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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Ecclesiastes 2

Verses 1-3

Pleasure, Laughter, Wine and Madness

Ungrateful activities, fatigue, sorrow, grief, that is the sad conclusion of the wise in the previous chapter (Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 1:18). Well, he then said, let me only think of the nice things of life, things you can laugh about and that make you feel happy (Ecclesiastes 2:1-Leviticus :).

Solomon has spoken to himself (Ecclesiastes 2:1). “I said” means that he made a decision. With an encouraging “come now” he has stimulated himself to take action. He has surrendered his heart to “joy”, for that might give him satisfaction. He did not test his joy, but himself by surrendering to hedonism – which is the view that pleasure is the most important thing in life.

To stimulate his joy, he only looked at “the good”, the good things of life. He said to himself that he should be positive and not pay attention to all the misery around him. He pushed away his worries, ignores his painful experiences, and has made himself to believe: Look happy and feel happy and smile to life.

Solomon has kept this up for a while and put himself to the test to see if this gives him lasting happiness. But after a while he also had to say that it is “futility”. The pleasure evaporated and the harsh reality was seen again. Every human joy is spoiled by the awareness that it is not permanent (Proverbs 14:13). You can watch and listen to comedians and laugh uncontrollably at their jests and jokes. It works like a drug. For a moment you forget all the misery around you. But when the show is over, you are back in the middle of reality. Distraction and entertainment have no lasting effect. You are still as empty as before.

Neither “laughter” nor “pleasure” have been able to take away the terrible awareness of the meaninglessness of all his deeds (Ecclesiastes 2:2). Laughter sounds loud, but short. The sound disappears and nothing remains (Ecclesiastes 7:6). When life consists of laughter, it is “madness”. Someone who always laughs, looks more like a fool than a wise man.

Laughter is madness when people laugh at obscene jokes and sickening humor. Laughter is madness when it is linked to the loss of judgment skills and the boundary between good and evil is lost. The laugher draws the hard facts into a sea of frivolity.

When pleasure is a goal in itself, it achieves nothing. It does not free someone from the tormenting feeling of the meaninglessness of all our activities. He says of pleasure “what does it accomplish?”, by which he means that it does not accomplish anything. There is a temporary effect associated with pleasure. When someone is happy, it is pleasant for him (Proverbs 15:13; Proverbs 17:22), but it does not bring about any fundamental change in man and his circumstances.

Pleasure does not provide answers to the questions of life. The answer to the question is clear: all pleasure fails when it comes to meeting the needs of man who lives “under the sun” and has no relationship with God.

There is a joy that goes beyond a temporary pleasure with limited effect, and that also goes far beyond it. This joy lies outside the field of the vision of the Preacher and is connected to the Lord Jesus in glory. He who has a living relationship with Him can rejoice in Him, for He gives His joy to everyone who is connected with Him by faith (Philippians 4:4; John 15:11).

Solomon also tried wine to discover the influence it has on his mind (Ecclesiastes 2:3). With wine we can also think of everything that is good to drink and eat, the ‘good life’. Would the enjoyment of everything that caresses the taste buds give his heart the peace he was looking for? If you have some wine or a nice meal, you can feel physically well. You have the feeling that you have fire in your belly. For that you really do not have to eat and drink so much that you get intoxicated.

Solomon was so wise that he made sure he stayed sober. He remained master of his mind and enjoyed the good life as a true life artist, who manages to do everything proportionately. That has extended his enjoyment. He also avoided unpleasant consequences.

He has also took hold of folly to explore his mind. He has not behaved like a fool, for his wisdom has kept the control in his mind. He has held himself in control. Fools stuff themselves with food and drinks. That means enjoying briefly. By his gluttony the fool shortens the enjoyment of the thing, while he also vomits what he has stuffed himself with. Solomon would not have done this, for he has constantly kept himself in control.

He has done everything to find out “what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives”. He wanted to know where to get the highest good that gives the highest happiness to man. That is what he has been looking for and that is what all his efforts have gone for. He wanted to enjoy this throughout his life, during his life in this world. In order to know this happiness he has done all these things.

Verses 4-11

Great Works

Solomon enjoyed pleasure, joy, the good things and wine for his body, but found no lasting satisfaction. Therefore he started a next investigation in his search for the meaning of life. Would the making of great, impressive things perhaps give him the full happiness his heart was so looking for? Would an abundance of earthly goods and what he would accomplish with them give him lasting satisfaction?

No one but him was better able to gather and manage riches and to accomplish great things that the human ambition continuously intends to accomplish (2 Chronicles 9:22-Hosea :). Thus he set out to work and surrendered himself to building houses and planting all kinds of gardens with all kinds of fruit trees. He has become a master builder, a landowner and a producer of fruit.

In Ecclesiastes 2:4-2 Samuel : we see what Solomon was capable of. We see that he combined in himself the qualities of gifted people. He was a great architect, a classy gardener, an employer of a large company with a lot of staff, a landowner, a bank director, a concert owner and an art lover, enjoyer of life. But his conclusion is that it has all been “vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11), by which he means that it has not given a true fulfilment to life.

Solomon gives an overview of the “enlargement of his works” he has accomplished for himself – see the recurring “me” and “I” – to see if his heart could find undisturbed peace in them (Ecclesiastes 2:4). He has built “houses” for himself (1 Kings 7:1-Exodus :; 1 Kings 9:15-Psalms :; 2 Chronicles 8:3-Joshua :). Great leaders in the history of the world wanted to express their greatness in impressive buildings, among other things. “Vineyards” are described in Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 1:14; Song of Solomon 8:11). He was able to enjoy the wine. He did everything for himself: “I built … for myself”, “I planted … for myself”. In this way he continues in the following verses.

Like houses, also luxurious “gardens” contribute to the glory of kings (Ecclesiastes 2:5). The beautifully landscaped gardens with a choice of the most beautiful flowers were a lust for the eyes. The orchards with “all kinds of fruit trees” provided the most delicious fruit, a delight for the tongue and good for your health. He must have imported the fruit trees and immediately enjoyed it. Here the memory of Paradise comes to mind (Genesis 2:8). Walking in those gardens and orchards and eating the fruits must have been an extraordinarily relaxing experience.

He also provided for the construction of “ponds of water” (Nehemiah 2:14) so that “a forest of growing trees” could be irrigated (Ecclesiastes 2:6). The growing trees seem to be trees other than the fruit trees of Ecclesiastes 2:5. The idea has been raised that these were trees that could be used for building houses and ships and making musical instruments.

He had also surrounded himself with “male and female slaves” who served him to the full maximum and to whom he had entrusted the management of certain things in his house (Ecclesiastes 2:7). The children of these male and female slaves belonged to him automatically. In the long run, he always had an abundance of staff.

The “flocks and herds” he possessed surpassed in largeness those of all who preceded him in Jerusalem. It was an unprecedentedly large livestock. Because of this there was always abundant meat present.

He also “collected … silver and gold” for himself (Ecclesiastes 2:8) which indicates his great wealth (1 Kings 9:14; 1 Kings 9:281 Kings 10:14; 1 Kings 10:221 Kings 10:27; 2 Chronicles 1:15). The “treasures” came from “kings” of neighboring countries and from “provinces” conquered by him. They were eye-catching treasures. For the caress of the ear he let male and female singers to perform ‘live’ for him whenever he wanted. Beautiful music belongs to “the pleasures of men”.

Everything that is pleasing to a human child, in whatever area, he has enjoyed, so he can say that he has had pleasure in abundance. Solomon is a real bon vivant here. He also enjoyed sexual pleasure. His “many concubines” enabled him to do so. He understood the art of it and had the possibilities to do so.

As he became great (Ecclesiastes 1:16), his wealth also increased (Ecclesiastes 2:9; 2 Chronicles 9:22). He mentions once again that he has surpassed all who preceded him in Jerusalem. But he has not let all his wealth drive him mad either. It did not take control over him in such a way that it made him happy and made use of it in a sinful way. His wisdom had kept the upper hand. This enabled him to enjoy everything intensely, while at the same time recognizing its relative value.

He did not impose any restrictions on his eyes or his heart at all (Ecclesiastes 2:10). He has not kept his eyes form seeing anything they have desired to see. He has never said ‘no’ to his eyes. We must remember that it is not about looking at sinful things. He talks about everything he has made and purchased to get to know the meaning of life. His wisdom stood by him.

He did not withhold his heart “from any pleasure”. He has done everything that his heart has been able to rejoice. This joy he has found in everything he has made, for which he had worked. With a certain satisfaction he expresses what his part was in all his labor: it has given him pleasure in his heart. But is that what he was really looking for? Was this pleasure the meaning of existence?

In Ecclesiastes 2:11 he draws the conclusion. At the end of all his labor he looks back at all these works. He judges all that his hands had made and all that he had made while working. What is his conclusion? It “all was all vanity and striving after wind” and “there was no profit under the sun”. It is reminiscent of the Lord Jesus’ question: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36). Solomon’s answer to that question would be: ‘It would profit him nothing, nothing at all.’

After he has done everything he intended, he faces the result. Each and every one of them was an impressive achievement. We can ask ourselves which person is capable of such a thing. But however gifted and impressive his achievements may have been, he has failed to find the answer to the question of the true fulfilment of life. Also in view of eternity it has not brought him anything. Nothing of all his brainwork and all his labor is preserved.

The ‘pleasure in abundance’ has an expiration date. It is only a temporary and immediate pleasure. He has the advantage that everything he has undertaken has succeeded. In that sense he is happy with it. But none of that has lasting value. The only thing it has brought him is that pleasure. If that is all and there is nothing else left, if there is nothing of lasting value, it is miserable. The conclusion of all his efforts is no different from that of all his examination.

The question is always: what is life about? The message is, that we should not mix up the radiance of the glories of the world with true happiness. We may be happy with what we do, but we can never rest in it. Let the earth be the water vessel, not the source.

Only God can look back upon all His works and determine in truth and with complete satisfaction: “And behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Verses 12-17

Wisdom Excels Folly, but Is Also Vanity

The Preacher then turns his attention again “to consider wisdom” (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:16-Job :), but now to compare it with “madness and folly”, the counterparts of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:12). The reason for this comparison is the question that came to him as to what kind of man his successor would be. He has worked his way out to answer the question about the meaning of life. For this he created ‘great things’ for himself (Ecclesiastes 2:4). He can point to all these achievements. From this his successor can learn that the meaning of life is not in beautiful buildings and great wealth. When he takes this lesson to heart he shows that he has wisdom.

The big question, however, is how his successor will proceed. He will be confronted with the same question about the meaning of life. Will he then examine everything again and proceed in the same way as he, the Preacher, did? That will not be true, will it? Perhaps his successor will not find the question interesting at all, that he was so busy with. It may even be so bad that ‘the man after him’ in madness and folly destroys everything the Preacher has built.

The question of what his successor will do with what he has done, does not make him uncertain about the value of wisdom in relation to folly. His successor may be a fool who wants to re-invent the wheel because he does not want to learn anything from the Preacher’s wisdom, but it does not change the wisdom he himself has gained.

Wisdom always excels folly. That wisdom has excellence over foolishness is a fact that every wise man will notice and confirm. In the same way, light excels darkness. Wisdom is preferable to folly because wisdom gives a certain amount of light in life on earth, while folly hides a person in darkness, so that he does not know where he is or where he is going.

Some benefits of wisdom are mentioned later in this book, such as: wisdom gives success (Ecc10:10), protects (Ecclesiastes 7:12), gives power (Ecclesiastes 7:19) and illumination (Ecclesiastes 8:1) and is better than strength (Ecclesiastes 9:16). One is really a fool if he ignores that, or even despises it, and prefers to walk in darkness.

Wisdom has light (Ecclesiastes 2:13) and sight (Ecclesiastes 2:14). Every person has eyes in his head, but the wise man uses them. Because of this the wise man knows where he is walking and he sees where he is going. The fool “walks in darkness”, he is darkness and loves darkness (Ephesians 5:8; John 3:19). This distinction is useful for life on earth.

Yet this distinction has only a limited meaning. The advantage of the wise man is in the end not great, for he suffers the same fate as the fool. For example, the wise man may as well become ill, have an accident or suffer a loss as the fool. The “fate” is neutral, it has the general meaning of ‘something that happens’. It is an unplanned and unexpected event. This applies especially to death. It ‘befalls’ all people that they die.

The inevitability of death makes wisdom seem meaningless, for death is the great “equalizer” (cf. Psalms 49:10). In Ecclesiastes, death is not the transition to the hereafter, but the separation from the present and all the fruits it has sought to reap from its work.

When the Preacher realizes that the same fate as the fool befalls him, the question arises to him why he has been so extremely prudent (Ecclesiastes 2:15). Why has he made so much effort, why was he so diligently seeking to become wise? After all, it does not matter in the end. It helps you a bit in your life, but worldly wisdom does not prevent you from encountering the same fate that strikes the fool who has lived without sacrificing himself for anything or even taking notice of anything. Then he can only conclude one thing and that is that natural wisdom in earthly life is “vanity”, empty, without any lasting result, too.

In Ecclesiastes 2:16 the Preacher motivates his remark of Ecclesiastes 2:15. It is clear that the memory of a wise man like that of a fool fades away over time. They do not remain in memory forever. Matters that are talked about a lot in one generation are no longer mentioned in the next. They are simply forgotten, it is as if they have never been there. New persons and new things call for attention and suppress the memory of the old persons and things. Thus the wise man and the fool disappear from memory.

From the point of view of faith, there is a memory (Proverbs 10:7; Psalms 112:6; 1 Corinthians 11:24-Lamentations :). For the faith, there is also a difference in the death of the wise and the fool (cf. Genesis 18:23).

Considering all things, he can only hate life and all the work which has been done under the sun because he has not found in it the satisfaction he has expected to find in it. Therefore it seemed to him an evil work. He soon began to get tired of his beautiful houses and courts and waterworks. He has had enough of it. After a while he looks at it like children look at a toy they wanted, but after playing with it for a while they get tired of it and throw it away. The first pleasure is quickly gone and then they want something else.

It is a good thing to get to this point. We must first hate life before we find it (John 12:25). Life on this side of death is not a beautiful life, it is not something to love at the expense of eternity (1 Corinthians 15:19; Revelation 12:11). We must take hold of the true life (1 Timothy 6:12). Life only acquires meaning when the Lord Jesus appears in it. He gives life in abundance (John 10:10).

Verses 18-23

Labor Too Does Not Give Lasting Happiness

Hating life (Ecclesiastes 2:17) is followed by hating work. Working is as pointless as life, because you have to leave all your work behind, so what are you working for (Ecclesiastes 2:18; cf. Luke 12:13-Ecclesiastes :)? Solomon has created great buildings, such as houses, gardens, orchards. He can enjoy it for some time, but with his death it is over. There comes a moment when man loses control of his work and has to leave everything he has done to others.

Letting go is no fun indeed, but even worse is the tormenting question of who will continue with his legacy and especially how that person will deal with it (Ecclesiastes 2:19). One would wish to know for sure that he is leaving everything to someone who deals as wisely with it as he has done. Then that knowledge can at least give some satisfaction to his work. But there is no such knowledge.

What the wise man has acquired with his wise labor under the sun, can simply end up in the hands of a fool. Then the latter will have access to it. This thought shows that everything he has done to be “vanity”, which means that there is no guarantee of a good continuation. The Preacher’s fear has become reality. His son Rehoboam was a fool (1 Kings 11:41-John :; 1 Kings 12:1-Jeremiah :).

The thought of the possible uselessness of his work caused despair in his heart (Ecclesiastes 2:20). You cannot protect the results of your work from the abuse that others make of it. That is to become desperate of when you think of everything you have accomplished with hard work.

This (understandable) despair is quite different from the joy of the satisfaction he has sought in it. It is also quite different from the certainty that we may have that our work is not in vain if it is done for the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). Our work for the Lord is safe in His hands (2 Timothy 1:12). The same applies to those who will die in the great tribulation for the Lord’s sake. It is written of them: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, from now on. “Yes”, says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors; for their deeds follow with them”” (Revelation 14:13).

In Ecclesiastes 2:21, his heart regains some rest, that is to say, to resign to the inevitable. He becomes aware of the fact that it is the ordinary course of the life of a wise man under the sun. A wise man, as he is himself, works hard. He does not run like a madman through life, but works with wisdom. He considers every choice he has to make and makes the right choice. And then it turns out that he has expertise. He knows what his choice means. And that is not all. He also has the ability to put his wise choice and his knowledge into practice.

All in all, it has become clear that when you die you have to let go of everything and that someone else will take the advantages of the results of your work. This is a fact that you have to accept, but it is impossible for you to accept it as a righteous case. It makes your own work to be “vanity”, it has been for nothing. There is no lasting result for yourself, and the certainty that someone else will make wise use of it, is not granted to you. You can only call it “a great evil”.

So, “what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 2:22). The answer is: nothing, nothing at all. The Preacher can only repeat the conclusion he started with in Ecclesiastes 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:3).

In Ecclesiastes 2:23 follows the reason for his conclusion. We see this in the word “because” with which the verse begins. All the days of his efforts, however successful they may have been, he has felt suffering and sorrow. The uneasy feeling of a ‘mission impossible’ is always present underneath the skin in a hardworking person.

And, says the Preacher, when a man goes to bed tired after a hard day’s work, he cannot sleep well. His activities keep haunting his mind. The uncertainty of whether he will reach the goal he has set, gnaws at him. That is why his heart does not come to rest. The restlessness of life under the sun teases him even at night.

For those who are busy with the things of the Lord and go the way He shows, it is different. First of all, we see it in the Lord Jesus Himself. He has always done the Father’s will and has always gone the way that the Father has shown Him. That is why He was able to sleep, even in the midst of the storm (Mark 4:38). We also see this total rest with Peter when he is in prison, facing death (Acts 12:6).

Verses 24-26

Enjoy the Life That God Has Given

After the acquiescence in the previous verses, the Preacher now even comes to enjoy the good (Ecclesiastes 2:24). He calls not for the pursuit of worldly pleasures (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:32), or for an attitude of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-Ecclesiastes :), but for contentment (1 Timothy 4:4; 1 Timothy 6:6-Ruth :). The best use that man can make of his labor is to enjoy it himself (Ecclesiastes 3:12; Ecclesiastes 3:22Ecclesiastes 8:15). But he does not have that in his own hands either. The Preacher acknowledges that this too “is from the hand of God”.

Enjoying the good in creation is a great gift, the greatest that creation can give under the sun. Not only that the blessing comes from the hand of God, but also the enjoyment of the blessing.

Despite all the disappointment with regard to the desired lasting result of his work, Solomon enjoys its temporary blessing (Ecclesiastes 2:25). He, who has worked so hard for it, “eats and … has enjoyment” of what he has achieved. The real enjoyment, though limited to “under the sun”, can still be there if we accept it from the hand of God (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17-Psalms :).

God has a special relationship with “a person who is good to His sight” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). He has given “wisdom and knowledge and joy” to such a person. This man is “good” in God’s sight because this man has acknowledged to God that there is nothing good in him. Because of this God has given him a new life and thereby the wisdom and knowledge to live to His glory. To such a life He attaches joy.

But God treats the sinner differently. The sinner does not take life from the hand of God. He does not acknowledge that he is a sinner, but lives his own life, without taking into account the will of God. His life consists of gathering and collecting for himself. He is selfish. Although the sinner does not acknowledge this, it is God who enables him to perform these activities (cf. Daniel 5:23 ).

The sinner lives only for himself. However, God has determined it in such a way that what the sinner in his selfish collecting frenzy has destined for himself will end up in the hands of “the one who is good in God’s sight” (Proverbs 13:22; Proverbs 28:8; cf. Matthew 5:5; Luke 19:24). The sinner does not take this into account at all. The fact that his possessions end up with the righteous is a judgment God brings upon him.

How God will work that out, remains hidden, but it will happen. An example we see when Israel leaves Egypt after years of slavery. God tells His people to ask the Egyptians for all kinds of objects and clothing, by which they rob the Egyptians (Exodus 3:21-Song of Solomon :; Exodus 12:36).

Here Solomon speaks of “God’s sight”, which means that he now speaks of ‘above the sun’. But he speaks of God in no other way than the two times he spoke of ‘God’ (Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 2:24). Again, there is no living relationship between man and God. It is still, just like everywhere else in this book, about God as the Creator Who controls the whole universe. Solomon views life as a believer and not as an atheist, but as a believer who, in his view of life, considers everything only horizontally.

This is also evident from the conclusion. It may be that what the sinner has gathered may come into the hands of the one who is good in God’s sight, but what’s the benefit of it in a man’s life? Does this arrangement of the government of God have lasting consequences for the life of man on earth? No, because he does not look over the edge of his existence on earth and that is why the conclusion is also here: “This too is vanity and striving after wind.”

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 2". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/ecclesiastes-2.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniƫl', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.