In Ecclesiastes 2-3, the Preacher begins producing evidence that supports his grand overarching idea, life is vanity. In these passages, a pattern develops that continues throughout the book. That pattern is the haphazard train of thought bouncing from one idea to the other. While it can cause some wandering (much like Proverbs), don’t lose sight of the real issue at hand. For at it’s core, Ecclesiastes is all about finding the meaning of life. It may switch gears from time to time and go off on tangents that don’t seem connected, but it never looses sight of that goal. As we discuss the message of those chapters remember why it was written and the questions it’s trying to answer.
In 2:1-3, Solomon says he sought pleasure alongside of wisdom. There is a hypocritical statement made in 2:3 that fits nicely into the experiences of Solomon.
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter – “Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.
At the end of the day, his hedonistic search led to nothing and provided no lasting satisfaction.¹ The world of 2019 could use that failure as a sign of things to come if we continue down the sinful, shameful path that many claim brings satisfication.
In 2:4-11, he describes his life-long works. Essentially, he was seeking validation in this world by the works of his hands. He says in 2:9, “I became great,” yet in that statement, he sees the vanity of all he did. He implicitly states it in 2:11 which says:
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.
In light of that verse, the question we have to ask has far reaching implications. If Solomon, with all his wealth, accomplishments, and influence couldn’t find purpose in this world and its works, how can we? Should we even try?
There is some wonderful perspective in 2:12-16 as he reflects upon his future.
Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the man do who succeeds the king? – Only what he has already done. Then 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. Yet I myself perceived that the same event happens to them all. So I said in my heart, “As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me and why was I then more wise?” Then I said in my heart, “This also is vanity.” For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come. And how does a wise man die? As the fool!
As he wonders what he’ll leave his children (see 2:12 specifically – “the man who succeeds the king”), he is pushed to consider his own mortality and come to a conclusion that impacts all of us – every man dies, the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the peasant. The same future awaits each of us.
Ironically, his conclusion makes him angry in 2:17. He says:
Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun wasdistressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
As he reflects upon his labor he realizes it is nothing but vanity. Be careful, don’t assume Solomon is telling us to be lazy. The implication actually comes from 2:24 and is rather straighforward:
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
We should work, but we shouldn’t let work be our life. It doesn’t define us. Instead we’re to “enjoy good in your labor because that is truly from God,” (2:25).
The first section of chapter 3 (3:1-8) is one of the most well known and quoted passages in all of Scripture. In it, Solomon describes the duality of life. It is actually the first instance of formal poetry in the book and within it there are seven lines paired with one another that point us to something sacred.²
The message is quite profound. Everything has a purpose, deserves a reaction, and produces an opposite reaction for those on both sides of the event. You could say his discussion here is focused on the problem of time. All of these events are based in-and-around the confines of time. That’s troubling to us, because life is more than time, its the quality of time. Ironically, God created us in such a way that we need an overarching story for life to make sense, yet Solomon struggled because he couldn’t find it.³ Perhaps that why the full focus of life and both ends of the spectrum were so important to him here.
The most clear cut example of devotion to God in this chapter comes in 3:9-15. It says:
What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor – it is the gift of God. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him. That which is has already been, and what is to be has already been; and God requires an account of what is past.
In these verses, Solomon presents an idea that’s deeply philosophical, but also easily understood. God has put a task before all men, that task is to simply “do good in their lives” according to 3:12. Do you believe there’s a slight hint of regret in that passage? If Solomon is writing this later in life, what could he possibly regret? Could he believe his works, his life, his frivoulous behavior squandered all God blessed him with?
The final section of chapter 3 (3:16-22) fits nicely into the theme of the book. Simply put, life is full of vanity. He has noticed that injustice prevails (3:16), yet God will judge (3:17), our lives are comparable to animals (3:18-21), and limited to the time we have here (3:22). While the language may seem downbeat, the reality is Solomon now sees life more clearly. There’s no reason to believe he’s depressed or even complaining, he’s merely aware for the first time in his life.
These chapters begin to show the duality of Solomon (eerily echoeing 3:1-8). He was wise, but lived foolishly. He had everything, but didn’t seem to enjoy it. He was blessed with power and influence, yet worries he didn’t do enough. If my hunch is true, and Solomon regretted his life as an old man, what value is there for us in his message? Is it to make fun or tell him “I told you so!” No. It’s to learn from someone who’s offering us the wisdom he couldn’t see and didn’t know before it’s too late.
I used to sit on my Grandfather’s lap and draw as a child. He’d show me how to trace, then color, then draw on my own. It was an invaluable experience still teaches me today. I believe Solomon is trying to do something similar with this book. We’re the children he hopes to teach. He has a weatlth of knowledge and experience and now it’s time to share it. It’s not sad, it would be sad if we didn’t listen.
That would truly be vanity.
¹ Robert Alter, Job, Proverbs, & Ecclesiastes, 349.
² Alter, 354.
³ Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature, 200.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.