When the books of the Bible were originally written back in olden times, they didn’t contain chapter or verse references (a fact that shouldn’t be surprising to most people reading this). It wasn’t until later on—when Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury, came around in the early thirteenth century—that the books were broken down into their much-easier-to-locate assigned numbers and placements, done so purely because it’s easier to find Revelation 11:5 than it is to find “And if anybody tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and consumes their enemies…”
But I digress. My point in saying all this is that as we go throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, it is surprising how clearly evident these chapters seemed to transition—in other words, even without the chapter numbers, I feel it would be quite evident where one chapter ends and another begins. In other books, some chapters of the Bible seem to run together and the transition point is evidently placed there as a place-marker, but in books like Ecclesiastes I feel that Langton had a much easier time deciding where to break that chapters, simply because Solomon seemed to have written the book as twelve separate sections that all build to one point. The book is written like a cleverly written thesis, with the first two chapters acting as an introduction that ultimately builds up to the first main point (chapter 3), which will then back away for a second to expand on some thought before driving home more points at the end and leaving the audience with something to think about in its conclusion in the final chapter (chapter 12). Each chapter starts with a problem that it then resolves, and while often these problems will be slightly depressing in nature, there will always be a tinge of hope layered at the end that leaves the mind uplifted and immersed in thought but also leaves our hearts pointing in the direction of Christ, who wouldn’t even be born for nearly a thousand years after the book was written. It’s a strange thing, the composition of this book, but in a way it serves as a clear representation and testimony to the fact that the Bible was written through divine instruction (verbal plenary inspiration).
Can you tell that I like writing?
Okay, moving on. The reason I make mention of all these things is because in the transition between chapters 1 and 2 of Ecclesiastes, there is an obvious shift in narrative and style. Solomon ended the introductory chapter of the book by concluding that, essentially, ignorance is bliss, yet in the very next verse he changes the subject and discusses how, in his own words, he decided to “test you with pleasure to find out what is good,” something that, just as wisdom before it, proved to be meaningless (v.1). Without wasting any time, we have abandoned the topic of wisdom and have immersed ourselves neck-deep into the realms of pleasure and worldly happiness, something that Solomon once again compares to that hevel – a vapor that can never be contained or fully understood. You see, pleasure, although not evil, has shortcomings, something that proves to be the theme of this chapter. This test he designs for himself, though not scientific, was an experiment crucial to Solomon’s life, something that left us as an audience with plenty to learn from, something fitting from someone who calls himself a teacher (1:1). He starts by trying to please himself with things that we are all hungry for—laughter first of all (v.2)—yet in the end they brought him nothing but temporary catharsis, an inner peace that would pass over time.
Next Solomon tries to please himself through gratification (v.3), even if this gratification comes at the expense of God’s glory. He tries to cheer himself with wine, and while there is nothing wrong with drinking in moderation (as long as it is in accordance with the law of the land, as stipulated by Romans 13 and Ephesians 5:18), the means by which he did it ultimately caused his inner emptiness: he drank in order to escape his worries, his own act of hypocrisy edified by the fact that he warned us against this very act back in Proverbs 23:20-30. He also “embraced” folly, welcoming with open arms the things he knew to be foolish purely as a social experiment as he attempted to find meaning in life. He wanted to know the best “game plan” for life, and this entire book of Ecclesiastes is essentially his final report (like a lifelong research paper, as I alluded to before). Solomon wanted to test pleasure, yet in doing so felt the need to embrace folly.
Can you relate?
The next set of verses (v.4-8) move on to a subject that we can read about further in 1 Kings 4-10: Solomon’s great projects. He speaks of building houses and planting vineyards, a period of time in which, according to history, we also know that he built the temple of God in Jerusalem, a project originally denied to his father David. You see, since folly could not please Solomon, he attempted to make himself happy by turning into that Renaissance man I talked about last time. He was not only an architect and botanist, but he was a songwriter, a poet, a writer, a judge, a sage, a king, a politician, a warrior, and so much more! Like so many people in our current day and age, Solomon tried to find meaning in his work, laboring furiously to give his life some sort of meaning that he could then be remembered by. Yet even this, he saw, could not please him—this coming from a guy who had everything—so he brought in others to please him—singers, his harem (the 700 wives and 300 concubines of 1 Kings 11:3)—but still he wasn’t happy! He was the wisest, richest, and one of the most powerful men in the world, yet still he was unsatisfied.
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt 16:26). You can almost hear Jesus’ words echoing softly in the background.
In verse 9, we see a fully-aware Solomon looking back on his life and seeing his prosperity, and from how he words the verse we sense that he likely boasted in this prosperity, growing arrogant over time as his prosperity increased. With this knowledge, the next passage comes across quite intense:
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (v.10-11). In the end, Solomon found himself feasting upon his own works and delighting in the work of his own hands; he received prosperity as a result of his great efforts and as a result denied himself no pleasure known to man – riches, power, self-glorification, women. All the things we as human beings long for, lust for, covet? Solomon had it all.
Yet when he looked back at all he had done, he came to a stunning realization: it was all meaningless and nothing was gained. Like wisdom—like everything under the sun—it was like chasing after the wind, like trying to grab onto a vapor that will continually slip through your fingers. Like trying to see clearly while standing in the midst of a fog. All those hours, those days, those months, those years of toil…all for what? The pleasures would soon pass only to leave him hungry for another; it was only temporary, nothing enduring or satisfying to show for all he had done. In the end, we see that to expand God-given resources for human accomplishment alone is empty.
Can you relate?
Think of all those times you’ve set goals that, once accomplished, seemed fruitless. I think of girls with body image issues, never satisfied with who they are because society establishes an unhealthy precedent. I think of entrepreneurs striving for further success, never truly satisfied despite all they’ve achieved.
(And before I move on, let me clarify: eating healthy and working out are not bad, nor is making a name for yourself and striving for success. The caveat lies when you do these things, as Solomon points out, “under the sun.” When you do these things for worldly gain, you will always be disappointed, unsatisfied. These things -- treating yourself well, taking care of your body, having a stable job, etc. -- all have meaning, but to find meaning in them is futile. Often we lose the view of who we truly are by trying to impress the world through what we have achieved, what we have, what we look like, or who we are. In doing so, we live our lives as if in some sort of continual “audition,” forgetting that our part here on earth is but a role that will one day be stripped from us once we enter the realm of eternity.)
Solomon has more to say though. In verses 12-14, we see that not only are wisdom and folly fruitless and of no meaning, but they are also surprisingly very similar: you see, both the wise and the fool are left empty-handed at the threshold of death. Wisdom is better than folly in that it sheds light and allows one to make rational and logical decisions, but in the end both die with he who possesses it. Light is better than darkness in that is allows a person to see, but that still means nothing if the owner refuses to open their eyes. (It should be noted that a “fool” here is not someone stupid but someone who is morally bankrupt, someone capable of learning but refusing to do so or adhere to moral laws; think “Professing to be wise, they became fools” a la Romans 1:22.)
At this point during Solomon’s contemplation life, he begins to question morality and the benefit of it at all (v.15-16): what good is it to be morally just if both the righteous and corrupt die in the end? Essentially, he is foreshadowing Paul’s later question of “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may about?” (Rom 6:1) but draws a different conclusion: we serve a God of forgiveness and our salvation rests on what He did not what we do, and thus it is easy to fall pretty to such logic, a fact which is folly in and of itself. We live in a #YOLO world where that constant phrase tells us to be reckless and live in the moment (for often it seems that, righteous or corrupt, active or lazy, smart or stupid, it is all meaningless); there is no benefit of being a morally just person because God isn’t some cosmic vending machine where you get out what you put in…right? God doesn’t rule through karma but through grace, and that fact in itself is an obvious temptation that Solomon recognizes.
At this point, obviously fed up, Solomon gives us a verse that is perhaps most applicable to college students: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (v.17). Even after all the prosperity that resulted from his work, Solomon still found only pain because there was no meaning in it all. The work was strenuous, the days long, and the effort arduous, yet what did he have to show for it all? This is something we can ask ourselves on a daily basis, because this is where we truly see a shed of light! Solomon hated life because he did it all for his own glory, but there is in fact another—a better—way to live. All work done “under the sun” is grievous, yet work done “in the Son” is spectacular and comforting. At last light has arisen amidst the darkness.
But back into darkness we plunge (v.18-19). Solomon begins to speak of jealousy and resentment that arises through toil, how once we die our work will either be (1) forgotten or (2) placed in the hands of another, someone with the power to do with it what they want (yes, they could perfect your work, but likewise they could ruin it or even distort it from what it is meant to be). Think of Steve Jobs leaving Apple or, heck, Jesus leaving the world! It’s so easy for one’s work to be distorted, their way twisted, their message convoluted…so here we see Solomon coming to the realization that perhaps it is better to have never done these works at all! They too are meaningless. You put so much work into your toil, yet somebody will inherit that work without giving even half the effort. Solomon begins to truly hate all of his work, for it has put him in such a fragile position.
NOW LET’S BE HONEST…we’ve all fallen prey to this way of thought, and Solomon really begins to drive it home in verses 20 and 21, when he grasps onto the ease of which one can get lost in their own works, glorifying themselves through what they have done and in doing so getting lost into the hevel, all until it is too late and they are blind to the truth. In the end, even self-glorification through toil is meaningless, vanity.
So, having concluded this, Solomon mirrors his previous question from 1:3 by pondering what we truly gain for all this toil. On earth, we have already stated that this work and labor will be forgotten and we likewise know that in heaven, earthly works mean nothing since it is grace that saves us, not works (Eph 2:8-9). Here we see that in both earthly and heavenly realms, toilsome work is futile, so what is the purpose of it all if for nothing but temporary gain? This is why we will see that *spoiler alert* it is through remembering our Creator that we find meaning, for suddenly or works—which are to glorify Him—have eternal ramifications! For those “of the world,” works are merely tiresome, stress-inducing traps, but for those who are “in the world but not of it” (John 17:16), we can do “all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31) and thus find meaning in life.
But as I said, that was a spoiler; Solomon hasn’t gotten to that point yet. Instead, Solomon points out that, despite its meaninglessness, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the things of the world (v.24-25); God provided them, did He not? The thing is, in order to truly enjoy these things, we must first recognize them as gifts from God, “strawberries” to enjoy during our time here on earth. We live in a world cursed with meaninglessness, yet our sovereign God gave us things to love and enjoy in this world as long as we find our ultimate meaning in Him, the Creator, and not them, the creation.
Home stretch. In the final verse, Solomon ends the chapter with his main point: everything works out for those who glorify God. As we already established, it’s true that God doesn’t work via karma, but it is also true that those who love Him and try to keep His commands will be happier in this life, purely because of the happiness that comes in sharing His Word and the comfort that comes in finding your security through Him. In the end, there’s nothing to lose in serving God other than the meaninglessness of a life without Him.