The section we are looking at today, is by far what Ecclesiastes is best known for - the preacher’s personal search for meaning and value in this world. It is such a pivotal and provocative section that some interpreters of Ecclesiastes never get beyond it and interpret the entire book through the themes of this chapter. I don’t go that far, but I will say personally, that the argument and the experience set forth in this chapter are convincing to me, so convincing to me that it has carried me through my own seasons of doubt or times in which I have been tempted to give up my faith.
In order to give structure to this section, I think we have an educated enough congregation to compare the structure of this section to a research paper, with a formal introduction, a body, a conclusion and a suggested course of action:
The Introduction: Solomon’s Credentials, Motive, and Method and Thesis
Credentials: Eccl. 1:12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. Along with Eccl. 1:1, which identifies the author of the book as, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” We are set in a position to assume that the king in question, the author of the book, is Solomon, David’s son, the first king of Israel. Now there is some debate as to whether the author is indeed Solomon, or if the book was written by a later author reflecting on the life of Solomon, but using a literary device to say, “If Solomon would have spoken to us at the end of his life, this is what he would have shared with us.” There are arguments on both sides and nearly every commentary addresses them. Regardless what position is taken, it is say to see how the book of Ecclesiastes is assigned to Solomon, as he possesses unique credentials in undertaking the search that he describes in the first two chapters, namely that he excelled in wisdom and ruled over the greatest era of prosperity in Israel’s history. There are full chapters in the Bible discussing Solomon’s unsurpassed wisdom and material prosperity, 1 Kings 4, and 2 Chronicles Chapter 9 being most prominent. The point is that Solomon possessed unique credentials - uniquely qualified - to explore the purpose of life, as he both possessed the insight to be able to reflect on life and the resources available to explore any and every path.
Subject of Exploration: 1:13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. At some point during Solomon’s reign, being aware of his unique credentials to undertake such a research project, Solomon turned his formidable insight toward the only question he could see matters: searching out if there might be anything in life that can overcome the worrisome toil of life that God has assigned to humankind to be our lot. Is there anything that can extracted from the habel-ness of life? This is the statement of the problem, which Solomon will address not only over the next chapter, but the rest of the book.
Method: In the same verse we find Solomon’s method, that he would apply his heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. So Solomon’s method is different than other approaches we might be more familiar with. We all understand that there are many different methods of inquiry. The scientific method, empiricism, rationalism, to make a thesis and then subject it to laws of logic. Solomon’s methodology was different, but that does not make it invalid. His methodology was what might be called a wisdom approach- specifically, Solomon’s approach was one of lived experience combined with probing internal reflection. He didn’t pursue pleasure or wealth or wisdom as ends to themselves, but as a part of his pursuit of the true purpose of life and whether he could figure life out. (see verse 2:3)
Conclusion/Thesis: Solomon begins by the thesis - the conclusion of his quest, which happens to be how he began his book - all is vanity and shepherding the wind, and crooked.14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. There are actually three components to his thesis: 1) everything in life is indeed habel - the fleeting, perplexing breath that we spoke of last week, 2) all our efforts to manufacture gain out of life are a striving after the wind - that is, it is a futile effort the extract gain out of the habel-ness of life, and 3) a new one: there is nothing we can do to straiten out this warped life. So, you might say he does become a little more cynical :)
Personal Impact: Solomon adds one more section to his introduction, that you may not find in modern research papers, the personal impact his search had on himself acting as a caution to all who undertake a similar search: 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness :18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. We’re going to see exactly what Solomon means and the extent of the despair his search brought him to.
The Body of Solomon’s Research Project: Having stated his thesis, and delineated his method, Solomon details his research project in chapter two. Remember, he is trying to see if there is anything that can be extracted for gain from the habel-ness of life, and so he takes years of his life pursuing different interests as ends in themselves, all the while being guided by wisdom to reflect on his various pursuits.
Happiness as an End in Itself: This seems like as good a place to start as any - to pursue life for the pleasure of it, to pursue the things that make you happy.
Eccl. 2:1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
Industry as an End in Itself: Next, Solomon describes his great projects, his works of industry: 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
Prosperity as an End in Itself: Solomon not only devoted himself to industry, but also enjoyed the fruit of success from his industry. The next few verses detail the enlargement of his household (7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house), possessions (I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem), wealth (8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces), entertainment, ( I got singers, both men and women - one commentary said, whereas we might be excited because we got our favorite bands latest cd, Solomon bought the band) and women (and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man). Solomon summarizes his life - remember, he lived this life: Eccl. 2:9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
Reflection on Lived Experience: 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. Remember - this was the important step in Solomon’s project, not only to test life in all of its extremes of pleasure, industry and prosperity, but to reflect on it with wisdom, and when he applied himself to consider all that he had pursued, all that he had laboured for, all the toil of his hands, he comes to the conclusions, and this is pretty profound, although Solomon recognizes that there was some pleasure in it, there was nothing truly gained by it.
Now you might say, well, that is just Solomon’s experience, yet we know that it is not only Solomon’s experience. We’ve all heard the stories of athletes and entertainers and business moguls who ascended to the heights of life and were miserable. Howard Hughes, the business tycoon, who was once described as having “a grand, miserable life”.
Tennis star Boris Becker was at the very top of the tennis world—yet he was on the brink of suicide. He said, “I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed ... It’s the old song of movie stars and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything, and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.”
Becker is not the only one to feel that sense of emptiness. The echoes of a hollow life pervade our culture. One doesn’t have to read many contemporary biographies to find the same frustration and disappointment. Jack Higgens, author of such successful novels and The Eagle Has Landed, was asked what he would like to have known as a boy. His answer: “That when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”
There is nothing there - that is what Solomon is claiming. I lived my life for decades at the top, intentionally pursuing the good things of life and with wisdom reflecting on what actually can be extracted from all that pursuit and there was nothing. Akin, Dr. Daniel L.. Exalting Jesus in Ecclesiastes (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary)
The American dream is a lie and a failure. We live in a culture with more money, more entertainment, more pleasurable experiences, more recreation, and more stuff than any previous generation could ever have dreamed, and pain pills and antidepressants fly over the counters of our pharmacies. It’s a miserable world where one of the funniest and richest men the world has ever seen—Robin Williams — kills himself in despair.
And that word despair is important. For yes, it might be true that some people who get to that place struggle with clinical mental health issues due to biological or chemical imbalances - depression - but I have that it is important to rediscover that word despair, and reserve it for the existential crisis that so many people experience and misdiagnose. My brother for example is bi-polar. He swings very quickly between manic episodes and depressive episodes and he can take medication to mediate those swings to be in his right mind, yet the core issue I believe is that he did not want to be in his right mind. why, because he told me.
However, Solomon is not done - because Solomon does an unexpected thing an turns the focus of his reflection toward his own pursuit itself, and comes to an Unexpected Agonizing Realization:
The Unexpected Agonizing Realization: The Quest Itself Was a Waste of Time of Life
Until this point, Solomon assumes that he is undertaking an important pursuit in his exploration. That his motive and methods were sound and that they wold provide some insight to himself and others that would be valuable. Solomon could have stopped there and published his findings and we would have been heralded for it, maybe given the noble prize for his insightful summary of the human condition, Yet, then he did the thing that many researchers are not courageous enough to do - he turned the focus of his investigation inward upon itself to see if his investigation would stand under the same scrutiny. This is what led him to his greatest and most terrifying insight: that his quest itself was also part of the inscrutable futility of life
In verse 12 Solomon turns the lens of his wisdom toward his method of wisdom itself, and with startling clarity he realizes that wisdom itself, for all the good that it may do while one lives, wisdom itself is set within the habel-ness of life and will come to an end, for whether one goes through life with ones eye’s open or closed, everyone dies in the end. And you might say, well my wisdom is contributing to the ongoing enlightenment of the human race, and in fact you might be right - or you might be forgotten as soon as you pass. Here’s how he puts it:
Eccl. 2:12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Eccl. 2:18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
And so these verses are the lowest point of life a person can get to: when a person realizes that not only everything he has pursued and everything that he is pursuing is part of the futility of life, but that the pursuit of those things itself is also part of the futility of life. This is existential despair - this is what drive people to depression. And look at Solomon’s description of his mental and emotional state at this point:
I hated my toil
I gave my heart up to despair
Days full of sorrow, restless nights, vexation
Are you willing to turn your exploration inward upon itself? Most of us are not. Most of us would choose to live safe in our unexamined convictions rather than turn the exploration inward. What happens when the rationalist is asked to prove his appeal to reason with presupposing reason? He can’t. Or ask the empiricist, to use the scientific method to demonstrate the validity of the scientific method.
My question--that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide--was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: "What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?” Tostoy earlier in his life had found solace in the answer of science, the hard sciences and social sciences. Yet when he found he was still unsatisfied
For Solomon, what caused him to question the value of his wisdom approach was the finish line of death. For all the good wisdom may do in this life, the wise man dies like the fool.
Solomon’s Implications: The Only Source of Good Must Be God
Eccl. 2:24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Some read this section as Solomon giving up on life, almost saying, “Oh well, there’s nothing you can do, so eat and drink for tomorrow you die.” Which, by the way is a philosophy explicitly rebuked in the pages of Scripture, specifically in Isaiah 22:13 and 1 For 15:32.
Instead, we should note that this is the first of a number of positive statements that appear in the book of Ecclesiastes, and I agree with a number of modern commentators that these sections provide the positive message or theme of the book.
Verse 24, is likely mistranslated in many English Bibles, as Walter Kaiser points out, the phrase is not a comparative, “there is nothing better for a person than” but an statement of fact that set up verse 25 - It could be better translated, “24There is nothing [inherently] good in a person [to enable one] to eat, drink and cause one’s soul to see good in one’s labor. Even this, I myself realized, was from the hand of God. 25 For apart from him [God], who can eat and who can find enjoyment?” Kaiser writes:
The conclusion to this first section is found in 2:24-26: the purpose of life cannot be found in and of itself for any one of the good things found in the world. All the things that we call the “goods” of life—health, riches, possessions, position, sensual pleasures, honors, and prestige—slip through one’s hands unless they are received as a gift from God. Until God gives persons the ability to enjoy them and obtain satisfaction from them, they simply cannot in and of themselves compensate for the joy that comes from fearing God and knowing Him. God gives that ability to those who begin by “fearing,” that is, believing, Him. (See the later discussion of “fear” at 8:12-13.) There is where joy begins and continues—in God Himself.
This is the realization that at times has kept me hinging on to my faith in God even by a thread - that there is no lasting happiness, no transcendent purpose, to intrinsic good to life when it is pursued as an end in itself.
Solomons turning point is when he stopped asking what could be gained through the pursuit of the finer things of life but instead asked who is experiencing joy? And what he found was only those who receive their life as a gift from the hand of God were the ones were truly people to enjoy life and getting some things out of life.
This is true materially: possessions will not bring joy until you receive them as a gift; it’s true relationally: you can’t force someone to love you but you must learn to receive their love as a gift; it is true as far as success goes: success is very uncertain, owes as much to chance and luck and forces outside of your control as hard work and therefore must be taken as a gift. And it’s true, perhaps above all, spiritually as well. This is the gospel, not that we have striven after God’s salvation: but that God has saved us to rest in his work, which transforms our work:
Titus 3:4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (not futile!)
And so that’s the key word I want to leave you with - life is a futile striving after the wind, therefore you must receive. Receive Jesus, receive life, receive purpose, receive wisdom, receive joy.