Exegesis on Ecclesiastes – Chapter 2
The task of elaborating on the second chapter of Ecclesiastes is not to be taken lightly. The perfection of Solomon’s words are revealed in the fact that God chose to use him as a trumpet many times. The book of Ecclesiastes both autobiographical and proverbial. Since Solomon had the means to accomplish any desire, he was able to sample anything humanity could wish. He was able to sin against God with all the depravity of his heart. He says “my mind still guiding me with wisdom” in verse three meaning that throughout the entire process he maintained his wisdom. Thus, he was able to analyze, better than any man, the extent of his depravity, and the extent to which it is all “vanity” and madness. He even reasoned with himself “how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life” at the end of the same verse. Unfortunately, his search was fruitless. In the final chapter of the book, he concludes that to “fear God and keep His commandments” is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
An exegesis of the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, in which Solomon continues the process of laying down a foundation for the rest of the book (Copeland 5), must include certain elements if it is to be complete. The first purpose, as Gorman says in his book Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers, is to answer “What great theological question does the text engage” (10). To do this one must examine the intended area of study using the three dimensions of exegesis: recovering the text; from text to context; and, theology renewed, revisioned and implemented. All three will be accomplished in the following narrative.
The author of the book is not precisely known to be Solomon because the author only calls himself “the Preacher” (1:1). However, he gives several clues to his identity throughout the book that make it difficult to refute that the author is indeed Solomon. He talks of his wisdom, wealth and power as exceeding any who had come before him in Jerusalem (2:8 and 2:9). He also identifies himself as a son of King David in (1:1) and the king of Jerusalem in the same verse. With these evidences, it easy to pinpoint the book as that of king Solomon (Copeland 3).
The author uses the second chapter to continue talking about how he proceeded with his experiment. The second chapter can be broken down into four distinct parts: “vanity of striving after pleasure; vanity of great accomplishments; vanity of hard labor; and, a conclusion” (Padfield 1). In each of the first three sections the Preacher discusses what he did to arrive at the conclusion of vanity in those pursuits. At the conclusion of the chapter, he offers a preview of his concluding statements in chapter 12. Therefore the chapter is properly sectioned into verses 1-3, 4-17, 18-23, and 24-26 (Padfield 1). Some break the chapter down into different divisions, but using these four is an easy way to look at the book in sections first.
The answer to the question of theme must come first though because that sets the tone of the book. J. Vernon McGee, a renowned scholar and teacher, says that the theme is the obvious. He says of Solomon “his conclusion was, “All is vanity” (McGee). Another researcher, Roy Zuck, says that many have come to a similar conclusion in that they believe Solomon says that “life is pointless, totally absurd.” Charles Welch looks at the theme from many different angles and from scripture throughout the Bible and comes to a similar conclusion for the second chapter, and the whole book, but words it a different way. He says that “Here, it will be observed, the vanity of man is seen in the one great fact that stands at the end of his career -DEATH. Death writes vanity over the whole creation of man. His labours are spent in accumulating that which some unknown person shall use” (Welch 9). Thus, the overriding theme of the chapter (the same as the rest of the book) is that all is vanity because death awaits every man regardless their accomplishments, and honoring and obeying God is the only way that man can hope to have any reward for all of his labor.
So the task now is to examine the chapter in detail with a view toward the theme and the divisions that make up the chapter. It must be noted that the arrangement of the sections was not random. Solomon tried all that could be done with human strength. First he observed pleasure, next he tried to satisfy himself with his own accomplishments and ability to gather, then he worked with his own hands rather than rely on the work of others. When he had finished all that he could do, he rendered a conclusion to the matter of all that any human could possibly do of himself.
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ 3I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine — my mind still guiding me with wisdom — and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”
(Ecclesiates 2: 1-3, NRSV).
The pleasure that he seeks is not necessarily of the moment because he wants to see all that might be pleasurable “for mortals to doâ€¦during the few days of their life.” he makes a point here to open the chapter with the thought of death. A cursory examination of the text shows that Solomon is thinking about what he can do to make himself laugh and be merry. but, he is already making an allusion to the “few days” that people have to live. This preoccupation with death follows Solomon throughout the entire book because he, from the first, realizes that it weighs, like the sword of Damocles, over the head of every human.
In these introductory verses to the chapter is first going to “make a test of pleasure.” Welch (13) says that the word “test” is mostly rendered as “tempt.” This can mean one of two things. The author is going to tempt himself with all of the goodies that offer themselves in the life of a human, or he is going to tempt God because he realizes that what he is doing is against the will of God for his, Solomon’s, life (Welch 13). Why would the author want to tempt God? Solomon had an early contract with God. He had been given the choice as to what he wanted to fulfill himself (wealth or power) but he chose the wisdom needed to properly lead his people, and God rewarded him with both exceeding wealth and power as well as fame. but, Solomon was possibly bored with all that he was able to do, so he made an experiment. He understood from the beginning that what he was doing went against what God purposed, but he was allowed to make the experiment by God to show the futility of his actions to him and to the remainder of humanity which could benefit from Solomon’s words. Solomon “sought contentment” (Stedman), but all he found was madness and uselessness.
The third verse in this portion of the second chapter is especially interesting. Solomon tries to “cheer his body with wine” and “how to lay hold on folly.” He was a very wise man who knew what he was doing. He knew that his search would be futile, but he decided to conduct the experiment anyway. He wanted to “test” God and see if all that He said was true. The test was, what can people do to distract themselves during the time that they have on Earth? Or rather, is there anything that is profitable in all of the pleasures that man has available to himself? Solomon even tried to alter reality by cheering his body with alcohol. Even this bit of pleasure was seen as temporary.
The application of these first three verses is in the test and in the result of the test. Every day people, who know of the edicts of God, seek pleasure in other things than God. Whether that be comedy, acts that could be considered folly (the recent trend toward extreme sports comes to mind), or by using mind altering substances, all is vanity apart from God in the end.
“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.*
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I
kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind,* and there was nothing to be gained under the sun”
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14 the wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15 Then I said to myself, ‘What
happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’
And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16 for there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? 17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.* (Ecclesiastes 2: 4-17, NRSV).
This is the longest section of the chapter, during which Solomon seeks to see what he can accomplish and try to find satisfaction ion that. Throughout the entire book, Solomon is trying to find satisfaction in something other than God. Since wisdom did not work in chapter one, and pleasure did not work at the beginning of chapter two. He is now trying for something more noble. Solomon has come to realize that maybe he was trying to go about it in the wrong way. He was trying to please himself. It was not at the expense of others necessarily (at least the book never gives that impression), but he does not try to leave a lasting legacy of good either. So, his experiment takes a new turn. He decides that instead of just temporary pleasure, he should invest in things that stand the test of time.
He builds houses, parks, and pools. He hires singers, fills his house with male and female slaves to cater to his every wish and concubines for “the delights of the flesh.” However, there is one interesting word he keeps using through all of this first section “myself.” Solomon is making these things for himself. He is trying to satisfy his own selfish urges through the acquiring of things.
At the beginning of verse 12 he again says that “y wisdom remained with me.” It is an interesting thing to note. It seems that he is saying that God allowed him to proceed with his folly. Without his wisdom he would be lacking two things. He would not be able to see all that there is that is available for man “under the sun,” and he would not be able to analyze it with any amount of understanding. God allows Solomon to test the waters, as it were, because God knows the outcome of all of the folly that Solomon will undergo. God also has a greater purpose for the Solomon’s experiment. God knows also that the book of Ecclesiastes will be written and that the folly of Solomon can be a benefit to the rest of humanity. For these reasons, Solomon is allowed to retain his wisdom throughout the entire trial (Rainey 155b).
This is important because toward the end if this section Solomon will “consider wisdom and madness and folly” (2:12). He starts to look at all that he has done in the light of permanence. He sees first that wisdom is superior to folly “as light is to darkness.” Here he is again using the symbolism that is common throughout the Bible. Of course, people prefer light, on a practical level, since it is easier to see, and more difficult for things that may harm to hide. But on a spiritual level (between God and a man), he is also making a statement. In many other places in the Bible is a statement similar to man preferring darkness to light in a spiritual sense. People are able to conduct their sinful acts much easier away from the holy eyes of God (of course God sees all), but they are exposed when they are in the light. Solomon is making the statement that the light is preferable to the darkness, both temporally and spiritually, and wisdom is preferable to folly. This alludes to the fact that God is wisdom and light, while Satan is darkness and folly. This statement points toward his eventual conclusion in Ecclesiastes12:13. He realizes that anything apart from God is folly (that is apart from light and wisdom), and is not to be desired (McGee).
He comes to this realization, but he also realizes that earthly wisdom (some would call it intelligence (McGee)) does not avail a person to any greater preference from God. The fool and the wise will both die the same death. They cannot escape from it no matter how wise they have been throughout their lives. God does not honor earthly wisdom in this matter and more than He disdains folly. Solomon then sees that even this is a vanity (Constable).
Because he has come to this realization, at the end of this section he hates his life. This does not mean that he sought to take his life, but he probably did go through a period of intense depression. Solomon identified with the fact that he was wise. Since God had given him this as a special favor, Solomon was proud of it. Now, he realizes that even he, the wisest man that will ever live, does not get any special dispensation from God in the end. Meaning, long life here in Earth does not follow wisdom. He will die and be forgotten just the same as the basest of fools. All of his pride in what he believes himself to be is shaken. A modern example could be the people who based their entire existence on their wealth prior to the stock market collapse of 1929, and jumped out of windows because all that they had accumulated was lost.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 for all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2: 18-23, NRSV).
This section is a continuation of the first two sections of the chapter and the last part of chapter one, in part, but it is also a new section because he is talking specifically about the vanity of toil (Padfield 1). Here he comes back to the specter that has haunted him from the beginning — death (Welch). He realizes that he may have built all of this for his own pleasure, from the wealth and wisdom he has accumulated, but those who come after him will be able to enjoy it without the toil. Thus, he hates what he has done. Not necessarily the objects themselves, but the fact that he wasted time doing them. He has still not come to the realization that he will at the end of the book, but he is starting to see that there is fruit in only one thing. Also, this is a foreshadowing of grace. God does not require us to work for our salvation. If we had to put in any amount of effort to gain salvation, then it would not be from God, but from us. The reality is that all human efforts to attain anything are vanity because God has given all that anyone needs through His free gift. It is amazing that Christ is shown in every part of the Bible, even when Solomon is supposedly giving a lesson on the vanity of toil.
He goes on to relate that pain, vexation and sleepless nights are the reward for earthly toil. There is no rest for the person who seeks to do selfish work while they are on earth. God resists the proud, meaning people who believe that they can do anything outside of His leading. This pessimistic view from Solomon comes from his pride in the wisdom and accomplishments that he believes are is. However, God reminds him that all he has accomplished is nothing if he did it for Solomon and not for God. Since Solomon makes it clear in this chapter and throughout the book that he is doing all for himself, his reward is pain, vexation and sleepless nights.
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25 for apart from him* who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 for to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2: 24-26, NRSV).
Solomon is beginning to understand what his wisdom has gotten him, and what he can actually reward himself with while he is here on Earth. He sees that apart from God there is nothing good. When Adam fell, he was tasked with laboring to acquire his food with toil. Adam, and every man since, could have bemoaned this point and found pain and nothing else in the work. or, that person can realize that God gives meat and drink, and God also gives the toil. There is joy in the toil if it put into the right perspective (Copeland). However, if the toil is done for selfish means, then it is “grasping after the wind.”
Solomon likes to use phrases that are easy to understand and can be applied to the subject simply. He has used certain words and phrases multiple times — vanity, under the sun, grasping after the wind — because they can be easily discerned. His audience, whether Jew or Greek, will understand exactly what he means. He is separating the things of God from the things of men. He calls all of man’s selfish efforts vanity. Solomon says that these “under the sun efforts” only cause pain in the end because they are done without God. He also says that anything that humans do apart from God is the same as grasping after the wind. People are continually trying to build the Tower of Babel. A tower to God, made by human hands, is an impossibility. God confounded the original builders of this monument to man’s ingenuity because they thought they could accomplish something apart from God above the temporal realm. These people were confounded and so is the one who tries to construct the tower in their own lives in the present time. This is what Solomon meant by a “grasping after the wind.” It would be easier to capture the wind than it would be for a person to actually build the tower by themselves. Only God can build the bridge between Himself and man.
The second chapter of Ecclesiastes is much like the rest of the Bible in that it points to one simple truth. Humans have a temporal existence that is a vapor. During this time, anything that man tries to accomplish out of selfish motives (that means any motive other than a holy one) is bound to fail. Others may enjoy the fruits of earthly labor that is apart from the honoring of God, but the builder will not.
Constable, Thomas L. Notes on Ecclesiastes. Plano, TX: Sonic Light, 2010. Web.
Copeland, Mark. “The Book of Ecclesiastes.” Executable Outlines, 2001. Web.
Gorman, Michael. Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009. Print.
McGee, J. Vernon. “Ecclesiastes Song of Solomon.” Through the Bible, 2005. Print.
NRSV. “Ecclesiastes 2.” New Revised Standard Version, 1989. Print.
Padfield, David. “Ecclesiastes: Life at a Crossroads.” 2005. Web.
Rainey, Anson F. “A Study of Ecclesiastes.” Concordia Theological Monthly 35 (1964):
Stedman, Ray. “Life in the Fast Lane.” Things that don’t Work: Ecclesiastes, 1982. Web.
Welch, Charles W. Ecclesiastes. London: The Berean Publishing Trust, 1994. Web.
Zuck, Roy B. “God and Man in Ecclesiastes.” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148 (1991): 46-56.
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