Ecclesiastes Chapter 2 – The Wise Man’s Findings: Pleasure, Work and Wisdom Produce Nothing That Lasts

Introduction

In chapter 1 Solomon described the conclusions he reached when attempting to find lasting satisfaction, meaning and purpose without God in this world. The conclusions he reached were:

  1. Nothing currently brings lasting satisfaction, and no new thing will appear that will bring lasting satisfaction
  2. Man is insignificant compared to his surroundings and has no lasting influence on either himself or creation
  3. By applying wisdom he cannot change either himself or the world to produce lasting satisfaction

These conclusions produced much frustration and sorrow in Solomon– he was unable, using this world, to resolve man’s need for purpose, meaning and lasting satisfaction.

After his stating his initial conclusions Solomon outlines the extensive areas of life he has examined. He has found that pleasure, possessions, self-indulgence, wisdom and work all produce at best a transient satisfaction – they all fail to produce anything that endures. In our society we have more opportunity than ever for pleasure and work. Will we learn from Solomon’s experiences, or have we to learn the hard way from wasted time, effort and expenditure that leaves us feeling empty?

Self Indulgence Ultimately Disappoints

Pleasure Ultimately Disappoints

“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity.” Eccles 2:1

Solomon examined the areas of laughter (v2), pleasure (v2) and wine (v3), all the time with his wisdom guiding him, yet even in this the brevity of life still weighed heavily on him (v3). Why the does he feel such emptiness? He wished for pleasure, yet in reality he needs to experience eternal life in knowing God through the Lord Jesus Christ. We carry the seed of our misery within ourselves; we want and crave that which will destroy us – pleasure to the exclusion of knowing God.  Even if the pleasure is not sinful in itself, it can engage in to such an extent that we have little or no time and energy for God. If we are not seeking heavenly pleasures, we shall soon desire that which is shadowy and delusive.

“How desperate is the wickedness of the heart of man – even of regenerate man! The sparks of unmortified corruption – long kept under, not wholly extinct – may burst out into a flame, even after apparent maturity of godliness” Charles Bridges

A light hearted view to life has real limitations given the tragedies, sorrows and brevity of life. Ultimately pleasure, while making our lives more tolerable, does not remove these limitations on our lives. Pleasure alone cannot extend our lives, overcome the loss of loved ones or change our bodies or temperaments into that which we long for.

Pleasure in itself can lead to dangers. Wisdom may have restrained some of Solomon’s excesses, but to give himself to wine, with the resultant danger of the loss of self control, surely transgressed the limits of Godly liberty. Self-discipline and self-distrust are the laws of self-preservation. We can all too easily find that repeated indulgence can lead to physical harm or loss of reputation.

Possessions Ultimately Disappoint

I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.” Eccles 2: 8

Solomon’s material wealth surpassed both the Israelite kings before him (Saul and David) as well as many of his contemporary kingdoms. Indeed, Solomon was given the greatest of respect by the Queen of Sheba for his servants and house (1 Kings 10:4 – 10). But further to this, the abundance of Solomon’s wealth is described in glowing terms:

“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” 1 Kings 10:23 – 25

The pleasures that tempt mankind are remarkably similar across 1000s of years! In our modern secular Western society so many people desire such things as material wealth, a sports personality or music celebrity lifestyle, and so often unrestrained sexual pleasure. Solomon had all of what many people in our Western culture today desire. So how satisfied was he?

“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. 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.” Eccles 2:10,11

He did have a measure of pleasure and comfort in all his toil (v10), yet the end result did not last (v 11). The pleasure faded along with the novelty, leaving an unsatisfied appetite. A momentary pleasure is all that can be expected from this world. Possessions cannot redeem our souls from death, or indeed reverse any part of the aging process. While our general health can be improved with good diet and exercise, money cannot prevent the decay of our bodies – many an aging Hollywood film star knows this all too well!

God gave Solomon an extravagant material blessing to experience and tell the emptiness of it. God would have us to rejoice in our earthly blessings, but not rest in them. True lasting satisfaction is found in Him alone, and not in this world. The Christian has immense spiritual blessings that last for all eternity. We shall still be rejoicing in Christ our saviour 1 billion years from now – that is eternal life. Solomon seems to be the reverse of the Christian, he possess all things, yet in reality has nothing, whereas the Christian’s testimony is one of being,

“as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” 2 Cor 6:10

Wisdoms Produces Nothing Lasting

Wisdom Has Value

“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.  Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.” Eccles 2:12 – 13

With the disappointments of possessions and pleasure on his mind, Solomon now turns to examine the value of wisdom.  With his great wisdom Solomon had reached a pinnacle of achievement for his day.  His reign surpassed all others, so all who follow him will at best only be able to copy what he has achieved – but Solomon thought that even his own impressive reign is vanity.

Wisdom is God’s means of securing pleasure, security and usefulness to our fellow creatures. The wise man has good sense in managing his affairs, skill and taste in building and planting, and he keeps within safe and respectable bounds in pleasure. While wisdom cannot secure lasting satisfaction, we should not underrate its value; it is infinitely superior to a life of foolishness.

Wisdom Cannot Preserve From Death or Secure a Lasting Influence

“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. 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. 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! “ Eccles 2:14 – 16

Yet while the difference between the wise man and the fool are great, the same providential change of circumstances or fortune happen to them both. Earthquakes, Tsunamis and financial crises sweep both away. Wisdom cannot preserve from death – indeed what good can commendations on earth do for the body in the grave or the soul in hell? In fact, beyond the grave God’s people will not want earth’s commendations.

There are trials (such as death and illness) where wisdom can offer only a little support. The truly wise man realises who has appointed the trial, and will turn to Him for aid, worldly wisdom cannot replace true wisdom!

Few survive the wreck of time. It seemed a great insult for the man of wisdom to die and to be forgotten just as the fool – there seemed no purpose in living.

“The wise man of science hoped to secure – though not his body – yet his name from decay. But to the mass there is often no remembrance of the wise man more than the fool” Charles Bridges

Solomon Hated The Ineffectiveness of Wisdom!

“So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Eccles 2:17

Solomon had great torment of conscience; Hell has begun on earth for him. What was a main cause of this distress? The wise man dies as the fool, how can this be fair? All the skill acquired, all the learning and effort, all the knowledge gained and his piercing wisdom profited nothing in the face of death. Indeed all the self discipline and labour of study was wasted as it could not prevent death. Solomon hated life in the sense that he found it deeply disappointing in certain key respects; life had lost much of its sweetness for him. As the French philosopher Voltaire stated:

“I hate life, yet I am afraid to die” Voltaire

Labour Produces Nothing Lasting

All A Man’s Labour Is Left To Another

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,  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.“ Eccles 2:18,19

Solomon realised that the kingdom he had carefully built up, with skill and wisdom, must be left to another. Would that individual build upon Solomon’s lifework, or squander it away? As history revealed the next king, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, lost 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel from the kingdom. This event was God’s punishment for Solomon’s sins, but in human terms the loss came through Rehoboam’s foolishness in responding to his subjects (1 Kings 12:1 – 24).

The same question needs to be asked by ourselves. The fruit of our labour, will it be given to worthy or unworthy hands? Will it be squandered away or built upon? We face the same uncertainty as Solomon did in his day.  Sometimes the motive for a person’s provision for their children is an attempt to perpetuate their own name through the possessions or advantages given to that child. Yet again the limitation of this approach is revealed – will the possessions or advantage given to the child be squandered and quickly forgotten?

Solomon Despaired at Losing His Carefully Built Up Wealth

“So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labours under the sun,  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. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?  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.”
Eccles 2:20 – 23

He heaps up words such as despair, labour, great evil and sorrow to describe the painful experience of leaving his possessions. All he had laboured would be left to one who has not worked for such a prize (v21) – this was not fair! Solomon shows that the world is a vale of tears, even to those who have much of it. It is as if Solomon seems has given up on the idea of leaving a lasting name through his material works, and this was a painful experience for him. Our heart’s naturally cling to the world, and sometimes sharp measures are required to break us from it.

“All his great works of wisdom and labour, which had ministered to him a temporary satisfaction, after a while became objects of disgust. They must be left, and to whom he could not tell” Charles Bridges

God’s Blessing is To Enjoy the Fruit of Our Labour

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, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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.”
Eccles 2:24 – 26

Solomon now describes the greatest good which may be had from earthly things. He is a man brooding over his disappointments seeking to find what comfort he can. There are legitimate enjoyments in the world, to be used but not abused (1 Cor 7:31). The things of this world are to be subordinate to the greater plans and purposes of God in our lives; they are not our primary source of happiness or contentment. Godliness with contentment in our material circumstances is great gain (1 Tim 6:6).

Eating, drinking and enjoyment in work are gifts from the hand of God to those who please Him. God laying up for those who please him, was true of the Old Testament covenant and in some measure is true in all ages (Phil 4:19), though not as visible or immediate as then, it is no less real now.

“To those that are accepted of the Lord, he gives joy and satisfaction in the in the knowledge and love of him. But to the sinner he allots labour, sorrow, vanity, and vexation in seeking a worldly portion, which yet afterwards comes into better hands” Matthew Henry

Lessons From Chapter 2

God mercifully denies us Solomon’s experience by not giving us all the work, pleasures and possessions we desire.

Solomon experienced only misery and frustration when he considered that the fruit of all his works would be left to one who had worked for them, and that he himself would receive no lasting benefit from them. Our hearts naturally cling to the things of this world, by not having them God spares us the heartache of tearing our affections from them.

Living for today does not completely satisfy because humans want to go beyond today.

“Apart from Jesus Christ life would be unbearable. Why endure the trials of life when there is no God to glorify? Then we would be like the sinners who say,’ Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (1 Cor 15:32). But life is not a burden, a sigh, a sleep in the night. With Jesus Christ in control, life is an adventure, a challenge, an investment for eternity.” Warren Wiesrbe (on Psalm 90)

The fullest enjoyment this world can offer, having what we need to live and being able to enjoy our work, comes from God.

What stands in great contradiction to the aims of many people, is that contentment is found not in large houses, great wealth or abundant opportunity for pleasure, but it is found in being able to work productively and in enjoying the fruit of our labour.
 


Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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