Futility of Self-Indulgent Pleasure

2:1 I thought to myself,
“Come now, I will try self-indulgent pleasure to see if it is worthwhile.”
But I found that it also is futile.
2:2 I said of partying, “It is folly,”
and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”
2:3 I thought deeply about the effects of indulging myself with wine
(all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom)
and the effects of behaving foolishly,
so that I might discover what is profitable
for people to do on earth during the few days of their lives.

Futility of Materialism

2:4 I increased my possessions:
I built houses for myself;
I planted vineyards for myself.
2:5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself,
and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.
2:6 I constructed pools of water for myself,
to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.
2:7 I purchased male and female slaves,
and I owned slaves who were born in my house;
I also possessed more livestock—both herds and flocks—
than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem.
2:8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself,
as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces.
I acquired male singers and female singers for myself,
and what gives a man sensual delight—a harem of beautiful concubines!
2:9 So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem,
yet I maintained my objectivity:
2:10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy;
this was my reward for all my effort.
2:11 Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless—
like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

‘Men that are in the valley think, if they were at the top of such a hill, they should touch the heavens. Men that are in the bottom of poverty, or disgrace, or pain, think if they could get up to such a mountain, such a measure of riches, and honours, and delights, they could reach happiness. Now Solomon had got to the top of this hill, and seeing so many scrambling and laboring so hard, nay, riding on one another’s necks, and pressing one another to death to get foremost, doth seem thus to bespeak them: “Sirs, ye are all deceived in your expectations! I see the pains ye take to get up to this place, thinking that when you come hither, ye shall touch the heavens, and reach happiness: but I am before you at the top of the hill—I have treasures, and honours, and pleasures in variety and abundance (Eccl. 2:11–12), and I find the hill full of quagmires instead of delights, and so far from giving me satisfaction, that it causeth much vexation; therefore be advised to spare your pains, and spend your strength for that which will turn to more profit, for, believe it, you do but work at the labour in vain.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” saith the Preacher.’ (George Swinnock)

Wisdom is Better than Folly

2:12 Next, I decided to consider wisdom, as well as foolish behavior and ideas.
For what more can the king’s successor do than what the king has already done?
2:13 I realized that wisdom is preferable to folly,
just as light is preferable to darkness:
2:14 The wise man can see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I also realized that the same fate happens to them both.
2:15 So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me!
Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?”
So I lamented to myself,
“The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!”
2:16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be remembered for very long,
because in the days to come, both will already have been forgotten.
Alas, the wise man dies—just like the fool!
2:17 So I loathed life because what
happens on earth seems awful to me;
for all the benefits of wisdom are futile—like chasing the wind.

Futility of Being a Workaholic

2:18 So I loathed all the fruit of my effort,
for which I worked so hard on earth,
because I must leave it behind in the hands of my successor.
2:19 Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool?
Yet he will be master over all the fruit of my labor
for which I worked so wisely on earth!
This also is futile!
2:20 So I began to despair about all the fruit of my labor
for which I worked so hard on earth.
2:21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill;
however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance
to someone else who did not work for it.
This also is futile, and an awful injustice!

Painful Days and Restless Nights

2:22 What does a man acquire from all his labor
and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth?
2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration,
and even at night his mind cannot relax!
This also is futile!

Enjoy Work and its Benefits

2:24 There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink,
and to find enjoyment in their work.
I also perceived that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God.
2:25 For no one can eat and drink
or experience joy apart from him.
2:26 For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy,
but to the sinner, he gives the task of amassing wealth—
only to give it to the one who pleases God.
This task of the wicked is futile—like chasing the wind!

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink,
and to find enjoyment in their work.

This is repeated, in slightly varying forms, in 3:12, 13; 3:22; 5:18, 19; 8:15; 9:7-9.

It appears, at first sight, to be Epicureanism sensualism, pure and simply: ‘Let us eat,
drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’  But we may be quite wrong to read Epicureanism into these statements.

Stafford Wright argues: ””Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “Fear God, and keep his commandments … God shall bring every work into judgment.”  The first is a verdict on all life. The second is counsel in view of the verdict.’

Consider the teaching of ch. 3.  ‘To everything there is a season….I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set [eternity] in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.’

In other words, ‘God has given us a sore travail. Events happen to us from time to time, but God has given us a longing to know the eternity of things, the whole scheme; but, try as we will, we cannot see it, though we can declare by faith that each event plays its part in the beauty of the plan.’  Such also is the teaching of Eccle 7:14; 8:17.

Ecclesiastes leaves us with the conclusion that God has a plan.  However, the detailed outworkings of that plan are unknown, and often perplexing to us.  Life is not self-explanatory.  Nature does not provide us with a key; nor does human nature.  Even wisdom, in its highest reaches, cannot unlock the door and reveal the secret.  Shall we try folly, then?  No, that’s even worse!

Then there is the supreme vanity – death, ‘death that beats at every man’s door, Death that comes when man least expects him, Death that undoes man’s finest plans. Death can make a man hate life, not because he wants to die, but because it renders life so futile, just as a child on the seashore may grow weary of the sand castles that he builds so patiently only to have them swallowed up by the inexorable sea.’ (See this illustrated in Eccle 2:18-23).

What shall we do, then?  Despair of life altogether?  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?  Shall we all become fatalists, resigned to accept whatever life, in all its absurdity, throws at us?

‘The Christian answer is that the universe does make sense.  There is a plan and a purpose that has its centre and its climax in Christ. We as Christians have been predestinated to be an integral part of that plan. We have been ” created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). But not even to Christians has it been given to comprehend the plan. Not even a Christian can explain how everything that comes into his life takes its place in the plan. But, none the less, all the time he is trying to catch a glimpse of a certain wholeness that will link together all his individual experiences. But again and again he is driven back to the position of Romans 8:28 : ” We know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose”; or, …” We know that God works all things for good with them that love him “. The Christian attitude then is one of faith and confidence. The Christian says, ” I know that all these things must play their part in God’s total plan. I long to know what the plan is and to see it as a whole, and I shall always go on trying to see it. But in the meantime I will live my life one day at a time, believing that in the common round of life I am doing the will of God. I will be content with what God gives me and take my life from the hand of God “.’

And this, says Wright, is the solution of Koheleth too.  ‘If his refrain is interpreted in the light of
the rest of the Book, it can only mean what the Christian means when he says, ” I will take the things that make up my life, my food, my drink, my work from the hand of God. All things work together for my good “.’

This theme is worked out throughout the book.  ‘There is the thought of the certainty of a divine plan, even though individual steps in the plan remain a mystery, and must be accepted by faith.  But man must never lose the realisation that there is a plan, and he must never begin to treat the common things of life, his food and drink and work, as though they were not the gift of God. Hence man must learn to serve God from his youth and he must remember that there is to be judgment.’

In Eccle 11:9f ‘Koheleth advises young men to enjoy their lives, but not to forget that their pleasures should be regulated by a sense of accountability to God. They should put away all that would harm mind or body, and remember that youth is not the whole of life; it will give place to middle age, old age, and death.’

Eccle 3:18-22 prompts us to reflect on the finality of death.  ‘Man commonly tends to live as though he had unlimited time for doing the plan of God. It is an extraordinary fact that most of us live as though this life were to be prolonged indefinitely. Or, looking at it from another point of view, we dwell upon the immortality of the soul, and forget that the vehicle for the service of God now is the body, and, if we fail to serve God in the body now, we shall never be able to make up in the future for what we have failed to do now…This body that we share with the animal world is a frail thing, yet it is the instrument with which we serve God.’

‘Is it only by chance that Paul in Romans 8, after speaking of the vanity of the whole creation, goes on to speak of the sufferings that create a problem even for the Christian, and the confidence of the Christian in his daily life that all things work together for good for him? “All things” means those fortuitous events that we share in common with all mankind, where the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. The world is not weighted in our favour. But the same things, which break the man of the world, can make the Christian, if he takes them from the hand of God.’

Here is Wright’s conclusion (as he thinks it is Koheleth’s conclusion):-

‘Go on looking for the key that will unify the whole of life. You must look for it: God has made you like that, sore travail though it be. But you will not find it in the world; you will not find it in life; in revelation you will find the outskirts of God’s ways; in Christ your finger tips touch the key, but no one has closed his fingers on it yet. No philosophy of life can satisfy if it leaves out Christ. Yet even the finest Christian philosophy must own itself baffied. But do not despair. There is a life to be lived day by day. And in the succession of apparently unrelated events God may be served and God may be glorified.  And in this daily service of God, we may find pleasure, because we are fulfilling the purpose for which God made us.’