“I said to myself, ‘Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.’ But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, ‘Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?’
After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3).
For Solomon, the search for meaning in life wasn’t just an attempt to indulge himself in everything that life had to offer under the sun. Instead, he undertook a methodical, businesslike approach to the search for meaning in life by separating himself from his “experiments” in order to consider the evidence and render an appropriate judgment.
So what were the results? Well, Solomon first evaluated a life consisting exclusively of pleasure, enjoyment, and laughter. In other words, Solomon just partied all the time just as many people do today. But ultimately he found that this “…also proved to be meaningless” (NIV).
Next Solomon considered the value of a life centered around the consumption of alcohol. In Ecclesiastes chapter two, verse three (2:3) he said, “I wanted to find out what was best for us during the short time we have on this earth. So I decided to make myself happy with wine and find out what it means to be foolish, without really being foolish myself” (CEV). Of course, things have not changed very much in this respect have they? Most people probably know someone (or at least have known of someone) for whom the consumption of alcohol was a major part of life. Today there are bars, pubs, taverns, clubs, and restaurants that are filled with people who are attempting to cheer themselves with wine (to use Solomon’s terminology). And it’s still not working.
So having tried the drinking and partying lifestyle, Solomon next turned towards something else: building projects and public works…
“I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves” (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6).
It may be easy to think that Solomon’s “building projects” consisted of a few houses and some nice landscaping- but that would be far from reality. We’ll see just how extensive Solomon’s building program actually was next.
“I increased my achievements. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. I constructed reservoirs of water for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees” (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6 HCSB).
Believe it or not, there are three chapters of the Bible (the Old Testament book of 1st Kings, chapters five, six, and seven) that describe the extent of King Solomon’s building projects. For instance, Solomon spent seven years constructing the temple of God in Jerusalem. This magnificent building was 100 feet (30.5 m) long and was constructed of stone overlaid with wood and precious metals. He also spent thirteen years constructing his own personal residence, a palace that was one hundred fifty feet (46m) long, seventy-five feet (23 m) wide, and forty-five feet (14 m) high.
In addition, it’s thought that Solomon may have been responsible for building reservoirs near the city of Bethlehem where three pools (or cisterns) still bear his name today. (1) These reservoirs would help to irrigate the groves and vineyards he planted and supply the city of Jerusalem with water as well. But despite these impressive accomplishments, the Teacher still found no lasting value in these works for he was forced to continue his search…
“I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!” (Ecclesiastes 2:7-9).
So Solomon not only accumulated a variety of things but he also acquired a variety of people as well. These people were not part of a life-simulation computer game where virtual humans interact in a make believe world- these were living human beings that Solomon actually owned. He also turned to the accumulation of wealth in his quest to find the key to lasting happiness for he said, “I also piled up silver and gold from the royal treasuries of the lands I ruled” (GNB).
Of course, making money -along with the status and privilege that goes with it- is a top priority among many people today. But does the accumulation of wealth really provide the ticket to happiness? Well, we’ll get that verdict next.
(1) Barnes Notes Ecclesiastes 2:6, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown Ecclesiastes 2:6
“Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (Ecclesiastes 2:9-10).
King Solomon was surely the wealthiest man on earth in his day, yet he found no lasting satisfaction from the wealth and possessions he had worked to accumulate. And while many things have changed since the days of Solomon, there is at least one thing that remains the same- money doesn’t buy true happiness.
Perhaps you may be familiar with the famous quote that was attributed to John D. Rockefeller, a man who was among the wealthiest people of his time. Mr. Rockefeller was alledgedly once asked, “Sir, how much money is enough money?” Rockefeller is said to have replied, “Just a little bit more.”
Solomon would undoubtedly agree with that answer, for later in the book of Ecclesiastes he will make this observation regarding wealth…
“He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income. So what is the advantage of wealth– except perhaps to watch it as it runs through your fingers!” (Ecclesiastes 5:9-10 TLB).
So having tried and dismissed a lifestyle centered around things like drinking, partying, public works, and the accumulation of wealth as the keys to happiness under the sun, Solomon next stopped to consider the relative worth of wisdom and foolishness…
“So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, ‘Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.’ Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die.
So I said to myself, ‘Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!’ For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16).
Now at this point, Solomon may well have said to himself, “Look, I’ve tried everything else, I might as well consider what it’s like to live like a fool.” We’ll see the results of that experiment next.
“I asked myself, ‘What can the next king do that I haven’t done?’ Then I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and stupidity” (Ecclesiastes 2:12 CEV).
The word “foolishness” or “folly” as seen above is defined as something, “resulting from or showing a lack of sense; ill-considered; unwise.” (1) So why would Solomon spent time evaluating such a concept? Well, the teacher was clearly willing to consider any possible answer in his search to discover meaning in life and “foolishness” like pleasure, building projects, alcohol, and wealth was given full consideration.
But while the subject changed, the answer didn’t…
“I discovered that wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. Wisdom is like having two good eyes; foolishness leaves you in the dark. But wise or foolish, we all end up the same” (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14 CEV).
So wisdom (in the short term at least) was found to have more value than foolishness, a truth that most people instinctively realize. For instance, if you are a wise person who chooses to eat a healthy diet, that choice will probably cause you to live a longer and healthier life than you would if your diet consisted entirely of Ring-Dings and Pepsi-Cola. Nevertheless, Solomon concluded that wisdom has only limited or temporal value- and here’s why…
“I thought to myself, ‘If the destiny that waits for the fool waits for me as well, then what is the advantage in being wise?’ So I thought that even this is pointless. Neither the wise person nor the fool will be remembered for long, since both will be forgotten in the days to come. Both the wise person and the fool will die” (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16 GW).
The problem is that a wise man and a fool both share at least one thing in common: each will eventually die. While a wise person may delay death, he or she can never prevent death. But if that depressing reality wasn’t bad enough, there was another problem:“There is no eternal memory of the wise any more than the foolish, because everyone is forgotten before long…” (Ecclesiastes 2:16 CEB).
While there may be some short term benefits to living a wise life, wisdom cannot guarantee that a wise person’s life will be remembered after he or she has died. As far as our author is concerned, all of our human accomplishments simply go with us to the grave. And of course, this same fate befalls both the foolish and the wise, much to Solomon’s disgust as we’ll see next.
(1) “foolishness.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 05 Oct. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/foolishness>.
“So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-19).
Earlier in chapter two, Solomon spoke extensively about the possessions that he had accumulated. Now it’s time to answer this question: “Who gets all this stuff when I’m gone?”
First, he considered the fact that his descendants may not manage their inheritance wisely. He said, “I came to hate everything for which I had worked so hard under the sun, because I will have to leave it to the person who replaces me. Who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? He will still have control over everything under the sun for which I worked so hard and used my wisdom. Even this is pointless” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 GW)
In the end, Solomon’s fears turned out to be justified. As it turned out, Solomon’s son did not deal wisely with his subjects during his tenure as king. If you’re interested in reading the details of that story, you can find it in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, chapter 12.
Next, Solomon stopped to consider a very difficult reality. That reality had to do with the fact that those who received his inheritance expended no effort to obtain it…
“Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless” (Ecclesiastes (2:21-23).
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son provides us with a good illustration of the underlying truth behind these verses. If you’re not familiar with the story, then you can read about it in Luke 15:11-32. Perhaps the prodigal son would not have wasted his time living a reckless lifestyle if he had worked to secure the inheritance that he received.
“What do people get for all their work and struggling here on earth? All of their lives their work is full of pain and sorrow, and even at night their minds don’t rest. This is also useless” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 NCV).
Now if everything we’ve read up to this point wasn’t already bad enough, our author comes to one final realization concerning earthly wealth- the more possessions you have, the more time you must spend maintaining them. One Biblical version of Ecclesiastes 2:23 puts it this way: “Then at night our thoughts are troubled. It just doesn’t make sense” (CEV). For instance, have you spent the night awake with concern over something you possesed? Well, that seems to be what Solomon had in mind when he said, “even in the night his heart takes no rest” (NKJV).
To illustrate this, let’s take the example of a person who is continually driven to obtain the newest, latest, or best example of some product or service. While this person may be satisfied with their purchase for a while, he or she is bound to be disappointed at some point. You see, there will always be something newer or better than whatever it is that person already has- and upgrading usually doesn’t come easily or inexpensively. Solomon came to this same realization centuries ago when he discovered that having a lot of “stuff” will often result in a lot of sleepless nights spent thinking about how to manage it.
So now that we’ve almost reached the end of Ecclesiastes chapter two, perhaps it might be a good time to step back for a moment to ask a question: “How do you feel after reading these things?” Well, if you’re like most people, you’d probably have to say that it’s been pretty depressing journey so far. The truth is that it can be a bleak, disheartening, and discouraging task to read the things we’ve talked about so far.
And you know what- it’s supposed to be that way! The point is that a life lived strictly on a horizontal level without regard to the Creator will eventually lead any rational person to the depressing conclusions we’ve just read.
You see, Solomon has spent almost two entire chapters discussing things like labor, money, possessions, wisdom, foolishness, and building projects- but he has done it all from his limited human perspective. Only now, as we approach the end of chapter two, will he begin to consider God and His perspective. We’ll see how this addition of the Creator changes Solomon’s perspective next.
“There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and find joy in his work. I have seen that this also is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can find joy without Him? For God has given wisdom and much learning and joy to the person who is good in God’s eyes. But to the sinner He has given the work of gathering and getting many riches together to give to the one who pleases God. This also is for nothing, like trying to catch the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).
It’s been said that the “best things in life are free” and there is a lot of truth to that old saying. For instance, the Scripture quoted above tells us, “The best thing we can do is eat and drink and enjoy what we have earned. And yet, I realized that even this comes from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 GNB). You see, the ability to enjoy any good thing in life comes from God. Having nice things without the ability to enjoy them is worthless and without God, everything in life is ultimately pointless and futile. Building up a lot of money or possessions without regard to the God who is the ultimate provider of those things is foolishness.
What Solomon found was that the desire to achieve and attain more and more ultimately results in dissatisfaction and the desire for still more. It’s only when our possessions are viewed in the light of the eternal, can we really derive the ultimate pleasure from them. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul gave the following advice to a young leader named Timothy in the Biblical book of 1st Timothy…
“Tell those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money. Money cannot be trusted. They should put their trust in God. He gives us all we need for our happiness. Tell them to do good and be rich in good works. They should give much to those in need and be ready to share. Then they will be gathering together riches for themselves. These good things are what they will build on for the future. Then they will have the only true life!” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLV).
One commentator was quoted as saying, “The natural man who has never taken God seriously falls into the delusion that this world is all that there is.” (1) Unfortunately, our author was someone who also fell into this delusion- but we can avoid this same trap by listening to and learning from his experience.
(1) Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties