Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

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Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

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The Right Perspective (Part 2)

Having sunk to the depths of despair, a light at last dawned in Solomon’s thinking in this conclusion to the book’s first major section. He had been striving of his own accord to essentially force meaning and happiness from life. But it does not work that way. Rather, Solomon at last comes to see that we must embrace the enjoyment in everyday life, realizing that it is from the hand of God (verse 24).

This includes the labor that Solomon had come to despise. Some imagine that in the paradise of Eden Adam and Eve strolled about with nothing to do. But God gave them the major work of subduing the earth and tending the vast garden (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 2:15). God Himself works, and He’s given human beings work to do also. “Unfortunately, because of Adam’s sin our work has been cursed, which turns our labor into toil and trouble. But there is still a basic goodness about work that comes from our Creator. We were made in the image of a working God, and thus we have the capacity to find his pleasure in work itself, even apart from anything that we gain by working…. The way to experience this pleasure is to work for God and not simply for ourselves” (Preaching the Word commentary, Ryken, p. 73; see 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:23).

The statement in Ecclesiastes 2:24 about eating and drinking and enjoying good in our labor is the first of similar refrains in Ecclesiastes. As mentioned in our introduction to the book, some take these out of context as advocating a life of mere pleasure seeking. But the proper context reveals a God-centered focus. Indeed, the very fact of accepting good things in life as coming from God implies a life of faith in His providence and abiding care. Moreover, verse 26 makes clear that God’s gifts are ultimately intended for those classed as good and not for sinners. We will consider this further momentarily.

Before that, let’s look at two textual difficulties here—one in verse 24 and one in verse 25. The wording of verse 24 in most versions does not represent the actual Hebrew here. The New King James Version, for instance, has “Nothing is better for a man than that he should…” The word rendered “better” is towb or tov, which simply means “good.” This could have the comparative sense of “better” if paired with a short preposition that would mean “than” in context. Yet that word is not present. Note that “than” is in italics in the NKJV, indicating it is assumed. Most scholars believe that the word must have originally been part of the Hebrew text but has dropped out at some point—noting that other instances of the refrain in Ecclesiastes 3:12 and Ecclesiastes 8:15 do show a comparison.

“But,” as Dr. Walter Kaiser points out, “no evidence supports that assumption, even though the translators of most English versions adopted it. They reasoned that the point of Qoheleth [the Preacher] is that nothing is left for mankind but to try calmly to enjoy the present…[—that] the best that man can do is to get some physical pleasure out of life while he can” (p. 45). Again, though, that is based on an assumed reading, not the actual one. The structure of the other refrain verses is worth considering but not determinative. After all, the various occurrences of the refrain do not have the same wording anyway. Nor do they make exactly the same point. Moreover, the phrase “for a man” in Ecclesiastes 2:24 should actually be “in man” (as the preposition here is the Hebrew be, not le as in Ecclesiastes 6:12 and Ecclesiastes 8:15).

So, rather than assume missing and altered text in Ecclesiastes 2:24, we should consider whether the wording here makes sense as it is. A more literal rendering would be, “There is nothing good in man that he should eat and drink and cause his soul to see good in his labor.” Young’s Literal Translation has: “There is nothing good in a man who eateth, and hath drunk, and hath shewn his soul good in his labour.” The Holman Old Testament Commentary expresses the wording as follows: “‘There is nothing in man to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good.’ Or we could say it this way, ‘There is not a good {inherent} in man’ (Kaiser, 44-45). This is a powerful statement that we humans can’t create anything good on our own. We are dependent on God for any lasting goodness or fulfillment” (Moore, note on Ecclesiastes 2:18-26). Kaiser elaborates: “Thus we must conclude that even the most mundane and earthly things of life do not lie within man’s grasp to donate to himself. The source of all good, contrary to the expectations of most systems of humanism and idealism, cannot be located in man. ‘He doesn’t have it,’ as the saying goes. It is all beyond him. Rather, it must come from God. Man must get accustomed to realizing that if he is to receive satisfaction from his food and drink, that satisfaction, like all satisfaction, will have to come from the hand of God” (p. 45).

The wording of verse 25 is also disputed. The NKJV has: “For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?” The difficulty here lies in the words “more than I?” First of all, the Hebrew here (khuts mimmenni) is generally understood to literally read “outside me,” “apart from me” or “without me.” In context, it seems odd to many that Solomon would be saying, “For…who can have enjoyment outside me?”—that is, he alone or those joined to him. It is conceivable that the meaning is “beyond me” (thus the “more than I” in the NKJV)—though this would be unusual. If this is the meaning of the verse, then it would seem Solomon is declaring himself the person best suited to analyzing the matter.

Secondly, however, most scholars believe the phrase in question should be rendered not “without me” but “without Him” or “apart from Him” (see, e.g., NIV, BBE), referring to God. They point to this rendering in the Greek Septuagint and several medieval Hebrew manuscripts that have mimmennu instead of mimmenni. The NET Bible notes: “The textual deviation is a case of simple orthographic confusion between י) yod [or yud]) and ו) vav [or waw]) as frequently happened” (note 115 on Ecclesiastes 2)—the idea being that a scribe did not extend the vav down far enough so that it looked like a yod. However, scholar Mitchell Dahood “believes that a 3rd person singular suffix –i exists in Hebrew, and that [even] without emendation the meaning is ‘without Him’ (PBQ, p. 269; Psalms, vol. 3 (1970), p. 375)” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Eaton, footnote on Ecclesiastes 2:25). This translation—saying that we can’t have real enjoyment apart from God—seems to best fit the context, especially if the meaning of verse 24 is that man cannot experience true enjoyment of himself. Note also the beginning of verse 26: “For God gives…” The italics in the NKJV means that the word for “God” is not actually in the original text here. More precise would be: “For He gives…” This follows well if God is the subject of verse 25.

The proper perspective here is realizing our total dependence on God—not just for gifts to enjoy but the ability to truly enjoy them and be content. The same idea is expressed in the conclusion of the next section of the book, which states that God gives people the power to enjoy what He gives (see Ecclesiastes 5:19).

Implied in all this is a relationship with God, which becomes more explicit in Ecclesiastes 2:26. As noted earlier, this verse makes clear that God’s gifts are intended for those who are good in His sight. A broader scriptural overview reveals that these are the upright—people who follow God’s ways (in line with the directive given at the end of Ecclesiastes). And the whole Bible also reveals that any goodness in man is not his own but is from God. Those who are upright are so because God has redeemed them and empowered them to obey Him. If they persist in His ways, He blesses them yet further. It is stated here that He rewards them with wisdom and knowledge and joy. This is different from Solomon’s earlier statement about human beings searching out wisdom being a burdensome task given to them by God (Ecclesiastes 1:13). That referred to human learning by experimentation, observation and learning lessons the hard way. In the present statement of Ecclesiastes 2:26 Solomon is referring to the blessing of learning from God His wisdom and truth, including how to live—and how to be happy.

Solomon the Preacher is advocating “the life of faith, which does not understand everything (see ch[apter] 3) but looks for the hand of God in the events of daily life. A useful parallel is 1 Timothy 6:6-19, with its reminder that we are to be content with food and clothing, realizing that God gives us richly everything to enjoy. The walk with God means that we can ask for his wisdom to use life rightly and his knowledge to understand such of his ways as he may disclose to us, and thus experience the joy of fulfillment despite life’s difficulties (v. 26; cf. Matthew 25:21; Romans 12:2; Hebrews 12:2; James 1:5; James 3:13-18)” (Expositor’s, note on Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).

Solomon follows in verse 26 with a warning against living contrary to God as a sinner—the first time he addresses this matter, but it becomes an important theme through the rest of the book. This should dispel the notion that the message of the book is that we should cast off moral restraints and hedonistically pursue whatever we want. Unlike that of the righteous, the sinner’s burden of trying to find fulfillment in life is unrelieved. Moreover, any apparent success of the wicked is only temporary—as all they gather and collect will ultimately go to the righteous. We see this elsewhere from Solomon in Proverbs 13:22: “…But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (compare Proverbs 28:8; Job 27:16-17). This is sometimes the outcome in life today. But the ultimate view here is of the future Kingdom of God—when all will be set right. Far from a morose vision limited to the inequities of the present, Ecclesiastes in several places looks forward to the time when right will prevail. This, again, is a position of faith—trusting in God’s promises of what is to come. It answers the dilemma of leaving one’s possessions and achievements to others because of death in Ecclesiastes 2:18-21. The righteous will ultimately be resurrected and inherit all things—far beyond anything they gathered in this life.

Some think that the last sentence of Ecclesiastes 2:26, “This also is vanity and grasping for the wind,” refers both to God’s gifts to the righteous and to the task He has given sinners—as some hopeless comment on the arbitrariness of what God gives people. But there is no arbitrariness here at all. The righteous are rewarded and sinners must relinquish what they have to the righteous. This is not vanity but perfectly just. There is clear value in serving God. The conclusion of vanity and grasping for the wind here refers only to the plight of the wicked. They strive and strive in heaping up acquisitions to themselves but all for naught—as it’s ultimately going to someone else. The words “This also” here “may be translated ‘This indeed’ (for the Hebrew gam may be used for emphasis as well as for addition” (Tyndale, note on verse 26). That is, after having called other things vanity and grasping for the wind, Solomon says of the striving of the wicked, “This indeed is vanity and grasping for the wind.”