusalem. He had entertainment. He had things that were looted from other nations. He had musical instruments. Or since that word appears only once in the Old Testament it’s hard to know if it’s speaking of musical instruments or actually, a harem of women. I tend to think he’s saying he had a harem of many women.
And notice the pronoun you keep seeing. “I made me x”. “I planted me x”. “I built me x”. It’s all for him. That’s the focus. He’s focused on doing these things for himself.
I mean, if Qoheleth did these things for altruistic reasons, he might not know if the reason he’s not finding meaning in them is because he’s actually doing them for others and so others are finding meaning instead of him. So, Qoheleth cuts out anyone else from the picture. He does all these things purely for himself – leaving no room for wondering whether he could have tried to squeeze just a bit more satisfaction and meaning out of his activities.
Now, he sums up all of this in Ecclesiastes 2:9. He gained all of that wealth and stuff and pleasure. And yet, his wisdom remained with him. He didn’t allow himself to be sidetracked by all those things. He was still on a solemn pursuit to find meaning in this life apart from God.
9 So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
And think of it, what else can you think of that would make a natural man happy? Buildings, food, beautiful landscaping, water, entertainment, people to serve you, sexual fulfillment, money. What more can a natural man ask for? I would venture to guess that almost every lost man in your city right now would think that this would all make him happy and fulfilled in this life – if only he could have it all.
Some Benefits of Pleasure
And – you know what? – Qoheleth did experience some benefit from these pursuits. He says in Ecclesiastes 2:10 that he didn’t withhold anything from his eyes. Anything he wanted he took and did. He didn’t withhold any pleasure from himself.
10 And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced because of all my labor; and this was my portion from all my labor. 11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.
And what was the result? Pretty simple. He gave his heart joy. And so… his heart rejoiced. That’s it. That was his portion or payment for all his work.
But that’s it. That’s all. No ultimate fulfillment. No ultimate meaning. It’s just like the sun that does the same thing day after day – or the ocean that keeps receiving water but never gets full – or the wind that just blows around all the time and never really accomplishes anything.
This pleasure that Qoheleth heaped unto himself – what did it really accomplish? What permanent accomplishment had he made by all of this labor?
Is Anything Going to Last?
And I think that’s on his mind as we enter into the next section that occupies Ecclesiastes 2:12-17.
Yeah – all these things are fun. They give me some joy. But is any of this going to last? Is there any lasting meaning to it? Any permanent value?
I’m afraid not.
And so, we see Qoheleth here coming to terms with the fact that he cannot find meaning in any permanent achievement that will survive his death.
Discerning Madness and Folly
Qoheleth starts again in Ecclesiastes 2:12 speaking of his seeking to discern wisdom and madness and folly. And then it’s as if the following thought breaks into his consciousness – What will the man who comes after him do with all his stuff? He spent so much time and effort and money to accumulate all this stuff.
2:12 And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been done long ago.
Well, he comes to think that probably not much will change. The guy who comes after him will just do whatever he’s done.
Wisdom is Better Than Folly
And, now, do you remember how Qoheleth got all of his stuff? It was through his superior and exceeding wisdom. And he recognizes still that wisdom is a good thing. That’s what he says in Ecclesiastes 2:13. If you’re to compare wisdom and folly – well, hands down – wisdom exceeds folly like light is better than darkness.
13 Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
Then he breaks into a proverb comparing the wise man and the fool. And there’s no doubt that Qoheleth believes that wisdom is a help to those who have it. The wise man can see – while the fool walks and stumbles around in darkness. So, no doubt, having wisdom is better than being a fool.
But then look at the end of Ecclesiastes 2:14. Despite the advantages of earthly natural wisdom – both the wise man and the fool suffer the same fate in the end. What fate is that? Death.
14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walketh in darkness: and yet I perceived that one event happeneth to them all. 15 Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then said I in my heart, that this also is vanity.
And that bothers Qoheleth. Worldly wisdom is great and all. It’s certainly better than foolishness. But it doesn’t even prevent you from dying.
And so, Qoheleth looks at that reality and he despairs. He had spent his whole life gaining and increasing in earthly wisdom. And in the end? He – the one who worked so hard to be wise – will die just like the one who spent no time at all gaining wisdom.
Wise People Die Like Foolks
The man who is wise about things of this life won’t be remembered any more than a fool will, generally. And again – Qoheleth asks in Ecclesiastes 2:16, How does the wise man die? His response – Just like the fool!
16 For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance for ever; seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. And how doth the wise man die even as the fool!
And that caused him to hate life in Ecclesiastes 2:17. Because he did all this stuff through his great wisdom and yet – even if that stuff survives him after his death – he’s still going to die just like a fool.
17 So I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And so ultimately I think we see Qoheleth despairing of his work. And I think that’s what he comes to in Ecclesiastes 2:18-23.
And we’ll get to that. But let me just summarize what we’ve seen so far.
Qoheleth started off on a quest for meaning in life. He first considered whether human wisdom could provide for that meaning and fulfillment. It didn’t. That was Ecclesiastes 1:12-18.
Then he turned to pleasure and wealth. Would that satisfy? No. That was Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
And that search for meaning in pleasure and wealth included all the work he did – the gardens, buildings, orchards, etc. So, in the last section – Ecclesiastes 2:12-17 – we saw Qoheleth’s being confronted with the reality that all that work he did – ultimately even if it lasts forever, he’s going to die just like someone who has no concern for being wise. And so he could be as humanly wise as possible and do as much work as is humanly possible – and yet, he’s still going to die and his work will go to someone else.
And it’s that last idea that he’ll focus in on in Ecclesiastes 2:18-23. Ultimately, work for work’s sake – work without an eye on God – is meaningless – because it goes to someone else ultimately.
So, Qoheleth came to hate his work. He didn’t just dislike it. He hated it. Why?
2:18 And I hated all my labor wherein I labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me. 19 And who knoweth whether he will be a wise man or a fool? yet will he have rule over all my labor wherein I have labored, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity.
Because – Ecclesiastes 2:18 – that work that he worked so hard to accomplish and which he applied wisdom to achieve – it will survive him and someone else will inherit it. And really – who knows if that person will be wise or foolish?
And let’s think of this – if Qoheleth is truly Solomon, and I think there are reasons to believe that he is – then who inherited all of his stuff? It was Rehoboam. Was Rehoboam wise? No, he was foolish. And really, even a generation after Solomon, a good deal of his work had been squandered by the foolishness of the one who would come after him. And that kind of situation Qoheleth looks at and says “it’s vanity!”
Despairing of Work
And so in Ecclesiastes 2:20 he causes his heart to despair of all his work – the work he did with no consideration of God. He puts no stock in it. He realizes now that his work will achieve nothing lasting. And he repeats in Ecclesiastes 2:21 basically what he’s just said already.
20 Therefore I turned about to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labor wherein I had labored under the sun. 21 For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skilfulness; yet to a man that hath not labored therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
And you might get annoyed with this kind of thing.Where the author repeats and repeats the same point. He’ll make the point in verse 1 and verse 8 and verse 16 (just to throw out some numbers). He’ll return to it in a few chapters. And on and on.
And you might wonder why he’s doing that. To us modern western readers, this might seem like an idiosyncracy. But really, others have picked up on this happening in Hebrew writing – especially wisdom writing like Proverbs and Psalms – and they say that this was actually how the Hebrew author would make his point. He will repeat it time after time and in different ways with different nuances and different emphases – until you and I finally get it! So, that’s what he’s doing here.
So, yeah, a man can exercise all sorts of wisdom in this life and accumulate all sorts of wealth from his work. And yet, the next guy in line to inherit it hasn’t done anything to deserve it. And yet, he’ll own it all.
Under the Sun
And then Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 I think shed some light on the kind work we’re talking about here. Again, it’s done “under the sun” – without an acknowledging of God’s role in one’s life.
22 For what hath a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, wherein he laboreth under the sun? 23 For all his days are but sorrows, and his travail is grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. This also is vanity.
And the work is along the lines of what Qoheleth said he did – basically back-breaking labor. You don’t think it’s easy to construct buildings or build houses or arrange landscaping and food sources, do you? Especially in Qoheleth’s day. No, it was hard painful work. The kind that doesn’t even let you rest at night because there’s so much to get done the next day and you were working so late already to achieve your goals.
Do you know Qoheleth’s opinion of that kind of work? It’s meaningless. If you’re looking for meaning and fulfillment in this life through work alone – you’re not going to find it.
So, let’s take some stock of where we stand at this point.
Everything apart from God is worthless. It’s empty. There’s no way you can find meaning in anything like that.
Put yourself in the place of someone who doesn’t know God – who doesn’t have any thoughts of spiritual realities – who has no hope of eternity. And the wisest man that’s ever lived is telling you that no matter what you pursue – human wisdom, pleasure, wealth, work, sexual intimacy, you name it – none of that stuff is going to infuse meaning into your life.
I imagine that if you were actually listening, you would be faced with the utter bleakness of life. If all the things I’ve been led to believe will satisfy me… really won’t? What do I do? Where do I turn? I want meaning! I want satisfaction! I want my life to count and I want what I do to last an eternity!
Well then, if that’s how you’re thinking, you’d be in the position to receive Qoheleth’s teaching in the next section. And we’ll get to that next time. We’ll see a glimpse into a worldview that isn’t dominated solely with the here-and-now. A worldview that values spiritual realities.
In other words…
Imagine that you were a man who interprets life completely apart from an awareness of God. You go about your life as if God didn’t exist. You’re living for the here-and-now without any consideration or knowledge of God.
And under those circumstances, you’ve been taught what to value in life. You’ve been told that certain things will give you fulfillment – money, achievements, relationships, knowledge.
But just then the wisest man to ever live sits you down and lays out for you how none of those things will provide for real meaning in your life. He tells you about the vanity or futility of all those things that you’ve come to place your hope in. Here you were, thinking they would somehow provide meaning and satisfaction in this life. But now you’re left with nothing.
When a man who previously placed his hope in something that now all of a sudden he comes to see as being virtually useless – you know there are going to be some changes.
None of us enjoys being anchor-less in our life. We want to have something to hold on to and sense that it won’t move.
So, when the man who takes no thought for God – when he all of a sudden comes to realize that the things he’s hoped in are worthless, he will instinctively seek elsewhere for satisfaction and meaning.
And it’s for exactly that kind of person that Qoheleth writes the section of Ecclesiastes that we’ll be studying now.
In the rest of Ecclesiastes 2, we’ll see the first part of the Human Quest Satisfied.
Enjoyment is a Gift from God
So, let’s read Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 to begin, where we learn that enjoyment of life is a gift from God.
2:24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? 26 For to the man that pleaseth him God giveth wisdom, and knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that pleaseth God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Eat and Drink?
Ecclesiastes 2:24 might make you a little uneasy. If you know your Bible, there are a few verses in the New Testament that seem to hearken back to this one. And those verses are not very positive.
The Foolish Godless Farmer
One of those verses is in the Gospels where Jesus is exhorting us to be rich toward God – to pay attention to him and not be living for stuff with no concern for him and his wishes in your life.
That’s the passage where the foolish farmer gets a wonderful bumper crop one season. He says to himself “take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” And now, it’s OK to have a bumper crop and get a lot of food from the work you put in to that.
Then the farmer planned to tear down his current facilities and build new ones to store his extra produce. And again – that’s alright. There’s nothing wrong with upgrading facilities to accommodate increased needs.
So, what is wrong with this farmer? Why is Jesus finding fault with him?
The main problem is this – the guy thought so much about his earthly issues and needs that he completely left God out of the picture. And the farmer died and his stuff went to someone else. And now he’s in eternity needing to face the God who demands faith and love and service of his creatures.
The Faithless Servants
There are other passages in the Gospels that warn Christians to keep alert and keep waiting for the Lord’s return. And in those passages, we’re given parables about a master leaving and putting his slaves in charge until he returns. And some of them begin to “eat and drink” and get drunk and abuse their fellow slaves. So, these passages also put “eating and drinking” in a bad light.
Deniers of Jesus’ Resurrection
And one more – Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that if the resurrection won’t happen, then we might as well “eat and drink”. And in this case again, eating and drinking is viewed as an activity that excludes God and basically amounts to living one’s life just for your own pleasures and without thought for God.
But, That’s Not What Qoheleth Means…
So, coming from a New Testament perspective we can view a verse like Ecclesiastes 2:24 rather negatively. But Qoheleth doesn’t intend this verse to be taken negatively. And by extension neither does God.
This is what God wants us to consider. There is nothing better than for you and me to eat and drink and enjoy good in our work. Did you know that? Did you know it’s OK – and really, commended by God – to enjoy your work? To eat? To drink? That’s what God wants us to do. Don’t be ashamed if you find simple pleasure in food and drink and work. That’s the way it ought to be.
But we can’t miss the crucial aspect here. End of Ecclesiastes 2:24 – God gives the ability to find such enjoyment. It’s God who allows you to eat and drink and work. And with that recognition, Qoheleth opens the curtains and lets the light pour in.
Here’s the secret: God. God makes all the difference.
What’s the antidote to life lived merely “under the sun” as a lost man who has no interest in or knowledge of spiritual realities? It’s God.
So much of what we’ve already read in this book has been getting us ready for this. We’ve endured almost two whole chapters in which we’ve been told how useless and worthless everything is. We’ve been told that we can’t find meaning or satisfaction in anything. And we’ve been left wondering where we can find meaning in life – because we all want it. And so now we’re given the key. It’s God.
God gives us the ability to enjoy such mundane things as eating and drinking and working. So enjoy them! Don’t think that these things are somehow below you. That somehow it’s sub-Christian to enjoy food and drink and work. No – enjoy them. God wants you to.
Enjoy Things From God
And then Ecclesiastes 2:25 follows this admonition to enjoy these things with an argument. Qoheleth says “who can eat or have enjoyment without him?” The word “hasten” in the KJV can also mean “enjoy” and the phrase “more than I” can also mean “apart from him”.
So – who can eat without God? Who provides you with food? Who created the plants that give seed? Who sends rain to water the seed so that it grows? Who created animals for our food? Yeah, God did it all.
And who can have enjoyment without God? Did you know that God isn’t against enjoyment? Oh! – sometimes we get the wrong idea that God wants us to shun enjoyment and love misery. But who’s the one who has prepared a new heavens and new earth for his people? Who’s the one who has glorious realities in store for those who love him? Yes, God.
He gives us food and pleasure. And there is no real lasting satisfying pleasure apart from him.
God Gives Joy
And the benefits of knowing God just keep accumulating in this section. Ecclesiastes 2:26 tells us that in addition to joy – the joy that only God gives – the joy we ought to have in our eating and drinking and work – well, in addition to that joy, God gives wisdom and knowledge.
And that’s interesting. We’ve already seen in this book that wisdom and knowledge are areas in which a man might try to find meaning and satisfaction – and yet he won’t find it in them.
But look at this – the wisdom and knowledge in Ecclesiastes 2:26 comes from God. The wisdom and knowledge that we considered previously – we have to assume – is – maybe we can call them “so-called” wisdom and knowledge or maybe “human” wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge – so-called, not given by God – is futile and useless. But throughout this book, Qoheleth views wisdom and knowledge – the kind given by God – as something of great value.
Now, let’s just consider this as well. Even though Qoheleth is now speaking very highly of wisdom, knowledge, joy, work, food, and drink – these things in and of themselves are still not where people find meaning and satisfaction. Right?
Where is the locus of meaning and satisfaction in this life? Again, God, only. Even to the man who knows God – it’s not as if work in and of itself or wisdom or knowledge by themselves is what provide meaning to our life. It’s God who provides that meaning. We find our purpose in him. We find meaning and satisfaction and lasting achievement in him.
But not all men are like that. In fact, most don’t recognize God. Ecclesiastes 2:26 tells us how God provides wisdom, knowledge, and joy to the one who pleases God – who is good in his sight.
But then we have the sinner. What does God give to him? Travail. Labor. Hard work. And that work contributes not to his own well-being – but to the benefit of the one who pleases God. And it is God who actively makes this happen.
What a contrast we see then in this section from what came before this. God was all but totally absent from this book until this point. But now all of a sudden, we’re given this view of God – he gives joy and wisdom and knowledge. He gives the sinner the task of accumulating stuff just to hand it over to the one who knows God – the one who has transcended mere life under the sun.
So – the message of Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 for you is enjoy the life that GOD has given you – emphasis on God. Emphasis on Joy. Emphasis on Life!