In chapter one, Ecclesiastes’ author, the Preacher (most likely Solomon), wrote us a poem about the vanity of everything under the sun. He observed the endless repetitions of the sun, wind, and seas and realized that we are same. Like the sea never fills, so our ears never hear enough. Like the sun continues to rise and set, our eyes continue to seek out input. So Solomon calls this life vanity. All of it is meaningless, and nothing more than a mere breath of air.
In chapter two, the Preacher begins to describe his investigation to find meaning and satisfaction under the sun. The first stop in his quest for joy is where many look as well: pleasure. Pleasure naturally makes us happy, so with vast wealth, Solomon thinks that surely he can buy lasting joy through endless pleasure. Alcohol, sex, music, work, and philanthropy, the king threw himself into his search for meaning under the sun. But vanity is all he finds, and ultimately, he concludes that enjoyment can only come from God Himself.
THE VANITY OF PLEASURE // VERSES 1-11
After Solomon concluded the first chapter by noting that wisdom alone did not give him any lasting meaning, here he decides to attempt achieve it by diving into wisdom’s converse: pure, uninhibited pleasure. This philosophical thought that Solomon is applying is called hedonism. The argument of hedonism is that pleasure and happiness are the only intrinsic goods. The typical hedonist says to himself, “pleasure makes me happy; thus, it must be the supreme good.” Hedonism makes sense at first glance. Blaise Pascal states:
All men seek happiness. This is without question. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Solomon decides to apply all of his authority and wealth to pursuing pleasure to its fullest and to discover what is the end result. Thus, what we will see in the next several verses are Solomon’s various attempts at pursuing pleasurable things, but he presents us with a spoiler at the end of this first verse: none of it worked.
In verse 2, Solomon first tries laughter. Everyone loves a good laugh, and most would agree that there are few things in life that can compare to a hearty, belly laugh. We love laughter, and we love it when others laugh. That’s why half the videos on YouTube are of babies laughing. Laughter is good and good for you. Laughter releases endorphins, a natural feel-good drug that our bodies produce, which can increase blood flow and decrease stress. Laughter is good. Yet even with all the laughter that Solomon could find, it still left Solomon feeling empty. Laughter is good, but laughter is not God.
Next, in verse 3, Solomon’s quest through hedonism took him to what many still turn to today: alcohol. When laughter fails Solomon, he runs to the heart-break cure. Surely Solomon held nothing back. He bought the best wine, had the largest collection, threw the craziest parties, but none of it worked. It is also worth noting that he pairs his quest through drunkenness with laying “hold on folly.” His quest through pure foolishness reaches its peak in unadulterated drunkenness. In other words, if you want a firm grasp of foolishness, get drunk.
Solomon also throws a phrase in the middle of his account: “my heart still guided by wisdom.” How are we to interpret this? Isn’t Solomon saying to himself that he is actively pursuing the opposite of wisdom? I believe that we can take this verse to mean throughout all of Solomon’s pursuits of pleasure, Solomon remained in control. As far into folly as Solomon dived, there was always a little voice in the back of his head that reminded him why he was doing it all. As Chandler puts it:
I believe he means that he never forgot what he was doing. He never got so caught up in seeking pleasure that he forgot that his goal was, from the beginning, to see if there was really anything of value out there in the world. From day one, he never forgot that this was an experiment. (124)
When laughter and alcohol fail to bring Solomon fulfillment, he decides to build, to do great works (vv. 4-6). He decides to create great infrastructures and public parks, and when that utter folly fails him, Solomon turns to altruistic hedonism: deriving his pleasure by doing good for other through philanthropy. First, he tries his hand at real-estate. We are told in 1 Kings that Solomon’s palace took thirteen years to build (1 Kings 7:1). To put things in perspective, the temple that Solomon commissioned was built in seven (1 Kings 6:38). It took almost twice as long to build Solomon’s house as it did to build God’s, and we cannot attribute the difference to a lack of workers. Solomon literally had the best house that money could buy. Next, he tries gardening. However, Solomon’s idea of gardening was not of a quaint, retirement hobby of a garden. No, Solomon planted entire forests. Since gardening can be difficult in the desert, Solomon dug great aqueducts for watering his greenery. There are few things that are more pleasurable than relaxing in a beautiful garden, but this still would not satisfy.
So when creating things didn’t work, Solomon thought that perhaps life would no longer seem meaningless if he had plenty of servants. To this end, Solomon compiled a group of servants so large that they required enough food to feed 35,000 people (1 Kings 4:22-23). Not having to mow his own lawn, do his own dishes, or style himself, would surely lead to a satisfying life. However, just to be safe, Solomon creates his own zoo. We are told that Solomon received exotic animals as gifts from other royalty, such as peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). But he doesn’t stop there; he once again mentions his great wealth. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon was so incredibly rich that silver was worthless to him (1 Kings 10:21)! With his riches, Solomon indulges in music by having his favorite singers and musicians follow him around all day. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Solomon turns to sex. We are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines during his lifetime (1 Kings 10:21)! That is a harem of 1,000 women that were reserved only for Solomon’s sexual gratification. A lot of men today attempt to build a virtual harem of that size via pornography, but Solomon had the real thing. Surely if anyone could find their happiness in sex, Solomon would have. Yet all of it (the servants, the animals, the music, and the sex) proved to be lacking.
In verses 9-11, Solomon sums up his road down hedonism. First, he reminds us again that his great wealth and authority gave him the ability to have anything that his heart desired. Verse 10 is the etcetera to his list of pursuits. If you can think of it, Solomon tried it. He poured his heart and soul into pleasure, and he did it wisely, strategically. Solomon was determined to know if hedonism could work as a way of life, and so he surrounded himself with as much pleasure as he could possibly handle. Interestingly enough, he says that he achieved his goal. “My heart found pleasure in all my toil.” He searched, and he found. But what conclusion does he make? “All was vanity and a striving after wind.” He claims that the pleasure that he found was his reward. If he got the pleasure that he was seeking, then why does he call it a vanity? The reward of pleasure that Solomon found was the same as the reward that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 when discussing giving, praying, and fasting in order to be seen by others, a fleeting and temporal reward. It feels good for a moment, but it evaporates quickly, leaving behind the same void as before. Pleasure, in and of itself, could not ultimately satisfy Solomon. It cannot satisfy anyone.
And yet, we continue to try it. Peter Kreeft describes this effort:
If you are typically modern, your life is like a mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiple diversions. (169)
Most people consciously understand that hedonism is a futile path, but that cognitive knowledge doesn’t stop us from trying time and time again. Today, we are all Solomon. We don’t need to hire singers to entertain us because we have Spotify. We don’t need to have 300 concubines because we have porn. We don’t need to build grand palaces because we can earn every achievement on the latest video game. We don’t need servants because we have Amazon. Thanks to TVs and phones, the barrage of entertainment never stops. Many haven’t felt the weight of verse 11 simply because they never pause long enough to consider anything. In the stillness and quiet, we feel our beating hearts, become conscious of our lungs, and remember that we are creatures who will die. We remember that our lives are fleeting, a mere vanity. We like pleasure because it temporarily numbs us to our mortality. It helps us forget that we are but dust being held together by Christ. The terrifying conclusion to Solomon’s quest for pleasure is that he got it. He achieved everything he wanted, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, the haunting of eternity came roaring back. Perhaps this is partly why we are such half-hearted creatures. We pursue things with reservation because deep down we know that they cannot satisfy.
THE VANITY OF THE WISE LIFE // VERSES 12-17
After the king’s pursuit of hedonism, he set his eyes to analyzing wisdom and folly. His conclusion is that, of course, wisdom is better than folly. He compares the two to light and darkness. No normal person would prefer to live out all of their days in complete darkness. Light is obviously and clearly better. We are creatures of sight, and regardless of the brightness of the light, no one would prefer complete darkness over light. Nevertheless, even though the difference between the two is clear, Solomon still finds himself haunted by the fact that the same end awaits both.
Solomon acknowledges that because God gave his wisdom to him, he was far wiser than anyone before him. So there must be some special reward for such wisdom, right? Yet Solomon died just like a foolish man dies. Despite his wealth, the great king died just the same as the poorest beggar on the streets. “Death is the great equalizer” (Stedman, 132). And the same is still true today. Go to a cemetery, study the graves, and tell me who were wise and who were fools. You cannot. The wise die and are buried just like the foolish. In the end, it does not matter what great things a person accomplishes because after death, he or she will not be able to enjoy them. After all, what is the point of being wise if it doesn’t change humanity’s ultimate problem: death?
Notice the Preacher’s admission in verse 17: all of this vanity made him hate life. How can this be true? How can a man of God hate the life that God has given him? First of all, I believe that this is a very godly hatred that is rising up in Solomon. Too often, Christians can hide under the mask of being blessed. A thought exists that following Jesus means that you need to be happy, so we put on a happy face and do our best. However, this is dishonest because there are plenty of things to hate. Zach Eswine says it like this:
We read the news. We bury our children. Murders, thefts, bribes, fists, weapons, sex, lies, and weather patterns are used to brutalize people. We watch the raping world. We hate that what God created good has become like a rusty-nailed playground no longer fit for kids at play and cutting the skin of those who try. We hate this. The wise cannot pretend that all is well. (87)
Of course, this is a godly hatred because it is a hatred that ultimately turns Solomon to God (vv. 24-26). We can contrast this with the destructive hatred of life in other godly men of the Bible. Elijah’s cry in cave for death was not a godly lament; it was self-pitying exhaustion. Jonah call for death came from his refusal to obey the will of God. Job’s plea for it all to end came from the fresh wound of unimaginable suffering. God reached out to each of these men with grace, but their hatred is different than Solomon’s. Our Preacher is not suicidal, just honest. He sees the brokenness of the world around him, and he can’t help hating it. “The wise cannot pretend that all is well.” Indeed, the gospel will never be truly beautiful to us until we understand just how messed up everything is.
THE VANITY OF WORK // VERSES 18-23
Still thinking about his death from the previous verses, Solomon says that he hated all of his work because after his death, it will be handed on to the next person. This is true for everything in life. We can work our entire lives and create a vast empire of our accomplishments, but we have no control of what the next person will do after we are dead. It has been several years since Steve Jobs died, but following his death, the world mourned. He created Apple, Inc. from the ground up. His ideas created some of the most significant leaps in technology, but despite the world’s mourning and his work, Apple is now in new hands. He no longer has any say in the company that he created. The Preacher calls this is vanity.
Solomon tells us that this thought makes his heart despair. The thought that someone will inherit all of his accomplishments, without the work that Solomon put into them, launches Solomon into a depression. Isn’t that interesting? Solomon sought pleasure, achieved pleasure, but now finds himself in depression (a.k.a. the opposite of a pleasurable state). In keeping with his theme of looking purely at earthly gain, the king of Israel says that he can find no point in working so hard. If there is no permanence in all of our toil, why should we bother? Years from now, we will not be remembered. I have no idea what my great, great, great grandfather’s name was, and we were probably only a few decades away from being able to meet face to face. So what hope do we have of being remembered hundreds or even thousands of years in the future? In terms of earthly gain, what point is there in the life that we live?
We also see that Solomon calls all of this “a great evil.” Over the course of the last several verses, Solomon has become increasingly bitter with life. Previously, he said that he hated life, and now he is filled with so much sorrow that even at “night his heart does not rest.” His hedonistic quest only gave him what he was trying his best to avoid: pain. And of course, as we read 1 Kings, we know that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, divided Israel into two kingdoms because of his foolishness. The Preacher’s concern indeed came to pass.
THE GIFT OF ENJOYMENT // VERSES 24-26
These verses are the first example of Solomon’s major thesis coming into play. After he has described the futility of pursuing hedonism and of leaving behind all earthly possessions, Solomon informs his audience the only source of true enjoyment: God. Now, notice that Solomon is not concluding that pleasure is inherently evil. No! Instead, he pleads that the only way to find lasting pleasure is through God’s grace. That’s the entire point of this chapter. Solomon looks at mankind and says, “I know you think that after you get _____, you’ll be happy. After you earn (or make or win, etc.) _____, then you will be content. Life will be good. But believe me, I’ve tried it all. Everything that you could possibly insert into the blank, I’ve tested. And it doesn’t work. In the end, the only way that you will ever be satisfied in life is by enjoying what God has given you.” We think that when we have more we will be happy, but Solomon’s call is for us to be content with the gifts that God has given and enjoy them to the best of our ability to the glory of God.
David Gibson says that “this is the main message of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell: life in God’s world is gift, not gain” (37). What does he mean by this? Our Preacher keeps emphasizing that there is nothing to be gained from life under the sun. Toil does not ultimately profit us. Pleasure has no lasting benefit. There is nothing advantageous to be gained in this life. Enjoyment is still possible, however, because enjoyment is a gift rather than a gain. Joy is not something to wrestle for during our nine-to-five; it is a grace that comes only from the hand of God. Remember, of course, that temporary enjoyment is quite easy to achieve. Solomon both sought and found pleasure (v. 10). He found a fleeting enjoyment rooted in happiness, while eternal enjoyment rooted in joy passed through his fingers like the wind. He missed true enjoyment and found only the cheap imitation.
But why does Solomon conclude that “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” If life here is worthy of being hated, why is enjoyment such a necessity (as we will see him continue to emphasize)? I believe it is the same reason for why Paul repeatedly tells us the rejoice in Philippians: knowing God gives us a hope that can only lead to joy. The apostle wrote Philippians from a prison cell, yet he proclaimed: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:18-20). Paul rejoiced in prison because he knew Christ. His earthly possessions could be stripped away, but his joy would continue because Christ could not be taken away. Even his life could be taken but he knew of Someone greater than his life.
The answer to life under the sun’s inability to satisfy us with pleasure is not give up on enjoying life. God alone gives true enjoyment. He alone gives, as Lewis describes, the “kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes” (The Last Battle, 212). God does not give a frivolous and silly enjoyment that is here one minute and gone the next. His joy is deep, real, true, and permanent. The enjoyment that comes from Him makes the pleasures of this world look like plastic toy cake being compared to a royal wedding cake. Lasting and real delight can only come through the One who is eternally delightful. Therefore, we can either seek God and find endless enjoyment or seek pleasure and find weary exhaustion.
Indeed, attempting to enjoy anyone or anything other than the LORD is sin. It is misplaced affection. He is the only one truly worthy of worship and adoration. Even my love for my wife and daughter must flow from my love for God. Only by loving God supremely can we truly love anyone or anything else. Why is this? God Himself defines love. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). Real love can only be known by looking at Jesus’ act of propitiation for our sins. What is propagation? It means the act of satisfying the wrath of God. This wrath comes from our refusal to worship God. We worship things that are supreme and glorious, but God is the most supreme and most glorious. Therefore, worship given to anything else is a lie. It is blasphemy. We proclaim that God is not great. And from offending this eternal God, we earn an eternal punishment. But thanks be to God, Christ, the Eternal One, paid that eternal debt with His own blood, satisfying the justice and wrath of God. That is propitiation, and that is the love of God, a love that bleeds for those who openly and blatantly mock Him. If His love truly cleanses our sins and gives eternal life, how much more will He also give enjoyment in the here and now! Our problem is that we shun God’s gift of Himself, seeking instead lesser things. As Lewis says in The Weight of Glory:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (26)
Solomon’s pursuit of joy was not too strong but too weak. When we chase lesser things, the reward is a lesser joy, a lesser pleasure, and a lesser fulfillment. God alone is big enough. God alone is great enough. God alone is glorious enough. God alone is loving enough. God alone is beautiful enough to provide lasting joy, meaning, pleasure, and satisfaction. Nothing else will do. Indeed, nothing else can do. Everything outside of Him is vanity and a striving after wind.