Circling Back to Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17)

Back before I became a pastor of the English congregation at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington D.C., Becky and I attended a church retreat in Virginia.  I was asked to speak with the youth at the event.  One of the young men, whose name was Eddie Koo, kept asking, “Why?….Why?”  He was always wanting to know why.

Qoheleth also wanted to make sense of the world and kept asking “Why?”

At first the Preacher thought that the pursuit of wisdom would give him all the answers (Ecclesiastes 1:12–15), but there were so many things in life that he couldn’t straighten out or that didn’t add up that his quest soon ended in failure. Information failed to bring transformation.  So Qoheleth turned to morality.  Perhaps knowing the difference between right and wrong would give him a sense of purpose (Ecclesiastes 1:16–18).  Yet this only added to his sorrow and vexation.

Next the Preacher-King pursued pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11).  If wisdom ended in sorrow, maybe self-indulgence would lead to happiness.  So he built magnificent buildings and created beautiful gardens.  He savored the luxuries of wine, women, and song.  Never abstaining from pleasure or restraining his appetites, Solomon grabbed for all the gusto he could get.  Yet even the greatest pleasures in life failed to satisfy his soul.  If he said it once, he said it a thousand times: it was all vanity and a striving after wind.  There was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Still, Qoheleth continued his quest.  He couldn’t help it.  The man wanted to know “Why?” and he refused to give up until he knew he had the answer.  So with persistent perseverance, he kept looking for the meaning of life.  Anyone who wants to know the truth about things should follow his example.  Do not shy away from the difficult questions.  Do not settle for easy explanations that will not hold up to careful scrutiny.  Keep searching until you find your way to God.

With the goal of understanding, the Preacher tells us that he “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 2:12).  If these words sound familiar, it is because Qoheleth said almost exactly the same thing in Ecclesiastes 1:13, when he applied his heart “to seek and to search out by wisdom,” and again in Ecclesiastes 1:17, when he applied his heart “to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.”  The seeker has returned to look again at something he has considered before.

This is what people often do when they are looking for something that is missing.  First they look in the most logical place to find it.  When that fails, they start to look elsewhere.  But if they still can’t find what they are looking for, they say to themselves, “Maybe I missed something.  I should probably go back where I started and look more carefully.”

And that is what Solomon does in Ecclesiastes 2:12-26.

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. 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.

Six times in this passage we find the Preacher’s thematic word “vanity,” emptiness.  He is coming to the end of all his explorations for meaning and purpose in life, having tried wisdom, pleasure, accomplishments and now he returns to wisdom.

The sticking point for Qoheleth is death, inescapable and final.  In the rest of the Bible, the sting of death is somewhat assuaged by the thought that one lives on through one’s good name (Deut 25:5–6).

So Solomon “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly.”

“Madness” and “folly” go together.  The Preacher is not describing three different categories but only two.  On the one hand there is “wisdom,” which is used here in its most general sense to refer to human thinking at its very best, something that we regularly depend upon.

Wisdom in this sense is not the deep spiritual understanding that begins and ends with the fear of the Lord, but simply good, moral, practical advice for daily life that comes from the self-help section of your local bookstore.

He wants to compare the two, to make sure that he has considered life from every conceivable angle.

The Preacher wanted to write the last word about the meaning of life.  Thus he desired to make his quest as comprehensive as possible, a desire that comes through in what he says next: “For what can the man do who comes after the king?  Only what has already been done” (Ecclesiastes 2:12).

Earlier he had said that knowledge just leads to sorrow (1:18) and temporarily led to trying to find meaning in pleasure.

Derek Kidner says…

The bare comparison of wisdom and folly is simple, but the final assessment is shattering.  Nothing could be more obvious than that the two compare with one another as light with darkness (13, 14a); but Qoheleth has the wit to remember that they are abstractions and we are men.  It is little use commending to us the ultimate worth of wisdom, if in the end none of us will be around to exercise it, let alone to value it.

Solomon acknowledges in v. 12 that if he has tried it and come up empty, so will the rest of us who come after him.

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.

First, a ray of hope.  Solomon does see more gain in wisdom than in folly and in light than in darkness. But one fate, death, comes to all.  Whether one stays alert or sleeps through life, the same fate comes to all.

As James Bollhagen says…

The sorry fool lives in blissful ignorance, taking life as it comes, enjoying his fun, and ignoring the weightier issues of life and death.  His thoughts never go beyond his own belly.  The wise person, on the other hand, analyzes the hardships the world brings, wrestles with the problems of life and death, and diligently searches for meaning in the joys of life, while also earnestly hoping for life with God beyond the grave.  His thoughts are lofty, always running to the higher plane.  The wise and fool—when Solomon compares the two, the difference is like night and day (2:13).

Solomon is again expressing the positive benefit of wisdom, setting up the limitations of wisdom.

His ultimate disappointment with wisdom is introduced at the end of 2:14 and spelled out two verses later: both the wise and foolish are going to die and will eventually be forgotten by the people of this world.

Yes, it is better to walk in the light.  It is better to see where one is going so as not to stub one’s toes.  However, all your shrewdness, resourcefulness and even moral character—will not keep you from death. That is the sad reality.

In the NIV v. 14 ends, “the same fate overtakes them both.”

This verse may simply mean that the wise and the foolish experience the same ups and downs in life.  In that case the word “fate” is not being used fatalistically but refers generally to anything and everything that happens in life.  Whether we live by wisdom or by mad folly, we will get caught up in many of the same events, including the same calamities and catastrophes.  As Jesus says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).  It does not matter how smart we are, many things in life are beyond our control.  Thus many of the same incidents will happen to us that happen to everybody, both for good and for ill.

Yet when he talks about “the same event,” or “the . . . fate” that overtakes us all, the Preacher seems to have something more specific in mind.  He is talking about the one thing that happens to everyone — death.  This becomes perfectly clear in verse 16, where he says that “the wise dies just like the fool!”  But already in verse 14 he is talking about the fate that awaits us all.  As we go through life, it is better to be wise than foolish.  But what will happen to us in the end?  We will all die anyway.  So what really is the use of being wise?  Once we are dead, our wisdom will not do us any good.  Whatever advantage we gain from wisdom is strictly temporary.  Whether we are wise or foolish, either way we will soon be dead, and who will remember us then?  Death is the great equalizer.

You can feel Solomon’s disappointment.  It doesn’t matter how wise we are, how much we accomplish, how much money we have, death ends it all.  “Even the wise die,” the psalmist says; “the fool and the stupid alike must perish” (Psalm 49:10).

Solomon has been so smart, but he cannot play God.

To understand the gravity of what Solomon is saying, Derek Kidner says this: “The choices that we positively knew to be significant will be brushed aside as finally irrelevant.” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 34).

We go through life desperately trying to deny the reality of our mortality; yet we are haunted by death just the same.  Gregg Easterbrook writes about this in The Progress Paradox.  First Easterbrook demonstrates that even though the lives of average Americans are constantly improving in material terms, we never get any happier.  Then he tries to figure out why people are feeling worse at the very time that life supposedly is getting better.

Easterbrook has a variety of answers to this question, many of them based on sociological research.  But at a certain point he wonders whether perhaps the problem might have something to do with death.  Maybe “people grow steadily better off,” he says, “yet seemingly no happier, because there is a baseline anxiety in all our hearts, and that anxiety is the fear of death.”  For a brief moment Easterbrook opens a window to the human soul. If only he had the answer for our anxiety!

It is one thing to believe that all men are mortal, accepting the reality of death in intellectual terms, but it is something entirely different to recognize that we ourselves must die.  This is something every soldier confronts in wartime.  Many soldiers go into their first battle with the naive expectation that although other men will die, somehow they will manage to survive.  But when they see their first comrade fall in battle, they think, “That could have been me” and are compelled to confront their own mortality.

Sooner or later everyone comes to the same shocking realization: One day I am going to die; my heart will beat one last time, my lungs will exhale one final breath, and that will be the end of my days on this earth .

This painful reality makes the wise man wonder how wise it really is to pursue wisdom.  In view of his impending demise, figuring out the meaning of life now seems like a lot of wasted effort. Jean-Paul Sartre would have agreed, for the famous existentialist has been quoted as saying, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”

Since the beginning of the book, Solomon has been hinting at mortality; “one generation departs” (1:4).  All people have “one” and the same “outcome” in their future.  Finally, in verse 16, the dreaded “D” word jumps out.

Verse 16 reiterates the thought of 1:11:

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!

Solomon is adding here that not only does one die, but they are also forgotten.

Sometimes people try to overcome this problem by earthly achievement, but death still wins out in the end.  The filmmaker Woody Allen acknowledged this when he said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Earlier, in one of his many famous proverbs, Solomon said that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing” (Proverbs 10:7; cf. Psalm 112:6), but now he is not so sure. Will anyone remember us after all?

In dying and being forgotten, there is no difference between being wise and being foolish.

So Qoheleth’s quest has failed again.  A fresh investigation has come up with the same old findings.

“If one fate comes to all,” writes Derek Kidner, “and that fate is extinction, it robs every man of his dignity and every project of its point.”

By this point in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher’s refrain is all too familiar.  The equalizing power of death leads him to conclude — yet once more — that life is only vanity, like the steam that rises from a boiling kettle and then disappears.  But this time his attitude seems much more negative.  The repeated failure of his ongoing quest is in danger of embittering his heart:

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17; cf. Job 7:16).

It is one thing to be disappointed with life and all its frustrations, but hating life is another thing entirely.  The Solomon of Ecclesiastes seems to be spiraling down into absolute despair.  These are the thoughts that lead many to suicide.

It is not just his life that he hates but life in general — the whole enterprise of human existence.

As Solomon demonstrates, the effects of death are experienced long before death occurs.  Living under the shadow of death, which renders all human effort ultimately futile, he despairs of life as did Job in his first poetic response to his suffering (Job 3).

This exhibits the true end of the road for the person who does not believe in God and takes life and death seriously.

Derek Kidner notes:

To be outraged at what is universal and unavoidable suggests something of a divine discontent, a hint of what the great saying in 3:11 will call “eternity” in man’s mind. (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 35)

This is the hope that we have, that death doesn’t end it all and doesn’t make all of life meaningless.  When one gives away God, eternity and heaven, then certainly the reality of death brings despair, but with God and the truth about life ever after, every choice we make, every word we speak, every action, has meaning not only for this life, but also for the life to come.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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