Ecclesiastes 1:12 to 2:11
Philippe R. Sterling
On an edition of the TV show NFL Today Deion Sanders and Dan Marino found themselves arguing on the air. The bone of contention was Lawrence Taylor’s book LT: Over the Edge – a controversial account of Taylor’s years in the National Football League. Taylor admitted he had often been out of control, addicted to cocaine and a hard-partying lifestyle that led to a bitter divorce, numerous arrests, financial ruin, broken health, and deep depression. He went on to describe the excesses of other NFL players.
As Sanders and Marino discussed the book on the air, Marino expressed surprise at some of the revelations in Taylor’s book and indicated that such things didn’t happen when he was quarterback. When Sanders scoffed at Marino’s incredulity, Marino took offense. “Why are you saying I’m naïve?” he retorted.
Deion replied, “Don’t tell me you don’t know what goes on in the NFL. You don’t know guys get high and guys do everything under the sun? Twenty-year-old or thirty-year-old guys with millions of dollars – that equals destruction. So you can’t sit up here and tell me that you were immune to that stuff.”
I find it interesting that Sanders reached back three thousand years for Solomon’s phrase to describe the lives of modern athletes. Whether modern athlete or ancient king, you can try everything “under the sun,” but none of it ultimately satisfies or give meaning. None of it! To drive home his point, Solomon recounts some of his own experiences under the sun. [King’s Quest for Meaning]
Quest for Meaning through Wisdom
The Seeker (1:12)
The seeker reminds us of his identity. We know that he had as much wisdom as a man has ever had. And he was the great king over all of Israel. He had the brains and the bucks to make a full investigation of all things.
The Search (1:13-15)
With wisdom he searches everything that is done under the sun. This exploration is “a grievous task” given to the “sons of Adam.” Thinking back to Adam, we realize that God did indeed give to Adam the task of searching out by wisdom all of God’s works. But this task is a grievous task for the children of Adam because we labor under the curse. Life has become crooked because of the curse and we cannot straighten it out. We are missing what we need to do what God created us to do. God ordained our problems so that we would never be satisfied with our lives on earth; they are part of the purposeful discipline which He imposed upon us as the sequel to the fall.
The Summary (1:16-18)
Solomon ends the first chapter of Ecclesiastes by describing the futility of searching for meaning through learning. His wisdom was legendary. Yet to his surprise, the more he learned, the emptier he felt.
He’s not alone. A few years ago, in his monthly letter from Focus on the Family ministry, Dr. James Dobson told the story of Karen Cheng, age seventeen, from Fremont, California. She achieved a perfect score of 800 on both sections of the SAT test. She also got a perfect 8,000 on the rigorous University of California acceptance index. Never before had anyone accomplished this staggering intellectual feat.
Karen, a straight-A student at Mission San Jose High School, described herself as a typical teenager who munches on junk food and talks for hours on the telephone. She even claimed to be a procrastinator who didn’t do her homework until the last minute.
Karen’s teachers told a different story. They called her “Wonder Woman” because of her unquenchable thirst for knowledge and her uncanny ability to retain whatever she read. But when a reporter asked her, “What is the meaning of life?” Karen’s reply was surprising. “I have no idea,” she answered. “I would like to know myself.” T. S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”
Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we’re thankful for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries. Yet there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry and diseased and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.
The seeker reflects on the results of his search for meaning through wisdom. There was no one wiser or more powerful (16a). He conducted the experiment rigorously and exhaustively (16b). Yet he found no profit in wisdom but only sorrow (17b, 18). The only thing wisdom does is tell the wise man that life is full of pain and sorrow. He is tempted to conclude that there is no advantage to wisdom. He will eventually conclude that there is a limited advantage to wisdom under the sin. Before he returns to the question of wisdom he explores the benefits of pleasure. Perhaps there he will find the antidote to the pain wisdom has brought him.
Quest for Meaning through Pleasure
Forward into the second chapter of Ecclesiastes comes the weary king, prolonging his quest for meaning. Education proved fruitless, but perhaps he’ll find what he seeks in reckless abandon. These verses sound like a report from one of our tabloids or celebrity magazines.
Ernest Hemingway was the great example of twentieth-century man. He filled many books with reflections of his worldwide adventures. He might be found sipping champagne in Paris, hunting grizzly bears in Alaska, running with the bulls in Spain, fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys. He lived the fullest life imaginable – under the sun. Yet the time closed in upon him when he chose to end his own life. His suicide note read, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”
Her parents christened her Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone – but the world has been on a first name basis with Madonna since she took the record industry by storm in the early 1980s. She has become the icon of the outrageous, parlaying what industry experts call only average talent into extraordinary profit and shocking as many people as she can along the way. The self-proclaimed “boy toy” and “material girl” pursues the pleasures of life in the fast lane as if there is no tomorrow. Forbes magazine called her “the smartest business woman in America” and since her I.Q. is nearly 150, many think she is. In five years she made $125 million through music, acting, merchandising, and endorsements.
I can think of few modern personalities who seem to live for pleasure more than Madonna. If a hedonist is one who lives by the creed, “If it pleases me, I’ll do it,” then Madonna is the rightful queen of hedonism. Yet in personal interviews she has said that she is not happy, that she doesn’t know anyone who is, and that her only goal in life is to “be somebody.”
The Summary (2:1-3)
The seeker tests himself with pleasure and concludes that it is all futility (2:1-3). To pursue his search, he recreates a second Garden of Eden (2:4-11).
The Search (2:4-11)
Consider the similarities of vocabulary between 2:4-6 and Genesis 1 and 2: to plant, garden, tree, fruit, to irrigate, to sprout, to work and make. In fact, the “gardens” of Ecclesiastes 2:5 are translated into the Greek as “paradises,” the same word used for the Garden of Eden and the place where the thief on the cross went with Jesus.
With that in mind, consider what the seeker claimed to do. I planted vineyards for myself – just as God had planted a garden and put Adam in it to tend and keep it. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted all kinds of fruit trees – just as God did on Day 3 of creation. I made ponds of water from which to irrigate a forest – just as God watered the Garden of Eden with mist from the ground and four rivers. The seeker is mimicking God and creating a second paradise. He seeks to put creation in order for his own benefit. And he almost succeeds. His heart rejoiced in all his labor and this was his reward (2:10). That is, he had a similar pleasure as God looking at His creation and pronouncing it all “very good.” But then the seeker looked again (2:11). He blinked and it was all gone and he saw his work for what it truly was, vanity and grasping for wind. There was no profit in it because it would not remain.
Solomon did all of his pleasure seeking with a measure of temperance. He was a “controlled” party animal, but that didn’t make him happy. Instead, he experienced the immutable law of diminishing returns [Pleasure Seeker’s Cycle]. He did not withhold anything from himself. He did not tell himself no. And soon, what used to satisfy became ho-hum, commonplace, boring. So he allowed himself a little more – a little more wine, a little more food, another concubine – or two, or ten. Maybe you do not have a wine cellar like Solomon’s – or a team of iron chefs ready to tickle your palate with the latest culinary delights – but the law of diminishing returns is easily illustrated in other ways.
For example I have heard that there are golfers, and then there are golfers. Some people out there are passionately committed to the game. They have a bumper sticker on their cars that say: “Life is a game – golf is serious.” They might have started playing with borrowed clubs and make-shift attire – but now they have gone far beyond that first stage. The time comes when only Ping irons will do. And Callaway woods. Graphite shafts become essential. Without these “necessities” the game just isn’t fun anymore. These golfers cannot get excited about a 7 a.m. tee time at the city course. But just watch their eyes light up when they tell you they have played the Masters, Pebble Beach – or better yet, the Plantation on Maui. Or that they are members of the most exclusive club in their state. Get the picture? The law of diminishing returns says the same effort produces less satisfaction. So we put more into our passion – whatever it may be – just to enjoy it as much as we did yesterday.
From partying, Solomon the pleasure-seeker moved on to projects. He built houses, home, offices – his portfolio of construction projects would make Donald Trump’s operation look small-time. Wealthy men and women through the ages have undertaken building projects, leaving behind colossal monuments to their wealth and creativity. Have you ever seen the Mellon or Rockefeller estates? Or San Simeon, the California castle of William Randolph Hearst? They have built great retreats, study centers, libraries, and gardens for themselves. The projects are beautiful, but they probably did not satisfy their builders’ tastes for pleasure any more than Solomon’s did.
We can’t get no satisfaction.
The title of this section is borrowed from a song that was popular some years ago. While it may not be proper grammar, it does accurately express the age-old lament of man. What Mick Jagger and Keith Richards expressed in a rock song, King Solomon expressed in Scripture.
I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no
When I'm drivin' in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He's tellin' me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can't get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that's what I say . . .
I can't get no, I can't get no
I can't get no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction, no satisfaction
Solomon’s experiment shows the real need. God needs to make a new creation and pronounce it good. A real second Adam, without the tainted seed of the first, needs to come to bring order to creation and take delight in it. Thus, the book becomes a cry for the work of Christ.
Quest for Meaning through Christ
Praise God that things will not remain wearisome. God has prepared wonderful new things for those who fear Him. He promises to make us new (1 Thess 5:17). He promises to give us a new name (Rev 2:17). He will make a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). He will give us a new city (Rev 21:2). He will make all things new (Rev 21:5). All things are grievous under the sun; all things are made new in the Son. God promises not temporary gratification, but lasting joy. He promises a place with Jesus, in whose presence is fullness of joy, and in whose right hand are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).
Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is.
-- Colossians 3:1