Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11

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Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11

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Intellectualism, Hedonism and Materialism

Solomon now turns in this second subsection of the first major section to his own experience in grappling with the vanity of this life. His position as a great king to whom God had given greater wisdom   than anyone else (Ecclesiastes 1:12, Ecclesiastes 1:16) made him uniquely suited to explore the issue. Still, he found the study a great burden (verse 13) and deemed everything in this life to be, as stated in verse 14, vanity and “grasping for the wind.” This latter expression occurs in the Bible only in Ecclesiastes—here found nine times, seven times in conjunction with “vanity.” The ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes on verse 14 that this “recalls the words of [the early Sumerian epic] Gilgamesh: ‘Only the gods {live} forever under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but the wind’ (ANET, 79).”

In verse 15—a proverb—the statement “What is crooked cannot be made straight” does not mean that no problems can ever be straightened out today. The reference is to “all the works that are done under the sun” (verse 14)—the totality of the human experience. Thus, “no amount of investigating or using the resources of earth will ever straighten out all that is crooked, twisted, perverted, or turned upside down” (NKJV Study Bible, note on verse 15). Indeed, God has subjected the world to adversity because of man’s wrong choices, and His will cannot be contravened (compare Ecclesiastes 7:13). The second line of Ecclesiastes 1:15, “And what is lacking cannot be numbered,” means either that missing elements in the puzzle cannot be taken into account in trying to solve it (because you don’t know what you don’t know) or that the deficiency of elements essential to a solution is too vast to comprehend.

Solomon sets out to know wisdom and the contrary approach of madness and folly (verse 17). This exploration, introduced here, is reflected on further in Ecclesiastes 2:12-17. As with other pursuits, it proves futile. In the proverb of Ecclesiastes 1:18, Solomon confesses that wisdom and knowledge, despite their advantages, bring pain and grief. Consider that the more we learn about the world, the worse we realize its condition to be. As the Preaching the Word commentary notes: “Children often wish they knew more about some of the things their parents talk about. Eventually we get older and supposedly wiser, but by then we wish we could go back to the innocence of childhood…. This is why people say that ignorance is bliss. The more we know about things, the more trouble it brings” (Ryken, p. 43). Also, it is often recognized that the more we know, the more aware we are of how much we don’t know. It’s utterly frustrating. The answers to the big questions of life elude even the brightest minds.

The same commentary says: “If it all sounds hopeless, this means the writer is achieving his purpose. Remember that he is showing us the world from an earthly perspective—‘the best thinking that man can do on his own’” (p. 43, the ending quote taken from Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, THE BIBLE SPEAKS TODAY series, 1976, p. 31).

A problem for us in reading Solomon’s discussion of wisdom here is that we immediately think of ultimate godly wisdom as found in God’s Word—“the wisdom that is from above” (James 3:17). But Solomon had a vast store of earthly wisdom and knowledge to draw from in considering man’s condition. As author Tommy Nelson states: “Now the wisdom Solomon is talking about in context is not the wisdom of God and His word; it is wisdom derived from exploring human knowledge—philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, history, logic, and rhetoric—the best ideas that man has invented or discovered. But in the end, all an educated man can do is die an educated failure. All the learning in the world won’t help you change the human heart” (A Life Well Lived: A Study of the Book of Ecclesiastes, 2005, p. 24).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes in its introduction to Ecclesiastes that “the book is not against serious thinking; it is itself a deep and thoughtful work. But it demands a recognition of the limitations of human philosophy (e.g., Ecclesiastes 3:11; Ecclesiastes 8:16-17).”

Certainly Solomon does at length turn to godly wisdom in instructing us to fear God, obey Him and receive His blessings in routine living. Yet why didn’t he realize that to start with? After all, Solomon grew up with the truth under the tutelage of his father David. He did not start with a godless mindset. Indeed, God gave him increased wisdom and understanding. But godly knowledge and wisdom are not enough for rationalizing life’s problems and coping well with them. We need God’s direct intervention in our hearts and minds and in our circumstances. Even with the spiritual perspective we may have now, it is not easy to endure the difficulties of life—and we can’t understand all the reasons behind what we and other human beings have to go through. Sometimes we may throw up our hands and ask what is the point of this present life. Yet over time we come to trust more deeply in God’s guidance and care even though we don’t know all the answers.

Moreover, in Solomon’s case it seems likely that he had already begun his drift away from God when he was pondering these issues. So he likely had to relearn some spiritual lessons. In any case, Solomon’s wisdom and knowledge carried him only so far. Hard questions and circumstances remained unresolved, and he initially tried to tackle these intellectually. Equipped though he was, however, the effort proved ultimately fruitless.

In the king’s investigation of “madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 1:17), he plunges into the pursuit of mirth and pleasure, which he labels “madness” and “folly” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3). Life at Solomon’s court was an ongoing party. Dr. Walter Kaiser comments: “With what hilarity and laughter must the palace halls have echoed as Solomon, his courtiers, and his guests exchanged jokes, drank wine, listened to the witty merrymakers from all over the region, and feasted bountifully each day on ‘thirty measures of fine flour, sixty measures of meal, ten fat oxen, twenty oxen from the pastures, one hundred sheep, in addition to harts, roebucks, fallowdeer and fattened fowl’ (1 Kings 4:22-23)! Some estimates suggest that it would take thirty or forty thousand people to consume that much food each day. No wonder 1 Kings 4:20 says, ‘Judah and Israel were as many as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry.’ The whole plan was to sample mirth, pleasure, wine and folly until he could determine what was ‘good’ for the sons of man” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, pp. 55-56).

Solomon sought sensual gratification while, he says, “guiding my heart with wisdom.” This is surprising, for the extent of the king’s hedonistic exercise seems to have been rather foolish—indeed we know from other scriptural reports about him that he overindulged in more than food and wine. How does he maintain that there was any wisdom guiding his heart? What seems to be implied is that Solomon never wholly abandoned himself to mindless dissipation. Rather, as he experimented with various pleasures he was always thinking them over—considering their worth in making life better and in fulfilling man’s longings. Again, we should realize that the wisdom Solomon speaks of here is not ultimate godly wisdom, but rather the height of human reason employed in examining life’s opportunities. Solomon came to recognize that living for the sake of pleasure is pointless. It involves a degree of madness in trying to escape the real world with its problems—for after one has his period of fun, the problems are still there. And depending on one’s choice of amusements, his own problems could be magnified.

Consider, however, that at the conclusion of this section in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 Solomon will advocate finding enjoyment in life. Yet, as he will make clear—especially in the book’s overall conclusion—this comes in the context of a right relationship with God, experiencing His blessings within proper boundaries as part of a life committed to Him. We will never find fulfillment in pursuing enjoyment for its own sake. True joy and happiness is the byproduct of a life properly devoted to God.

Solomon next moves on to material pursuits—accomplishments and amassing wealth and luxuries (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He says the great building projects and acquisitions here were for himself—using the word “myself” six times in this section (verses 4-8). So this was just a different way of pursuing personal pleasure (verse 10).

In verse 8, the New King James Version has “the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds”—this particular “and” being interpolated, as it’s not present in the actual Hebrew. This translation, close to the earlier King James rendering, follows a traditional Jewish interpretation, but the Hebrew words rendered “musical instruments” (shiddah weshiddoth), used nowhere else in the Old Testament, are actually a matter of dispute. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes on verse 8 that “the Greek tradition (the Septuagint, Aquila, and Theodotion) all translate the underlying Hebrew word with terms suggesting something to do with drinking cups and/or cup-bearers.” Yet the same study Bible also explains the ESV translation of “concubines,” just as other versions translate the phrase as “concubine and concubines” (Green’s Literal Translation), “a wife and very many wives” (MKJV) or “a harem” (NIV). Expositor’s says of shiddah and its plural form shiddoth: “A Canaanite word of similar form is used to translate the Egyptian word for ‘concubine’ in a letter of [Pharaoh] Amenophis III” (footnote on verse 8). And shiddah may be derived from the Hebrew root shad, meaning “breast.” Those who see Solomon’s harem in mind here leave out the interpolated “and,” taking the concubines to be among the delights of the sons of men. A few other translations have been proposed, but in any case we know from 1 Kings 11:3 that a vast number of women (700 wives and 300 concubines) were certainly included in Solomon’s statement in Ecclesiastes 2:10: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold from my heart any pleasure.”

Solomon’s statement in verse 9 that his wisdom remained with him does not mean he was acting wisely. It could mean that he always retained wisdom in his head despite what he did—that is, he always  knew better. Or the statement may have the same sense as that about guiding his heart with wisdom in verse 3, referring to him always evaluating his worldly pursuits and gains, considering whether or not they brought fulfillment. As he acknowledges in verse 11, they did not—being vanity and grasping for the wind and not containing the profit or benefit sought at the outset of the book (Ecclesiastes 1:3). All that money can afford does not buy happiness. Solomon’s mention in Ecclesiastes 2:9 of being the greatest and wealthiest is important in this regard. As David Moore writes in the Holman Old Testament Commentary: “If the most powerful and wealthy man in the world could not find happiness in possessions apart from God, then the futility of pursuing such things becomes evident for the rest of us. This lesson is similar to what Solomon learned about being the wisest man in the world (…Ecclesiastes 1:12-13, Ecclesiastes 1:18)” (Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Max Anders, ed., note on Ecclesiastes 2:9).

In many ways, people in affluent societies today live in better conditions than Solomon did—and in the midst of rampant godlessness. The apostle Paul prophesied of this time “when people would be ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’ (2 Timothy 3:4). Everything is offered to us. Nothing is unavailable. So are we satisfied, or do we still want more? Gregg Easterbrook…in his book The Progress Paradox, which is subtitled How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse…proves that we have more of almost everything today . . . except happiness. In fact, the more we have, the unhappier we are, because we know we will never be able to get all the new things that we want” (PTW, p. 51).

It is not wrong to enjoy the physical blessings God provides or engage in lawful material pursuits, but these must not become the focus of our lives. Moreover, we must live life to God’s glory, not our own. The Holman commentary quoted above offers sage counsel from Renaissance author Thomas à Kempis: “Let temporal things be used, but things eternal desired. You cannot be satisfied with any temporal good, because you were not created to enjoy these alone. Although you should possess all created good, yet you could not be happy therewith nor blessed; but in God, who created all things, consists your whole blessedness.” We must have the right foundation and parameters, trusting in God’s promises.

Indeed, as the Preaching the Word commentary points out: “If we were able to find lasting satisfaction in earthly pleasure, then we would never recognize our need for God. But satisfaction does not come in the pleasures themselves; it comes separately. Satisfaction only comes in God himself, so that our dissatisfaction may teach us to turn to him…. God is not a spoilsport. He is not trying to take pleasure away from us but to give it to us. Once we learn how to find our satisfaction in God himself, then all his other gifts become the best and truest pleasures” (p. 52, 54).