This is part 4 of a many-part blog series on the book of Ecclesiastes.
In modern parlance, Solomon “did us a solid” (or did us a great favor). Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 documents Solomon’s foray into chasing after meaning by any means possible. This section is intensely practical for today, because he trod a path into thorny and snake-infested woods so we would know not to go there. Yet so many of us do anyway.
Solomon decided to go full bore into testing all sorts of pleasures for the ultimate sense of satisfaction they would give to him. No gain (2:1). He tried wine, building projects (2:4), success in inventing new technology (the pools he made for irrigation were ahead of his day, 2:6), control over people (slaves, 2:7-8), wealth (2:8), and leisure (2:8). Still no gain—just a striving after the wind (2:11).
This doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the things he built or the things he had, but that their enjoyment was temporary. The enjoyment was like that of a child with their new Christmas present that goes in the trash, giveaway pile, or garage sale within a few months. Nothing can keep us continually excited under the sun. We will come back to this in the next chapter. For now, it is sufficient to say that Solomon was appropriately bothered by this. What gives? Why has God put us under the sun and given us no ultimate fulfillment from it?
An appropriate disclaimer here would be to state that Solomon was not without fault in this process. He engaged in this journey with wisdom guiding him (2:3, 9), which simply means he was doing a science experiment to test how far these pleasures would satisfy him rather than to engage in them mindlessly.
This doesn’t make him guiltless. Indeed, the concubines were wrong to take (Deuteronomy 17:17), and they were his ruin (1 Kings 11). I searched, I made, I built, I bought, I gathered, I got… “for myself.” Solomon used wisdom to teach future generations but lost himself in the process. Tragic.
Fast forward 3,500 years. Today, people still take to alcohol, success, control, wealth, etc. to satisfy them—and they still come up empty. If we let Solomon’s example teach us, we could avoid these pitfalls ourselves.
Gain in Wisdom
Finally in 2:13, Solomon finds a little gain. There is more gain in wisdom than in folly, and there is more gain in light than in darkness. But as he walks down the logic trail, he quickly becomes disappointed. The same fate awaits the wise and the fool: death (2:14-16). The further he goes, the more depressed he gets (2:17). Everything feels like striving after the wind. Open the hand, and nothing is there. Hebel.
Then Solomon ponders all the work of his hands and realizes that because he will die, all of it will potentially be left to a fool. Ironically for him, because of how he lived his life, 1 Kings 11 documents that his sons eventually split the kingdom and fulfilled his nightmare.
Death feels like an intruder here, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if Solomon has never before realized that all he has done would be left to someone who could destroy it all—and then all of a sudden, it hits him, and a wave of depression comes over him. “Why?” He asks. What is the point of it all? He feels like he is in a hamster wheel. All of a sudden death, doesn’t seem natural at all—which is true. We were not made to die. Death is here because of the fateful event of Genesis 3.
Enjoying God’s Gifts
Then Solomon begins to discover something that, as a sub-lesson, can still help us today: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). This is the first time we see him acknowledge that something is “from the hand of God.” What Solomon does not mean by this is that you should give up all hope and do whatever you want.
Instead, he means that rather than striving, you should rest. If you stop to enjoy the food, the drink, and the work of your hands, you will be able to receive some value from them. When you look to them for ultimate satisfaction, you will find no gain. God ordained us to work for six days, and then to rest on the seventh. If we follow the Sabbatical pattern, we will certainly find more value in what we have accomplished than we would in striving for more.
In our businesses, we can identify with Solomon’s woes. Most of us left better business environments to open up shop in smaller and more corrupt markets. It can certainly feel empty to build something and have a local government official or a jealous local tear it down. It can also be maddening to build something with all of our heart that lasts only to find that we were looking for satisfaction in the wrong places.
Who will show that to the Taureg in southern Algeria? Who will show it to the Qataris and the Saudis and the Afghans? The issues we face in B4T are brutal, but we get to face them with the King and His Spirit guiding us. The places where OPEN does work have few-to-no churches and even few-to-no local believers amongst entire people groups. Think about it: if we didn’t work among them, locals would face all that hebel without us showing them the One who overcame it. They would keep trying to build things for themselves that will never satisfy. We must show them a more excellent way.
As we move through the book, Solomon is beginning to paint a picture of an upside-down world. We live in a place that doesn’t operate as it was intended to. Death is an intruder here—it doesn’t belong. Hebel has scarred our landscape. Solomon, in all his wisdom, can’t figure out which end is up.
It would be another 1,000 years before Someone (Jesus) came along to turn the world right side up and defeat death, exposing it as the fraud that it is and showing us a more excellent way.
Greg is the President of OPEN USA. He used his education to work as a tentmaker in the Middle East for 8.5 years seeking to plant a church amongst a least-reached people group. Currently back in the USA with his wife and children, they aim to return to finish what the LORD used them to start.
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.