You can almost feel the heartache and desperation of a person who looks to one thing after another to find satisfaction and meaning in life, only to come up short over and over and over again. It is depressing.
Solomon is showing us from his own life how this feels, how this betrays the reality that a life lived—even to the fullest—apart from God, will come up empty.
So far, Solomon has tried philosophy and pleasure. He has plumbed the depths of knowledge and came up more confused. He has experienced the heights of pleasure, and found himself still bored out of his mind.
Next, Solomon tries projects, work. Like many workaholics, Solomon is trying to find his identity in projects and accomplishments.
Having given in to the lusts of the flesh in vv. 1-3, he now turns to feed the lusts of his eyes and the pride of life.
Derek Kidner notes:
“As if he had over-reacted in turning to futile pleasures, he now gives himself to the joys of creativity.”
Starting in verse 4 of Ecclesiastes 2:
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 had also 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 provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And 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 expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
In addition to wine and laughter, there are many other pleasures in life, and the Preacher-King was rich enough to try almost all of them. He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, building a beautiful home and planting many magnificent gardens:
“I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees” (Ecclesiastes 2:4–6).
Made in the image of the Creator, Solomon exercised his almost God-like control and creativity to make better homes and gardens (1 Kgs 7; 9:1; 10:21; 2 Chr 8:3-6).
Solomon spent more than a decade building his royal palace, and at great expense (1 Kings 7:1–12).
A hallmark of royalty from time immemorial has been the planting of “gardens” (Sg 4:12; 5:1; 6:2, 11), “vineyards” (Sg 8:11), “orchards” (Heb. Pard sîm is borrowed from a Persian word which is also the source of “paradise”), and ornamental groves. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 72-73)
From long before Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens to the latest blossoming of the White House cherry trees, heads of state have been delighted to be known as patrons of horticulture. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 73)
The lush vegetation he planted was irrigated by reservoirs large enough to water a small forest. Some of these pools can still be seen today.
The Bible describes the location of the King’s Garden best in Nehemiah 3:15:
Shallum [built] the wall of the Pool of Shelah at the king’s garden as far as the steps that descend from the city of David.
The Pool of Shelah (or “Siloam,” which translates the Hebrew shelah, “sent;” see John 9:7) and the City of David are archaeologically confirmed. So, the King’s Garden would have grown approximately where the Hinnom Valley joins with the Kidron Valley south of the City of David.
These projects were so large that only a great man could even attempt them. Notice the word great in v. 4.
The scope of Solomon’s grand achievement is indicated by the fact that everything occurs in the plural — houses and vineyards, gardens and parks, trees and pools. It sounds like a second Garden of Eden, especially with all the fruit trees (see Genesis 1:29; 2:9).
In the words of Derek Kidner, “He creates a little world within a world: multiform, harmonious, exquisite: a secular Garden of Eden, full of civilized and agreeably uncivilized delights, with no forbidden fruits.” The palace of the Preacher-King was an attempt at paradise regained. He wanted to remove the consequences of the curse.
Paul speaks about how all creation is eagerly awaiting that moment when the curse will actually be removed…
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
This earth will one day experience the removal of the curse, for a new earth will be made. But right now we all—all of humanity and all of creation—labors under the curse.
Solomon tried to remove the effects of the curse from his life, but to no avail.
All this beauty was all for him.
The Bible describes Qoheleth’s building and landscaping projects as “great works” (Ecclesiastes 2:4), but they were not public works. They were part of the man’s private residence. He was living large in the garden of his own pleasure. He was enslaved to what Ray Stedman called an “edifice complex.” He thought that building beautiful buildings would bring him glory and pleasure. But alas, it didn’t.
Next Solomon tried to find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction, in the accumulation of things.
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
The “herds”–large animals like cattle and oxen–and “flocks”–small animals like sheep and goats–were additional signs of luxury, given the fact that commoners subsisted on grains, fruits, and vegetables and ate very little meat. They saved their animals for work, milk, and wool. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 74)
Solomon seems to be “possessing all things;” yet in reality it is “having nothing.” In contrast, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10 “as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” Paul is reflecting the reality that no matter how much a Christian lacks of this world, he or she has everything in Christ for ultimate joy.
Given the scope of his building projects and the size of his property, the Preacher-King needed a huge workforce to run his daily operation. So he purchased many slaves, and the slaves he owned bore many children, who also belonged to their master’s house. To feed them all, he had to keep flocks of cattle and herds of sheep and goats all over his royal ranch.
This reminds me of the upkeep required for anyone who has toys or tools. Whatever we possess soon possess us with all the upkeep and repairs.
8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.
Solomon also needed a lot of money to run his Garden of Eden amusement park. This he got by taxing the people.
Some of his treasure came from taxes on his own people and some from the tribute of foreign powers, but all of it came from someone else. He used some of this money for entertainment and sexual pleasures.
I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.
The “singers” were used for banquets and parties within the court. “Delights,” in keeping with its use in Sg 7:6, must have an erotic meaning–“sexual pleasures” that men (the sexual context encourages a masculine meaning to “sons of men”) enjoy. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 75)
1 Kings 11:3 gives us the raw statistics — seven hundred wives and princesses, with three hundred concubines — more sexual partners than anyone could imagine.
Solomon remarks in verse 9 that in all this indulging in pleasure “my wisdom remained with me.” Some of us have a hard time imagining that…and it doesn’t make what Solomon did right. But if Solomon had allowed himself to be swept off his feet by sensual pleasures, he would doubtless have sunk to the despair of a slave of immorality. He wanted to determine to what extent one could find the key to life in a varied use of great wealth.
He enjoyed, more than ever any man did, a composition of rational and sensitive pleasures at the same time. He was, in this respect, great, and increased more than all that were before him, that he was wise amidst a thousand earthly enjoyments. It was strange, and the like was never met with, (1) That his pleasures did not debauch his judgment and conscience. In the midst of these entertainments his wisdom remained with him, v. 9. In the midst of all these childish delights he preserved his spirit manly, kept the possession of his own soul, and maintained the dominion of reason over the appetites of sense; such a vast stock of wisdom had he that it was not wasted and impaired, as any other man’s would have been, by this course of life. But let none be emboldened hereby to lay the reins on the neck of their appetites, presuming that they may do that and yet retain their wisdom, for they have not such a strength of wisdom as Solomon had; nay, and Solomon was deceived; for how did his wisdom remain with him when he lost his religion so far as to build altars to strange gods, for the humoring of his strange wives? (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 989)
In the end money and the pleasures it can buy do not lift us out of the realm of earthbound frustration. (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1156-57)
Wine, women, and song — the Solomon of Ecclesiastes had it all. Today his face would be on the cover of Fortune magazine, in the annual issue on the wealthiest men in the world. His home would be featured in a photo spread with Architectural Digest — the interior and the exterior, from the wine cellar to the lavish gardens. Pop stars would sing at his birthday party; supermodels would dangle from his arms.
Don’t you find it hard not to envy the man? Wouldn’t you like to live like a king? All other things being equal, wouldn’t you rather have a bigger, nicer house with better, more beautiful views? Don’t you wish that you had someone to do all your work for you, or at least all the work that you don’t enjoy doing? Think of all the money that Solomon had, with all of the choirs and concubines. Solomon had enough women at his disposal for almost three years worth of sexual pleasure every night! Honestly, if you could get away with it, wouldn’t you be tempted to grab some of his gusto for yourself?
Here is how the Preacher-King summarized his experiment with pleasure:
“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And 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” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–10).
The Bible warns against “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16, KJV). The psalmist was heeding this warning when he prayed, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37). But Solomon disregarded God’s warning completely.
Whenever he spied something he wanted, he took it. Whenever he was tempted to indulge in a fleshly pleasure, he did so. There was nothing he denied himself — nothing “visibly entertaining or inwardly satisfying.”
He did this because he thought he had it coming to him. “I deserve it,” he would tell himself, “as the reward for all my hard work.”
Like Solomon, we have ample opportunity to indulge many sinful and selfish desires. In fact, maybe Solomon would envy us. Generally speaking, we live in better homes than he did, with better furniture and climate control. We dine at a larger buffet; when we go to the grocery store, we can buy almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world. We listen to a much wider variety of music. And as far as sex is concerned, the Internet offers an endless supply of virtual partners, providing a vast harem for the imagination.
That is one of the worst things about poverty; it is deceptive. When you have little, you can still believe the lie that more will make you happy. But “poor little rich man” Solomon had it all, and the bubble burst; the illusion was shattered. The rich know from experience that riches do not make them happy; the poor can still believe this lie. That is the chief advantage of riches: not that they make you happy but that they make you unhappy–but wise. (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 40)
By every indication, then, we are living in the godless times that Paul described for Timothy, when people would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). Everything is offered to us. Nothing is unavailable.
So are we satisfied, or do we still want more? Gregg Easterbrook gives us the answer in his book The Progress Paradox , which is subtitled How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse . Easterbrook proves that we have more of almost everything today . . . except happiness. In fact, the more we have, the unhappier we are, because we know we will never be able to get all the new things that we want.
At the end of his quest, the Preacher-King reached the same conclusion. Even after experiencing all the pleasure that he could afford, he still had not gained anything out of life. On “the morning after,” while he was still suffering the effects of his pleasure trip, he said,
“Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
The verb “consider” (Hebrew pana ) literally means “to face,” to look someone or something right in the eye (cf. Job 6:28). So Solomon is facing up to his situation, seeing his life as it really is, and he wants us to know that it isn’t pretty.
He was a liberated self-made man with every reason to be proud of his achievements. And the verdict? It meant nothing, all so much hebel, so much “striving after wind” (v. 11). It is not that he has any regrets about his life style; he does not apologize for it. It merely confirmed for him that the pursuit of pleasure was not the answer to the ultimate questions of life. (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 15-16)
What do you do when you have everything you thought you ever wanted and it still isn’t enough?
The answer is that our dissatisfaction with life should point us back to God — not away from him but toward him. If all the pleasures under the sun cannot satisfy our souls, then we need to look beyond this world to God in Heaven. C. S. Lewis writes:
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that what they do want, and want acutely, is something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. . . . There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.
God does promise us ultimate pleasure, and He will deliver. But that joy is found not in anything thing or person in this life, but in Jesus Christ.