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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 2

 

 

Verses 1-11

Chapter 2 The Search for Pleasure.

Experimenting With Good Things (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).

Ecclesiastes 2:1

‘I said in my heart, “Go at it now, I will test out merriment. Therefore enjoy pleasure (or ‘good things’). “ And behold this also was vanity.’

The writer summarises his findings from his next venture, the search for pleasure, for good things. Perhaps meaning could be found in that. But it failed. That also was empty and meaningless. That also did not finally satisfy the heart and the mind.

Ecclesiastes 2:2

‘I said of laughter, “This is madness,” and of merriment, “What does it do?”

Thus his conclusion was that laughter which resulted from ‘having a good time’ was folly, it was empty, and that seeking merriment accomplished nothing. After all, what did it do, what did it accomplish, what did it leave you with when it was all over? The answer is, absolutely nothing.

Ecclesiastes 2:3

‘I searched in my heart how to sustain myself (my flesh) with wine, my heart yet guiding me with wisdom, and how to lay hold on frivolity, that I might see what it was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their life.’

And this was the way he went about it. He experimented with enjoying good wine, without letting it take possession of him or hinder his thought processes. He experimented with ‘having a good time’. He wanted to find out what would satisfy the hearts of men all the days of their lives. He threw himself into it. But all clearly failed. That was no way to live a life.

Ecclesiastes 2:4-6

‘I made myself great works, I built myself houses, I planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens, and parks, and I planted trees in them producing all kinds of fruit. I made myself pools of water, to water from them the woodlands where trees were nurtured.’

Being the king, and wealthy, he was able to indulge his interests. He built houses, planted vineyards, planned and brought into being gardens and parks of outstanding beauty. He filled them with fruit trees, full of tasty things and delightful to the eye.

He built artificial pools, always full of water, in a land where water was often a luxury, and surrounded them with trees of every kind, an oasis in an often dry land. This was no short term experiment. These things would take many years. Surely this was accomplishing something? But he concluded that it was not. Others had done the same, and where were those things now?

Ecclesiastes 2:7

‘I bought menservants, and maidens, and had servants born in my house.’

He had menservants to do his bidding, so that he could have anything done for him that he wanted. He had maidens for his pleasure. He indulged in sex whenever he wanted, with the women of his choice, and produced many children who became servants in his house. (As the children of low born concubines they would become high level servants, but not princes. Their service would include high office). But still his heart hungered. He was not satisfied. It all had no final meaning.

Ecclesiastes 2:7-8 a

‘I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold, and the most sought after treasure of kings and provinces.’

He indulged himself to the full with valuable possessions, with herds and flocks, the thing most valued by many of that day, for they reproduced and grew rapidly and enhanced wealth; and with silver and gold, and with every desirable object that could be found in the courts of kings and throughout many provinces. There was no desirable thing that he did not have.

Ecclesiastes 2:8

‘I obtained for myself men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, all kinds of musical instruments.’

He experimented with music of every kind. He listened to every type of singer. He experimented with every musical instrument. The word translated musical instruments is of unknown meaning. Some translate as concubines. But their equivalent have been mentioned in Ecclesiastes 2:7, and we would expect in a list of pleasures of those times the mention of musical instruments, especially in a verse where music is in mind. Whichever it was it was something that delighted the hearts of men.

Ecclesiastes 2:9

‘So I was great, and increased (in possessions and good things) more than all who were before me in Jerusalem, also my wisdom remained with me.’

Whatever he wanted he obtained, and to excess. And yet in it all he was not foolishly indulgent, he was sensible in his indulgence. He did not let himself go or become a wastrel or a drunkard.

Ecclesiastes 2:10

‘And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold from my heart any joy. For my heart rejoiced because of all my efforts, and this was my reward from all my efforts. ‘

Nothing that he desired was not tried out by him. He indulged in everything that was available. And he enjoyed participating in them and doing them. He was not a killjoy. And he found great delight in them. But that was all he found. It was transient. It was not lasting.

Ecclesiastes 2:11

‘Then I looked on all the activities that my hand had wrought, and on the efforts that I had exerted myself to accomplish. All was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.’

But when he considered all that he had done and experienced and accomplished, he recognised within himself that it was all useless and empty, unsatisfying and meaningless. It was searching for the undiscoverable, and had no lasting value. It still left his heart empty and deeply dissatisfied.

Note the constantly repeated ideas, ‘vanity (useless, transient, empty, without lasting significance)’, ‘striving after wind’, (seeking what cannot be seen or grasped hold of), ‘no profit under the sun’ (of no lasting value). This summed up his experience of all his efforts. He had achieved nothing. He had gained nothing.


Verses 12-17

A Return To Philosophy and Its Hopelessness (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17).

Ecclesiastes 2:12

‘And I turned my mind to observing wisdom and madness and folly. For what can a man do who follows what a king has done? Only what he has already done.’

His next step was again to consider the combined ‘wisdom’ of men. He studied what was wise, he studied what was madness, he studied what was foolish and absurd. Having as king indulged himself in all the pleasures open to a king, and having found them to fail, what was left for him? Only to return to what he had already done. This was in itself proof of the folly of it all.

‘For what can a man (any man) do who follows what a king has done? Only what the king has already done’ This does not necessarily contrast himself as a man with the king. He is both the king and a man. As king he had had special advantages not open to ordinary men. Yet as a king, with the resources of a king, he had tried everything out, he had covered all the ground, he looked into everything. So what was any man, including himself, to do to follow that? All any man could do was repeat the same old thing.

Ecclesiastes 2:13-14

‘Then I saw that wisdom exceeds folly, as much as light exceeds darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walks in darkness. And yet I saw that one thing (or ‘event’) happened to them all.’

He was not undiscerning. He recognised that there was wisdom and that there was folly. And that the first was totally superior to the second, just as light is superior to darkness. The wise man sees where he is going. He uses discernment. He walks in the light. The fool blunders on in darkness, with his eyes closed. But all come to the same end. All experience the same final event. All die (compare Ecclesiastes 3:19). All end in darkness.

‘One thing (event).’ Contingency, happening, chance, fortune, providence, fate.

Ecclesiastes 2:15-16

‘Then I said in my heart, “As it happens to a fool, so will it happen to me. And why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart that this also was vanity. For the wise man even as for the fool, there is no remembrance for ever, seeing that in the days to come all will have been already forgotten. How does the wise man die? Just as the fool.’

So he questions how he can really consider himself as more wise than a fool when both come to the same end. Both die. Both are forgotten by men. ‘The memory of them is forgotten’ (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Almost nothing of what they are lives on. Thus neither has accomplished more than the other. Neither has gained more than the other. They share the same fate. The wise man is finally as the fool.

Do we see here the first glimmer of a search after the idea of a possible future life, for if what he says here is true, and all ends at the end of this life, what is there to live for? Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Compare Ecclesiastes 3:21 which surely has this in mind as a possibility. It was the same dilemma that the prophets and the psalmists faced. If death was the end how do we explain suffering? (See Psalms 73). How do we encourage men to positive living and achievement? How do we discover final meaning?

Ecclesiastes 2:17

‘So I hated life, because the effort that is wrought under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.’

The Preacher confesses that as a result of his meditations life was becoming distasteful to him because of its pointlessness. All the effort he had put in discouraged him, nay, grieved him, because it had achieved nothing. It was profitless. Again he summed it up as useless and striving after the unattainable.


Verses 18-23

What Use Our Efforts When We Must Leave All Behind To Those Who Will Misuse It? (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23).

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19

‘And I hated all my effort with which I exerted myself under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will be after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control (‘rule’) over all that has been produced by my great efforts (‘all my labour in which I have laboured’), and in which I have shown wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.’

Another thing that perturbed him was that he would have to leave the results of all his great efforts to others. And who knew what they would do with them? What men build up, other men pull down. They have no permanence. So all his great efforts would finally have been in vain. What his wisdom had produced would eventually come to nothing. It would be dismissed by the next generation. It could not bear thinking about.

Ecclesiastes 2:20-21

‘So I changed my way of thinking (turned about) to make my heart despair about all the efforts in which I had exerted myself under the sun. For here is a man whose efforts are with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skill, and yet he will give it for a bequest to a man who has not exerted himself with regard to it. This also is vanity, and a great evil.’

Especially disillusioning was the fact that he having exerted himself with wisdom, understanding and skill, the one to whom it was all passed on might well treat all his hard efforts as irrelevant, looking on it as unimportant and not worth bothering about, and making no effort to maintain what had been passed on to him. The thought of this happening had changed his whole way of thinking with regard to matters. It was not only an indication of the meaninglessness of things, but a positive evil. (Thus it was not quite so meaningless after all. The writer does not deny that things have meaning, only that they have final meaning).

‘Skill.’ The word is found at Ugarit, and in Akkadian sources. It can therefore no longer be described as ‘late Hebrew’. (The findings at Ugarit have made much ‘late Hebrew’ into early Hebrew. Had the Preacher but known this it would have given him a good illustration).

Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

‘For what has a man for all his efforts, and for the striving of his heart with which he exerts himself under the sun? For all his days are spent in painful effort, and his exertions are vexatious. Yes, even in the night his heart is restless. This also is vanity.’

He concludes by asking what point there is for a person to wear himself down and exert painful effort, seeking to build up for the future, when the future is so insecure and transient. The very thought of it upsets him. It makes all his exertions vexatious. It makes him unable to sleep at night. It is further evidence of the temporary nature of things, of the meaninglessness of it all.


Verses 24-26

His Preliminary Conclusion (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

‘There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good as a result of (in) his efforts. I also saw this, that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment more than I? For to the man who pleases him (literally ‘is good before him’) God gives wisdom, knowledge and joy, but to the blameworthy one he gives constant struggle, to gather and to heap up, so that he may give to the one who pleases God.’

This partial conclusion, which he acknowledges is not fully satisfactory, brings God into the equation as a solution for the first time. Indeed it is noteworthy that up to this point he has ignored God so that his only previous mention of God has been in terms of what God ‘had given to man to be busy with’ (Ecclesiastes 1:13). Now he recognises that that is the problem. That man is so busy with the things that God has ‘given to men to be busy with’ that he has no time for God Himself. He has noticed that it is far better for a man to relax, and eat and drink, and work in order to enable him to enjoy ‘good things’ in life from the hand of God (that is, wisdom, knowledge and joy which cause him to please God), than it is for him to struggle to excess but fail to enjoy what God wants to give him. This was where the Preacher recognised that he himself had failed. After all no one had been able to eat and have enjoyment more than he had. And yet he had not found contentment in it because he had been too occupied with his thoughts to be open to receive the blessings of God. It is this benefit of open-heartedness towards Him that he concludes is what God supremely offers to a man. Thus he, as it were, envies the man who has not had to struggle within himself as he has done. He sees that such a life, which is lived by quiet faith open to God for His blessings, is from the hand of God. (Compare ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness’ - Genesis 15:6). And the consequence is that such a man ‘pleases God’, and continues quietly to learn from Him. A man like that is not too busy to receive God’s wisdom, knowledge and joy. This is the ‘good’ that he receives, and it is by not being so taken up with the stress of life that he has time for God. (It is in contrast with the wisdom, knowledge and pleasure that the king has sought - Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:1).

And a further consequence of this life of quiet trust is that he also benefits from the labours of others who are too busy to have any time for God. Such people are to be seen as blameworthy because they live to themselves and not to please God, and in the end their efforts, aimed at pleasing themselves, will not benefit themselves, but will rather benefit those who please God.

So he concludes that it is by pleasing God in this way that man reveals true wisdom, knowledge and joy, and not by his struggles to attain the unattainable. It is indeed in contrast with the one who exerts himself with great effort to gather possessions or knowledge of all kinds, but who thrusts God to one side, only to discover that what he does simply benefits these very ones who are pleasing God. There is a remarkable similarity between the Preacher’s ideas here and the words of Jesus Christ Himself when He also warned His disciples against being so anxious about obtaining the things of this life that we fail to trust God (Matthew 6:25-34). Rather men were to receive from God’s hand what He gave and were to look for the blessing that is from above by ‘seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). Then ‘all these things will be added to them’. A similar idea is in mind here.

So the idea of ‘pleasing God’ here is on the basis of living a normal life before Him, without self-seeking but which is the result of an unstressed heart which is open to receive God’s wisdom, knowledge and joy, and seeks to please Him, while exerting sufficient honest effort into his toil to make it possible. To such a man, he says, God gives such wisdom, knowledge and joy, that is to say, the equivalent of what the writer had been looking for in all his exertions but had failed to find (Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:1). The writer has observed this in practise, and acknowledges it to be so.

The wisdom, knowledge and joy given to the man with an open heart towards God is not, of course, the in-depth wisdom and knowledge that the writer had sought. They are the general wisdom and knowledge of a life sensibly lived before God, which experiences God without overexertion and is not overtaken with other things. But most importantly such wisdom and knowledge are accompanied by joy (something which is later very much stressed - Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). His view may be seen as rather idealistic. He has probably only noticed those who were reasonably well-to-do, not those whose lives were lives of constant and excessive toil and struggle, with no means of enjoying life, who would not come to the attention of a king, although even such people can find joy in God. That is why the Psalmists indicated that it was the poor and needy who were most aware of God.

Such a man’s life is not complicated, it is lived before God. And he also receives benefit ( a result of fallout) which results from the labours of those who are self-seeking and strenuously exert themselves to become rich or knowledgeable, who provide work and trade and other benefits for godly people, which they gladly accept. Note that these self-seeking would-be rich people are, in contrast, not pleasing God. In His eyes they are blameworthy. Their exertions have thrust God out of their lives and have caused them to behave in non-ethical ways. Interestingly the ideas expressed have some affinity with Egyptian Wisdom teaching.

Ecclesiastes 2:26

‘This also is vanity and a striving after wind.’

This insight into the life of the godly man is seen as revealing. It shows that the Preacher has recognised that the one who puts God first (and receives wisdom, knowledge and joy) is more content than the one who struggles for pleasure, enjoyment and deep wisdom. But he recognises at the same time that there is still something missing in his definition. He acknowledges that he has not yet reached a fully satisfactory conclusion. For in a sense this also is vanity and a striving after wind, because it still leaves such a life without an ultimate purpose. It is still in its own way meaningless and empty. In a way this godly man, as he sees him here, is also falling short. His life is not achieving something sufficiently positive. And so he feels that his search must continue.

Alternately ‘this also is vanity and a striving after wind’ might be seen as applying only to the last phrase in the verse ‘but to the blameworthy one he gives constant struggle, to gather and to heap up, so that he may give to the one who pleases God’. The impression give, however is that it is a summary statement, summing up all that has been said.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-2.html. 2013.

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