Posted: 15 Apr 2011 12:00 AM PDT
BEFORE PROBING THE ARGUMENT OF Ecclesiastes 2, I must pick up one line from chapter 1. Setting himself to explore by wisdom "all that is done under heaven," the Teacher concludes, "What a heavy burden God has laid on men!" (Eccl. 1:13). Some might think this utterance springs more from bitterness than from faith, but at least it demonstrates that Qoheleth never descends into atheism. Yet those who read Ecclesiastes within the framework of the whole Bible cannot fail to see something more. This side of the Fall, God has indeed imposed on the created order an intentional discipline, a purposeful curse. Paul understands this and may be thinking of Ecclesiastes when he writes, "For the creation was subjected to frustration [or futility, or vanity, or meaninglessness], not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay" (Rom. 8:20–21).
So now the Teacher begins his exploration of various domains:
(a) He pursues pleasure and wine (Eccl. 2:1–3). It is not that pleasure is never pleasurable, but that the more you chase it the more it disappears before your face, and you are "chasing after the wind" (Eccl. 1:17). It is such an ephemeral and unsatisfying thing for people to pursue "during the few days of their lives" (Eccl. 2:3).
(b) So he turns to building a vast estate, with all the pleasures tied to success and money. He is honest enough to testify that his heart took delight in his work, and this delight was the reward of his labor (Eccl. 2:10). Yet he looks back on his projects, at everything he had "toiled to achieve" (Eccl. 2:11), and he knows they have no eternal significance; they too are "meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Eccl. 2:11). He has to leave them all behind, whether his heir is a wise man or a fool (Eccl. 2:19).
(c) Even the pursuit of wisdom seems futile (Eccl. 2:12–16). Both the wise and the fool end up dead; neither will be remembered very long after death. Qoheleth does not deny that wisdom is better than folly (Eccl. 2:13), but insists that death swamps both. Wisdom and folly do not exist by themselves; there are only wise human beings and foolish human beings, and all human beings die.
Yet the preliminary evaluation at the end of the chapter (Eccl. 2:24–26) anticipates arguments still to come. There is God-given pleasure in work and food and drink. Part of the problem lies in trying too hard, in trying to extract from these pleasures more significance than they can provide. They are genuine pleasures from God, and to "the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness," while the sinner's life is profoundly meaningless.
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