Laughter is the best medicine. Do you know a joke you could share?
The Teacher of the assembly began by stating that everything around us is meaningless. That is, no matter how much you put in, you gain nothing. The world, on the other hand, under God’s rule provides and never ceases to provide. So, what is the point of our life? The Teacher decided to put their wisdom and understanding to use and experiment. Although the conclusion looks grim, the Teacher sets out to explore what to make of this world and this life.
Read Ecclesiastes Chapter 2
- 1-9 The project of pleasure
- 10-16 Poetry – The result of pleasure and wisdom
- 10-11 Nothing to show for pleasure
- 12-14 Better to be wise than a fool
- 15-16 No better being wise than a fool
- 17-23 The great despair of nothing gained
- 24-27 The gift from God
1-9 The project of pleasure
“I said to myself…” The ESV says, “I said to my heart…” The meaning of the NIV is right but the word ‘heart’ helps us see where the Teacher is going. He wants to know what he longs for and what drives his life. He isn’t referring to a textbook on the matter but asking himself what is it all about. Note later the phrase, “…my mind still guiding me with wisdom.”
“I will test you with pleasure…” The first test will be to go where the heart desires and see what that produces. He will list out laughter and cheer before moving on to projects that are self-rewarding.
“…what is good…” Verse 1 and 3 have this same reference point. But what could he mean? The sense of worthwhile and profitable is probably in mind. Not a question of good verses evil but a judgment on what is useful and worthwhile doing.
“Laughter…is madness.” Again, a word to suggest an action done for no reason or benefit. True enough. A robot might ask that question.
“And what does pleasure accomplish?” He doesn’t seem to answer that question. Are we to assume nothing? As we continue through this chapter, we’ll find that some things can’t be concluded as bad or madness purely because it doesn’t produce anything. The Teacher is asking what progress do we make through pleasure. The answer is, ‘no tangible progress.’ But that doesn’t mean that pleasure is useless. He calls it pleasure and cheering himself. This is beneficial in the moment. But the question still remains, what real gain are we making through this?
“…cheering myself with wine…” We’ll likely cover alcohol later in the book but we will be sensitive for the moment on this topic. In the current context, the cheering through drinking achieves no profit. It is not condemned here but neither is it prescribed for better living. More on this will come.
“My mind still guiding me with wisdom.” Verse 3 and 9 have the same condition. The Teacher is on a project of understanding. The drinking and the folly was kept in check to observe the benefits. He did not cease his project of exploring the meaning of life. While pursuing pleasure, he was mindful of the process.
Verses 1-3a Describe his intention and the starting point was folly. Pleasure through madness. Unprofitable. But desirable. He then turns his attention to a different kind of pleasure: project management!
“I undertook great projects…” Verses 4-9 outline the exploration of putting his hands to work – not out of service to others but for self gain. Houses, vineyards, gardens and parks; servant breeding and stock, silver and gold and personal entertainment. The whole list of things are for himself. This is why this falls into the category of pleasure rather than of work. We certainly work for pleasure when it is achieving our goals and dreams. He was acquiring “…the delights of a man’s heart.”
10-16 Poetry – The result of pleasure and wisdom
After the decision to explore the fruit of pleasure through self indulgent pleasure and project management for wealth and leisure, the Teacher gives us some conclusions through poetry.
10-11 Nothing to show for pleasure
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired…” The boundary of his experiment was wide.
“My heart took delight in all my labour…” I suggest he means that he put his hand to nothing except what he delighted in. As listed already, the outcome of all his work was for self.
“Yet when I surveyed…nothing was gained under the sun.” The conclusion is that he has nothing to show for it all. Remember that in chapter 1 he had concluded that our life comes and goes and you are left with nothing but the sun goes round and round without us. When we are done, our stuff will belong to someone else. He will take us to this point later.
“…this was the reward for all my toil.” Verse 10d is interesting. While life is meaningless and all the projects leave us with nothing, we still have the pleasure in the process. What is the reward? “Delight in all my labour.”
12-14 Better to be wise than a fool
“…to consider wisdom and also madness and folly.” This is an experiment of comparison. Is it better to be wise or foolish? To live life with understanding or without.
“What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?” This is not to be read as a universal question but specific to the outcome of this experiment. The present king has put his hands to everything he can find to do. Houses, vineyards, wealth and prosperity. What could the next king possibly do? I love the arrogance of this statement! Consider for a second, the Christian perspective on this. If the great Teacher and Kind is the one we ought to listen to: what on earth can we do that is greater than what the King of kings has done. Please forgive me. I’m not trying to jump too quickly to a hyper-Christian response. But the word of God here is for you and for me. I certainly can’t do what the Teacher has been able to do in his experiment. But take it even further and ask, what can we do that God has not already done?
“…wisdom is better than folly…” Having eyes to see is obviously better than not. The Teacher doesn’t seem to go further than saying that obviously it is better to be wise. But…
15-16 No better being wise than a fool
“…the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered…like the fool, the wise too must die!” This is the real measuring line. What is profitable? What is worthwhile? What is measurably good? Well, if death is the end for everyone irrespective of wealth or poverty, wisdom or folly, then what’s the point? The Teacher will begin the next section with much depression. The phrase “…the days have already come…” remind us that our days are numbered. Death is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’.
17-23 The great despair of nothing gained
“So I hated my life…” Has the lessons from the Teacher started depressing you? Well, that was his journey too!
“…the work…was grievous to me…” Not pleasurable anymore since the final word is death which resets all gains.
“…I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish?” Even if we think of our lives as a baton race where we help build for the next generation, even that is folly. It strikes me how every generation elements that we have done poorly and hope that we can leave something better for the next generation – when the reality is that they will grow up to lament their efforts also.
“For a person may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it.” A great effort in this life amounts to…? Just note that the Teacher is not saying we should give up on life – bear with it – but what is the profit of life? What’s in it for me really? Depressing?
24-27 The gift from God
“…this too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Depression is replaced with contentment. The profit of wisdom, knowledge and skill is nothing. We gain nothing from any of it in the end. But the pleasure we receive in the process is God’s gift to us. The very presumption of the experiment is the gift from God. The fact that any pleasure can be received is God’s gift. Our emotional ability is God given. We can’t even produce that from nothing!
“…God gives happiness…” Godliness with contentment is great gain, says Paul in 1 Timothy 6:6. The ‘happiness’ is not simply pleasure or laughter but relief from the pains of gaining nothing. Relief from depression! True contentment is a gift from God. It doesn’t come from gaining through this life but through learning how to please him – to enjoy God and to know him. This is the fruit of the Spirit – to know God in truth and to be sanctified through a growing knowledge of God.
“…but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over…” To the one who strives to gain, they lose everything. But to the one who will pursue God, they gain contentment which is the gift from God. As Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it!” Mark 8:35
Suggested questions for running this study.
Q1. Verses 1-9 describe the Teacher’s plans to test pleasure. What types of pleasure does he describe? What is the difference between the pleasures of Verses 2-3a and the pleasures of 3b-9?
Q2. Verses 4-9 describe the endeavours of a king. How far away is our lifestyle to his?
Q3. The poetry from Verse 10 is a reflection of his findings. What does he conclude?
Q4. When he contrasts wisdom and folly in Verses 13-16, which ends up the winner? Discuss the despair that results in Verses 17-23.
Q5. How does the Teacher resolve his depression in Verses 24-27?
Q6. Look up one or more of these New Testament passages to discuss. Matthew 6:25-34; 1 Timothy 6:6-11; Romans 8:5-11.
Pouring our energy into this life for the sake of gain is fruitless. We can certainly try but the end will be the expected result. Both the foolish and the wise will die. Our day is coming. But to the one who turns to God and lives for him, they receive contentment as their gift. In this life, we gain nothing except vapour. But with God, we receive the gift of living.
Challenge#1 Seek first the kingdom of God
Matthew 6:19 onwards illustrates Jesus’ perspective on all of this. Even Solomon, in all of his glory, had nothing more than what God provided for him. We are in a more privileged position than Solomon. We have the benefit of his wisdom as well as Christ’s wisdom. This world will give us thrill if we chase it and we will be left with nothing in the end. But with Christ, seeking His kingdom first, we get wisdom, contentment, and eternity. The bible talks about ‘chasing after’ the things of this world like the pagan does. That is foolish. The wise person looks at the logic: we can add nothing to this life but God can give us everything we need and more. Shall we seek first our kingdom or Gods?
Challenge#2 How much is too much?
Whether that question is about alcohol (v3) or prosperity and ambition (v9), in God’s wisdom we are required to be sober minded about everything. To keep wisdom with us (v3 and 9). The bible does not forbid alcohol (it endorses it at times 1Ti5:23) but it certainly condemns the foolishness of excess (Proverbs 23:20). The bible does not condemn making money (it endorses it at times 1Thess4:11; 2Thes3:10) but it certainly warns of the dangers of wealth (Matt19:24). The question is not, how much is too much, but why are you even asking the question? See Challenge#1
Challenge#3 Preach Ecclesiastes to your neighbour
The book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent text for discussing with our neighbours. All the work and toil that goes into this life and for what? So we can enjoy a long weekend at Bonny Doon? What if life was already handed to us? What if everything our heart desires has been offered to us through Jesus? Could it be possible that all our efforts are in vain? Could it be possible that if we lost our life and surrendered our efforts and attention to Jesus, we would receive much, much more than we could ever give up? Mark 8:35-38 challenges us to leave everything in faith and follow Jesus. Romans 8:30 tells us what we get when we turn to him (Romans 8:28-32).