Ecclesiastes 2:1-26 How Can I Be Happy?
“There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
Napoleon is supposed to have made that statement after his humiliating retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. The combination of stubborn Russian resistance and a severe Russian winter was too much for the French army, and its expected sublime victory was turned into shameful defeat.
As part of his quest for “the good life,” King Solomon examined everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the great laboratory of life, he experimented with one thing after another, always applying the wisdom that God had given him (Ecclesiastes 2:3, 9). In this chapter, Solomon recorded three stages in his experiments as he searched for a satisfying meaning to life.1
1. Can I be happy by having fun? (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)
“I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, HCSB)
Having too much fun prevents getting important things done.
Answer: Pleasure has little value
“I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?”” (Ecclesiastes 2:2, HCSB)
Solomon’s question, And what does pleasure accomplish? is again rhetorical, expecting a negative answer.2
“I explored with my mind how to let my body enjoy life with wine and how to grasp folly —my mind still guiding me with wisdom—until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.” (Ecclesiastes 2:3, HCSB)
Then Solomon turned to not just pleasure, but items that are associated with pleasure. First, he explored wine. He aspired to be what might be called a connoisseur of wine. Excessive drinking is excluded by the phrase “yet acquainting my heart with wisdom.”3
In this case, Solomon was trying to gratify his appetites. He indicates that he is following a careful process and that his heart is guiding him with wisdom.4 This is the reason he pursued laughter, wine, and foolish fun is because he wants to see what lasting value they have. In the end, compared to eternity, he discovers that it is a waste of time.
2. Can I be happy by working hard? (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11)
Solomon worked hard in various ways. First, he started various work projects.
THREE KINDS OF WORK PROJECTS
1. Housing projects
“I increased my achievements. I built houses …” (Ecclesiastes 2:4, HCSB)
Solomon built many houses.
2. Horticultural projects
“…and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4–5, HCSB)
Solomon planted many vineyards, parks, and gardens. He planted many trees.
3. Hydrological projects
“I constructed reservoirs of water for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees.” (Ecclesiastes 2:6, HCSB)
Solomon built many water projects. One of the projects was probably the King’s Pool.
“I went on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but farther down it became too narrow for my animal to go through.” (Nehemiah 2:14, HCSB)
Then, Solomon increased the worth of his wealth by expanding his businesses.
WAYS SOLOMON INCREASED THE WORTH OF HIS WEALTH
“I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house. I also owned many herds of cattle and flocks, more than all who were before me in Jerusalem.” (Ecclesiastes 2:7, HCSB)
We know that the Bible condemns slavery, even though it may have existed in the time in which the books were written. Slavery, however, were a form of property that Solomon used to expand his influence in the world.
“I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men.” (Ecclesiastes 2:8, HCSB)
Solomon increases his profits of silver and gold. Through trade agreements, he increased the kingdom’s treasury.
“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me.” (Ecclesiastes 2:9, HCSB)
While he was increasing property and profits, Solomon was also increasing his popularity. The bigger and richer his kingdom got, the more popular Solomon became. In today’s terms, we would say that Solomon was increasing his brand influence on the world stage. Instead of putting the name Solomon (like Trump) on the building, Solomon was leaving his mark of influence on the properties and profits he he possessed.
All three of these areas required work out of Solomon. Solomon considered it an accomplishment to achieve all this success.
“All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles.” (Ecclesiastes 2:10, HCSB)
Solomon considered it a struggle for which he was awarded. But what was his conclusion?
“When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11, HCSB)
Pursuing happiness through wealth is pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
In all the pursuits and labors that men undertake there is no real profit, no lasting happiness, nothing to satisfy the cravings of the spirit “under the sun,” i.e., in this world without light from above. Purely earthly values eventually and abruptly let one down.5
The chapter shifts to another focus for happiness. Although this section of Ecclesiastes is separated from the previous one by eleven verses, it, in a sense, completes or rounds it off (Ecclesiastes 2:12).6 Like Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, Solomon picks back up the idea of accumulating wisdom and influence.
3. Can I be happy by accumulating wisdom and influence? (Ecclesiastes 2:12-26)
OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE QUESTION OF HAPPINESS
1. I can’t make myself any happier by my personal pursuits.
“Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly, for what will the man be like who comes after the king? He will do what has already been done.” (Ecclesiastes 2:12, HCSB)
The immediate answer is that accumulating wisdom and influence does not help a person any more than anyone else.
2. I can be more prepared for eternity.
“And I realized that there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also knew that one fate comes to them both.” (Ecclesiastes 2:13–14, HCSB)
The only value of these pursuits, and especially wisdom is to be more prepared for death that is coming to everyone.
Now he showed that even what wisdom one gains is of no real value because it does not alter one’s destiny.7 Yet, the wise man sees that death is coming and lives accordingly, while the fool walks in darkness and is caught unprepared.8
3. I can have despairing thoughts as I try to pursue happiness and not find fulfillment (Ecclesiastes 2:15-23)
Pursuing happiness through wisdom is pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16)
Pursuing happiness through work is pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23)
Solomon realized and we can realize that if we make the pursuit of wisdom and work as our meaning in life, in the end, we have nothing. Solomon had to give his kingship up to his son. He even doubted the wisdom of passing on his legacy to his son.
Solomon was very despairing toward life and its pursuits. He realized that trying to make himself happy won’t accomplish anything when it is driven by my own will.
4. I can only find happiness in my relationship with God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)
“There is nothing better for man than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from Him? For to the man who is pleasing in His sight, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and accumulating in order to give to the one who is pleasing in God’s sight. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, HCSB)
Some scholars make the following distinction about enjoyment of life and one’s judgment. First, Solomon stated that God’s disposition of wealth and the enjoyment of one’s labors and its fruits are based on whether a man is pleasing to God or is a sinner. Second, Solomon wrote that this judgment would take place in this life (not in a life after death) and would involve temporal not eternal rewards.9
In other words, one will be judged in this world about the way one lives today, and not just for eternity. We do make an impact in this life. Gordon Keddie sums it up well, when he writes, ‘Death is the wall that under-the-sun secularism cannot climb. Even the remembrance of those who have died perishes with those who knew them personally. Beethoven may be said to live on in his music, but the truth is we know the music, not the man.’10
Solomon doesn’t say “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” He is not a fatalist. He believes that there is more to life after death. Instead, Solomon emphasized the importance of building a relationship with God. Solomon even says that whatever a sinner accumulates God will give to His children. Happiness can only be derived by a loving relationship with a loving Heavenly Father. Jesus said it another way:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” (Matthew 6:33, HCSB)
A writer in The Wall Street Journal called money “an article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness.”11
Our Constitution tells us we are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness. Yet as wonderful as that sounds politically, it is disastrous in reality, for happiness will never be found by those who pursue it. Happiness is an elusive butterfly—the more you chase it, the quicker it flies away. The only way to find real life is to let it go, die to self, and seek first the kingdom of God, whereby all you ever longed for will be added unto you.12
1 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 33.
2 Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 981.
3 James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ecclesiastes 2:3.
4 Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2010), 54.
5 James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ecclesiastes 2:9–11.
6 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 29.
7 Duane A. Garrett, “The Poetic and Wisdom Books,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 245.
8 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 37.
9 Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 983.
10 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 31. Originally from Gordon Keddie, Looking for the Good Life, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1991, p. 21.
11 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 39.
12 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary: Volume Two: Psalms-Malachi (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 276.