Previous article in this series: March 15, 2011, p. 284.
(Ecclesiastes 2 – Part 2)
We saw last time that Solomon directs our attention to the passing joys of this life that come to us through our labor and industry. These joys are our part or portion in this life. They are not the end of our life, nor are we to find our treasure in them. Having described all his labor and the joy of his heart in it, he then turns to its transitory character and its vanity.
He puts this rejoicing in perspective. “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured 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.
Further, all our labor is with worry and care. The building of houses, the planting of gardens and vineyards, and the increase of possessions all come with care and toil. Gold and silver do not endure. The entertainment of singers and music, and he has in view a lawful use of these things, is momentary. They are vanity. These good gifts of God and fruit of the labor of our hands have a place in our life. But they are all fleeting, momentary. The joy they afford is a passing one.
Now he points us to several reasons for this. He does so in the light of the antithetical distinction between wisdom, which is from God, and madness and folly, which lie in sin (Eccl. 2:12). There is in all our labor no true profit, no genuine advancement, even though it be wrought in wisdom. That which is done “hath already been done” (Eccl. 2:12). All the labor of man and his achievements still bring forth no new thing. The crooked is still crooked. Death and the curse touch everything.
A child of God lives in the world and is part of its organic life. He labors and builds as does the fool of this world about him. The foolish man also builds houses and plants gardens, gathers treasures to himself. Outwardly, in the things of this life, both are subject to the same principle of vanity. Both the wise and the foolish pass through this life and from it. Neither are remembered. There is, however, a profound spiritual difference between wisdom and folly, as between light and darkness, but it is not manifested in the organic life of the world. The wise man has his eyes in his head, sees where he is going, and forms a sound evaluation of things, while the fool of this world is blind and walks in darkness.
Even wisdom in the fear of God, which is better, is still touched by death. “Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool” (Eccl. 2:13-16).
We must keep in mind that, in speaking in this way, the viewpoint of the preacher is that of one who is addressing children of God. The contrast is not between intellectual wisdom, worldly wisdom, or common sense over against earthly stupidity and foolishness. Spiritual wisdom, as a gift of God’s grace, in its proper fruit, gives to a child of God also a measure of practical wisdom that the wise fool of this world does not possess. The unbelieving fool is in bondage to the lusts of the flesh and all covetousness. The wisdom that is from God is from above and sanctifies in grace.
But this also creates a trial for a child of God, a grief that is not only practical but also spiritual. He explains this: “Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity” (Eccl. 2:17-19).
We too leave this life and all our labors under the sun. They belong to this life and this world from the viewpoint under consideration. Others will eventually rule over them. This is not a denial of the reward of grace that God will give us, or of the truth that from that viewpoint our labor and toil are not in vain in the Lord (I Cor. 15:58, 59). The preacher, in fact, concludes the whole book with the truth that God will bring every work into judgment (Eccl. 12:14), because there is a reward, though it be not of this world. What is on the foreground is the reality that our labors, from the viewpoint of this world, pass into other hands, and we have no more say in them. Will the works of our hands be sustained and built up, or foolishly destroyed?
He says, “Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Eccl. 2:20, 21). To another man is given that which was once our portion, our labor and toil. The preacher not only shows us this fact but the spiritual burden this reality of life caused him. He uses strong language, that he hated all his labor under the sun, that he despaired or grieved over it.
He looks at all the labor, the toil and sorrow, that accompanied all that effort. He calls to mind, too, the sleepless nights he endured, and yet he must leave it all to another. “For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity” (Eccl. 2:22, 23).
Man is inclined to a restless activity that will not let him sleep. There is no peace to the wicked. Yet the trial of heart of which he speaks is not one that besets the wicked only. This same reality besets the child of God in his weakness. The difference is that a child of God has a comfort that is not found in the works of his hands and not dependent upon them.
In speaking in this manner he is not rejecting God’s sovereign wisdom and counsel in the ordering of our portion in this life and what becomes of the work of our hands. That he also will discuss. Rather he sets before us here the very real struggle and distress that the reality of life in its present vanity causes us. He does so not, as the preacher, to lead us to despair but rather to put the vanity of this life and its labor and toil into perspective. He draws out an important conclusion, which rests upon the fact that all of these things are under the hand of God.
In reviewing his works and pondering them and setting before us the struggle of life, the preacher leads us to a spiritual conclusion, that we may discern what is the good in the activity of life. It is simply stated, “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 labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). The transitory works of our hands, the joy of labor and activity and the fruit of it in food and drink are our portion from the hand of God as it pertains to this present life. They are our daily bread. The present enjoyment of them with contentment is the good gift of God. It is something learned by wisdom in the school of grace. This is the place of our present enjoyment. And Solomon is very conscious that God had given him this blessing also richly, “For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?” (Eccl. 2:25).
What the text says is important for us to apprehend. “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 labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). This is the good of the present joys in the labor of our hands and the profit of them. It is God’s gift. It is a gift of grace.
And God gives it only to His children!
“For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 2:26).
The enjoyment of the present gifts of life in contentment is given of God to the man “good in his sight.” To his children God gives “wisdom, and knowledge, and joy.” He does not give these gifts to the wicked. The one good in his sight is one who stands righteous according to God’s verdict before God’s judgment seat. His sins are covered and he has peace with God. He stands in the righteousness and goodness which is in Christ. The child of this world stands in his sin before God’s judgment seat. The sinner in the text is one whom God sees as a sinner, who stands before him in his guilt and transgression as the object of God’s judgment in His wrath.
We must not be misled by appearances. The world’s rejoicing is that of one who has no rest. It is of one who seeks the joys of this life as an end in themselves, and they are bondage to his soul. The labor of his hands works judgment in his life. “But to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up.” His laughter is the braying of one whose soul is empty of true joy. For joy can be found in God alone. The man without God truly has none. As will be seen in more detail, the book of Ecclesiastes does not teach a common grace or goodness of God to all men, but rather repudiates such an idea. In the things of this life, God’s grace and goodness are particular, they are for the one “good in his sight.”
Not only does the wicked man have no true joy, but all his labor and industry, his heaping and gathering, serve not himself, but are made to serve the children of God. God gives travail to the sinner to heap up, “that he may give to him that is good before God.” The toils of the wicked are made in God’s wisdom to serve the needs of God’s people. The spiritual antithesis that the preacher finds here is an absolute one between the child of God and the child of this world, between one who is good in God’s sight and one who stands a sinner. Not in common grace, but in judgment and wrath, the ungodly receive their portion in this life.