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Deeper Commentary

Ecc 2:1
I said in my heart, Come now-
The more we come to know ourselves, the more we will perceive the importance of self-talk. I take Ecclesiastes to be Solomon’s self-examination at the end of his life. Five times in this short book he describes how “I said in my heart...” (Ecc. 2:1,15 [twice]; 3:17,18). As he looked back and analyzed how and why he had lived and been as he had, he appreciated that it was all a result of his self-talk, how he had spoken to himself in his mind. His introspection reveals just how we talk to ourselves – e.g. “I said in my heart, “Go on now, I will prove you with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure”“ (Ecc. 2:1). We all talk to ourselves; and the records of the Lord’s wilderness temptations are an amazing psychological window into the self-talk of God’s very own son.

I will test you with mirth: therefore enjoy pleasure; and behold, this also was vanity-
On one hand Solomon condemns mirth (Ecc. 7:4; Prov. 20:32 LXX "If thou abandon thyself to mirth, and stretch forth thine hand in a quarrel, thou shalt be disgraced"). But this is exactly what Solomon did in Ecc. 2:1,2; 8:15. He refused to accept his own wisdom. It was merely a teaching position, and he felt the need to empirically find its truth. He failed to personalize the wisdom he taught, and therefore turned away in the end.

Don't love "pleasure" (Prov. 21:17) and Prov. 14:13 "even in mirth there is sorrow" are both s.w. "mirth" in Ecc. 2:1,2; 8:15. Solomon had to re-learn this for himself rather than  accept direct Divine teaching about it. He recognized that fools love mirth (Prov. 7:4) but still he  wanted it. He rejected this wisdom and only came to agree with it  through doing just what Prov.14:13 condemns  (Ecc. 2:2).


Ecc 2:2 I said of laughter, It is foolishness; and of mirth, What does it accomplish?-
"Mirth" is the word for "pleasure". Solomon sees wisdom as the way to wealth and "pleasure" in this life, and that is the basis for his appeal to men to be wise and accept his wisdom (Prov. 10:23). But David uses the word only of the "pleasure" of the future, restored Kingdom of God on earth (Ps. 126:2); whereas Solomon wanted it all now, just as the 'prosperity gospel' likewise does. And yet as he got older, Solomon realized that such "pleasure" from material things is not in fact pleasure, and he uses the word several times in Ecclesiastes of how pleasure in this life is vain (Ecc. 2:2; 7:3; 10:19). This approach is in fact a contradiction of his seeking after "pleasure" in Proverbs. He came to this nihilistic position because he failed to perceive that the true "pleasure" is not now, but in the future Kingdom. When we finally realized in Ecclesiastes that it was "not now", he came to see death as the greatest enemy; and yet he refuses to have faith in the hope of resurrection.   


Ecc 2:3 I searched in my heart how to cheer my flesh with wine, my heart yet guiding me with wisdom, and how to lay hold of folly, until I might see what it was good for the sons of men that they should do under heaven all the days of their lives-
Solomon in Prov. 23:29-31 strongly condemns wine, but later gave himself to wine (Ecc. 2:3). And so he again demonstrated how although his wisdom remained with him and he continued to teach it (Ecc. 2:9), he had failed to personalize that wisdom. It flowed through his mind and his mouth, but took no personal lodgment in his heart. Likewise Solomon speaks in Ecc. 2:3 as if he were on a journey of discovery as to what would be "good" for a man "all the days of his life"; and yet in Prov. 31:12 he spoke of how the way of wisdom and having a wise wife will bring "good" for a man "all the days of his life". Perhaps this is a tacit admission that Solomon had not had a wise wife; and it is also an admission of the way the wisdom he taught had taken zero lodgment in his own heart. It was all just theoretical truth. This is such a warning to us. 

Solomon's mother warned him against  alcohol, but her words were totally  disregarded   by  Solomon  in  his  later  search  for fulfilment  in  the  flesh (Prov. 31:4,5). Despite condemning those who ignore the teaching of their mother, Solomon did just that. He was a stellar example of a man who does the very opposite of the truth he has received from God. This is a stage beyond mere hypocrisy; it is the narcissism of someone playing God, who considers themselves personal obedience to the Divine principles they teach. And this is for all time an acute temptation to those who have God's truth, especially in the area of sexuality and addiction.   

His  alcoholism contradicted his own earlier condemnations of drink as being for the  unwise  (e.g. Prov. 20:1). Thus by turning to drink he was throwing  off  his  former  wisdom, even though his access to it remained with him (Ecc. 2:9; cp. 'But I still believe the Truth, you know'). His mother pleads with him not to drink  lest he “pervert the judgment of any that is afflicted” (Prov. 31:5). And yet on his death, the complaints about his hard oppression of the people indicate that he did just this (due to his taking to drink, according to Prov. 31?). And yet Prov. 31 has Solomon praising his mother for her wisdom; he was proud of his mum, and yet he so miserably disobeyed her. He seems to have a mindset in which he felt it was impossible for him to be disobedient. The all important thing for him was who his parents and pedigree were.  

Solomon later turned to alcohol for a while (Ecc. 2:3)- yet his girlfriend says that Solomon took her to the house of wine (Song 2:4 RVmg.) whilst still young. The seeds of failure were there early on- he preached against wine in Proverbs, and yet still drunk himself.


Ecc 2:4 I made myself great works. I built myself houses. I planted myself vineyards-
Solomon loved building (Ecc. 2:4-6)- he built cities and buildings because it was “the desire of Solomon which he desired” (1 Kings 9:19 AVmg.), i.e. one of his dominant desires. So when we read that it was the desire of Solomon to build the temple (1 Kings 9:1,11), he was merely serving God in a way that naturally appealed to him anyway. “The people sacrificed in high places, because there was no house built” (1 Kings 3:2) surely reflects Solomon’s perspective, not God's- for God Himself didn’t need a built house in which sacrifice could be offered. The temple became such an obsession with Solomon that he came to think that no really acceptable worship could occur outside of the idea which he had so developed in his own mind. It’s rather like thinking that one must have a physical church building in which to be an ecclesia of the living God- who doesn’t dwell in buildings made with hands.


Ecc 2:5 I made myself gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit-
Solomon didn't like the idea of God doing something for him (i.e. building the house); in his own mind, he swamped this concept with his obsession for achieving his own works. The fact that God needs and requires nothing failed to register with him; the fact that salvation is by pure grace meant nothing to him. After Solomon finished the temple, he started work on his own house; Ecc. 2:4 relates how he built houses and all kinds of gardens and parks, imitating the garden of Eden and trying to recreate it on earth, travelling down every road of human experience. The implication of this is that once the temple was finished, he felt that the Kingdom had come, and that he must create it himself. He taught Israel that if they sinned even in captivity, then all they had to do was pray towards the temple and they would be forgiven. He saw in that building some kind of atonement for sins. He lost sight of the importance of the blood that made atonement; he replaced the blood of Christ with a work of his own hands. Indeed, it would seem that God’s response to the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 9:7 corrects what Solomon has said, in that He says that if Israel sin then He will cast the temple too out of His sight; which is rather different to how Solomon instructed the people to gain forgiveness for the sake of the temple if they were in dispersion. He saw the temple as a talisman- the need for real, meaningful change and repentance and spiritual mindedness to enable the dwelling of God went unperceived.


Ecc 2:6 I made myself pools of water, to water from it the forest where trees were reared-
Solomon’s use of his wealth to create a garden with special rivers and fruit trees was surely an attempt to reproduce Eden on earth (Ecc. 2:5,6 RV). He thought that he could buy the Kingdom, create the Kingdom paradise on earth, have it now... and so very many have fallen into the same delusion. The Gospel of God's Kingdom and not our own, yet future and not right now, is a major challenge to all subconscious attempts to build a kingdom of God now in our lives.


Ecc 2:7 I bought male servants and female servants, and had servants born in my house. I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, above all who were before me in Jerusalem-
The constant moral and physical experimentation, rather than just accepting God's wisdom, led Solomon to the deep cynicism of Ecclesiastes: 'If this is the Kingdom, the ultimate experience, then I don't think much of it'. Ecclesiastes emphasizes that Solomon experienced more glory and wisdom than any other who had been in Jerusalem (Ecc. 1:16; 2:7,9); this suggests that he felt he had reached the ultimate experience of the Kingdom, and yet he was not impressed by it. He lacked the faith and humility to look ahead to the future Kingdom, and to realize thereby that all the achievements of this life are as nothing.

Solomon's building of exotic gardens with "all kind of fruit" (Ecc. 2:5) sounds as if he was attempting to reconstruct Eden;  he was so carried away with expressing his own abilities that he effectively created his own kingdom in this life. It seems Solomon's crazy program of building and moral experimentation (outlined in Ecc. 2) began after he had finished building the temple. He seems to have got cynical and depressed after that; he had his kingdom in this life; he looked back and compared himself with others (Ecc. 1:16;  2:7,9), and thereby he became proud. He could see that materially and spiritually (in terms of knowledge) he had far outstripped all God's previous servants. It was this comparison with others (there is triple emphasis on it) which well indicates his pride.

The words of Dt. 17:16-20 are evidently a prophecy of Solomon. He did multiply silver, gold, horses and wives;  his heart was turned away (Dt. 17:16,17= 2 Chron. 9:20). Yet this passage says that if he studied the Law all his life, this would not  happen, and also his heart would not be "lifted up above his brethren" (v. 20).  Solomon's whipping of the people and sense of spiritual and material superiority (Ecc. 1:16;  2:7,9) shows how his heart was  lifted up. Yet Solomon knew the Law, despite his explicit disobedience to the commands concerning wives, horses etc.  But his knowledge of the word didn't bring forth the true humility which it was intended to. 


Ecc 2:8 I also gathered silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and of the provinces. I got myself male and female singers, and the delights of the sons of men- musical instruments, and that of all sorts-
These were things he did when he  tried to find the meaning of life outside personal faith in God. “I got myself”, he said- he organized the temple worship, the courses of singers etc., because he liked music and orchestra- not from true service to God. Many like the Queen of Sheba rewarded him for his wisdom with presents- and “I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces” who visited him (Ecc. 2:8). He retained wisdom theoretically, but he allowed the human benefits of ‘having the truth’ to swamp him. And so we must beware, lest, e.g., the happy social environment which knowing the Truth has generated for some comes to dominate our lives of itself; we may ‘retain wisdom’ as Solomon did, but the fire of real spirituality can drop out of our lives so easily. He also fails to take into account that he did not in fact get the wealth and glory of himself. It was given him by God because of his initial choice of wisdom above all things. But his heart has now turned away from God and he sees every Divine blessing as in fact attained by his own labour.

The  words  of 1 Kings 11:1-4 have some interesting implications when  analyzed. Even before he built the pagan temples for his wives, his marriages to them are described as "evil in the sight of  the  Lord" (1 Kings 11:6). Solomon's marriages are often explained away as political maneuverings. But the record says that Solomon "clave unto  these in love",  surely  alluding to God's definition of marriage  as a leaving father and mother and cleaving to a wife. Solomon really  loved  those women; they weren't just political strings to his bow. They would not have turned away his heart if they  were  only  political  relationships. 1000 seems a rather exorbitant  number in any case. And Ecc. 2:8 RV says that Solomon sought “the delights of the sons of men, concubines of all sorts”. He took sex to its maximum extent- he had every possible type of woman in his harem. Every hair colour, size, type. “Whatsoever mine eyes desired [this is language elsewhere used about sexual desire] I kept not from them” (Ecc. 2:10). And yet still, he never found one… counting one by one, as he put it. If ever there is a warning against immorality, it is here. The more relationships one has- and our world glorifies this- the less ultimate satisfaction there can be. God’s way has to be best.  


Ecc 2:9 So I was great, and increased more than all who were before me in Jerusalem-
Solomon claimed about his wisdom that "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice" (Prov. 8:15). He had been given wisdom in order to reign over Israel on God's behalf, but from that good basis he had slipped into considering himself as therefore automatically just and right in whatever abuse of power he chose to exercise (see on Prov. 8:14). And he ends his reign abusing and whipping his people. He maintained his intellectual grasp of wisdom to the end, but he didn't reign nor live by it. He is proof enough that mere intellectual assent to God's truth is not going to save anyone, nor is "keeping the faith" in intellectual terms the thing which is to be emphasized. For Solomon did this, and it didn't save him. 

My wisdom also remained with me-
The idea of several of Solomon's proverbs is that "the righteous" are those with "understanding", and it is this understanding which feeds and gives life to others. This is true enough; our sharing with others and influence upon them can indeed lead them to life and not to die eternally. But Solomon appears to again have his own self justification in view; for he considered that he was the preeminently righteous because he was the teacher of Israel, giving them the wisdom given him. But Solomon fell away from Yahweh, even though he says his wisdom remained with him (Ecc. 2:9), and he continued to teach others that wisdom to the end of his life (Ecc. 12:9). And so it was simply not true that teaching others makes a person righteous, as Solomon supposed often in Proverbs (e.g. Prov. 10:21). 

Solomon had earlier claimed in Prov. 14:33: "Wisdom remains in the heart of one who has understanding, and is even made known in the inward part of fools". But now, in the disillusion of Ecclesiastes, Solomon later alludes to this in saying that although he cast off his faith in Yahweh, and his heart turned aside to idols, his Divinely given wisdom [in an intellectual sense] remained with him. He seems to be saying that if one has wisdom, it will always remain in the heart, and thereby justify a man. But this isn't the case; one can know Divine truths and yet live otherwise, without at all personalizing them. And so turn away from the true God, just as Solomon did.

Solomon had God's wisdom throughout his apostacy (Ecc. 2:9), as the Truth ever remains with us. God put that wisdom in his heart in order for him to help others, both in Israel and in the world (2 Chron. 9:23); yet Solomon failed to realize that he needed to apply it to himself. In the same way as Solomon criticized flirting with Gentile girls but then went and did this himself, so he said many other things in his wisdom which actually condemned himself. Thus “the prince that lacketh understanding is also a great oppressor” (Prov. 28:16). Yet Solomon did oppress the people- despite possessing wisdom. He insists that throughout his life, his wisdom had remained with him (Ecc. 2:9 RVmg.). So what does this indicate? Surely that the wisdom which he had did not affect his life practically, and thus it was as if he lacked wisdom completely. Mere possession of truth leads to great temptations- for like Solomon, we can reason that this alone justifies us in any behaviour. And again, consider Prov. 29:4 RVmg: “The king by judgment establisheth the land [another self-conscious justification of himself in his early reign]: but he that imposeth tribute overthroweth it”. And this was exactly what Solomon did, in imposing unbearable tribute upon his people. He so clearly sees what is wrong- and then goes and does it. This is one of the features of our nature. And we all have this same tendency. The more we know what is wrong, the more we are inclined to do it.


Ecc 2:10 Whatever my eyes desired, I didn’t keep from them. I didn’t withhold my heart from any joy, for my heart rejoiced because of all my labour, and this was my portion from all my labour-
It's interesting how often in Proverbs that Solomon warns about only eating a limited amount of the honey you may find (e.g. Prov. 25:16). Yet Ecclesiastes 1 and 2 show how Solomon found honey as it were, he had the opportunity to do and experience what he wanted- and he ate so much he became spiritually sick.

Most people spend their lives pushing down one or two avenues of self-fulfilment- to own a large home, a nice car (cp. horses and chariots), to achieve some level of sexual and domestic fulfilment, financial power etc. Solomon fantastically succeeded in all these avenues- and came to realize that still he was unfulfilled. He became a workaholic, rejoicing in his own labour- but that too, as many a middle aged man can testify, brought nothing. If only we can perceive it, Solomon provides a fantastic challenge. If we believe the Biblical record of Solomon, none of these avenues will hold much attraction for us any more. But our community- the young especially- throw the majority of their energy into one or two of these avenues. Just a handful who learn the lesson of Solomon could turn the world upside down for Christ- especially given the financial and linguistic possibilities of our age. Yet in all such aspirations to burning zeal and achievement (would we had more of it!), the other lessons of  Solomon must be learnt. His building of the temple was " all Solomon's desire which he was pleased to do" (1 Kings 9:1). There is a semantic connection between the Hebrew words for " desire" and " pleased" - the point of which is to emphasize that Solomon's work for God was only an expression of his own zest for self-fulfilment; he served the Truth in ways which only confirmed his own natural inclinations. Appreciating the spirit and blood of Christ, his own weakness, the grace of God, and the subsequent desire to live a life of self sacrifice, of carrying a cross in ways we wouldn't naturally chose- this was all foreign to Solomon. And is it so foreign to us? Solomon's materialism and self-fulfilment are sure warnings to our age.


Ecc 2:11 Then I looked at all the works that my hands had worked, and at the labour that I had laboured to do; and behold, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was no profit under the sun-
Solomon had taught not to labour to be rich (Prov. 23:4), but he had done just this. He refused now to accept that his wealth and glory had all been given by God in response to his desire for wisdom above all things. He considered that he had worked for it all; and so he was disillusioned with it. For only the gift of God's grace, appreciated as such, will not tarnish in our own minds.

 

Ecc 2:12 I turned myself to consider wisdom, madness, and folly: for what can the king’s successor do? Just that which has been done long ago-
Solomon often seems to doubt the wisdom and strength of his son Rehoboam. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are full of warnings to him, and Ecclesiastes laments the tragedy of a powerful man having a fool or weakling following him and squandering the kingdom built up. And that is indeed what happened. Solomon had persuaded himself that he was the unique and total fulfilment of the promises to David. He refused to consider any future Messiah, nor that his line should end in such a Messiah. He was totally self obsessed. He saw that no amount of personal possession of wisdom could affect his successor. 


Ecc 2:13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness-
This must be interpreted in the light of Solomon's cynical statements about his wisdom, and the comment in :15 that the reality of death means that there is no ultimate advantage of wisdom over folly. So he may simply mean, as he often does in the book of Proverbs, that wisdom indeed gives a smoother ride in this life, just as it is better to walk in the light than in darkness. But he never attaches to wisdom any eternal or future advantage; because he sees only this life. "Excel" is the word used only by Solomon in Ecclesiastes for "profit" (Ecc. 1:3; 2:11,13; 3:9; 5:9,16; 7:12). And he has just stated, as he often does, that there is no "profit" or excellence. Because all ends in death. So he here means that wisdom profits more than folly in this life- but in the wider context of Ecclesiastes, we must understand that he sees no profit in anything, ultimately, including in wisdom.


Ecc 2:14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walks in darkness- and yet I perceived that one event happens to them all-
Not being 'wise in our own eyes' is a major theme of Solomon's Proverbs (Prov. 3:7; 12:15; 26:12,16; 28:11). We are to recognize that there is no inherent wisdom in man; it must be taught to us from God's word. And yet we live in a postmodern world, where what seems or feels good to our own gut is taken to be the highest personal truth. This was what led Judah to condemnation (s.w. Is. 5:21), because trusting in their own opinions and gut feelings left them insensitive to God's word. Paul quotes the idea in Rom. 12:16; to be wise in our own eyes means that we ignore those whom we naturally consider worthy of being ignored. But that is not necessarily the way of the Spirit. But when Solomon lost his faith, he comments that whether a man has wise eyes or not (s.w.) is irrelevant in the face of death (Ecc. 2:14). He clearly conceived wisdom as only helpful for this life; he had no real personal faith in the resurrection of the dead or the establishment of the future Kingdom of God. And this led him to ultimately despise his own wisdom as futile.   


Ecc 2:15 Then I said in my heart, As it happens to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart that this also is vanity-
The blasphemy of those statements in Ecclesiastes  that  wisdom is meaningless is hard to plumb. As discussed on Ecc. 1:1, this is indeed the position of Solomon, and not just part of a dialogue. Deep within  his  heart, Solomon's attitude was that "As it happeneth to  the  fool,  so it happeneth even to me (the man made wise by God); and why was I then more wise?" (Ecc. 2:15). Ecc. 7:16 is in similar  vein: "Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise"-  even  though wisdom and righteousness are what God desires  from  us  above  all!  This despising of wisdom and the truly  spiritually  ambitious  life was due to Solomon's lack of faith in a resurrection; he had his kingdom in this life, and he failed to see the blinding necessity of a resurrection, judgment and  change  of nature. This is again a kind of regret expressed by Solomon that he had asked God for wisdom, and God's commendation of his choice is thereby despised by Solomon.

LXX "This is also vanity, because the fool speaks of his abundance". The Lord's parable of the rich fool appears to allude to this; but Solomon has himself in view. He is therefore understood by the Lord as the rich fool. Despite all his theoretical wisdom.   


Ecc 2:16 For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no memory for ever, since in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. Indeed, the wise man must die just like the fool!-
What makes the difference for Solomon is the issue of death and the absence for him of any hope of eternity. Had he accepted the gospel of the Kingdom, believed in by Abraham and David, he would have reasoned differently. In the end, Solomon felt that for himself, it was as well to be righteous as to be wicked, for in death there was no further difference (Ecc. 9:2,5,9). He knows judgment will come (Ecc. 11:9), at least for the young people, but he reasons as if it won’t- at least not for him. He knows, but he doesn’t know on the personal, experiential level. This is why there are apparently contradictory statements in Ecclesiastes. For example, the wise dies as the fool, with no more eternal remembrance than the fool (Ecc. 2:15,16). This, Solomon, says, is what he himself believes in his own heart. But in Ecc. 7:12 he says that wisdom gives life to those who have it. But then again in Prov. 9:16-18 he observes that although wisdom can help, it’s benefits are easily undone, so easily as to make it useless. I don’t see these different perspectives as being the difference between life in the world and life in the spiritual realm. They are all spoken with conviction by Solomon, which, to my mind, ruins the idea that he himself believed the Truth but was simply outlining what life is like without God. He advocates both ways. My resolution of this is that he knew and preached God’s Truth, but for him personally, it meant nothing at all. And therefore in practice he advocated the life of self-enjoyment, acting as if all the other truth of wisdom was not operative in practice.


Ecc 2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is worked under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind-
And here is the challenge. The man who had everything, wealth, women, career, artistic fulfilment, with long life and good health to 'enjoy' it... ended up hating life, because he found it all so vain without God. Finally, life is only worth anything if lived for God. And people spend their lives trying to get just a fraction of Solomon's experiences. Solomon here says he hates life, but in :18 he defines this as meaning he hated all his labour / works which he had done. His life was his works. It was all about external achievement. He had no internal spiritual life or development to look back at. The New Testament puts works and grace in counterpoint. And Solomon knew nothing of grace, nothing of the spirit of David his father, who perceived that we can but accept grace, rather than attempt to justify ourselves by works. There must be far more to our lives than our works. For then we are but human doings rather than human beings.  

"The work that is worked" is the phrase used for how Israel were to "do your work" for six days and then observe the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12). That provision was to teach them that life is more than works; and the spirit of the Sabbath was to point forward to salvation by grace in Christ. This lesson was totally lost upon Solomon. The history of Israel repeatedly talked of how their salvation was the work which God worked (s.w. Dt. 11:3,7 etc.). But Solomon ignored God's work because he was so obsessed with his own work, passing off the work God worked as beyond understanding (Ecc. 3:11 s.w.). 


Ecc 2:18 I hated all my labour in which I laboured under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who comes after me-
See on :17. I will suggest on :21 that the labour in view may also be his labour for wisdom. In Ecc. 2:18,19 he laments that his labours will achieve nothing; doubtless alluding back to his words in Prov. 5:10, where he says that the Gentile wife will make the young Israelite's labours meaningless. Sin never satisfies. “Hell and destruction are never satisfied, and the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20 RV), Solomon wrote in his youth; and then in old age, he came to basically the same conclusion, having spent his life working back to the truth that he had been taught in his youth (Ecc. 1:8; 4:8). And there are many men and women who have done the same. We all tend to be empirical learners; and yet this is the great power of God’s word, that through it we need not have to learn everything through our failures; but we can receive His Truth, trust it, and simply live by it. Otherwise we shall be like Solomon… 


Ecc 2:19 Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have rule over all of my labour in which I have laboured, and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity-
Again we see Solomon's fear that his inheritance would be wasted by his son Rehoboam. And he likely had many sons by his many wives, whom he considered fools. If his focus had been upon the fulfilment of the promises to David through a Davidic line [through Solomon] culminating in Messiah, he would have perhaps not struggled so much with this issue of having to leave everything to an heir. But he considered himself the fulfilment of the promises about the great son of David. So to now have to leave his labours to his own possibly unwise son... was a crushing anticlimax.

He had spoken in Proverbs of bringing up a child in the way he should go; whereas by the time of Ecc. 2:19 and his experience with his own children, he comments about his heir: “Who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?”. He simply didn’t see the relevance of his wisdom to his own personal family life. Yet he proudly insisted: “Who is as the wise man?”, as if the possession of theoretical truth and wisdom was the ultimate possession; and he then goes on to say that this made him beyond criticism (Ecc. 8:2-4). This surely must be a danger for any community or individual who considers they have “the truth” and who considers the possession of it to be of the utmost importance. 


Ecc 2:20 Therefore I began to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labour in which I had laboured-
Solomon's complaint  at  the  pointlessness  of  wisdom in Ecc. 2:15-20 is liberally sprinkled with personal pronouns; his self-centeredness was  part  of  his materialism and lack of faith in the Kingdom. And  for us too, familiarity with the glorious principles of Divine  Truth  with which we have been entrusted can lead us to the  blasphemy of saying, in effect, that those principles are unimportant;  they come to mean  little to us personally, and thereby we effectively deny their value and worth. "To despair" is the same word translated "without hope" (Is. 57:10; Jer. 2:25; 18:12). He had no hope beyond the grave exactly because he had vainly sought justification by works rather than by grace.

Under the sun-
As explained on Ecc. 1:2, I do not see any dialectical argument in Ecclesiastes, oscillating between life "under the sin" and on another hand, some more spiritual perspective. That other perspective is not made clear nor defined. I suggested that Solomon is talking about his life, in his old age position of having turned his heart away from Yahweh and to idols. I suggest it is simply a phrase used by Solomon to describe "life", perhaps influenced by his Egyptian wives, who at this point had turned his heart away from Yahweh to their idols, of which "the sun" was one of the most significant. It may well be a phrase taken from the Egyptian wisdom literature which had influenced Solomon. The only other Biblical usage of the phrase outside of Ecclesiastes is in 2 Sam. 12:12, where the consequences of David's sin with Solomon's mother were to be worked out openly and publically "under the sun". It could be that despite trying to whitewash David and his sin in Proverbs, Solomon at the end of his life feels he is for ever living with the consequence of that sin of his parents; and thus he blames everything he sees as wrong with his life upon that. This would be a typical thing for a man to do, in psychological terms. And I have noted throughout Proverbs how often Solomon is having a dig at Absalom and others who played their part in the outworking of the consequences of the sin. See on :22.  


Ecc 2:21 For there is a man whose labour is with wisdom, with knowledge, and with skilfulness; yet he shall leave it for his portion to a man who has not laboured for it. This also is vanity and a great evil-
He refers to himself when he writes at the end of his life of the man whose labour is in wisdom [cp. his labouring to write out so many Proverbs], and yet it is all pointless in that he will leave it all to a fool after him- he had already seen the unspirituality of his children (Ecc. 2:21). This thinking reflects a perception that his wisdom was totally irrelevant to himself- he wrote it all down for others, but not for himself. Right at the end of Ecclesiastes he chuffles that he still preaches his wisdom to the youth, although he himself has the attitude that it is all meaningless. This is one explanation of the paradox within Ecclesiastes- the teaching of Divine truth, whilst lamenting the pointlessness of it.  

More than anything, Solomon was incurably selfish. Having spent his life writing and teaching wisdom, he makes one of his autobiographical comments: “There is a man whose labour is in wisdom…yet to man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Ecc. 2:21). Solomon saw “wisdom” as something he had worked for [forgetting it was God’s gracious gift to him], and he treated it as a material possession. Because he saw that he couldn’t take it with him, he felt therefore it was useless- he didn’t, it seems, want to leave it to his son because he felt it was only for him. This was the spirit of the man who buried his talent of Divine Truth in the ground and thought that would be enough- he wouldn’t risk it with others or share it with them. And so Solomon ended up hating all his labour for wisdom (Ecc. 2:18, 21) because at the end of his life that mere knowledge and teaching of it to others hadn’t transformed or immortalized his personal life. The rejected at the day of judgment may well, tragically, feel the same.

All the wisdom and relationship with God that a man develops in his life cannot benefit anyone else; each soul must discover for himself (Ecc. 2:21). The emphasis which we have always given to personal Bible study and a lack of authoritarian spiritual leaders is surely correct. It was God's will that Israel should be without a human king. Their lack of such human leadership is described as them each doing what was right in their own eyes. Far from being the negative comment this is often taken to be, the idea is surely that while they were without a human King, as God intended, the people did what was right in their own judgment; they worked out their own relationship with God for themselves. It is significant that a quarter of the names listed in Heb. 11 were from the period of the Judges, when there was no human King.  

Ecc 2:22 For what has a man of all his labour, and of the striving of his heart, in which he labours under the sun?-
As in :21, the labour in view is particularly Solomon's mental labour, striving in his heart, toward wisdom. He was given wisdom as a gift by Divine grace, but he ended up rejecting that and trying to work it all through in his own strength.

As members of His people, doing His will, the labour of our lives is not in vain, seeing it is done "in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). This provides a definition of life "under the sun"; it is life not lived "in the Lord". But see on :20. Paul seems to be alluding to the spirit of Ecclesiastes, which laments that all achievement and labour "under the sun", not "in the Lord", is so tragically vain; there is no sense of final achievement, and this nagging fear about the ultimate validity of life's work must plague all who live outside the sphere of God (Ecc. 1:9-11; 2:18-23). We could understand Paul as specifically disagreeing with Solomon’s attitude that all endeavour is vain.


Ecc 2:23 For all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity-
Solomon has been alluding to himself in the previous verses, lamenting his chasing after wisdom; and here he, the man with every available pleasure, laments that his days are full of sorrow and he can't sleep peacefully at night. Yet Solomon had prayed that when God's people were in grief and sorrow because of their sins, they could pray to God using his temple, and be forgiven and have their grief assuaged (2 Chron. 6:29). Yet in Ecc. 2:23, Solomon laments that all his days are spent in grief and sorrows (s.w.). The way out of the depression with which he ended his days was repentance and acceptance of God's free grace and forgiveness. But he refused to do this, and turned his heart away from Yahweh.     


Ecc 2:24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God-
Paul quotes Solomon's words in Ecc. 2:24 as the words of those who have no faith that there will be a resurrection (1 Cor. 15:32). The rich fool likewise disbelieved the resurrection, and his words also allude to those of Solomon (Lk. 12:19 = Ecc. 2:24; 11:9). The core problem with Solomon was that he refused any notion of being personally judged, and the hope of eternal life as a consequence for belief and action in this life. Solomon is arguing that a man should just enjoy life now and be satisfied with his work. Because work in the area of wisdom leads to grief and bad conscience about sin (see on :20-23). Solomon's attitude to work is out of step with the teaching in Genesis 3. Labour is a curse to man, and yet is pregnant with blessing if the victory of the seed of the woman is accepted. But Solomon had closed his mind to any future Messianic figure, considering himself to be that. And so his attitude to labour is mistaken. He considers it the best thing that can be done in a life lived without God. For he is writing this at a time when his heart was turned away from Yahweh to idols. And yet this raises the question as to how we are to understand his comment that "This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God". There is indeed so much better for a man than to just enjoy this life and live without God and the hope of resurrection and judgment. So it could be that as elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, this is Solomon referring to God with some sarcasm, as in :26, where he refers to God's gift of wisdom to a man like himself as vanity.    


Ecc 2:25 For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?-
In this we see the challenge of Solomon to us all. For he experienced, over a long, healthy lifetime, all the "enjoyment" which other men spend their lives trying to achieve just a fraction of. And yet it still filled his days with sorrow, without accepting God's ways for himself.  

Ecc 2:26 For to the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner He gives travail, to gather and to heap up, that He may give to him who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind-
Solomon has himself in view, as in :25. He pleased God by choosing wisdom and so was given it, as he was given joy by God (Song 3:11), but he comments that this is all vanity. Because God had also given him wealth, which he had gathered and heaped up in store cities [the same Hebrew word is used]; and he complains that this is God treating him as a sinner. For the "travail" is what he complains of in Ecc. 1:13; 2:23; 3:10; 4:4. This is the kind of sarcastic, blasphemous attitude to God which we noted on :24.

Contrary to what he states here, he wasn't given wisdom because he pleased God. He had already married a Gentile woman before he became king. Rather was he given wisdom by grace, as a gift, and not as a reward for his righteousness. Many passages in Solomon’s writings seem to indirectly and subtly justify himself. They may be perfectly true, reflecting the wisdom of God, and yet he was using his knowledge of God’s Truth to justify himself as being right- instead of being humbled by wisdom and the true knowledge of God. Consider: “God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom and knowledge” (Ecc. 2:26). He didn’t want to understand that God’s offer to him as a young man, and his grant to him of wisdom, was by pure grace. Solomon suggests that his mere possession of truth made him a “good” man.

It would seem from Ecclesiastes that Solomon lost any personal hope even of resurrection, and because of this he wonders why he ever initially had asked for wisdom: “I myself perceived that one event [death] happeneth to them all. Then said I in mine heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise?” (Ecc. 2:14,15 RV). “God giveth to the man that is good in his sight wisdom… this also is vanity” (Ecc. 2:26). This is a definite reference back to himself, who was given wisdom, and he considers the gift meaningless because the wise die the same death as the fool. So he now saw it as vanity, seeing there was no personal future hope. What this teaches us is that unless we personally believe we will be in the Kingdom, then all our wisdom is of no value to us personally... and in the end, we will like Solomon live a life that reflects this.