In the previous portion of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher highlighted the crookedness of man. Autonomous humanity cannot fix himself. God curses him, and only God can remove it. For the Preacher, this fact was vexing as well since he could identify the root problem but not solve it. His vexation is pregnant with messianic hope.
Now, the Preacher continues the investigation of attempted man-centered solutions to remove God’s curse. Can pleasure give an escape? Will wisdom reveal the way? Is it possible to leave a legacy? Is the man-centered hope of escapism possible?
Drilling deeper into escapism
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
The Preacher here is assuming the crookedness of man that we discussed previously—the morally bent nature of people due to the curse of God.
Before, the Preacher established the root problem of man with Solomonic-wisdom and the frustration of not having a solution (yet). Now, he drills down deeper to flesh out this idea of vanity—life under the curse of God.
What’s the hypothesis?
As we mentioned last time, until Christ comes to accomplish His redemptive work, there is no solution for the Preacher. With that vexation, his question changes. No longer is it, “how can I change this,” but now, “can we escape vanity in pleasure?”
Specifically, the Preacher doesn’t focus primarily on the pursuit of productivity and accumulation, rather the enjoyment of those things. Will seeking pleasure as the goal lessen the sorrow of God’s curse? Is pleasure possible?
Preacher’s point of view
Some have taken this section of the Preacher’s investigation into life “under heaven,” as an abandonment into wantonness seeking of pleasure. Others have taken the view that he pursues this testing of pleasure as an unbeliever, shedding off Solomonic-wisdom.
What he is doing is testing the man-centered solution of “pleasure above all” while applying it with Solomonic-wisdom. He is testing the “answer” of the humanist sages (hedonists) to the problem of God’s curse, but with the ethics and wisdom of Scripture. How do we know?
“I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” – Ecclesiastes 2:3
“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” – Ecclesiastes 2:9-10
The Preacher says his heart was guiding him with wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:3). First, this specific word for ‘wisdom’ (chokmâh) is always used in a positive light. He also states that wisdom remained with him through his trial test (v. 9). Second, the activities that the Preacher undertakes are legitimate in God’s world and cultural mandate, and he admits that pleasure was gained from them (v. 10).
He is not criticizing the activities nor pleasure, but sets out to answer, “Will escapism save man from his woes?”
Pleasure isn’t an answer
The answer is no. Pleasure does not relieve the sorrow of our crookedness, God’s curse. In the use of Solomonic-wisdom to indeed find a solution, he still assumes the humanistic premise, that God is not a part of the answer. This approach is summed up by the proverb,
“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” – Proverbs 26:5
We know he is testing the man-centered solution of “salvation by pleasure,” since he uses the word “toil” (âmâl) again, which are works disconnected from obedient faith in God. Hedonism is not a succesful path of escapism.
The progression of the Preacher’s investigation
Sometimes, the pattern of progression in Ecclesiastes goes unnoticed. Glossing it over isn’t necessarily because of deficiency in intelligence or morality, although it can be.
Every section we cover is pushing further into the curse, the attempts of man to solve it without God, and the resulting vanity. Michael W. Kelley writes,
In this context (of verses 1:12–3:15) the Preacher takes his overriding concern, the powerlessness of the wise, through a series of reflections on the problem towards an intended conclusion. Each group of sub-verses along the route pushes the issue relentlessly in the direction he wishes it to go. These groupings of his thought are not unrelated but are designed to examine the humanist’s dilemma from a select number of acute angles. He means to assault the major props on which man seeks to rest his self-declared autonomy from God. His purpose is to leave no escape for secular man except to take account of the God of the covenant.
- The Burden of God, pp 79
Understanding the logical and systematic flow of Ecclesiastes helps to understand what exactly this book reveals for our benefit and God’s glory. The book gains concreteness for application in our lives.
To be wise or a fool?
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. – Ecclesiastes 2:12
Moving on from the failed attempt of pleasure in soothing the sorrow of God’s curse, the Preacher presses on in testing the hypothesis. In Ecclesiastes 2:12-16, he compares the life of the foolish and wise person. Remember he is not comparing wisdom vs. foolishness, but comparing the life of a fool against the life of a wise man.
Stumbling fools, and the perceiving wise
Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. – Ecclesiastes 2:13-14
First, the Preacher admits that wisdom is advantageous. He equates wisdom with ‘eyes’ and light. Whereas foolishness is darkness, and we can infer that it is blind as well. This ‘wisdom’ he is extolling is none other than Solomonic-wisdom. We have covered that wisdom that is not faithful to God in its ethics and ideals is vain, mist, useless. Consider the following texts:
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” – Psalms 119:105
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,…” – Isaiah 42:6
Solomonic-wisdom, which is wisdom in submission to God, brings light because its beginning is revelation (Proverbs 1:7). Will this wisdom that gives eyes and shines light be enough to deal with man’s problem effectively? Again, he answers no: “…the same event happens to all of them” (v. 14).
The fruit of wisdom and foolishness
“Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.
For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!”
Second, even with the advantages, the result is the same as foolishness for wisdom without God; “there is no enduring remembrance … in the days to come all will have been long forgotten,” and the “wise dies just like the fool!” It’s not an argument for relativism, “all is moral,” but that the consequence of humanity’s rebellion tallies up to death, and proceeding generations are no longer thankful for the previous generation’s accomplishments.
Woe is me! The spirit of pessimistic escapism
So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:17
This verse encapsulates the theme of vv. 18-23. Humanistic men attempt to get out from underneath God’s curse but always fail. Memorialism (living for legacy), Hedonism (living for pleasure), and Sophistry (living for ‘wisdom’) all end in Nihilism (fatalistic pessimism). After a time, proponents (individuals and nations) of failed messianic delusions apostatize from their humanistic faith and hate life (v. 17).
Inheritance in God’s world
So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:20-21, 26
The frustration and sorrow of this narrative belong to “the sinner.” The great evil he faces is not fading away in death, and yet the treasure that goes beyond him goes to someone else to enjoy. If it is his heirs that gain the unearned wealth, then we can expect their crookedness to use it to their liking irrespective of how their parents would have wished.
This portion of Ecclesiastes is an encouragement for us, for two reasons. First, God gives, both in history and the eschaton, the treasure of the wicked to the “one who pleases God” (v. 26). It is one of his providential means of fulfilling His promise, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). We are also taught this elsewhere in Scripture:
“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” – Proverbs 13:22
“Though he heap up silver like dust, and pile up clothing like clay, he may pile it up, but the righteous will wear it, and the innocent will divide the silver.” – Job 27:16-17
Second, there is a cap on the amount and duration of the sinner’s wealth. This limitation via wealth transfer has carried on ever since Christ bound the strongman and took ownership over his possessions (Mark 3:26-27).
Remember when and where we are
For a refresher, let’s remember the historical context. Powerful nations surrounded Israel after her return from the exile. The nation often fell into disobedience and was tempted by the pagan gods of her neighbors due to their power and prominence.
The Preacher’s concern is the abandonment of God’s covenant by the people. He warns that abandoning the ethics and wisdom of God’s Covenant of Grace is to step into a world of curse and it’s consequences.
The book also presents positive things about God, albeit they are hard to see because the book is mainly a critique. God is just in His providential sanction of vanity upon rebellious man. God is gracious, joining Himself to a people by the Covenant of Grace. He blesses covenant-keepers by equipping them with ethics (God’s Law) and wisdom (God’s revelation).
So what? (application)
Unlike the covenant-breaking people who hate life (v. 17), we can be patient in dealing with a world affected by the curse because we have hope.
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” – Psalm 37:7
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” – Romans 12:11-13
Patient hope is service-oriented. To be pessimistic, self-centered, and service-less towards your neighbor is acting like those who hate life.
Generating generational capital
The ability and means for inheritance.
I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, granting an inheritance to those who love me, and filling their treasuries. – Proverbs 8:20-21
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous. – Proverbs 13:22
With the straightening of the ‘crookedness’ (Ecclesiastes 1:15) in man by Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), there is a higher potential for fostering multi-generational wealth. The redeemed family is a trustee family.
One way to set up your trustee-family is by utilizing the Infinite Banking Concept (IBC). For a simplified explanation, it’s leveraging dividend-paying whole-life insurance as a personal bank. It’s a non-taxable way to pass on inheritance as well.
Preparing for stewardship
“If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness. An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end.” – Proverbs 20:20-21
“Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” – Proverbs 13:11
A trustee-family will train its members in a few things. First, quick wealth is destructive. Wealth is a tool for an end, and the more significant sets of tools you have, the more responsibility you have before God. Great wealth requires wisdom in relationships, investment, and ethics. Cultivate these skills before banking on quick riches. An lust for get-rich-quick schemes are nothing but a form of escapism.
Second, understand the proper usage of windfall money. Windfall money is a sudden and unexpected increase. If you find yourself a recipient of said windfall money, consider these steps:
- Is the money titheable (bonus, influx on commission earning, etc.)? Pay the tithes. Is it a gift or inheritance? Then it is not required to be tithed.
- Do you currently have debts that limit your efforts to expand the wealth of your trustee-family and the service for God’s Kingdom that wealth allows? If so, pay it down. As Scripture teaches,
- The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. – Proverbs 22:7
- Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-22
- How can you invest this money to expand the wealth of the righteous? All wealth acquired is ultimately God’s, and we are merely stewards providentially called to handle it.
- Are the agencies, groups, or individuals who are obeying Christ’s Great Commission in expanding the Kingdom in various industries? Consider giving free-will offerings.
- Is there any worthy-poor in your community? How can your alms help them move from poverty to productivity?
Windfall funds test maturity, grant greater levels of stewardship and allow for the creation and funding of Kingdom building initiatives.
The Preacher has systematically dealt with approaches to either remove or lighten the weight of God’s curse on man, they provide no footing for escapism. In vv. 24-26, we have seen a shift. He starts to focus in on the the positive answer that Solomonic-wisdom has to give regarding God’s curse. We will see the total difference between the two worldviews in our next exposition.