The Preacher is exploring the meaning of life. He has already experimented with two avenues of discovery: wisdom (Ecc. 1:12-18) and pleasure (Ecc. 2:1-11). After coming to the conclusion that neither offered him a deep fulfilling sense of purpose and satisfaction, the Preacher returns to wisdom for a comparison between wisdom and folly. From there, he will consider the vanity of toil. Then, finally, he will come to the solution at the end of the argument (Ecc. 2:24-26).
Ecclesiastes 2:12–26 ESV
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly writes:
If we are honest, we must admit that one aspect of the ceaseless upgrades and eternal becoming of the Technium is to make holes in our heart. One day, not too long ago, we (all of us) decided we cannot live another day unless we have a smart phone; a dozen years earlier this need would have dumbfounded us. Now we get angry if the network is slow. But before, when we were innocent, we had no thoughts of the network at all.
We keep inventing new things that make new longings, new holes that must be filled. Some people are furious that our hearts are pierced this way by the things we make. They see this ever-neediness as a debasement, a lowering of human nobility, the source of our continual discontentment. I agree that technology is the source. The momentum of technologies pushes us to chase the newest, which are always disappearing beneath the advent of the next newer thing so satisfaction continues to recede from our grasp.
But I celebrate the never-ending discontentment that technology brings. We are different from animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive, but have been incredibly busy making up new itches that we have to scratch, creating new desires we’ve never had before. This discontent is the trigger for ingenuity and growth.
We opened our study of Ecclesiastes with the thought that man’s search for meaning begins with an honest assessment of our discontentment. And there you have it, if nothing else, that is an honest assessment of our modern discontentment. And I think he has a point. Discontentment can lead to growth, but it can also have devastating consequences that the author seems to have ignored.
The Preacher’s assessment of his own discontentment has, so far, involved a look at wisdom and pleasure. This morning we will see a return to the theme of wisdom as well as a deeper look at toil (Ecc. 1:3).
The Preacher continues to observe life “under the sun” and remains discontent with the fruitless results of his efforts. But we must not miss his conclusion. His point can be summarized:
Our discontentment will either drive us into deeper despair or lead us to the liberating enjoyment of God’s abundant provision.
Obviously, the Preacher’s goal is that we would recognize when we have fallen into the former (despair) and fight for the joy that comes from the latter (faith in God’s provision).
- The Vanity of Wisdom (12-16)
- The Vanity of Toil (17-23)
- The Joy of Toil and Wisdom (24-26)
1. The Vanity of Wisdom (12-16)
The Preacher swings back around to comparing “wisdom and madness and folly” (12). What has been done in the past is all we have because there is nothing new to be achieved.
Who could ever improve upon the work of a rich, powerful, and wise king?
That being said, he does recognize that wisdom brought more gain than folly (13). Practically speaking, there is a benefit to wisdom over folly.
He compares it to the difference between light and darkness. The wise person is in the light and is capable of seeing, whereas the fool walks in darkness (14). Only the wise can see what’s happening, and therefore, learn from the experience. However, throughout life (especially at the end of life), the same event happens to the wise and the foolish.
If the same event will happen to both the wise and the foolish, then why would anyone seek wisdom? (15)
He concludes in a most depressing manner:
Ecclesiastes 2:16 ESV
For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!
Death is the great equalizer. Regardless of how much you learned or earned, it all goes away in the end. Everyone and everything will be forgotten, including any wise/foolish behavior.
Here the Preacher allows his thoughts of vanity and fruitless searching to turn into despair – as dark a despair as you will find in all Scripture. He brings himself to thoughts of death, almost as if he’s contemplating the value of suicide. At least it would speed him to his inevitable end.
One of the most tragic examples of suicidal despair is found in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is a challenging book to get through, but the last one hundred pages are worth suffering through the first nine hundred… In the end, Anna is frantically lost in her thoughts. Everyone has turned against her. Even the looks of strangers begin to feel like judgmental glares. She packs her bags and runs to the train station, hoping to escape everyone, including herself. She has no idea where she’s going or what she wants. As she stands holding her luggage at the edge of the platform, Tolstoy writes:
She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first carriage as it reached her; but the red bag which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the moment. She had to wait for the next carriage. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys.
His choice of the method of Anna’s suicide was based on one of Tolstoy’s neighbors who did this very thing.
The unfortunate thing is, since Tolstoy wrote, these tragic stories have only increased. But the primary point I want to make is Tolstoy’s incredible insight into the fickleness of the suicidal mind. Anna’s utter despair turns to childlike joy in a matter of moments. The solution is much simpler than the modern prescription.
For someone like Anna, which describes the situation of far too many people, another distracting piece of technology is incapable of scratching the itch. Putting up with perpetual discontentment for the sake of technological progress is far too trite an answer for someone in her condition.
A bigger iPhone is not going to solve her angst. Another “like” on social media is not going to fill her emotional void.
› If the quest for knowledge and understanding is unsatisfying, maybe work will provide some answers…
2. The Vanity of Toil (17-23)
The Preacher provides a bridge between the grief and anguish of considering his own mortality and the hatred of all his toil.
Ecclesiastes 2:17 ESV
So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
So the Preacher hated life when he realized nothing he did would ultimately matter. This, of course, does not accomplish anything either.
We find ourselves back at the question the Preacher asked earlier:
Ecclesiastes 1:3 ESV
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
He is finally ready to provide an answer…
Ecclesiastes 2:18 ESV
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me,
His hatred of life spilled into his perspective of his work. Rather than appreciating what he was able to accomplish, he regretted the fact that anything he achieved would be passed on to someone else (21).
There is no guarantee a successor won’t squander everything (19). Those who have not earned from their own toil aren’t capable of keeping or improving upon the toil of others.
And, once again, the Preacher’s contemplation continues his downward spiral of depression.
Ecclesiastes 2:20 ESV
So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun,
He was swallowed up into an abyss of sadness and hopelessness. He’s ready to throw in the towel.
What is gained from man’s toil? (22)
Answer: Sorrow, vexation, restlessness, and vanity.
Ecclesiastes 2:23 ESV
For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
Darkness was a theme with regard to the fruitless search for wisdom (14). And here, night is related to man’s fruitless toil.
This is consistent with what the prophet Isaiah wrote some 300 years after the Preacher:
Isaiah 8:22 ESV
And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.
This is true of all mankind since the fall, as the Westminster Larger Catechism points out:
WLC Q.27 What misery did the fall bring upon mankind?
A. The fall brought upon mankind the loss of communion with God, his displeasure and curse; so as we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come.
In fact, the solution to the darkness and despair the fall brought into this world (and us!) does not come until our Lord’s arrival, as Matthew acknowledges with a quote from Isaiah:
Matthew 4:16 ESV
the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Truly, the solution isn’t clear until the resurrection of Jesus removes the sting of death entirely (1 Cor. 15:54-58). Because our Lord has called us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pt. 2:9). It is only through faith in Christ, that those who perpetually walked in darkness can become children of light (Eph. 5:8).
› Only then will we come to know…
3. The Joy of Toil and Wisdom (24-26)
The Preacher waits until the very end of his opening argument to show that there are two ways to pursue satisfaction. The first method involves changing your circumstances. The second method involves changing your perspective.
The Preacher has just about exhausted himself attempting the first method, but here he becomes an advocate for the second method.
Barry Webb notes:
The possibility of enjoyment returns, significantly, only when the quest for profit is given up altogether (2:22-23), and replaced by the notion of gift.
Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 ESV
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
Enjoyment is literally, “make his soul see good.” It involves the possession of a deep sense of satisfaction in God’s abundant provisions. Find joy in your toil! God gives all of this to you, plus your ability to enjoy it, for your benefit.
Of course, the fact that we are to enjoy them as a gift from God, implies that we are not to consider the gifts as more valuable than the Giver. God’s gifts are not indiscriminately given:
Ecclesiastes 2:26 ESV
For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to those who please him.
There’s another section in Anna Karenina that is eerily similar to Ecclesiastes. As Tolstoy traces the tragic consequences of Anna and Vronsky’s love affair, another couple, Levin and Kitty, are depicted as living a simple, enjoyable life.
At one point, early in the story, Levin is working in his field. Now, literally, Tolstoy writes how Levin swings his sickle back and forth, for about 40 pages! What is truly remarkable is that I read all 40 of those pages… But there is some gold to be found there too, such as:
The Lord had given them the day and the Lord had given them the strength. And the day and the strength had been dedicated to labor, and the labor was its reward. Who was the labor for? What would be its fruits? These were irrelevant and idle questions.
Joy is not earned, it is received. And it can be found in everything we do. Therefore, the goal is not to figure out how to gain more joy than others, but to simply receive it and enjoy it!
How is that working out for you? Have you learned to enjoy the life God has given you right now or are you waiting and hoping that the next season will bring some significant change in your circumstances?
› Beware of the endless search for a solution to your perpetual discontentment.
Our discontentment will either drive us into deeper despair or lead us to the liberating enjoyment of God’s abundant provision.
We can fill our life with worry about what we will eat or what we will drink, or we can seek first the kingdom of God, trusting that he has, and will continue to, provide everything we need (Matt 6:25-33). And with the assurance of that truth firmly planted in our hearts by faith, we can learn to receive and appreciate the gift of joy.