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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ecclesiastes 2

 

 


Verses 1-26

8

FIRST SECTION

The Quest Of The Chief Good In Wisdom And In Pleasure

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; Ecclesiastes 2:1-26

OPPRESSED by his profound sense of the vanity of the life which man lives amid the play of permanent natural forces, Coheleth sets out on the search for that true and supreme Good which it will be well for the sons of men to pursue through their brief day; the good which will sustain them under all their toils, and be "a portion" so large, and enduring as to satisfy even their vast desires.

The Quest in Wisdom. Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

1. And, as was natural in so wise a man, he turns first to Wisdom. He gives himself diligently to inquire into all the actions and toils of men. He will ascertain whether a larger acquaintance with their conditions, a deeper insight into the facts, a more just and complete estimate of their lot, will remove the depression which weighs upon his heart. He devotes himself earnestly to this Quest, and acquires a "greater wisdom than all who were before him."

This wisdom, however, is not a scientific knowledge of facts or of social and political laws, nor is it the result of philosophical speculations on "the first good or the first fair," or on the nature and constitution of man. It is the wisdom that is born of wide and varied experience, not of abstract study. He acquaints himself with the facts of human life, with the circumstances, thoughts, feelings, hopes, and aims of all sorts and conditions of men. He is fain to know "all that men do under the sun," "all that is done under heaven." Like the Arabian Caliph, "the good Haroun Alraschid," we may suppose that Coheleth goes forth in disguise to visit all quarters of the city; to talk with barbers, druggists, calenders, porters, with merchants and mariners, husbandmen and tradesmen, mechanics and artisans; to try conclusions with travellers and with the blunt wits of home keeping men. He will look with his own eyes and learn for himself what their lives are like, how they conceive of the human lot, and what, if any, are the mysteries which sadden and perplex them. He will ascertain whether they have any key that will unlock his perplexities, any wisdom that will solve his problems or help him to bear his burden with a more cheerful heart. Because his depression was fed by every fresh contemplation of the order of the universe, he turns from nature to "the proper study of mankind."

But this also he finds a heavy and disappointing task. After a wide and dispassionate scrutiny, when he has "seen much wisdom and knowledge," he concludes that man has no fair reward "for all his labour that he laboureth under the sun," that no wisdom avails to set straight that which is crooked in human affairs, or to supply that which is lacking in them. The sense of vanity bred by his contemplation of the steadfast round of nature only grows more profound and more painful as he reflects on the numberless and manifold disorders which afflict humanity. And hence, before he ventures on a new experiment, he makes a pathetic appeal to the heart which he had so earnestly applied to the search, and in which he had stored up so large and various a knowledge, and confesses that "even this is vexation of spirit," that "in much wisdom is much sadness," and that "to multiply knowledge is to multiply sorrow."

And whether we consider the nature of the case or the conditions of the time in which this Book was written, we shall not be surprised at the mournful conclusion to which he comes. For the time was full of cruel oppressions and wrongs. Life was insecure. To acquire property was to court extortion. The Hebrews, and even the conquering race which ruled them, were slaves to the caprice of satraps and magistrates whose days were wasted in revelry and in the unbridled indulgence of their lusts. And to go among the various conditions of men groaning under a despotism like that of the Turk, whose foot strikes with barrenness every spot on which it treads; to see all the fair rewards of honest toil withheld, the noble degraded and the foolish exalted, the righteous trodden down by the feet of the wicked; all this was not likely to quicken cheerful thoughts in a wise man’s heart: instead of solving, it could but complicate and darken the problems over which he was already brooding in despair.

And, apart from the special wrongs and oppressions of the time, it is inevitable that the thoughtful student of men and manners should become a sadder as he becomes a wiser man. To multiply knowledge, at least of this kind, is to multiply sorrow. We need not be cynics and leave our tub only to reflect on the dishonesty of our neighbours, we need only go through the world with open and observant eyes in order to learn that "in much wisdom is much sadness." Recall the wisest of modern times, those who have had the most intimate acquaintance with man and men, Goethe and Carlyle for example; are they not all touched with a profound sadness? Do they not look with some scorn on the common life of the mass of men, with its base passions and pleasures, struggles and rewards? and, in proportion as they have the spirit of Christ, is not their very scorn kindly, springing from a pity which lies deeper than itself? Did not even the Master Himself, though full of truth and grace, share their feeling as He saw publicans growing rich by extortion, hypocrites mounting to Moses’ chair, subtle, cruel foxes couched on thrones, scribes hiding the key of knowledge, and the blind multitude following their blind leaders into the ditch?

Nay, if we look out on the world of today, can we say that even the majority of men are wise and pure? Is it always the swift who win the race, and the strong who carry off the honours of the battle? Do none of our "intelligent lack bread," nor any of the learned favour? Are there no fools lifted to high places to show with how little wisdom the world is governed, and no brave and noble breasts dinted by the blows of hostile circumstances or wounded by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? Are all our workmen diligent, and all our masters fair? Are no false measures and balances known in our markets, and no frauds on our exchanges? Are none of our homes dungeons, with fathers and husbands for jailors? Do we never hear, as we stand without, the sound of cruel blows and the shrieks of tortured captives? Are there no hypocrites in our churches "that with devotion’s visage sugar o’er" a corrupt heart? And do the best men always gain the highest place and honour? Are there none in our midst who have to bear-

"The whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes"?

Alas, if we think to find the true good in a wide and varied knowledge of the conditions of men, their hopes and fears, their struggles and successes, their loves and hates, their rights and wrongs, their pleasures and their pains, we shall but share the defeat of the Preacher, and repeat his bitter cry, "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" For, as he himself implies at the very outset (Ecclesiastes 1:13), "this sore task," this eternal quest of a wisdom which will solve the problems and remove the inequalities of human life, is God’s gift to the children of men, -this search for a solution they never reach. Age after age, unwarned by the failure of those who took this road before them, they renew the hopeless quest.

The Quest in Pleasure. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

2. But if we cannot reach the object of our Quest in Wisdom, we may, perchance, find it in Pleasure. This experiment also the Preacher has tried, tried on the largest scale and under the most auspicious conditions. Wisdom failing to satisfy the large desires of his soul, or even to lift it from its depression, he turns to mirth. Once more, as he forthwith announces, he is disappointed in the result. He pronounces mirth a brief madness; in itself, like wisdom, a good, it is not the Chief Good; to make it supreme is to rob it of its natural charm.

Not content with this general verdict, however, he recounts the details of his experiment, that he may deter us from repeating it. Speaking in the person of Solomon and utilising the facts of his experience, Coheleth claims to have started in the quest with the greatest advantages; for "what can he do who cometh after the king whom they made king long ago?" He surrounded himself with all the luxuries of an Oriental prince, not out of any vulgar love of show and ostentation, nor out of any strong sensual addictions, but that he might discover wherein the secret and fascination of pleasure lay, and what it could do for a man who pursued it wisely. He built himself new, costly palaces, as the Sultan of Turkey used to do almost every year. He laid out paradises, planted them with vines and fruit trees of every sort, and large shady groves to screen off and to temper the heat of the sun. He dug great tanks and reservoirs of water, and cut channels which carried the cool vital stream through the gardens and to the roots of the trees. He bought men and maids, and surrounded himself with the retinue of servants and slaves requisite to keep his palaces and paradises in order, to serve his sumptuous tables, to swell his pomp: i.e., he gathered together such a train of ministers, attendants, domestics, indoor and outdoor slaves, as is still thought necessary to the dignity of an Oriental "lord." His herds of flocks, a main source of Oriental wealth, were of finer strain and larger in number than had been known before. He amassed enormous treasures of silver and gold, the common Oriental hoard. He collected the peculiar treasures "of kings and of the kingdoms"; whatever special commodity was yielded by any foreign land was caught up for his use by his officers or presented to him by his allies. He hired famous musicians and singers, and gave himself to those delights of harmony which have had a peculiar charm for the Hebrews of all ages. He crowded his harem with the beauties both of his own and of foreign lands. He withheld nothing from them that his eyes desired, and kept not his heart from any pleasure. He set himself seriously and intelligently to make happiness his portion; and, while cherishing or cheering his body with pleasures, he did not rush into them with the blind eagerness "whose violent property fore does itself" and defeats its own ends. His "mind guided him wisely" amid his delights; his "wisdom helped him" to select, and combine, and vary them, to enhance and prolong, their sweetness by a certain art and temperance in the enjoyment of them.

"He built his soul a lordly pleasure house,

Wherein at ease for aye to dwell:

He said ‘Oh, Soul, make merry and carouse,

Dear Soul, for all is well!’"

Alas, all was not well, though he took much pains to make and think it well. Even his choice delights soon palled upon his taste, and brought on conclusions of disgust. Even in his lordly pleasure house he was haunted by the grim, menacing spectres which troubled him before it was built. In the harem, in the paradise he had planted, under the groves, beside the fountains, at the sumptuous banquet, -a bursting bubble, a falling leaf, an empty wine cup, a passing blush, sufficed to bring back the thought of the brevity and the emptiness of life. When he had run the full career of pleasure, and turned to contemplate his delights and the labour they had cost him, he found that these also were vanity and vexation of spirit, that there was no "profit" in them, that they could not satisfy the deep, incessant craving of the soul for a true and lasting Good.

Is not his sad verdict as true as it is sad? We have not his wealth of resources. Nevertheless there may have been a time when our hearts were as intent on pleasure as was his. We may have pursued whatever sensuous, intellectual, or aesthetic excitements were open to us with a growing eagerness till we have lived in a whirl of craving and stimulating desire and indulgence, in which the claims of duty have been neglected and the rebukes of conscience unheeded. And if we have passed through this experience, if we have been carried for a time into this giddying round, have we not come out of it jaded, exhausted, despising ourselves for our folly, disgusted with what once seemed the very top and crown of delight? Do we not mourn, our after life through, over energies wasted and opportunities lost? Are we not sadder, if wiser, men for our brief frenzy? As we return to the sober duties and simple joys of life, do not we say to Mirth, "Thou art mad!" and to Pleasure, "What canst thou do for us?" Yes, our verdict is that of the Preacher, "Lo, this too is vanity!" Non enim hilaritate, nec lascivia, nec visu, aut joco, comite levitatis, sed soepe etiam tristes firmitate, et constantia sunt beati.

Wisdom and Mirth compared. Ecclesiastes 2:12-23

It is characteristic of the philosophic temper of our author, I think, that, after pronouncing Wisdom and Mirth vanities in which the true Good is not to be found, he does not at once proceed to try a new experiment, but pauses to compare these two "vanities," and to reason out his preference of one over the other. His vanity is wisdom. For it is only in one respect that he puts mirth and wisdom on an equality, viz., that they neither of them are, or lead up to, the supreme Good. In all other respects he affirms wisdom to be as much better than pleasure as light is better than darkness, as much better as it is to have eyes that see the light than to be blind and walk in a constant gloom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-14). It is because wisdom is a light and enables men to see that he accords it his preference. It is by the light of wisdom that he has learned the vanity of mirth, nay, the insufficiency of wisdom itself. But for that light he might still be pursuing pleasures which could not satisfy, or laboriously acquiring a knowledge which would only deepen his sadness. Wisdom had opened his eyes to see that he must seek the Good which gives rest and peace in other regions. He no longer goes on his quest in utter blindness, with all the world before him where to choose, but with no indication of the course he should, or should not, take. He has already learned that two large provinces of human life will not yield him what he seeks, that he must expend no more of his brief day and failing energies on these.

Therefore wisdom is better than mirth. Nevertheless it is not best, nor can it remove the dejections of a thoughtful heart. Somewhere there is, there must be, that which is better still. For wisdom cannot explain to him why the same fate should befall both the sage and the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:15), nor can it abate the anger that burns within him against an injustice so obvious and flagrant. Wisdom cannot even explain why, even if the sage must die no less than the fool, both must be forgotten well-nigh as soon as they are gone (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17); nor can it soften the hatred of life and its labours which this lesser yet patent injustice has kindled in his heart. Nay, wisdom, for all so brightly as it shines, throws no light on an injustice which, if of lower degree, frets and perplexes his mind, -why a man who has laboured prudently and dexterously and has acquired great gains should, when he dies, leave all to one who has not laboured therein, without even the poor consolation of knowing whether he will be a wise man or an idiot (Ecclesiastes 2:19-21). In short, the whole skein of life is in a dismal tangle which wisdom itself, dearly as he loves it, cannot unravel; and the tangle is that man has no fair "profit" from his labours, "since his task grieveth and vexeth him all his days, and even at night his heart hath no rest"; and when he dies he loses all his gains, such as they are, forever, and cannot so much as be sure that his heir will be any the better for them. "This also is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).

The Conclusion. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

And yet, good things are surely good, and there is a wise and gracious enjoyment of earthly delights. It is right that a man should eat and drink, and take a natural pleasure in his toils and gains. Who, indeed, has a stronger claim than the labourer himself to eat and enjoy the fruit of his labours? Still, even this natural enjoyment is the gift of God; apart from His blessing the heaviest toils will produce but a scanty harvest, and the faculty of enjoying that harvest may be lacking. It is lacking to the sinner; his task is to heap up gains which the good will inherit. But he that is good before God will have the gains of the sinner added to his own, with wisdom to enjoy both. This, whatever appearances may sometimes suggest, is the law of God’s giving: that the good shall have abundance, while the bad lack; that more shall be given to him who has wisdom to use what he has aright, while from him who is destitute of this wisdom, even that which he hath shall be taken away. Nevertheless even this wise use and enjoyment of temporal good does not and cannot satisfy the craving heart of man; even this, when it is made the ruling aim and chief good of life, is vexation of spirit.

Thus the First Act of the Drama closes with a negative. The moral problem is as far from being solved as at the outset. All we have learned is that one or two avenues along which we urge the quest will not lead us to the end we seek. As yet the Preacher has only the ad interim conclusion to offer us, that both Wisdom and Mirth are good, though neither, nor both combined, is the supreme Good; that we are therefore to acquire wisdom and knowledge, and to blend pleasure with our toils; that we are to believe pleasure and wisdom to be the gifts of God, to believe also that they are bestowed, not in caprice, but according to a law which deals out good to the good and evil to the evil. We shall have other opportunities of weighing and appraising his counsel-it is often repeated-and of seeing how it works into and forms part of Coheleth’s final solution of the painful riddle of the earth, the baffling mystery of life.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ecclesiastes-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, August 13th, 2020
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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