Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
Good morning, please take your seats, and we’ll get started. Today marks our fifth study in the book of Ecclesiastes. I know some of you may be wondering, “How long are we going to be in this book?” I promise, I’m really going to try to keep this study moving. Today, we’re going to look at Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 (Eccl 2:1-11).
TRANSITION: If you remember where we are in Ecclesiastes, we’re in the part of the book in which Solomon describes his quest for meaning or “net profit” in life. In 1:13-15, Solomon says, “You will never work hard enough to achieve ‘net profit.’”
II. You can’t work hard enough to make your life count.
That’s a tough reality to swallow, isn’t it? Especially for us men! All of us including women were made to work. But men in particular tend to find their identities in their occupations. You ask any guy the question, “Who are you?” and he’s likely to respond, “Well, I’m a plumber,” or “I’m a pastor,” or “I’m a teacher.” He’s not likely to say, “I’m a father,” or “I’m a husband,” even though those relationships are very important to him. Why? Because he finds his identity in work! And so it feels emasculating to a man when you tell him he can’t do something. Even if he already knows he can’t do it, he doesn’t want you reminding him! (Wives, take note.)
But Solomon, who is certainly a man’s man by any definition (even though he wasn’t the warrior his father David was) looks at you in the face and says, “You can’t do it. You can’t work hard enough to make your life count. Whatever you do, it will already have been done before, and no one’s going to remember you anyways; so stop trying!” That sounds discouraging, I know, but Solomon doesn’t intend for those words to be ultimately defeating. His purpose is not to slay us. It’s just, that in order to save our lives, he’s got to cut out the tumor. And what’s the tumor? It’s the notion of self-sufficiency. “I can do it. I can work hard enough to make my worthwhile.” Solomon says, “No you can’t. Your good works are never enough.”
By the way, does this sound familiar? It sounds a little bit like Paul, when he says, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” Now, Paul and Solomon certainly operate in different categories of thought. Paul’s focus is justification; Solomon’s focus is meaning in life. And yet, both of them agree, your works won’t cut it!
TRANSITION: But some would say, “Well what about wisdom? I mean, maybe the key to happiness in life is knowledge.” To this Solomon replies, “No, you can’t think well enough to make your life count.”
III. You can’t think well enough to make your life count.
We have a society that seems to believe education is the answer to many if not most of life’s problems. Is there some problem in society at large? Let’s fix it with another program at the public school, because education fixes everything. Not Christian education, of course; that won’t solve anything. Secular education—that’s the key—at least, according to them. And yet, Google “are smart people happy” and you’ll find article after article that says, “No!” In fact, we have a famous saying about this: “Ignorance is… (bliss).” And that’s exactly what Solomon says in vv. 16-18. “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Not that scholarship itself is a bad thing, any more than work is a bad thing! God wants us to subdue creation! He wants us to make wise choices! And in order to do so, we must study! But knowledge alone will never fill the void in your soul, especially if it’s packaged in a secular worldview. Once again, what we have here is the doctrine human inability. Just like you can’t work hard enough to make your life count, you can’t think well enough to make your life count. You’re not strong enough, nor are you smart enough. No one is! You need God. By the way, if you don’t believe that knowledge can’t make you happy, I challenge you, do your own study of the smartest unbelievers in history, and come back and tell me if they were truly happy. I’m confident the answer will be “no.”
TRANSITION: So you can’t work hard enough or think well enough to make your life count. But maybe you can have enough and do enough to make it worthwhile. In other words, maybe the key to a meaningful life is simply being rich and enjoying all that life has to offer.
IV. You can’t have enough or do enough to make your life count.
After all, that’s what most Americans seem to think. I started to look up some stats about this to share with you, but honestly, I don’t need them in order to make my point. You don’t need me to convince you that most people in this country are focused on getting rich and enjoying their wealth. We all know it’s true. So let’s just see what Solomon has to say about that (2:1). So Solomon decided to be his own lab rat, to test himself with pleasure. But in the end, he discovered that pleasure, in and of itself, is vanity—a lot like vapor. Earthly pleasures don’t last. Therefore, they’re empty and insubstantial.
Take laughter, for example (v. 2). The word laughter in v. 2 means “superficial merrymaking.” Have you ever sat at a party or an event and put on a smile, even though you felt awful inside? Let’s just say for the sake of illustration that you were even able to lose yourself and laugh. Did that laughter make your problems go away? No, it didn’t! That’s why Solomon says, “Laughter is madness! It’s like playing make-believe.” It’s foolishness. It doesn’t accomplish anything! In v. 3, Solomon says that he also experimented with wine, with the implication that this, too, was vanity. You say, “What’s this phrase in v. 3 about Solomon’s heart guiding him with wisdom? How can one be guided with wisdom while participating in folly?” Well remember, not all wisdom is the same. Most if not all of the references to wisdom thus far have been about secular wisdom. So all that Solomon’s doing here is reminding us that his experiment with hedonism was just that—it was an experiment. He didn’t completely give himself to debauchery, at least, not in the same way that he gave himself to scholarship. And yet, he still wanted to try it. Sounds like many college students these days. “I’ll settle down someday; but right now, I want to enjoy the party life.” Solomon entered this lifestyle in order to understand it, as well as to see if it provided any insights into the meaning of life. He was willing to look anywhere to solve this riddle. But once again, we see that he came up empty.
But Solomon didn’t stop at “lowbrow” pleasures. Listen to vv. 4-8 (vv. 4-8). Let’s make a list of all the things Solomon accumulated. We’ll start in v. 4 and then just work our way through the passage.
First, he had houses. Not “house” (singular), but “houses” (plural)—multiple residences. However, the greatest of these houses was the palace complex in Jerusalem. So let’s read about that. Turn to 1 Kings 7:1-12. But let’s start with 6:38 (6:38-7:12). Did you catch why I wanted to start in 6:38? What is 1 Kings 6 about? (the construction of the temple) Now, we often talk about how absolutely glorious Solomon’s temple was. And rightly so. After all, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. And according to 6:38, how long did it take to build? (7 years) So way to go, Solomon! Way to build something awesome to honor the LORD! Right? But what’s the first word in chapter 7, according to the NKJV? (“but”) “But Solomon took…” how long? 13 years to build his own house. Do you sense some misplaced priorities?
Well, let’s turn back to Ecclesiastes 2. According to v. 4, what else did Solomon have? He had vineyards. You want the best quality wine always ready at your fingertips? Plant a vineyard. So that’s exactly what Solomon did. What else did he plant?
Verse 5 says that he made gardens, the pride of ancient kings! (Just think of the famous hanging gardens in Babylon.) But these gardens were not just for public enjoyment and beauty. No, they were the personal property of the king. In fact, a survey of the OT reveals that a king’s garden may have also included a summer home, exotic plants, and a privacy wall. In other words, these were not vegetable gardens; and in fact, they may have been more like private resorts than public parks. But v. 5 also says that Solomon planted orchards! The Hebrew word for “orchards” can also be translated “parks” or “preserves.” It’s actually the same word from which we derive the English word “paradise.” And while the text is somewhat vague, it appears that in addition to his manicured gardens, Solomon also set up nature preserves—places where he could grow fruit trees. Once again, Solomon had expensive tastes. So how was he going to obtain the specific types of fruit that he was craving? He couldn’t just drive to the grocery store, like we do today. So he planted his own orchards. Before we move on, I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a similarity of language between the words used in vv. 4-6 and some of the words used to describe the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Some commentators have pointed out that Solomon was essentially trying to recreate the Garden of Eden. That’s helpful, because I often notice that same impulse in myself, and I’m guessing you do, too. We’re all attracted to beautiful landscaping because we were made for another world. The problem is, we can’t get back there by means of our own effort. The creation mandate, while good, is insufficient to meet our deepest needs. What we need is grace.
The thing about all these gardens and orchards is that they require a complex infrastructure in order to maintain them. We who live in the desert understand that gardens like these don’t grow on their own. You have to water them. So in v. 6, Solomon makes pools of water from which to irrigate his orchards.
Of course, where did Solomon get the manual labor to build all these things? Verse 7 says that he had slaves. He owned both male and female slaves. And these slaves had children who also became his, the moment they were born.
What else did Solomon possess? He had lots and lots of livestock—more animals than anyone who came before him in Jerusalem. In a day in which one’s wealth was often measured in terms of his livestock holdings, Solomon was at the top of the food chain. To help you visualize this, turn to 1 Kings 4:22-28 (1 Kings 4:22-28). So Solomon burned through 30 oxen and 100 sheep every day, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl, which may have been hunted from those nature preserves I mentioned earlier. Now, just to be clear, this wasn’t all for Solomon. He had to feed all of those slaves we read about. In fact, based upon these numbers, commentators have estimated that Solomon may have been feeding anywhere between 14,000 and 32,000 people daily! But just imagine how many animals he must have owned in order to burn through 30 oxen and 100 sheep daily, without running out!
But he didn’t stop there. What else did he accumulate? Verse 8 says that he gathered silver and gold. Turn to 1 King 10:14-29 (1 Kings 10:14-29). Now, let’s start with some math. Experts agree that a talent probably weighed about 75 lbs. So when v. 14 says that Solomon’s yearly intake of gold was 666 talents, that equals approximately 49,950 lbs. How many oz. in a lb.? (16) So that equals 799,200 oz. Yesterday, the price of gold was $1,299.70 per oz. Let’s make it simple and round to $1300. That means that Solomon’s GDP just in gold was a whopping $1,038,960—and that’s just gold! Now, what on earth do you do with 50,000 lbs. of gold per year! Well, obviously, you sell some of it and buy other stuff. But then you start getting creative. Perhaps you make 300 shields of hammered gold, each weighing 3 minas or about 3 ¾ lbs. Perhaps you decide to take your ivory throne, and overlay it with gold! “I’m tired of sitting on elephant tusks! Let’s put a couch cover on this thing!” And the list goes on and on. You see, Solomon’s wealth was out of this world! But it wasn’t just about gold and silver, was it? As many rich people often do, Solomon started collecting things—“the special treasures of kings and of provinces” it says in Ecclesiastes 2:8. Ivory, monkeys and other exotic animals, garments, armor, spices, expensive imported horses—you name it, Solomon owned it.
Returning to Ecclesiastes 2, we see that Solomon’s wealth also funded a choir program. Verse 8 says that he got “male and female singers,” who, no doubt, sang for him.
And then there’s this phrase at the end of v. 8, “the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.” The New King James translation is actually disappointing there; because, although the phrase is difficult, commentators almost always take it as a reference to Solomon’s harem—his 300 wives and 700 concubines. The idea behind the word “delights” is “dainty delights,” and the word translated “musical instruments” probably comes from a word meaning “breasts.” In a passage that’s all about hedonism, we aren’t to miss the fact that Solomon also gorged himself on sex.
There’s a word that shows up often in this passage and is not to be overlooked. It’s the word “myself.” Solomon says, “I built myself I planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens, and orchards, and pools. I gathered for myself silver and gold.” One commentator calls this “the gospel of selfishness.” Solomon wasn’t engaging in philanthropy. He was unashamedly building his own estate.
TRANSITION: In vv. 9-10, Solomon sums it all up by saying that he became greater than anyone who had ever lived in Jerusalem. He did not withhold from himself one delicacy. Whatever he wanted, he bought. And what’s more, he didn’t even have to sacrifice his wisdom in order to get it! He was both smart and rich! The question is, “Was he happy?”
What do you think? Was Solomon happy? You might be surprised to learn that the answer, according to Solomon, was “yes and no.” The last phrase of v. 10 says, “For my heart rejoiced in all my labor, And this was my reward from all my labor.” In the book of Ecclesiastes, the word “reward” has a positive connotation. It refers to the legitimate benefits of hard work. Now, we know that some of what Solomon engaged in was intrinsically sinful. It’s never right take on a harem of concubines, whether or not you can afford it! J And I think it’s also safe to say that in many areas, Solomon was sinfully exorbitant. However, on the other hand, it’s not wrong to enjoy the benefits of your labor. And so, in that sense, Solomon legitimately rejoiced.
However, when it comes to “net profit,” Solomon rejects hedonism as a viable path. When Solomon faced all of his works—when he sat in his expensive palace overlooking all that he had built, his conclusion was the same as before: it was all vanity and grasping for wind. He had not yet achieved “net profit.” Oh, he’d become filthy rich, for sure! And with that money, he’d bought every experience he could think of. And yet, Solomon found that he could not have enough or do enough to make his life count.
Let’s close by talking about this for a minute. In v. 11, Solomon concludes that wealth and the experiences it can buy are vanity. How is having things and doing things like vapor?
Sometimes expensive pleasures fail to impress. You spend $50 on a meal that you end up not liking, and you wish you’d just gone to In-N-Out instead. You overlay your throne with gold, but then decide you actually liked the ivory throne better. Bummer! Life is like this. Sometimes, expensive things aren’t better, they’re just more expensive! So sometimes pleasure is empty in the sense that it’s not even enjoyable.
However, I think the main similarity between earthly pleasures and vapor is that earthly pleasures don’t last. First, experiences don’t last. Oh, they’re fun for the moment, but the newness quickly wears off, and then you’re left feeling empty and craving something more. It’s the classic Christmas toy syndrome. You know what I’m talking about—your kids play with their new toys for 2 days, and then they sit in the closet collecting dust. Do you really think our toys and gadgets are any different? If you’re Solomon, it’s fun to have a monkey for a while. But you can only sit and stare at your monkey for so long before you get bored! The same principle applies to exotic foods. It’s really cool to have a peach tree! But your body can only handle so many peaches! The same principle applies to sex. Why else do you think Solomon had 1,000 concubines? You see, the hedonist finds himself racing the law of diminishing returns, and that’s a contest you’ll never win. You’ll always come up short.
But not only do experiences not last, wealth also doesn’t last. Someone tell me, what happened to all of that gold and silver after Solomon died? It was squandered, it was used to pay off foreign nations, and most of it was stolen by invading armies. Finally, once the temple was looted by the Babylonians, all of Solomon’s wealth had disappeared. Of course, Solomon had stopped enjoying it long before that! And the same principles apply to your wealth. I saw a post on Twitter last week about the “everything bubble.” Apparently, some economists are predicting a massive crash in multiple asset classes all at once. That’s exciting. The headline said, “Are you prepared for the everything bubble?” I thought to myself, “How do you prepare for something like that?” I’ll tell you how. You get saved, and you lay up treasure in heaven rather than on the earth. But it’s not just the “everything bubble” that we have to worry about. It’s natural disasters. Ask the poor people in Texas about that. It’s thievery. It’s accidents. It’s deterioration. The fact is that riches come and go. No matter how hard you try, you can’t insure against everything. So I ask you the question, how could anything so transient possibly have eternal value? And the answer is: it doesn’t. Solomon’s money didn’t make his life meaningful and neither will yours.
I’d like to close with a couple of verses I read in my devotions this morning. Turn to Psalm 4:6-8. “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Doesn’t that remind you of Ecclesiastes? Solomon trying to figure out was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives, saying that this is the burdensome task God has given to all mankind, and then concluding, “There was no profit under the sun?” It’s the exact same idea. So how does Solomon’s father David answer this question? With a prayer: “LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us.” Can I paraphrase that? “Give us grace through relationship with Yourself!” This is an allusion to the priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.” What makes like worth living? His smile. And then v. 7: “You have put gladness in my heart, More than in the season that their grain and wine increased.” “I’m more happy than rich people when they make a big profit.” And perhaps even more significantly, “I’m at peace.” “I will both lay me down in peace and sleep, For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” You can’t work hard enough, think well enough, have enough, or do enough to make your life count. The only thing that makes life worth living is grace through relationship with Jesus.