Edward Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Shebe to King Solomon (1890)
Ecclesiastes 2: 1-11 The Quest for Meaning Begins
1 I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine– my mind still guiding me with wisdom– and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10 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. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Qohelet, a common way of referring to the author of Ecclesiastes, begins his quest for meaning in the meaninglessness and begins to apply his wisdom to the things that might bring pleasure and joy. While the author of Genesis 1 can from God’s perspective call everything ‘indeed, very good’ for the teacher in Ecclesiastes everything is vanity and empty. For other wisdom writers, wisdom itself is something that comes from a parent, a scribe or teacher, and ultimately can be personified (as in Proverbs 8) as a woman who is to be sought. Wisdom for many seekers in the Hebrew Scriptures was something that was primarily revealed but in Ecclesiastes, like many post-moderns, the only foundation for wisdom is their own experience. The teacher is in the privileged space to be able to experience and examine the fullness of their life and experience and draw conclusions based upon that experience. Although Qohelet continues to expand those conclusions to a universal perspective, in many respects not unlike Sigmund Freud developing many of his psychoanalytical theories based on his limited clinical experience at the time, his insights continue to provide a fertile ground for reflection.
Ecclesiastes grand experiment in experiential wisdom attempts to enter the pleasure of life fully: laughter, wine, great works, places for enjoyment, people to serve him, power, wealth and sex. All of these individual things, although the eyes and the appetite desired all these things, they ultimately don’t satisfy the author for long. When wisdom gets turned to the goal of acquisition it quickly meets with the reality of insatiability. Although Qohelet can accumulate more property, wealth, power, stature, as well as physical objects of desire than anyone before him (and here he seems to be modeling his story on Solomon who would turn his wisdom towards accumulation to his eventual peril) he doesn’t find more pleasure, joy or contentment than others. In some respects, many celebrities and rock-stars have taken on Ecclesiastes quest for meaning to the point of even putting their lives in jeopardy in their pleasure seeking. For example, Nicki Sixx from the bands Motley Crue and Sixx A.M. can relate in an interview, “What are you going to write songs about now? You’ve won everything that you can win. You’ve proven everybody wrong. You guys have money beyond any money you could ever spend in your life. You’re all driving Ferraris and seeing girls in bikinis and living in mansions” at a time where Sixx was dealing with a heroin (and alcohol and multiple other drug) addiction that nearly cost him his life. The quest for meaning in pleasure has been tried many times over and many have found that it is indeed meaningless at some point, or that it fails at some point to quench the insatiability of the seeker’s appetite. There are never enough accolades, never enough wealth, never enough cars or relationships or a big enough house or thrill.
Yet, in the midst of all of the things that ultimately fail to satisfy, Qohelet ultimately finds something. In the toil, which the seeker normally refers to as a negative thing, he finds pleasure. In the moments, in the present time the seeker finds the thing that they are seeking. It is transient and evanescent moments and as Ecclesiastes states they may indeed be ‘hebel’ or ‘vanity.’ It is in the quest or the work itself that the joy was found, in the moments and not in the acquisition and end.
Ecclesiastes 2: 12-26 The Unfairness of Death
12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
14 The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them.15 Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16 For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
24 There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their 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 gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
The teacher found pleasure, even if only in transitory moments, in the present, in the toil. Yet, as the Teacher reaches into the future his joy dissipates and he continues to dwell on the meaningless of life in its transitory nature. Mortality comes as the great aggravator of the insatiability of the seeker. He seeks the end of his wisdom and toil, end in the sense of the goal or meaning. The more he projects his quest into an unknown future the more he moves from the pleasure of the moment to the hatred of a transitory life with an uncertain future and legacy. Mortality is the great equalizer in all its unfairness. Both the wise and the foolish, even though wisdom excels folly, all die and are forgotten. In the world of Qohelet’s desire there would be some reward for the wise in their life and legacy and yet all of these may be handed over to those who may not appreciate their labor.
For me one of the gifts of Ecclesiastes is its challenge to the ways I, and I am sure many others, have lived my life for the future. I have projected my happiness into some future time as I toiled towards that next degree, next promotion, a time when I am debt free, or have earned a certain amount of wealth, comfort, security or rewards. Yet, the reality of these are that the completion of these goals never satisfies the insatiable nature within me. I frequently have missed moments of joy in the present by being focused on the future. In a work oriented culture, where we pride ourselves on how busy we are and how hard we work Ecclesiastes encourages us to slow down, to notice the moments of pleasure. To find enjoyment in the work itself, not merely in the end. The toil, or work itself may be the end. The quest may be the apex of enjoyment. And ultimately for Qohelet it is God who enables a person to enjoy and perceive the gifts of the day. As Psalm 118 can state, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118: 24)
Perhaps in the quest of Ecclesiastes we can learn the peril of a life that is completely oriented on the future. Ultimately death places its verdict on all of us and if we are living our lives in search of some immortal legacy then we are likely to be disappointed. Lives can be too hard or too short, they can be a burden and a toil. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts the Teacher can give us is to learn to pay attention to the joys of bodily life: a good meal with friends, a vacation, the process of learning and growing, the development of a relationship and countless other moments with the potential for joy and happiness. By orienting his life to the future, Qohelet finds only that life is vanity and great evil. Nicki Sixx, mentioned above in his own quest for pleasure which almost cost him his life, could write later in a song that would come out of his Heroin Diaries at the end of his quest for pleasure that ‘Life is Beautiful’ but it took being at the point of death for Sixx, as well as the death of several of his friends, for him to realize the beauty in it.