Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 2:12-26
Good morning, please turn to Ecclesiastes 2:12-26. Are any of you burned out on Ecclesiastes and all this negativity? You’ll be happy to know that there’s hope at the end of today’s lesson. So let’s go ahead and read this passage, and then we’ll pray, and then discuss it.
Before we jump into new material, let’s take minute to review. Remember Solomon’s describing his quest for “net profit.” What are some things he’s learned along the way? Two weeks ago, we learned that work = striving for the wind and wisdom = striving for the wind. In other words, you can’t work hard enough to make your life count, nor can you think well enough to make your life count. In addition, last week, we learned that you can’t have enough or do enough to make your life count. I’d like to rephrase those points again.
Work will never satisfy you.
Knowledge will never satisfy you.
Possessions and experiences will never satisfy you.
And then today we’re going to see that…
Prudent living will never satisfy you.
That’s all because….
Only God can satisfy you.
He God gives satisfaction to those who are walking with Him.
TRANSITION: That brings us to v. 12, which starts off, “Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly.” So it sounds like Solomon is about ready to evaluate his quest and hopefully arrive at some conclusions, which is exactly what he’s about to do. Now the last half of v. 12 is very difficult to translate, but what Solomon seems to be saying is that he was uniquely qualified to embark on this quest. Therefore, he is obligated to answer these questions for the sake of future generations. The question is, what did Solomon conclude? I’d like to build Solomon’s conclusions one phrase at a time. First, Solomon concludes that wisdom is better than folly.
II. Wisdom is better than folly (vv. 13-14).
In order to make this point, Solomon compares wisdom to light and folly to darkness. How is wisdom like light? (It helps us understand the world around us and to interact with it more advantageously.) Contrary to what some of our kids may believe, turning on the light does not change what’s in the room. However, it’s really nice to have the light on, especially if you need to walk across the room to find something! The same is true with wisdom. Wisdom helps us to understand the world around us and to get from here to there without tripping on something! The fool, on the other hand, is completely naïve. And because of that, he walks into all sorts of problems.
Now, as best as I can tell, Solomon is still talking about secular wisdom. Some people might challenge me on that interpretation, but I think it’s the best way to interpret this passage. Knowledge and the correct use of knowledge is helpful, even for the unbeliever. However, it also has its limitations.
TRANSITION: So we might phrase it this way: “Although wisdom is better than folly, it is not ultimately unsatisfying.”
III. Wisdom is ultimately unsatisfying.
Wisdom is ultimately unsatisfying, first of all, because it cannot cure death (vv. 14-15). When you see the word “wisdom” in these verses, think “prudence.” Wisdom is knowledge that leads to shrewd life choices. You go to college and get a good job. You work hard and save for retirement. You read books and try apply them. You diet and exercise. You are an educated, disciplined individual. You say, “That sounds a lot like me, Pastor Kris.” Solomon would say the same thing. He viewed himself as a prudent individual. But then he has this “aha moment.” He says, “Wait a second. One day, the fool is going to die. And one day, I’m going to die.” Did you know that’s true? Prudent living won’t save you from death! In fact, the lazy bum who lives off welfare might outlive you! So if that’s the case, why be prudent in the first place? After all, prudent living is a lot more work! And that’s the very question Solomon asks himself in v. 15. It’s not that he’s forgotten the benefits of wisdom that he mentioned in the previous verse. He’s just frustrated with its limitations.
Not only is wisdom unable to cure death, but it’s also unable to ensure a legacy (v. 16). History does not generally remember its wise men any more than it remembers its fools. You say, “But Pastor Kris, there are a number of wise men who have been remembered to some degree or another.” That may be true, but there are also many wise men who have been forgotten. And what’s more, there are many fools who have been remembered—even celebrated by future generations! The hard facts of life are that history tends to forget, and that prudent living doesn’t change that or give you any kind of advantage as it relates to establishing a legacy.
Now, a couple of clarifications. Proverbs 10:7 says “The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.” And Psalm 112:6 says, “Surely he will never be shaken; The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance.” So we know from these two verses that the righteous will be remembered.
However, if my interpretation of Ecclesiastes 1-2 is correct, the word “wise” in 2:16 is not necessarily synonymous with the word “righteous” in those other two verses. But even more importantly, Proverbs 10:7 and Psalm 112:6 depend upon an eternal perspective. The righteous man cannot possibly be remembered forever unless there is life after death in a place called “heaven,” where things are remembered that we could not possibly keep track of here on earth. However, in Ecclesiastes 2:16, Solomon isn’t talking about heaven; he’s talking about a person’s legacy here on earth. And he concludes that prudent living does not make it any more likely that you will be remembered. Does that make sense? Are there any questions about that?
The third reason why wisdom (or prudent living) is ultimately unsatisfying is that the person who benefits from your labor may be a fool. And we find that in vv. 17-23. For the sake of time, we won’t read those verses again. But let’s discuss this idea. What’s wrong with leaving the fruit of your labor to a fool?
First, it’s a bad to leave the fruit of your labor to a fool because he won’t appreciate it. Foolish children don’t care how hard their parents worked in order to provide them with all of the gifts life has to offer. The only thing they care about is what they want in the moment.
Second, it’s bad to the leave the fruit of your labor to a fool because he will probably squander it. If he’s truly a fool, he’s not going to invest your money wisely. Instead, like the prodigal son, he’ll probably waste it on riotous living. Isn’t it amazing how what took years to accumulate can be squandered in just a matter of days?
Finally, it’s bad to leave the fruit of your labor to a fool because he doesn’t deserve it. I mean, you spent your whole life working for what you have! What right does he have to get it all for free simply because he was born after you and happened to take your place? That’s what Solomon says in v. 21 (v. 21).
So we see that it’s extremely unsatisfying to give nice things to a fool! But as Solomon points out, you might not have a choice! I mean, you can try to choose your successor wisely and to train him well; but ultimately, you can’t control what goes on after you leave! For example, let’s say that a pastor pours his life into his church. But then after he retires, the next pastor makes a series of foolish choices and the church splits or dies off. The first pastor has no control over that! Or think about how hard our founding fathers worked and about how many lives were sacrificed in order to give us a freedom. And yet look at how so many Americans either don’t appreciate what they have or else use their freedom to do unthinkable things! The founding fathers and veterans can’t be held responsible for that! Think of Solomon’s own situation! Who replaced him as king? (Rehoboam) And what do we know about Rehoboam’s character? He was a fool! He ignored the counsel of the elders and listened to his buddies instead. He said to the people, “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions!” And in one day, he squandered the majority of his father’s kingdom. Rehoboam was a fool! Now, let me ask you a question. Solomon is the wisest man who ever lived. Do you think he had some hesitations about Rehoboam’s character? Of course he did! After all, character isn’t forged in a day. And besides that, God actually told Solomon that after his death, most of his kingdom would be torn from his son. We find that in 1 Kings 10:11-13. So even as Solomon pens these words, he sees the handwriting on the wall—that the fruit of his labor will go to a fool.
The final reason why wisdom (or prudent living) is ultimately unsatisfying is that it’s hard work (vv. 22-23). Not only is prudent living unable to preserve you from death or provide a legacy, but it also robs you of the fun you could have had along the way! Your days are sorrowful; your work, burdensome; and even at night, your mind keeps racing. Sounds discouraging, right? Solomon is worse than discouraged; he’s downright depressed! He says in v. 17 that he hated life, in v. 18 that he hated his labor, and in v. 20 that he gave himself to despair. Commentator Michael Eaton calls this “one of the most moving points of the Old Testament.”
TRANSITION: But then, like a bolt of lightning come vv. 24-26 (vv. 24-26)! As you read chapters 1-2 of Ecclesiastes, you begin to feel like Solomon is holding your head under water. At first, you think it might be some sort of game. But then, in chapter 2, you begin to panic; and by the time you reach vv. 17-22, the struggle is over, and you’re ready to give up and drown. But then, in vv. 24-26, we finally get a breath of air! And the truth that breathes new life is this: God makes life worth living. Work will never satisfy you. Knowledge will never satisfy you. Possessions and experiences will never satisfy you. Prudent living will never satisfy you.
IV. Satisfaction is a gift that comes only from God (vv. 24-26).
These verses are bursting with grace. The idea of grace or of God freely giving something is found four times in these three verses. And that’s a stark contrast to all that has come before since 1:12. Those verses were all about self-effort, which leads to despair. These verses are all about grace, which leads to happiness and contentment. So let’s take a closer look.
There are two translation issues in these verses, and the first appears at the beginning of v. 24. My Bible says “nothing is better for a man.” But the Hebrew text actually reads, “There is no good in man.” “There is no good in man that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor.” If it were left up to us, we could never achieve contentment and joy. We’re not good enough. The other translation issue comes up in this passage appears at the end of v. 25. How many of your Bibles translate the last phrase in that verse, “more than I?” How many of your Bibles say something like, “apart from Him” or, “Who can eat and have enjoyment without Him”? It’s not an easy decision, but I prefer the translation, “apart from Him.” In other words, v. 25 is stating the opposite of v. 24. Verse 24 says that contentment and joy come from God. Verse 25 is saying that no one can be happy or content without Him.
Now, you may be wondering where I get the idea of contentment. It comes from the phrases that refer to eating and drinking. Do those phrases refer to literal to literal eating and drinking? If so, then v. 25 would be saying that no one can eat food apart from God. Of course, that would be true. No one can even breathe without God. Without God, the whole world would fall apart instantly, because Christ is the one who holds it all together! However, based on the context, it seems better to take “eating” and “drinking” as references to contentment—in other words, being satisfied with food and drink. These verses then become the answer to one of the major problems Solomon raised back in chapter 1. In v. 8, he said, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing.” To that we could add, “The stomach is not satisfied with eating and drinking.” You see, human beings are constantly doing stuff—remember the rat race? But resolution alludes us. Our lives are like a story with no conclusion, like a song that never ends. We feel a sense longing that moves us to action, but no sense of arrival, no peace, no joy. That’s not to say that we don’t experience moments of isolated happiness. A good meal, a funny joke, a captivating movie, some new experience—all of these things provide us with momentary happiness. But we can never squeeze out of them the deeper satisfaction which we so desperately crave. A perfect illustration of this is found in last week’s passage. Look back at 2:10-11 (2:10-11). Did hedonism make Solomon happy? Yes and no. In v. 10, he says that he had pleasure and that his heart rejoiced! However, in v. 11, in a moment of deeper reflection, Solomon admits that he is unhappy. In fact, in this one verse, he heaps up all three phrases: “vanity,” “grasping for the wind,” and “no profit”—all in a row! Solomon is actually disgusted with his life. Satisfaction has alluded him.
That brings us to v. 26 (v. 26a). So we already established in vv. 24-25 that joy and contentment come only from God. Now the question is, to whom does God give those gifts? Is there any rhyme or reason to His generosity? In v. 26, we see that the answer is, “Yes.” God gives His gifts of wisdom (this is probably the first reference to true godly wisdom), knowledge, and joy to the people who are good in His sight. Who is good in God’s sight? The men and women whom He has redeemed. No one is innately good; Solomon is well aware of that fact. He says in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “For there I not a just man on the earth who does good, And does not sin.” However, through justification and sanctification, God makes us good, and then He blesses us with joy and peace. So how do we apply this passage?
Number one, if you’re not saved, believe in Jesus! He died on the cross to save you from your pitiful condition. Only through faith in His blood can you become good in His sight! And only He can provide the joy and peace you’re looking for. Apart from Him, life is hopeless.
Number two, if you are saved, abide in Christ! I love that phrase from John’s gospel, because it means, “Stay.” I was working with my dog this past week. I’d say, “Summer, stay.” And then I’d walk away from her 10 ft. She’d happily get up and start following me. “No! Summer, stay.” If she obeyed, I’d give her a treat. Then I’d walk behind the corner, where she couldn’t see me anymore. That’s a real challenge! “Summer, stay!” In John 15, it’s as if Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Stay!” Stay where? “Stay with Me.” Not physically, because He had already told them that He was about to die, and that His physical presence would be leaving them soon. But He was adamant that through the ministry of the Spirit, they could still walk with Him, even after He was gone. And so He says to them, “Stay here—right here with Me, where the peace and happiness are. Obey Me. Read My Word. Pray. And test Me—your joy will be full! Don’t wander away from Me into the desert of sin and despair. You will never find goodness there.” You see, Solomon’s quest was the opposite of abiding. He was already a believer, but he set out to find joy and satisfaction elsewhere. And now both he and Jesus are saying to you, “Save yourself the trouble! Just stay home, and you’ll discover that everything you could ever want has already been provided for you. When you are abiding in Christ, the simple joys in life take on a whole new meaning. They used to frustrate you because you couldn’t squeeze satisfaction out of them. Now, there’s a nice cherry on top. You see, you’re no longer counting on those things to fill you up. You’re not walking into Yogurt Land on an empty stomach (some of you might actually enjoy that)—you just got out of Red Robin! Your belly is already full, so now you can appreciate dessert. Does that make sense? I hope I’m getting through to you because this is the main point of the entire section.
TRANSITION: The final thing we need to consider this morning is the grace that God mediates through sinners and also their plight (v. 26b).
V. Sinners are given the unhappy task of collecting good things for the righteous.
Since only the good man can truly enjoy God’s gifts, who does the sinner’s work ultimately benefit? (the good man) I was talking about this verse with Dave Houser once; and he said, “I’m sure glad someone invented smart phones, because I really like them.” Meanwhile, a lot of people are trying to squeeze joy out of that little box and finding only frustration. You see? Who ultimately benefits? The righteous. This same principle is found elsewhere in Scripture. Proverbs 13:22 says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.” With reference to this verse, commentator Bruce Waltke says, “Eventually the wealth of every sinner will be transferred to righteous people, where it will endure forever.” Jesus said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
Now, that’s good news if you’re a meek person. But what about if you’re a sinner? That’s the unexpected twist that our passage takes right before Solomon closes and starts into chapter 3 (26b). What is vanity and grasping for wind? The job that God gives to the sinner! Now, some commentators park right here and say, “Look, Solomon is a jaded old skeptic. See! He’s criticizing God.” And it’s not like that idea just comes out of the blue. After all, in v. 21, Solomon calls the idea that the wise leaves his wealth to a man who hasn’t earned it not only vanity, but also “a great evil.” So we see where those commentators get the idea that Solomon is unhappy with God’s management of world. However, the word translated “evil” at the end of v. 21 could also be translated “misfortune”; and I think it would be premature at this point to accuse Solomon of shaking his fist at God. We ought to wait and hear him out. So for the moment at least, it’s far better to assume that Solomon is simply shaking his fist (so to speak) at a broken world. In v. 26, Solomon reminds me of a duck named “Ferdinand” on the movie “Babe.” Have you seen that movie? I watched it a lot growing up. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about farm animals in New Zealand. So you’ve got this pig who thinks he’s a dog and a bunch of other funny dynamics. But Ferdinand is this philosophical duck who’s unhappy with the status quo. There’s a scene where all of the farm animals are watching through the window as the family eats Christmas dinner. And Ferdinand is getting all worked up because the main course happens to be a duck. So the horse says to Ferdinand, “The way things are is the way things are.” To which Ferdinand replies, “Oh ya? Well the way things are stinks!” And he decides to run away. At the end of vv. 21, 26, Solomon says, “The way things are stinks!” It’s not necessarily that he’s blaming God for the way things are, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that thought had crossed his mind. But for one reason or another, this world is messed up! Of course, who is to blame for this messed up world? We are! But this phrase is just a foreshadowing of things to come, so to discuss it fully now would only be to open a whole new can of worms that Solomon won’t deal with fully until future chapters.