In the previous chapter, Solomon introduced himself. He called himself a collector, and he described how his amazing life had given him a helpful perspective. In this chapter, he describes the process he went through in order to get that perspective.
1 I said in my heart, “Walk on now, I will evaluate you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But watch, this also was impermanent. 2 I said of laughter, “It is insane,” and of pleasure, “What good does it do?” 3 I searched in my heart ways to occupy my body with wine- my heart still guiding me with wisdom- and how to lay hold on recklessness, until I would see what was good for children of Adam to do under the sky during the few days of their lives.
The first stage of Solomon’s process of discovery is somewhat instinctual. He decided to give himself over to what feels right. But a careful reading of the text shows that he had not abandoned his senses. He was testing to see whether there was something healthy and wise about enjoying life. He was not throwing his life away; he was investigating how best to live it. He wanted to know whether seeking pleasure and fun was a good life investment, or was it a waste of that precious, temporary resource.
4 I increased projects. I built houses for myself; I 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.
He did not stop at personal partying. He put himself to work, and his work was big and showy. The magnificent projects he and all his workers created were so over the top that they immediately became the envy of the nations around him.
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also increased the number of my herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure from kings and provinces. I provided for myself singers, both men and women, and many concubines, all the pleasures of the children of Adam.
Solomon probably began as the richest man anyone around him ever knew. Then he put that wealth to work earning more wealth. He added slaves. He added livestock. He collected piles of loot from the nations surrounding Israel. He amassed an amazing choir to sing to him. He added 300 concubines to his already ridiculous number of 700 foreign princesses.
Something is going on in Solomon’s personal life that he does not mention here. The Bible elsewhere tells us that these foreign princesses turned Solomon’s heart away from the LORD. Solomon is not trying to hide that embarrassing part of his past. If anything, he is trying to explain where he had gone wrong. His apostasy was not a result of his defection from God, but a result of his preoccupation with himself. So, it is true today. Most people who turn away from God are not trying to be apostates. They just get carried away with their own purposes and priorities until one day they realize that they no longer have room for God.
9 So I became greater and exceeded all who were before me in Jerusalem. 10 And whatever my eyes wanted I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, because my heart found pleasure in all my work, and this was my reward for all my work. 11 Then I thought deeply about all that my hands had done and the labour I had expended in doing it, and my conclusion: all was impermanent and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Solomon’s Aha moment came when he thought deeply about everything that he was personally doing and supporting, and his conclusion was not that it was all bad, but that none of it will last. His reward had been the next acquisition and the next completed work project and the next contractual relationship to solidify his personal power. But he stopped long enough to ask where all that wealth and power would be in 100 years. When viewed from that perspective, all his acquisitions and accomplishments would add up to nought. In fact, he concluded that all the acquisitions and accomplishments that anyone could possibly acquire or achieve would gain them nothing permanent.
12 So I turned to think deeply about wisdom and madness and folly. Because what can the man accomplish who comes after the king? Only what has already been accomplished. 13 And I realized that there is an advantage in being wise over being a fool, just like there is an advantage in being in the light over being in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
When Solomon compared his two great life ambitions, it was not hard for him to see which was truly significant and which was not. When he compared the wisdom he learned to the stuff he built or accumulated – wisdom won out. The difference was practical. Wisdom gave him an advantage that wealth did not. It gave him light for the present journey. Solomon pictured fools as blind, walking around in the dark, ignorant of its danger and unprepared for its traps. Wise people have eyes in their head. They see what is going on around them, and keep from falling into the traps set in the way.
Yet I also understood that the same fate happens to all of them. 15 So 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 impermanent. 16 Because of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring legacy, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. Watch how the wise dies just like the fool!
The harder lesson for him to learn – the message that gives Ecclesiastes its distinctive value – was that even wisdom cannot protect you from the biggest trap of all. You can walk in all the revealed wisdom available to humanity from God’s word, but some day your number is going to be up, and that will be it. Game over, death wins. Wisdom literature usually pushes wisdom as a means of avoiding an early death, and Solomon agrees with that in Ecclesiastes. But, here in Ecclesiastes, the issue is permanence. Solomon’s conclusion is that even though a person follows all the rules, life is still temporary. Wisdom can prolong your life, but it will not make you immortal.
17 So I hated life, because the work which is done under the sun was intolerable to me, because everything is transient and a striving after wind. 18 I hated all my projects which I worked on under the sun, because I saw that I have to leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will turn out a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over everything for which I worked and used my wisdom under the sun. Even this will not last.
Normally, Solomon was not one of those who went to work every day grudgingly, always looking forward to the weekend. No, he was so driven that he could not wait to try the next project, to acquire the next resource. He had become a workaholic. But as he got older, a funny thing happened. He came to that perspective that he states here in Ecclesiastes – the perspective that sees how transient all effort and all life is. He came to realize that he would not enjoy his legacy forever, because he would die, and it would go to someone else. He stopped dreaming of the next task and started having nightmares about everything crumbling to dust all around him.
Some days I am there. As a missionary, and Christian writer, I have one of the best jobs on the planet, but some days life gets so complicated that I am tempted to pack up. Still, I think it is healthy to know how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things. Without that perspective, pride can easily beset a person. And we all know where that leads.
20 So I turned completely around and gave my heart up to discouragement over all the work of my projects under the sun, 21 because when a man who has worked with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not work for it — this also is transient and a great evil. 22 What does a man get from all the work and heart striving with which he works beneath the sun? 23 Because all his days are full of disappointment, and his work is an aggravation. Even in the night his heart cannot rest. Even this will not last.
Learning a lot or accomplishing a lot is not going to make you happy forever. The collector has been there, and he can tell you that it will not happen. He learned all that anyone could teach him. He accomplished more than anyone before him. All it got him was aggravation and suffering. It was only later in life that this old man discovered that he had been doing many right things for wrong motives. All of his pursuits were for self, not God. His expectations destroyed his accomplishments. If he had sought the kingdom of God first, then he could have had both success and satisfaction. He could have approached life with a “God first” attitude. He could have loved the LORD his God with all his soul and with all his might. He could have followed his own advice more, and acknowledged the LORD, and the LORD would have made his paths straight.
The good news is that Solomon did have a conversion experience in his later years. Only, his conversion began as a visit to the twin cities of Depression and Despair. He had looked back on a lifetime of accomplishments, and was tempted to pride – until he looked ahead and saw it all going to custard.
24 There is something missing in a man who just eats and drinks and finds enjoyment in his work. This reality also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 because, apart from him who can eat or who can have pleasure? 26 Because 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 transient and a striving after wind.
Verse 24 begins with a phrase which can be literally translated “There isn’t good in a man who eats…” If you take the entire chapter as the context of Solomon’s statement, it does not make sense for him to be saying that there is nothing better than enjoying life (as most English translations imply). Instead, what Solomon seems to be saying is that just enjoying life is not enough. He finally left the twin cities of Depression and Despair and made his way back to the city of God. He reconciled with his Creator. He finally had the right kind of conversion. Why do I make that assumption? Look at his contrast. He compares two kinds of people. One kind of person is consumed with a compulsive need to gather and collect things. Solomon calls this person a sinner. The other kind of person seeks to please God, and in return, God gives him wisdom and knowledge and joy. Remember, Solomon had introduced himself in chapter one as a collector. This last part of chapter two is his confession.
As a converted collector, Solomon has some advice for the rest of us. We can stay in the business of gathering and collecting if we want to. But, if we do that, we should be advised that all that stuff that we collect – all those companies and buildings we build – all of our life’s work – will eventually go to someone else after we assume room temperature. In other words, a life invested in a relationship with God makes more sense than a life wasted on temporary wealth and temporary accomplishments. It makes more sense because a relationship with God entails the possibility of permanence.