Searching for Meaning – Ecclesiastes 2

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 2

Physical Pleasure (2:1–11)

While Solomon declared his intent to investigate the meaning of life in Eccl. 1:12–18, even revealing the conclusion of his search at Eccl. 1:14, it is not until Eccl. 2:1 that Solomon begins to give specific details about his vital quest. Note that Solomon’s report of his investigation covers five chapters in this book (cf. Eccl. 2–6). As could perhaps be expected of most men, Solomon starts his search by looking for meaning in various forms of physical pleasure. In Eccl. 2:1–8 Solomon notes that he had investigated laughter, gladness, and wine. Furthermore, by his own testimony Solomon searched for meaning in material abundance, including the accumulation of houses, vineyards, gardens, orchards, lavish landscapes, servants, herds, flocks, silver, gold, and various means of entertainment. Observe that the things to which Solomon looked for significance are the same things to which many people look today.

Eccl. 2:9 records an important caveat about Solomon’s search for meaning in life as he explored physical pleasures. Here Solomon notes, “I became great and excelled more than all who were before me.” This is a significant self-description, for it indicates that the conclusions Solomon records in Ecclesiastes are sound, as he experienced life to the fullest, in a measure far beyond that which most of his readers will ever encounter. Indeed, Solomon declares, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them, I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). Given that he had already declared his search of pleasure to be “vanity” (Eccl. 2:1), it is surprising to read that Solomon’s heart rejoiced in his labor (cf. Eccl. 2:10); yet, upon further reflection, in Eccl 2:11 Solomon concludes that all of his work and labor “was vanity and grasping for the wind.”

Worldly Wisdom (2:12–17)

In Eccl. 2:9, Solomon declared that in his search for meaning, “My wisdom remained with me.” It is surprising, then, that after considering physical pleasures, Solomon writes, “I turned myself to consider wisdom” (Eccl. 2:12). The difference between the wisdom cited in these two verses is that in Eccl. 2:9 Solomon is referring to spiritual wisdom, while in Eccl. 2:12 he references worldly wisdom. Spiritual wisdom allows one to see life from God’s perspective and to apply God’s Word to daily living. Worldly wisdom acts out of self-interest and evaluates life solely from the perspective of man. In this passage, Solomon observes that worldly wisdom is better than foolishness (cf. Eccl. 2:13–14). Yet, if isolated from God, worldly wisdom is vanity, for man cannot accomplish anything new (cf. Eccl. 2:12), all will die (cf. Eccl. 2:15), and no one will be remembered (cf. Eccl. 2:16).

Wearisome Labor (2:18–26)

Beginning in Eccl. 2:18, Solomon discusses the idea of work or labor. Interestingly, he will spend more time investigating the idea of labor than any other topic in the book of Ecclesiastes. In fact, Solomon discusses issues related to labor all throughout Eccl. 2:18–6:12. It is not surprising that Solomon describes labor as vain three times in Eccl. 2:18–23. However, it is interesting that Solomon does not primarily focus upon the difficulty of labor in the fallen world. Rather, Solomon’s concern in this passage is that others will inherit the results of his own labor (cf. Eccl. 2:21) and he cannot be sure if they will be wise or foolish (cf. Eccl. 2:18–19). Note that in this passage Solomon briefly mentions the unproductive and burdensome nature of work (cf. Eccl. 2:22–23). Furthermore, in observing, “Even in the night his heart takes no rest” (Eccl. 2:23) Solomon references the all-consuming nature of labor.

While much of the material in Ecclesiastes is realistic, it is also evident that Solomon is largely pessimistic and cynical about life in the fallen world. Yet, there are several passages in this book where Solomon reflects with hope upon man’s ability to enjoy life, despite its short, elusive, and repetitive nature. Eccl. 2:24–26 is the first of at least at least five such passages in this book. Here Solomon writes, “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor” (cf. Eccl. 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–19; 8:15; 12:13–14). This repeated idea is that even in the midst of the fallen world, God still provides for and blesses His people. On account of sin and the curse, the world does not function as it ought; yet God is still sovereign. In practice, then, mankind needs to recognize the divine blessings of the moment and to enjoy the good gifts of God.

Application Questions:

  1. Why do humans constantly search for meaning and purpose in life? To what types of things does mankind look in order to justify his existence?
  2. What things have you looked to in the past for significance? Do you agree with Solomon that physical pleasures do not give true meaning in life?
  3. Are you content with your vocation and employment? When you work, whether it be at your job or home, does your heart rejoice?
  4. Why do most people have a desire to be remembered by the world after they have passed away?
  5. How can we distinguish between enjoying God’s good gifts in creation, and living for the material things of the world?

Published by

David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.