Discerning the Good in the Activity of Life (Ecclesiastes 2 – part 1)

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2011, p. 231.

(Ecclesiastes 2 – Part 1)

The second chapter of Ecclesiastes embraces one central thought, which is well represented by the preacher’s initial comment in connection with wine, that by wisdom the preacher sought to see or discern, “what was good for the sons of men, which they should do under heaven all the days of their life” (Eccl. 2:3). This issue, which may be stated as a question, is the concern that the preacher would bring before us. It is this that he would prove in his heart. He would discern the place of the natural joys of man’s earthly life. In taking up the daily activities of life and man’s labor, he sought to understand the joy and pleasure found therein, but also its place or purpose, and that from a spiritual point of view as a child of God. This is also the conclusion to which he would lead us in the chapter, as stated in verses 24-26: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24).

To lead us to that conclusion, the preacher sets before us his labor and industry in this life. He first passes it and its joy in review. Then, second, he sets it in perspective in the light of the vanity of this world. The first element we consider in this article. The second, which also comes by way of a wrestling with the vanity of life, is one we will return to in the next article.

The Word of God here looks at the life of man organically. A child of God stands in the world as a part of it by creation and by nature. Man is a creature of flesh and blood tied to this world. He eats and drinks, being created to do so and to find pleasure therein. He also labors and toils to plant and build. God, our Creator, set the man and the woman in Paradise to dress and keep the Garden of Eden. The trees of the garden and the green herb were given them for food. Man is therefore a creature of this world, organically bound to the life of the creation. Sin has corrupted that relationship and brought upon man spiritual and moral depravity of nature. The world has been subjected to the curse. Yet man remains man, bound to the organic life of the creation.

Man was made to work and to find delight in his activities as a means to serve God. He still finds delight and pleasure in his activity and strength of life, and this is not in itself wrong. It is the fact that he subjects it to the moral principle of his depravity in the service of sin that works the pollution of sin in all that he does. This organic connection is true for a child of God also, though now in Christ he begins to live a new life.

What is the profit of all these activities, of mirth, of the pleasures of life, wine and the other refinements of life? In speaking of these things, the text is not speaking of them as being sinful. It is certainly the case that wicked men use all of the activities of life in the service of sin, but evil is not in things nor in the activities themselves. When therefore he speaks of wine, he is, “yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom,” that is, he is not speaking of drunkenness, but of the place of wine, which God made to gladden the heart, and of food also, as well as the activities of eating and drinking (Eccl. 2:24, 25).

As mirth and laughter and food and drink are inherently the most transitory, yea momentary, pleasures, he would prove them, or test and try them. What is their value? “I said of laughter, it is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” Certainly, the man who makes them an end in themselves, the goal of his life, is a fool. Yet many a child of this world does exactly that to his own ruin. He spends his life for that which does not profit. His laughter is that of a fool. His entertainment is often devoted as much to laughter as it is to uncleanness and violence. He often keeps his evening vigil over it in front of his wide-screen idol. His life is an empty one. For that which is a momentary joy becomes, in the bondage of sin, a chain that holds man enslaved to seek after it as if it were the goal of life instead of God.

But the scope of the preacher’s inquiry goes beyond those things that are manifestly transitory: “I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts” (Eccl. 2:4-8.)

Solomon, beside his official work in building the temple under God’s direction, also labored in this life in every aspect of the science and culture of his day. He wrought great works. He did so, not only as king in his office, but also, as God gave him the means, in every aspect of life in his day. He sets these works before us here, primarily from the viewpoint of his personal interests and labors, that we may see in them our own labors and activities, our work and calling. They are the labor of our hands under the sun.

They included not only his building and planting, but the interest he took in gardens and pools of water. He speaks of the pleasure he found in music and the delights of life that are lawful pastimes and served the needs of the royal court. They belong to the wonder and splendor of his kingdom, as well as to its typical significance. They belonged to the expression of the wisdom God gave him, so that the Queen of Sheba stood in awe even of the details of the life of the court (see I Kings 10:4, 5).

His activity was with wisdom from God and he prospered in his labor. He says, “So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor: and this was my portion of all my labor.”

The labor itself, the design, anticipation, planning, and execution, as well as the sense of accomplishment, was a matter of joy, so that his heart “rejoiced in all my labor.” This momentary joy was, in fact, the true part or portion of his labor. Though fleeting, as with food and drink, it is this that is its true value from the viewpoint of this present life. The joy he found was in the doing of it. To use the figure of the joy of “our daily bread,” so likewise our daily labor and industry has a certain joy given us by means of it, and that from the hand of God.

It is at the same time a joy that only a child of God can truly experience in a wholesome way. The reason is that in all that labor, gathering, heaping together, and activity, its very transitory character testifies that that joy is not the goal of our life. Our treasure is not to be found in it. Our heart may rejoice in our labor, but we do not set our heart upon it.

For the child of this world, that very ordinary joy is one that he pursues to his own destruction. His god becomes his belly. He is occupied in fretful care, with what shall we eat and what shall we drink. He builds his houses that they might stand forever. He seeks to plant his name in the earth that it may endure. He heaps gold and silver, not for mere delight, but as the treasures of his heart. He is in bondage to the things of this world, to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye.

Hence the preacher leads us to the conclusion in verse 26: that God gives to the sinner “travail, to gather and to heap up” (Eccl. 2:26). It is of God’s judgment that the rich fool of this world lays up treasure on earth. To this folly of sin the preacher will return and vividly illustrate in coming chapters. We have an old man of sin who is inclined by nature to this same spiritual folly. It is grace alone that gives us to eat and drink with joy.

It is because of that folly that he turns from the passing joy that God gave him in his labors to the vanity or transitory character of it, to put this joy in perspective. “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.” That same labor of his hands is vanity. It is transitory. It is not an end in itself. It does not endure or abide.

The good is to enjoy the daily blessings of our labor with thanksgiving and contentment in our portion for the day, our daily bread. This is the gift of God. Ecclesiastes 2:26.

… to be continued.