12Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done? 13I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. 14The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. 15Then I thought in my heart, "The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?" I said in my heart, "This too is meaningless." 16For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!
17So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Earlier, Solomon had "devoted [himself] to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven" (Eccl. 1:13). He saw to it that he "increased in wisdom more than anyone who [had] ruled over Jerusalem before [him]" (1:16). But he discovered that "with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge the more grief" (1:18). And so next, he tried to find fulfillment through pleasure, saying to his heart: "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good" (2:1). But he discovered that "that also proved to be meaningless", saying: "Laughter... is foolish" (2:2). And so, having tested wisdom and folly separately, Solomon, in this section, compares the two: "Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly" (vs. 1). He has found each to be deficient, but is one better than the other?
In studying these things, Solomon has covered a wide range of activities, so he asks rhetorically: "What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done?" (vs. 12). He is, in effect, saying, "Look, I have tried all of these things, and learned from them. Why don't you learn from what I have learned, instead of repeating my mistakes?" None of us will ever have the same means and opportunity to test all of the things that Solomon tested. He was, at times, the wisest of the wise, as well as the most foolish of fools. The book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon's analysis of his life as he looked back on it. We would do well to learn from this analysis, rather than make the same mistakes he did. In any case, mercifully, very few of us have the time or means to stumble as Solomon did. "God mercifully spares His children the sad experiment[s] which Solomon made, by denying them the goods which they often desire."
Concerning wisdom versus folly, Solomon at first found an advantage in wisdom: "I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness" (vs. 13-14). To be wise is to live in an en"light"ened state. The wise man "has eyes in his head", in that he has the ability to see and understand the things of life, as well as to look ahead and predict what will happen in the future.
Ironically, this ability of Solomon, the wise man, led to his ability to also understand the ultimate futility of human wisdom: "...but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, `The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?' I said in my heart, `This too is meaningless.' For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!" (vss. 14-16). When one takes death into account, everything changes. Death not only destroys life, but also destroys any advantage of wisdom over folly. Wisdom's profit is temporary.
Solomon came to this realization when he stopped thinking of death abstractly (as if it were someone else's problem), but realized that, yes, the specter of death was upon him too: "The fate of the fool will overtake me also." Death became, for Solomon, a much more critical consideration in his argument when he faced the fact that death would also overtake him. And indeed, all philosophers must address the problem of death. The meaning of life is tightly entertwined with the meaning of death. If it is determined that our actions in life affect our fate after death, only a fool would choose to ignore the eternal consequences of his actions.
Solomon responded to the reality that death overtakes the wise man as well as the fool: "So I hated life" (vs. 17). But wait, Mr. Philosopher, you are supposed to guide us to meaning in life, guide us to fulfillment in life, but now you say you "hate life"! A philosopher may consider himself a failure if the result of his life work is that life is meaningless and that death destroys all. If this is his conclusion, then he has not solved life's most difficult problem: the problem of death. The root of Solomon's hatred of life at this point was the fact that he could not, by human wisdom alone, solve the problem of death.
Paul tells us as much: "For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (I Cor. 1:21). In fact, Paul points out that human wisdom can actually be a barrier to conquering death: "If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a `fool' so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight" (I Cor. 3:18-19). And conversely, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (I Cor. 1:18). But though the gospel, and Christianity in general, are "foolishness" to the "wise" of the world, the Christian philosophy is a resounding success by the objective standards of the science of philosophy, because it explains adequately and accurately all the thorny problems of life. It gives answers to our existence, gives purpose for our lives, and most importantly, in this context, solves the problem of death, by providing us, sinful man, a way to be reconciled to our Maker. Jesus stated: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25). Through belief in Jesus Christ, God has provided a way for the wise in Christ to differ from the fool in death. Solomon concluded, "Like the fool, the wise man too must die!" (vs. 16), but Solomon didn't have the whole picture. The wise in Christ do not have to die the second death (see Rev. 20:6). The fate of the wise in Christ is eternal life in the presence of our God and Father, and His son Jesus Christ. May the Lord be praised!
18I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
20So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
22What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
24A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Solomon's confrontation with his own mortality had also tainted in his mind the value of his life's work. Solomon pointed out three problems with his working so hard in life. First, he could not keep the results of his labor: "I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless" (vss. 18-19). Second, those who would receive the fruits of his labor did not deserve them: "So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune" (vss. 20-21). Third, he himself, the toiler, could not fully enjoy the fruits of his labor: "What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless" (vs. 22). To Solomon, the results of his labor, the great projects, became merely monuments to futility, massive reminders of how he wasted his life.
As I see it, there were two problems with the way that Solomon labored, both of which led to his frustration concerning the fruits of his labor. First, the goal of his labor was to store up treasures for himself on earth. Jesus told a parable that directly speaks to Solomon's situation:
Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."
Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?"
Then He said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And He told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, `What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
"Then he said, `This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'
"But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God" (Luke 12:13-21).
The destiny of those who labor to store up earthly possessions for themselves is frustration and dissatisfaction. On the other hand, those who seek to store up treasures in heaven, have an eternity in heaven in which to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Jesus advises: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19-20).
The second problem with the way that Solomon labored was that he fell under the spell of the myth of the self-made man. Solomon entirely attributed the success of his labor to his own abilities, rather than realizing that God was the provider of everything he had. Moses told the people of God: "You may say to yourself, `My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms His covenant, which He swore to your forefathers, as it is today" (Deut. 8:17-18). Look at your life. What do you have that God has not given you? What have you obtained in your life for which God has not given you the talents and abilities to obtain? When we truly realize this, our frustration over what we cannot enjoy turns into joy for the great blessings God has given us; our regret is replaced by praise to the Lord.
Solomon began to realize that contentment in life can only come from God: "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?" (vss. 24-25). Solomon realized that man cannot find contentment from the fruits of his labor unless God enables him. Solomon's problem, which led to his hatred of life, stemmed from the fact that he was trying to get too much out of the mere things of life, more than they could give. He sought fulfillment, as well as enjoyment, from the things of the world.
Solomon's realization that man cannot find enjoyment on his own seems (to me) to be a grudging consolation for him. He says: "To the man who pleases, Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God" (vs. 26). Then he quickly adds: "This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." It seems that Solomon would rather be a self-made man. He would rather that fulfillment come through his own resources, than depend upon God for it. If fulfillment could be gained through worldly possessions, this would be fine and well for Solomon, but what about those who have meager resources. Should they be denied fulfillment in life? God purposefully made man so that the things of this world will not satisfy him. He wants us to be restless until we come to Him for fulfillment. And so, rich or poor, strong or weak, renowned or humble, we all can find meaning and fulfillment in our lives, through a relationship with the Maker of the Universe.