The Frustration of Death (Part 1)
In Ecclesiastes 1:17, Solomon said, “I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.” Now, at the beginning of the last subsection of the first major section, he says, “I turned my heart to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 2:12)—literally, to “see” or “behold” these (Green’s Literal Translation). In this latter case, he is reflecting on what his search has revealed. The second part of verse 12 seems to mean that no one is going to come along with some great new investigation of the matter that might overturn Solomon’s conclusions—for he has seen and done it all.
So what has Solomon come to see? First, that wisdom is better—or more profitable—than folly (verse 13). A wise man can see where he’s going and what he’s doing, making sense of life choices, while the thoughtless fool can’t figure anything out, suffering more because of it (see verse 14). A thinking person can see that certain ways of living have advantages over others. It’s better to tell the truth than get caught up in lies. “And it’s better to work hard than to be lazy. Would anyone doubt that? It’s better to be faithful to your mate than to bring catastrophe to your home. So it’s best in life to live wisely and morally” (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, p. 33). Thus there is in wisdom a certain profit, as sought at the book’s outset (Ecclesiastes 1:3).
Second, however, wisdom is limited. It will not shield us from what is inevitable for everyone— death, the great equalizer. “Sooner or later everyone comes to the same shocking realization: One day I am going to die; my heart will beat one last time, my lungs will exhale one final breath, and that will be the end of my days on this earth” (Preaching the Word commentary, Ryken, p. 63). Whether wise or fool, all will die and, as time passes, be forgotten (verses 14-16; compare Ecclesiastes 1:11). The Holman Old Testament Commentary notes: “If it is true that death will overtake both the fool and the wise, what is the point of trying so hard to be good? This question occurs to many ‘good people’ who quit trying to be good and decide to go wild by engaging in reckless and destructive behavior. Others pride themselves on continuing to be ‘good’ and conclude erroneously that dependence on God is not necessary [or they hold to it only superficially]. The reality of death arrests both these types of ‘good people’ from thinking that their own efforts will bring them lasting fulfillment apart from God” and His redemption (Moore, note on Ecclesiastes 2:15).
With the stark awareness that his grand quest for wisdom was, just as the waywardness of fools, vanity and grasping for the wind, Solomon came to hate this life. It was distressing to him, for there was no escaping this realization (verse 17).
And what of his great accomplishments and acquisitions? He came to hate these too because it all seemed pointless. Death would force him to pass these on to others (verse 18). Solomon finds no satisfaction in bequeathing a legacy, for there is no way of knowing whether the legacy—intended to carry on the memory of his great deeds—will be perpetuated or squandered (verse 19). But more fundamentally, he finds it frustrating that a person who works so hard for something cannot continue enjoying it but must pass it on to others who have not worked for it at all (verse 21).
Not only did Solomon’s impressive intellect, vast wealth and great works not lead him to happiness. They actually led him to despair (verse 20)—to days of sorrow and fretful nights (verse 23). Solomon’s description of sinking into hopelessness and depression pulls the reader down with him. In verse 22 he essentially repeats his opening question of Ecclesiastes 1:3—what gain is there for all man’s efforts under the sun? All seems so utterly pointless. Only now, at this lowest, bleakest point, is he ready to begin presenting the solution to this dark and seemingly unsolvable dilemma.