[ 9 minutes to read ]We know Solomon was a master architect and builder, but did the wisest man figure out how to build a standing structure on no support whatsoever? Solomon conducted a grand experiment, perhaps the grandest. He gives a brief summary of his experiment in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. An experiment is conducted to test or prove something. What was Solomon trying to prove? For that, we need to go back to chapter 1 and allow the preacher to state his problem and define his terms.
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 states the problem he experiments to overcome. He names the problem vanity and vanity of vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and spends the following nine verses defining his terms. Vanity can be quickly defined as empty or meaningless. Some are quite satisfied with that and immediately assume Ecclesiastes teaches us that everything on earth is empty and meaningless, so we are best to avoid as much as possible. Of course, if that is the case, we really need nothing beyond the second verse of the book, we Christians are the most pitiable and miserable of men (1 Corinthians 15:16-19), and “let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). This is a tricky business, but how can we hope to make proper sense of his experiment, initial findings, musings, and final conclusion, if we do not pay attention to his definitions?
Vanity of vanities
When an author clearly defines his terms, it is best to believe him and read what he has written with that definition in mind. In verses 3-11, Solomon defines what he means by vanity of vanities. He begins in verse 3 by defining the world conditions where vanity is operative. He is working under the sun. This immediately refers to life on earth, life as it really is. He is not dealing with ideal life or life at its best. He means life as it is with all its good and bad together. His interest in this life under the sun is to find out what profit a man may make. Profit is a gain, advantage, or bettering. How can a man come out ahead of the vanity?
With his parameters set, Solomon warms to his subject beginning with verse 4. One generation comes and goes and another comes and goes, and so on. Yet they are all working with the same dirt. One generation piles the dirt in a certain way and in a certain place. Another generation piles it and arranges it somewhere else (Ecclesiastes 1:4). The sun rises and goes down and rises and goes down, and on and on as if it were on a string (Ecclesiastes 1:5). The wind blows south and north and south and north, and on and on until we suspect a giant oscillating fan (Ecclesiastes 1:6). Rivers run some direction, usually downhill, and the sea is never full and the rivers are not empty (Ecclesiastes 1:7). Man’s eyes and ears can never be filled, there’s always more (Ecclesiastes 1:8). All the new stuff is just the old stuff (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Nothing is really new (Ecclesiastes 1:10). It only seems that way because it has been forgotten about (Ecclesiastes 1:11).
Some see nihilistic statements here, or at least pessimistic ones, as though Solomon were throwing his hands up in the air, asking, “What’s the point?” Cue depressing music and mournful groan. Others may see here some needlessly poetic statements about things everybody already knows. Duh, Solomon! Well there’s at least one thing we know about credit: it’s due. Solomon is not as thick as all that. He’s defining what the vanity of vanities is. If there’s one thing that is common in everything he mentioned, it’s that all those things are cyclical. He means a cycle stuck in an infinite loop. It’s like running on a treadmill. You elevate your heart rate and perspiration. You’re certainly tired after a while, but when you stop, you’re still in the same place. You can’t run on a treadmill down to the store, or to the bathroom across the hall for that matter. Once you mount the treadmill, you’re captive to the treadmill’s cycle that has you running but not relocating. While you can turn off the treadmill and dismount, you cannot escape the vanity of the creation.
Vanity of vanities refers to the repetitive cycles and limitations of the creation. We are in it and cannot escape it. Being in it means we can’t find something new or anything lasting. We can’t find satisfaction in anything else in the vanity. We can’t beat the system. The earth was not created this way but was subjected to it with the curse, which came about because of sin (Romans 8:18-25). Paul wrote of the very same vanity Solomon wrote about. Paul’s solution to it is the same as Solomon’s as well, but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves at this point.
Solomon begins by pressing into wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18). He wanted to investigate the vanity thoroughly and was in a singular position to do so (Ecclesiastes 1:16). Given his inordinate amount of wisdom, he could conduct his experiment without getting lost in it (Ecclesiastes 2:9). He decides to use his wisdom, position, power, and resources to conduct a thorough investigation and see it through to a conclusion.
With all the preliminaries in place, he conducts his experiment, which took many years (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). We can arrange his trials in three main categories: consumption, construction, and comfort. In the consumption phase, he focused on pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3). He sought entertainment, enjoyment, and everything that pleased the senses. He found nothing lasting. The excitement wore off and it became the same old. He moved to the construction phase, where rather than consuming he wanted to construct, to build something that would be more lasting (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). He built the temple, houses, gardens, waterways, and planted forests. Again, he found no lasting satisfaction, just more of the same. Lastly, he sought comfort (Ecclesiastes 2:7-9). He sought a life free from worry and thus provided for his every need with servants and money. He wanted for nothing. He also found the life of ease to be empty and subject to vanity. Just in case he be accused of not making a thorough job of it, he assures that he was extensive in his pursuits (Ecclesiastes 2:10).
His initial findings gives a summary of the results (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Vexation of spirit is a phrase that means grasping after the wind. It is impossible to grab a hold of the wind in your hand. All his endeavors resulted in no profit. All was subject to the same vanity and he could not escape it no matter where he turned.
A critical thinker at this point will upbraid Solomon that there is more to life than the things he has mentioned. He has far too few variables in his equations and, therefore, his experiment is a sham. Solomon will have none of that. He addresses those other aspects of life as he goes on, but that is past my purpose in this article. Just read the whole book and be assured he does deal with all aspects of life.
All to this point is the set up, experiment, and results. The real meat of the book is in what follows as he reflects, muses, dissects, applies wisdom, and teaches the appropriate lessons (Ecclesiastes 12:11). He has gathered up the data and the data needs interpretation if it is to mean anything.
Solomon asks a pertinent question in light of his initial findings. What more could be done (Ecclesiastes 2:12)? Is there more relevant data? Has he conducted his experiment thoroughly and within all necessary controls? I don’t believe he is asking himself that question as much as he is making a point that he has. You might say all the tests and results have been verified. Every instrument was calibrated correctly. The environment was in suitable range. In other words, the results are good, so now he needs to make something of them.
Solomon advances his hypothesis from his initial findings, which is that given the vanity of the creation wisdom is better than folly (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14). He states that even with the vanity of life under the sun, it is better to live that life in wisdom than in folly. So here’s Solomon floating front porch. He rests his hypothesis on no foundational support. He is suspended in mid-air while we listen to the rhythmic creaks of his wooden rocking chair.
I’m not suggesting that Solomon doesn’t have support for his statement, but only that at first glance it doesn’t seem to follow from what’s gone before. Sure, the entire book of Proverbs continually demonstrates that wisdom is better than folly, but how does he get that from Ecclesiastes 1 & 2? He also seems to immediately disprove his own hypothesis (Ecclesiastes 2:15-17), so why should we believe him? If the wise and the fool both end up in a hole in the ground no matter what path they walk in life, why is it better to be wise? Let me answer those two concerns in reverse order and we will dismiss and perhaps reconvene at another time.
Does Solomon immediately disprove his hypothesis? To borrow phrase of Paul, “No, in no wise.” What Solomon is actually doing is subjecting his hypothesis to rigorous testing. He’s not going to test it in a comfortable, cool, and clean laboratory but rather in the field in real-time and live-fire. He will do that to the end of this book and prove out his hypothesis. He doesn’t move from the conclusion that wisdom is good and better (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12; 9:16).
Let me put the next question this way: Is Ecclesiastes 2:13-14 inconsistent with Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:12? This is the question that prompted this article. It is a supremely important question to the study of Ecclesiastes if we are going to get off on the right foot. If you make a left turn at Albuquerque, you don’t arrive at the right place no matter how hard and fast you drive.
A proper understanding of Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 is crucial to understanding this book. First, let’s grant that Ecclesiastes is not a beginner’s level book. The teacher expects you to have certain prerequisite knowledge and skills in order to handle what’s thrown at you in it. He’s expecting a reasonable intelligence and thinking ability to understand dark sayings (Proverbs 1:5-6). It’s going to require the fear of God (Proverbs 1:7), diligent seeking (Proverbs 2:1-5), and the prayer of faith (James 1:5-6).
The key is to understand what vanity of vanities is? If you think it means that everything under the sun is empty and meaningless, you have accepted floating porches and hanging hats on sky-hooks. In other words, you are accepting a materialistic, evolutionary, and atheistic worldview. If you proceed in Ecclesiastes that way, you will have no basis whatever to assert that wisdom is better or even that anything is better than anything else. You will have no basis for condemning a fool or saying that anything ought to be one way or another. Accepting that is to accept that God does not exist and that this material life is all that there is.
Solomon stated that all is vanity under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Just because everything is vanity under the sun, that doesn’t mean that under the sun is all there is, nor that everything is subjected to vanity above and beyond the sun. Solomon asked for and received wisdom, so he knew where it came from (1 Kings 3:5-14). Just because mortal life is subjected to vanity under the sun, that doesn’t mean that a higher life, which is not subjected to vanity, does not exist.
If you were locked inside a giant hamster wheel with only pinholes for air, you would not be able to get yourself out of it. But that doesn’t mean that someone outside the wheel couldn’t walk over to you, unlock the door, and get you out. If you were locked in a prison cell where you could see and smell a table filled with delightful food, you would have no way to reach it yourself. But that doesn’t mean that someone outside the cell couldn’t take food from the table and hand it to you through the bars. So Solomon proves the utter futility of a man to try to escape the vanity he’s subjected to. He has no way in himself to get out of it. He stresses that the only good, profit, satisfaction, and enjoyment that can be had under the sun comes through wisdom and is a gift from outside the vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:13; 5:18-20; 6:2).
So Solomon is consistent throughout this book. His porch has an unshakeable foundation. He has written this book to teach us how to see it.