Ecclesiastes 2. Life in the Fast Lane

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. –Ecclesiastes 2:11

Whether we know it or not, all of us are engaged in a quest for something that will meet the need of our heart. We all are looking for the secret to finding delight anytime, anywhere, and under any circumstances. What we are looking for, in other words, is the secret of contentment. That is the great blessing of life.

That too is what King Solomon was looking for, and in Ecclesiastes he describes his search. We learned from him that there is nothing in and of itself that can make us content. No thing, no possession, no relationship will continually yield up the fruit of contentment and delight.

In chapter 2 we are introduced to the details of this search. Here we have an examination of the various ways by which men through the ages have sought to find contentment and delight in life. The first way, and the one most popular today, is what philosophers call hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure. We all instinctively feel that if we can just have fun we will find happiness. That is what the Searcher examines first. He starts with what we could well call fun and games.

I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 1 tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives (2:1-3).

Have you ever asked yourself, “What can I do that will make me happy all my life?” That was Solomon’s question.

What a time they must have had! Solomon, with all his riches, gave himself completely over to the pursuit of pleasure. He must have spent weeks and months, even years, in this experience.

The first thing he said to himself was, “Enjoy yourself,” so he went in for mirth, laughter, and pleasure. Let your mind fill in the gaps. Imagine how the palace must have rocked with laughter. Every night there were stand-up comics, and lavish feasts, with wine flowing like water. You may be interested to know what just one day’s menu included during this time. This is what King Solomon required to feed his retinue in the royal palace for one day:

Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cars of fine flour (a cor is about ten bushels) and sixty cors of meal (grain of various sorts), ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty head of pasture-fed cattle (prime Grade-A meat) and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl (chickens, ducks, and all kinds of birds) (1 Kings 4:22-23).

That was the menu for one day! It has been estimated that it would feed between ten and twenty thousand people, so there were many others besides the king involved in this search for pleasure.

Now he tells us what he found. Laughter, he said to himself, is madness. Perhaps each of us has experienced this to some degree. Have you ever spent an afternoon with a group of your friends, giving yourself to laughing, having fun, and telling stories about all kinds of experiences? Most of the stories were based on exaggeration; they were all embellished a little and did not have much basis in reality. It is the same with laughter.

Laughter deals with the peripheries of life. There is no solid content to it. “Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:6). It is only a crackling noise, that is all. It leaves one with a sense of unfulfillment. I have had afternoons and evenings like that, which at the time were delightful. We laughed many times as we rehashed experiences and told jokes. But when all was said and done, we went to bed feeling rather empty and unfulfilled. That was Solomon’s experience. He is not saying that laughter is wrong–and the Bible does not say that either. It says that laughter is empty; it does not fulfill or satisfy. There is nothing “left over,” no residue that endures.

And what does Solomon say about pleasure? “What use is it?” What does it contribute to life? His answer: “Nothing.” Pleasure consumes resources, it does not build them up. Most of us cannot afford a night out more than once or twice a year because it costs so much. Going out uses up resources that hard work has put together. Pleasure, Solomon concludes, adds nothing.

Wine, he adds, is of no help either. It only seems to be so. Every social gathering today almost invariably includes the dispensing of liquor first. The first thing the flight attendant says after your plane is airborne is, “Would you like a cocktail?”

There is a widespread conviction in the world that you cannot get strangers to talk to each other until you loosen them up with liquor. And it seems to work. After wine or cocktails are served, people begin to chat a bit and the tenseness and quietness is lessened. But not much of any significance is ever said, either on planes or in social gatherings. There is little communication–usually it is surface conversation. Wine, Solomon says, does not really help. “I looked into it,” he says, “and I found that it too was vanity; it left people with a feeling of futility and emptiness.” So he moves to another form of pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6).

Here is another form of pleasure–projects, parks, pools. Many today attempt to find satisfaction in this way. There is pleasure in designing and building a house. In San Jose, California, visitors can tour the Winchester Mystery House, built by a woman who could not stop building. The house is a maze of rooms, doors that open to blank walls, staircases that go nowhere.. . anything, just to keep on building.

Some wealthy people become known as philanthropists because they endow beautiful public buildings, but they always manage to get their names engraved on a brass plaque somewhere in the building. All they are really doing is indulging themselves! It was said of the Emperor Nero that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. However, history tells us that his beautification project was not for the benefit of Rome, but for his own gratification and fame.

Solomon too gave himself to this. His own house took fourteen years to build, the temple took seven. He built houses for his many wives whom he brought to Jerusalem, spending on them time, money, and interest. Southwest of Jerusalem, in a place seldom visited by tourists, there exist today vast depressions in the earth which are still called the Pools of Solomon, which he used to water the groves of trees he planted in an effort to find satisfaction for his own heart.

Solomon continues to summarize the things which today we could only call “the good life.”

I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man (2:7-8).

How modern that sounds! He had servants to wait on every whim. The rich always want somebody else to do all the hard work for them. In this case they were slaves who could not even go on strike if they did not like their circumstances. Solomon had ranches to provide diversion and to make a profit through herds and flocks. Many wealthy people today invest their money in cattle and horse ranches. Bank accounts also give a sense of security. Solomon says he gathered “silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces,” and brought it all to Jerusalem. He had all the money he needed for his many projects.

Then he had musicians brought in, men and women singers and bands. There were sounds that rivaled the best we have today. Doubtless the “Jerusalem Pops Orchestra” played concerts under the stars. This is all very up-to-date. We think we have invented this style of living, but here it is in the ancient book of Solomon. Finally, they had Playmates, girls with bunny tails running around the palace. “Concubines,” Solomon calls them, “the delights of the heart of man.” All the joys of untrammeled sexuality were available at all times. The Playboy mentality is not a twentieth-century invention–King Solomon tried all of this. What did he find? Here are his honest conclusions:

I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (2:9-11).

That is very honest reporting. Solomon says he achieved some positive things. First, he gained a degree of notoriety. He became great, surpassing all who went before him in Jerusalem. Many think that fame will satisfy the emptiness of the heart, and Solomon found fame. He adds, though, that he kept his objectivity. “My wisdom stayed with me,” he says. In other words, “I was able to assess the value of things as I went along. I did not lose myself in this wild search for pleasure. I was able to look at myself and evaluate as I went along. But I tried everything. I did not miss or set aside anything.”

He belonged to the jet-set of that day. “I enjoyed it for awhile,” he says. “My heart took delight in all my work,” but that was all the reward he got for his labor–momentary enjoyment. Each time he repeated it he enjoyed it a little less. “My conclusion,” Solomon suggests, “is that it was not worth it.” Like a candle, it all burned away, leaving him jaded and disappointed. Nothing could excite him after that. He concludes that it was all “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” He was burned out!

Verses 12 through 23 form a lengthy passage in which the Searcher compares two possible ways of pursuing pleasure. Someone might well come along at this point and say to Solomon, “The reason you ended up so burned out is that you went at this the wrong way. You planned your pleasures, you deliberately gave yourself to careful scheduling of what you wanted to try next. But that is not the way to do it. To really enjoy pleasure, to really live it up, you’ve got to abandon yourself. Go in for wild, impulsive, devil-may-care pleasure. Do what you feel like doing.” Surely this was when the modern motto, “If it feels good, do it” was first advanced.

“All right,” Solomon says, “I examined that too.”

Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? (2:12).

By that he means that no one can challenge or contest his judgment in this area because no one could exceed his resources; those who follow him can only repeat what he has done. But after trying it all, here are his conclusions. First: I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness (2:13).

It is much better to go at it with your eyes open, he says. If you are going to pursue pleasure, at least do not throw yourself into it like a wild man. If you do so you will bum yourself out at the very beginning. You will get involved in things that you cannot imagine. It is like the difference between light and darkness. If there is any advantage to walking in the light versus stumbling about in darkness, that is the difference between a wise and careful planning of pleasure and a foolish abandonment to it. And why should that be?

The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness … (2:14).

In other words, the wise man can foresee some of the results of what he is doing, and he may perhaps avoid them so that the full impact of living for pleasure does not devastate him as quickly nor as completely as it does the fool. Many have discovered this for themselves. The newspapers every day tell of young people who gave themselves to the wild pursuit of pleasure, and who were soon in jail or burned out with drugs. Solomon says it is better to pursue pleasure according to the way of the wise. But either way, he says, neither one can avoid death. Here is a very insightful statement at the close of verse 14:

I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.

Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.”

For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! (2:14-16).

It really does not make a lot of difference; in the end they both come to the same fate.

I have often quoted the eloquent words of Lord Bertrand Russell. He was widely regarded as a wise man, although a thoroughgoing atheist and a defender of secular humanism. This was his view of death:

One by one as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life. On him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little days.

Those words express the truth that the Searcher brings out here. Solomon says that no matter how carefully you pursue life and pleasure it will end in the darkness and dust of death. The fool and the wise man are both forgotten. How many wise men and women have you known whom no one remembers now? These words are terribly true.

Then he comes to his final, remarkable reaction.

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune (2:17-21).

Notice the increasing depression here. First, there is a sense of being grieved, of being hurt by life. “I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me,” the Searcher says. He became increasingly disgruntled when he saw a diminishing return in pleasure for all the effort he made to enjoy life. Have you ever seen people determined to have fun even it if kills them? They try their best to extract from the moment all the joy they can, but they get very little for their efforts. This, Solomon says, was a grief to him.

Second, he was frustrated. He asks, “Why do I have to work to put all this together, using all my wisdom and efforts, and eventually have to leave it to some fool coming behind me who will waste it in a few months?” He is irritated by the unfairness of this.

Finally, he sinks into despair. “My heart began to despair,” he says, because he is helpless to change this law of diminishing returns. This is doubtless an explanation for many of the sudden, unexpected suicides of popular idols, of men and women who apparently had seized the keys to life with riches and fame, and whom the media constantly adored as objects worthy of imitation. But every now and then, finding nothing but frustration and despair as life is used up too quickly and there is no joy left in it, one of these beautiful people takes a gun and blows his brains out.

Think of people like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s brother also committed suicide, as their father had done some years earlier. Think of Freddy Prinz, and of Elvis Presley, whose destructive, drug-abusing lifestyle killed him. These words which Solomon has faithfully recorded are true; they correspond to life. Emptiness and vexation were Solomon’s experience when he tried to live it up without the missing element that his search was focused upon.

So he concludes with this eternal question:

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. [Insomnia at night, restlessness in his heart; this is what he got under the sun.] This too is meaningless (2:22-23).

Is there no answer? Is it all hopeless? In the three verses that follow we have the first statement of the true message of this book. Is it but a matter of time before we too are jaded, burned out by excess, life having lost all value, meaning, and color? No, says the Searcher. Put a relationship with God into that picture and everything changes. The text says:

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work (2:24).

Unfortunately here is another instance where we have lost the true meaning of the verse by bad translation. In the next chapter there is a similar passage that properly includes the words, “there is nothing better for men than (3:12); that is not what it says here. Delete from verse 24 the words, “better than,” because they are not in the Hebrew and they do not belong here. What this text actually says is:

A man can do nothing to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.

“A man can do nothing”–there is no inherent value in him that makes it possible for him to extract true enjoyment from the things he does, That is the first thing Solomon says.

What does, then? He tells us:

This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (2:24-25).

Here is the true message of this book. Enjoyment is a gift of God. There is nothing in possessions, in material goods, in money, there is nothing in man himself that can enable him to keep enjoying the things he does. But it is possible to have enjoyment all your life if you take it from the hand of God. It is given to those who please God.

To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness… (2:26).

Wisdom and knowledge have been mentioned before as things you can find “under the sun,” but they will not continue. To have added to them the ingredient of pleasure, of continual delight going on and on unceasingly throughout the whole of life, you must take only from the hand of God. To the man who pleases God is given the gift of joy.

It is wonderful to realize that this book–and the whole of the Bible–teaches us that God wants us to have joy. In his letter to Timothy, Paul said, God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). It is God’s desire and intent that all the good things of life mentioned here should contribute to the enjoyment of man; but only, says this Searcher, if you understand that such enjoyment does not come from things or from people. It is an added gift of God, and only those who please God can find it.

How do you please God? In Hebrews we are told, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). It is faith that pleases Him, belief that He is there and that all in life comes from His hand. Underscore in your mind the word all. Pain, sorrow, bereavement, disappointment, as well as gladness, happiness, and joy, all these things are gifts of God. When we see life in those terms then every element of life can have its measure of joy–even sorrow, pain, and grief. These things were also given to us to enjoy. That is the message of this book. The writer will develop this further in passages that follow.

You will recognize this is also the message of Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” It is also the message of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

The fourth thing which Solomon says here is that all others labor for the benefit of those who please God.

…to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God (2:26).

That explains a remarkable thing that I have observed many times. Privileged as I am to speak in various conference centers around the country, I have often observed that many of these Christian gatherings are held in the expensive homes of millionaires who were not Christians. I am thinking, for instance, of Glen Eyrie, the headquarters of the Navigators, outside Colorado Springs. There in a beautiful natural glade, General William Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs and of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, built an English-style stone castle for his British bride. She never lived in it more than a few weeks, and he himself never enjoyed that property at all. It sat empty for years. Finally, it was sold several times and now it belongs to the Navigators, who are using it as a Christian conference ground and world headquarters for their training movement.

Twice I have been invited to be conference speaker at a beautiful site on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River in Oregon, an estate called Menucha. This wonderful home, covering almost an acre of ground, was built by a wealthy businessman who had little interest in spiritual things. He entertained presidents at that home, but now it belongs to the Alliance Churches of Oregon.

You can duplicate this kind of story many, many times. It is remarkable that God so planned life that these multimillionaires in their pursuit of pleasure spent lavishly on their homes so that their estates might at last be given into the hands of those who please God! But these lavish spenders will not get anything for all their efforts. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. There is a deep irony about this.

Isn’t it strange that the more you run after life, panting after every pleasure, the less you will find, but the more you take life as a gift from God’s hand, responding in thankful gratitude for the delight of the moment, the more life seems to come to you? Even the trials, the heartaches, and handicaps that others seek to avoid are touched with the blessing of heaven and minister to the heart of the one who has learned to take them from the hand of God.

Fanny Crosby is one of the most popular hymn writers of all time. Blind almost from birth, she lived to be ninety years old. When she was only eight years old she wrote this poem: Oh, what a happy child I am Although I cannot see. I am resolved that in this world Contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy That other people don’t. To weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot and I won’t. That is the philosophy that pleases God, and that is what the Searcher is talking about here.

All the objections that can be raised against this are going to be examined and tested in the pages that follow. When we finish the book we will find that the Searcher has established without a doubt that joy is a gift of God, and it comes to those who take life daily, whatever it may bring, from the hand of a loving Father.


Click Here 3. That Wonderful Plan for Your Life