Saturday, October 19, 2019

Time and Chance (6)

The last few verses of Ecclesiastes 1 (v12-18, which we discussed in this space last week) may best be viewed as a summary of the Preacher’s intentions for the book. He is about to apply his exceptional wisdom to all aspects of human experience in hope of finding meaning.

Spoiler alert: he tells us his conclusion up front before going into his investigations in detail.

Three Kinds of Futility

Thus by the end of chapter 1 we are already informed what we are going to read in the next few chapters: in the absence of direct revelation from God, all that may be observed in the world is difficult to understand and deeply frustrating to both the intellect and the human spirit. Solomon does not explicitly reject revelation as a source of understanding, but that which God has communicated to mankind over the years by way of dreams, visions, personal conversations and the prophetic word forms absolutely no part of his investigations. He is looking at the world as it is and drawing inferences from it that any intelligent, observant pagan might also draw, and which many have.

In chapter 2, the Preacher then begins his investigations. We may reasonably divide this chapter into three sections, since the author does precisely that. Twice in the chapter he says, “so I turned” (v12, 20), then immediately follows this statement with a different area of investigation. If we are to label these three investigations, we might say that verses 1-11 explore the ultimate emptiness of hedonism as a philosophy, verses 12-19 explore the emptiness of human wisdom as a be-all and end-all, and verses 20-26 investigate the futility of making hard work your goal in life.

Ecclesiastes 2:1-8 — The Vanity of Hedonism

Perhaps hedonism is too strong a word, but maybe not. At very least, let’s say the great king is going to explore self-indulgence to the maximum. You may note the use of the word “I” a total of 31 times in the 26 verses of chapter 2, and 18 times in these first eleven verses alone. What the Preacher is exploring here is all about me, what I want, and realizing all my fondest desires and aspirations in this world:
“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine — my heart still guiding me with wisdom — and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.”
The extent of Solomon’s exploration of pleasure, self-determination and the attempt to fulfill the desires of the human heart is singularly impressive, if a little sad.

Becoming Great

This first section of the chapter is fairly information-dense, but we might summarize it by saying that the Preacher explores every area of human enjoyment open to him. As a man with complete control of a thriving nation and with virtually endless wealth at his disposal, the scope of his investigation is wide-ranging indeed. He is a bon vivant, a connoisseur of fine wine, an architect, a landscaper and a botanist. He tests the limits of what can be done with nature to make it more desirable for man. He wields power over the lives of others, stacks up material possessions, and indulges in the finest of available entertainments.

Finally, he has about as much sex as it’s possible to have in a human lifetime with a great variety of attractive women. 1 Kings tells us Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, for a convenient total of 1,000. If you cannot exhaust your appetite for exploring the various desirable (and undesirable) qualities of the opposite sex with that kind of selection, I’m not sure what you might require.

Prescription vs. Description

Let’s stop to consider that last bit for a moment. None of this is prescriptive. This is simply an account of what happened. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is not telling Christians that what Solomon did is a good thing, or that any of us are wise to imitate it. Quite the opposite. In fact, we read that Solomon’s wives turned away his heart from following God and brought him under God’s judgment.

Moreover, at no point do we read that this enterprise was undertaken at God’s command or suggestion. Solomon was pursuing his own agenda in almost all that he did. As the Preacher, he will certainly give his readers some advice as we work our way through the book, but let us not take this descriptive portion of the book as license for behavior that even the man who engaged in it declared to be ultimately unprofitable.

What each of us can do with our own history of self-indulgence is point out its deficiencies and disappointments to those who might otherwise follow in our footsteps. This is exactly what the Preacher does.

Accomplishments in Summary Form

This list of Solomon’s accomplishments is also not exhaustive. It is a mere brief summary. We could supplement it with verses from Kings and Chronicles that tell us of Solomon’s achievements in greater detail. Indeed, we really have to do this if we want to understand the lengths to which Solomon went to test his theses. These verses in Ecclesiastes give us no true sense of the immense scope of his undertakings.

By way of example, the three words “I built houses” summarize 1 Kings 9:10-14, in which we learn that these “houses” were so big and costly, so full of cedar, cypress timber and gold, that Solomon gave the king of Tyre a staggering twenty Israelite cities to pay for the materials. To top it off, the king of Tyre was convinced Solomon got the better of the deal. “I built houses” indeed!

Then when he says, “I bought male and female slaves,” we could look at 1 Kings 9:15-22, which tells us that he drafted the remnants of five Canaanite nations and put them all to forced labor, rebuilding destroyed Israelite cities, building storage cities for Solomon’s wealth, and the wall of Jerusalem itself. The managers for just a few of these projects totaled 3,600, and the laborers 153,600.

Then there are the achievements Ecclesiastes doesn’t speak of at all, like the rebuilding of the Millo, a stepped stone structure of terraces, houses and retaining walls atop which David’s palace sat, and the construction of a fleet of ships. Apparently these were not significant enough to Solomon to editorialize about at any length.

“All My Toil”

We should also not imagine for a moment that when the Preacher speaks of “all my toil” and “all that my hands have done”, that Solomon was hands-on in the construction of these incredible projects. Their sheer scope makes that impossible. Scripture often speaks this way of kings and powerful men who accomplished their goals through giving orders to others. All it means is that they bore ultimate responsibility for what was done (and will be held accountable for it). Solomon was the brains and the money behind these grand ideas, and they were managed and directed to satisfy him. But to Solomon, “labor” would have involved more intellectual capital than anything else.

That is not to minimize the effort required. If you’ve ever been even a low-level manager, let alone responsible for the vision and goals of a large corporation, you probably have some small notion of how much hassle it entails getting people to do what needs to be done. Multiply that by tens of thousands of workers, and Solomon’s various projects surely became exhausting.

As Far as One Can Reasonably Go

There’s much more that could be documented about Solomon’s accomplishments and the sheer level of self-indulgence (and maybe even hubris) involved in completing them.

This was not all fun and games for Israel. The glory of Solomon’s kingdom and the level of opulence he demanded in all that he did came at severe cost to its people. When Solomon’s son came to the throne, the people approached him and complained, “Your father made our yoke heavy.” They were not wrong. They had probably been taxed within an inch of their lives.

At any rate, the point the Preacher is trying to make about all this in Ecclesiastes is that the king had taken his investigation of personal pleasure and the imposition of his will on the world as far as it is possible to go, maybe even a bit too far. There are others in history who have gotten more done in a single lifetime with larger populations and greater levels of slavery, threats and abuse. Thankfully, Solomon did not go there. He did not make slaves of his own people. There were at least some limits to his ambitions and what he would do to achieve them.

Something similar is at work in the Preacher’s investigation of pleasure. When the king speaks of seeking “how to cheer my body with wine — my heart still guiding me with wisdom — and how to lay hold on folly,” there is solid evidence he did not take his experiment to the point of pickling his own liver or spending his days in oblivious dissolution. He could not possibly have accomplished what he did if that had been the case. Apart from his extraordinary accumulation of wives and concubines, there seems to have been an upper limit to Solomon’s excesses.

Self-Indulgence Does Not Satisfy

Still, if what he undertook, constructed and experienced was not unsurpassed in human history, it was spectacular in its day. Solomon took things as far as a (relatively) decent man can reasonably go, and then declares his dissatisfaction with how all this self-indulgence made him feel:
“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
At the end of all his attempts to explore the outer limits of the ordinate and inordinate desires of the greatest and most powerful, the Preacher declares it all ultimately unsatisfying. As Christians, we are not surprised. I have lived long enough to read about and become aware of dozens of immensely rich, powerful, hedonistic and terribly unhappy men and women, and even to meet one or two.

If we look for meaning in the natural desires of the self, even at their uppermost extremes, we will not find it there. This is the Preacher’s first conclusion.


  1. This is the disappointing and confusing part about Solomon in that God, as we assume, knew of course where he was headed and yet did nothing about it (he could have dropped him and picked someone else). So what are we supposed to learn? We can get away with things and God will simply overlook them? That would not seem fair to those who are really trying. It ties into the wider assumption and question concerning why don't the troublemakers just get culled before there is serious damage? Or, really, is there even a God if this supposedly can go on under his watch? Obviously we are not privy to how God viewed the whole thing but it just does not look good from our vantage point and that is all we have.

    1. A thought: Is it possible that, given the level of temptation Solomon experienced, anyone else would have done worse?

  2. Doubtful since it can be assumed that there is a continuous distribution of human character (could be Gaussian, or skewed Weibull, e. g.) so that God had certainly wide latitude in picking someone better (or worse). The fact that he didn't simply means that we are not privy to his information. Given that fact and being human it should come as no surprise to wonder why Solomon was given such a long leash. This applies to other bad characters as well (Hitler, Stalin, etc.) although there it has been implied that war is a form of punishment for humanity.