Ecclesiastes Chapter 2

CHAPTER II.

The wise man, having found that wisdom brought with it but increased sorrow, turns to the other side -- to all those pleasures that the flesh, as we speak, enjoys. Still, he gives us, as in chap. i., the result of his search before he describes it: "I said in my heart, 'Go to now; I will prove thee [that is, I will see if I cannot satisfy thee,] with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure': and behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, 'it is mad'; and of mirth, 'what doeth it?'" For he now has tried wine, the occupation of laying out of vineyards, gardens, parks, the forming of lakes, and the building of houses, all filled without stint, with every thing that sense could crave, or the soul of man could enjoy. The resources at his command are practically limitless, and so he works on and rejoices in the labor, apparently with the idea that now the craving within can be satisfied, now he is on the road to rest. Soon he will look round on the result of all his work, and be able to say, "All is very good; I can now rest in the full enjoyment of my labor and be satisfied." But when he does reach the end, when every pleasure tried, every beauty of surrounding created, and he expects to eat the fruit of his work, instantly his mouth is filled with rottenness and decay. "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit; and there was no profit under the sun." Thus he groans again,-- a groan that has been echoed and re-echoed all down the ages from every heart that has tried to fill the same void by the same means.

Ah! wise and glorious Preacher, it is a large place thou art seeking to fill. "Free and boundless its desires." Deeper, wider, broader than the whole world, which is at thy disposal to fill it. And thou mayest well say, "What can the man do that cometh after the king?" for thou hadst the whole world and the glory of it at thy command in thy day, and did it enable thee to fill those "free and boundless desires"? No, indeed. After all is cast into that hungry pit, yawning and empty it is still. Look well on this picture, my soul; ponder it in the secret place of God's presence, and ask Him to write it indelibly on thy heart that thou forget it not. Then turn and listen to this sweet voice: "If any man thirst" (and what man does not?) "let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Thirst not only quenched, but water to spare for other thirsting ones,--the void not only filled, but running over with a constant flow of blessing. Who can express the glories of that contrast?

Pause, beloved reader: turn your eyes from the page, and dwell on it in thy spirit a little. What a difference between "no profit under the sun" and "never thirst"! -- a difference entirely due simply to coming to Him--Jesus. Not a coming once and then departing from Him once more to try again the muddy, stagnant pools of this world: no, but to pitch our tents by the palm trees and the springing wells of Christ's presence, and so to drink and drink and drink again of Him, the Rock that follows His people. But is this possible? Is this not mere imaginative ecstasy, whilst practically such a state is not possible? No, indeed; for see that man, with all the same hungry longings of Solomon or any other child of Adam; having no wealth, outcast, and a wanderer without a home, but who has found something that has enabled him to say, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere, and in all things, I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me." (Phil. iv.11-13.)

What, then, is the necessary logical deduction from two such pictures but this: The Lord Jesus infinitely surpasses all the world in filling the hungry heart of man.

Look, oh my reader, whether thou be sinner or saint, to Him -- to Him alone.

This, then, brings us to the twelfth verse of chapter two, which already, thus early in the book, seems to be a summing up of his experiences. "I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly:" that is I looked "full face," or carefully considered, these three things that I had now tested; and whilst each gave me only disappointment and bitterness as to meeting my deepest needs, yet "I saw that there was a profit in wisdom over folly, as light is profitable over darkness." This then is within the power of human reason to determine. The philosophy of the best of the heathen brought them to exactly the same conclusion. Socrates and Solomon, with many another worthy name, are here in perfect accord, and testify together that "the wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walketh in darkness." Not that men prefer wisdom to folly; on the contrary; still even human reason gives this judgment: for the wise man walks at least as a man, intelligently; the spirit, the intelligence, having its place. But how much further can reason discern as to the comparative worth of wisdom or folly? The former certainly morally elevates a man now; but here comes an awful shadow across reason's path: "but I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me: and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity." Ah! in this book in which poor man at his highest is allowed to give voice to his deepest questions, in which all the chaos, and darkness, the "without form and void" state of his poor, distracted, disjointed being is seen; death is indeed the King of Terrors, upsetting all his reasonings, and bringing the wisdom and folly, between which he had so carefully discriminated, to one level in a moment. But here, death is looked upon in relation to the "works" of which he has been speaking. Wisdom cannot guarantee its possessor the enjoyment of the fruits of his labors. Death comes to him as swiftly and as surely as to the fool, and a common oblivion shall, after a little, swallow the memory of each, with their works. This thought the Preacher dwells upon, and as he regards it on every side, again and again he groans, "This also is vanity." (vv. 19, 21, 23.) "Therefore I hated life, yea, all my labor which I took under the sun," and "therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all my labor which I took under the sun." For what is there in the labor itself? Nothing that satisfies by itself. It is only the anticipation of final satisfaction and enjoyment that can make up for the loss of quiet and ease now; prove that to be a vain hope, and the mere labor and planning night and day are indeed "empty vanity."

Thus much for labor "under the sun," with self for its object, and death for its limit. Now for the contrast again in its refreshing beauty of the "new" as against the "old": "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know your labor is not in vain in the Lord." (1Cor. xv. 58.) "All my labor vanity" is the "groan" of the old, "for death with its terrors cuts me off from my labor and I leave it to a fool." "No labor in vain" is the song of victory of the new, for resurrection with its glories but introduces me to the precious fruit of those labors, to be enjoyed forever.

Oh my brethren, let us cherish this precious word, "not in vain;" let us be indeed "persuaded" of it, and "embrace" it, not giving up our glorious heritage, and going back, as the Christian world largely is in this day, to the mere human wisdom that Solomon the king possessed above all, and which only led then, as it must now and ever, to the groan of "vanity!" But "not in vain" is ours. No little one refreshed with even a cup of cold water but that soon the fruit of even that little labor of love shall meet its sweetest recompense in the smile, the approval, the praise of our Lord Jesus; and that shall make our hearts full to overflowing with bliss; as we there echo and re-echo our own word: it was indeed, "not in vain."

The chapter closes with the recognition that, apart from God, it is not in the power of man to get any enjoyment from his labor. Our translation of verse 24 seems quite out of harmony with the Preacher's previous experiences, and the verse would better read (as in Dr. Taylor Lewis' metrical version):

"The good is not in man that he should eat and drink
And find his soul's enjoyment in his toil;
This, too, I saw, is only from the hands of God."