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Lowell Brueckner

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Ecclesiastes 2:12-26


The World of Intellect and the Lack of It

12.  So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 
13.  Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 
14.  The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 
15.  Then I said in my heart, "What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?" And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 
16.  For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 
17.  So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 

We turn with the preacher, as he takes the whole field of wisdom, including knowledge and the intellect, into consideration. At the other end of the spectrum is the lack of wisdom, a state of insanity and foolishness. First, he takes into account something which he has already presented to us, which is the law of basic sameness; nothing is new under the sun. He sees that the following king, regardless of his intellectual efforts, cannot bring about anything that can really be called progress. He will come back to this principle in verse 18.

Solomon argues from two points of view: 1) The temporal viewpoint, from which there is apparent progress and success and 2) The larger, essential viewpoint, which takes man’s mortality into account. The temporal perspective sees gain in wisdom above stupidity, and he compares this to light and darkness. This is a frequent biblical comparison, in which foolishness is seen as blindness and wisdom as sight. There is an obvious advantage in walking in the light. He teaches that wisdom is internal light and stupidity is inner darkness. This is the first consideration.

However, when the king focuses on the second, the inevitable fact of death, he must conclude that all is vanity. Most importantly and basically, the wise and the foolish come to the same end. This is the law that never changes and can never be altered. Wisdom is powerless against death and herein lies the argument that the following generation can do, “only what has already been done”. The generational cycle remains fixed and in the end, we all can only die.

Solomon has the true wisdom to apply the principle to himself personally, which we all must do, unless we are total fools. “How the wise dies just like the fool!”  “The fool and I,” says Solomon, “come to the same destiny. All the wisdom and knowledge that I have accumulated on this earth, departs from me at this point. I am essentially no better than the foolish and insane.” The king reached a firm, inner conviction. Man is mortal and everything earthly is temporal. Therefore, it is all vanity, and there is no sane rebuttal to this argument.  

He follows with the logical question: “Why then have I been so very wise?" The obvious answer is that he had been living under a deception. I challenge you to ask yourself the same question; that is why the Holy Spirit through Solomon has put it before us! What gain is there in it? What has been done to avert the inevitable? Nothing. Solomon, in all his wisdom, has done nothing that hasn’t been done before and absolutely no real progress has taken place. Mortality continues to be the champion over the whole of physical mankind. Therefore wisdom, according to the larger picture, is vanity.

In verse 16, please notice the word used to describe remembrance… enduring. The remembrance of the dead is relative. Some are forgotten immediately, the memory of others endures for a generation. Some find their way into history books and memorial monuments are built, in an effort to preserve their feats and facts. However, an unbroken law declares that, with the passage of time, the scope and sharpness of the memory of the dead gradually dims, as human kind go on with their present business.

It has happened, as he has said. Solomon’s body is there in its final resting place among the kings of Jerusalem. I solemnly challenge you to join this great king of Israel, as he ponders the larger question of the accumulation of wisdom in the light of certain death. Young man, young woman, why are you so intent on increasing your knowledge, concerning earth’s sciences? Somewhere up the road, you will face a cemetery, where you will sooner or later be buried, along with the ignorant, savage and uncouth. Christian young people, your fervent quest for knowledge is an even greater mystery. You are enlightened by the words of Christ, “Seek first the kingdom of God” and you are able to make a worthy comparison to the shortness of earthly existence with the infinitude of eternity. Why are you pursuing the lesser of the two with such passion, while the greater takes second place in your practical priorities?  

The great king’s enlightenment brought an abhorrence of his earthly life. He came to hate his wisdom, his possessions, his entertainment, his power, and the inheritance that he would leave to the next generation. To one degree or another, this is the mentality of the suicidal. For whatever cause, he has been brought to the conclusion that if this is all that there is to life, then it is not worth living. He is existing under a cloud of hopelessness and despair.  

There are points in Ecclesiastes, in which Solomon shows his fear of God and the highest advantage and reward for serving Him. However, it is not his duty in these chapters to present the gospel and our present task is to reflect on and emphasize the important part of true theology portrayed in this book. Of course, we will not totally avoid the Good News, even as we remain faithful to the doctrine of earth’s vanity and man’s physical mortality. We will also refer to the One, Who is greater than Solomon (Mt.12:42). We must proclaim His victory over death by His own death on the cross. “Our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Ti.1:10).

Jesus said concerning His supper, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The apostle Paul adds, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Co.11:24, 26). We do this to retain the sharpness of the memory of the life and death of Jesus Christ. He is our reason for living and without Him, our view of life on this planet, is no better than that of Ecclesiastes.  

The Labor of Life and the Inheritors of It

18.  I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 
19.  and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 
20.  So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 
21.  because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 
22.  What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 
23.  For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 
24.  There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 
25.  for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 
26.  For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 

Solomon’s life work on this earth brought him no satisfaction and we still need to recognize, as good Christian doctrine, that every effort put into temporary existence is to be considered wasted. The Christian poet said,

One life, twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last;
And when I am dying, how glad I will be,
That the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee!

The king looked at all of his selfish achievements with remorse and we Christians can add wood, hay and stubble to the lamentable results of self-effort. Before the Judgment Seat of Christ, mountains of flammable material will go up in smoke, to the weeping dismay of many, busy believers. They will be saved, Paul maintains, but these products represent the life-long work of human will, thoughts and abilities, which have not originated through the mind, instrumentality and power of the Holy Spirit, according to the eternal plan of God (see 1 Co.3:12-15).  

Solomon had good reason to fear the disabilities of his successor, his son, Rehoboam. He promptly lost ten of the twelve tribes of Israel to Jeroboam and from his day to the time of the captivity in Babylon, the kingdom of Israel was divided. Solomon’s peaceful reign was shattered by war and King Shishak of Egypt ransacked the national treasury and Rehoboam replaced Solomon’s stolen shields of gold with shields of bronze (see 1 K., chap. 12 and 14).

We often hear of noble aspirations of leaving the world a better place for future generations. Many hold to a life goal of putting money in the bank and acquiring possessions, in order that their children may inherit a better way of life than their fathers and mothers. They have no guarantee of better results than the king of Israel.  “Who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?” Good or bad, they will be the masters of the success of their parents’ hard work. Some parents live to regret the abundance, which they have passed on to their offspring, watching them waste it foolishly. Others are fortunate enough, because they do not live to see their sons and daughters fight over the inheritance. Therefore, living to provide for the next generation is an uncertain goal. It might be proved to be vanity immediately or later, but it is sure in the light of eternity, that all such motivation is vain!

Solomon’s state, concerning his life’s efforts, was hate and despair. His intention in writing this book is that others might profit from his example. Let us, at least, give him that satisfaction. Unfortunately, few learn the lessons of history and fall into the same trap generation after generation. He makes another point in verse 21: No one puts as much value in that, for which he has not worked, as the person does, who has poured out sweat and tears; this is another proof that the children will not appreciate the sacrifice of their parents. Take or leave his advice, Solomon’s says this is vanity... a vain effort on the part of the parents. He also says, it is evil!

The king sums up the labor of life in verses 22 and 23, for those who are under the motivation of selfish goals, giving themselves, heart and soul, to attaining them. Their physical work is great under the sun, but add to it “the striving of heart… the sorrow… the vexation”, over failure and loss. Their minds continue to work, even in the night, and there is no rest or relaxation. Paul charges this condition to highmindedness, finding security, as well as satisfaction, in what money can bring. Giving proper perspective to life on earth, God has ordained a present enjoyment: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Ti.6:17).

This is apparently also Solomon’s theology, as stated in verse 24. Now, he shows that to include God in our business takes the vanity out of life. “Apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” You see, the king is not in a state of depression! The hatred for life and the despair is taken away, when God comes in. As we seek His kingdom, live for His glory and give ourselves to eternal values, “all these (necessary) things shall be added”. Paul offers the same doctrine as Solomon in his epistles: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Ti.6:7-9).

We must see faith and grace in verse 26, referring to the one, who pleases God. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Ge.6:8), and became an exception, when the Lord judged the whole earth. By faith, Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and likewise, Rahab escaped the destruction of Jericho. It is a principle that holds true throughout the Old Testament, as well as the New. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (He.11:6), but to those who please Him, God gives true and divine wisdom, knowledge and joy.

It is not by “living under the sun”, but by living under the free, unmerited grace of God that we find grace in the eyes of the Lord. We trust in Him and rest. The sinner’s work is “vanity and striving after the wind”. In the end, the fruit of his labor falls into the hands of the meek, who please God for, “they shall inherit the earth” (Mt.5:5).


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