Rather than simply jumping to the most famous part of Ecclesiastes, due to a song from the 1960s, I want to spend some time unpacking Qoheleth’s teaching that leads up to it. It is crucial that we do so if we are going to understand where Qoheleth is coming from when he says what he says in chapter 3.
Where one unit ends and another begins in the teaching of Qoheleth is difficult to say. Yet after his own introduction (Ecc 1:12-15), it appears best if we see the first unit as Ecc 1:16-2:11. Enns tells us that it still fits the ANE genre of a royal testament. The idea was that the king would brag about his accomplishments so that people will remember him. Thus we hear Qoheleth brag: ”I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Ecc 1:16-17a).
But then he subverts the self-praise saying, ”I know that this also is but a striving after wind.” ”This” appears to refer to the entire quest. Then Qoheleth explains, ”For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecc 1:18). As Enns puts it, ”The reason why even his royal wisdom quest is futile is that the more you know, the worse off you are. It is futile not because of what he cannot find out, but because of what he does find out.” If you do not have this wisdom and this time on your hands, you save yourself a lot of trouble. Perhaps the remarkable thing, as Enns observes, is that even after telling us that this quest is futile, Qoheleth continues to tell us about the quest.
And right when we think we are going to hear about the test of pleasure (Ecc 2:1) he first repeats the conclusion about such testing: ”But, behold, this also was הֲבֵ֤ל ” He elaborates on what that means by saying that laughter is mad and pleasure is useless. They do not profit! And Qoheleth then desribes the test of pleasure first with regard to wine. The test is to know wisdom but also to know folly. Thus he says, ”my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly.” This would suggest that he drank a lot of wine. The purpose: ”till i might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” Enns notes that the word ”few” is not present in the Hebrew, but this is not inconsistent with the point of the book. Death is lurking in the background – this is going to be the big problem.
Ecclesiastes 2:4-8 then list Qoheleth’s activities: made great works, built houses, planted vineyards, made gardens and parks and planted fruit trees in them, made pools to water the forest, bought slaves who had children, acquired great possessions of herds and flocks (”more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem”), collected silver and gold and treasure, had singers (male and female), and concubines. This is the description of a king who has everything, but none of it matters.
Again he says, ”So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me” (Ecc 2:9, cf. 1:16). And then, ”And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept from my heart no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was הֲבֵ֤ל and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained ( וְאֵ֥ין יִתְר֖וֹן ) under the sun” (Ecc 2:10-11, cf. 1:17).
Qoheleth is not inviting us to imitate him and go on this quest for ourselves. He tells us up front that the exercise is futile and הֲבֵ֤ל
And Qoheleth is saying that you can find pleasure in your activities but there is no other reward for them – there is no profit/payoff – in the end it is
Qoheleth acknowledges then that there is some joy to be had from our labors temporarily. His lament is that there is no lasting profit.
This is why Qoheleth says (to put it in modern language) ignorance is bliss. You are best off just enjoying things now. Qoheleth himself, being wise, is not able to find solace in this temporary joy. Instead, even the king concludes, ”Behold, everything is nothing/absurd/meaningless, a chasing after wind, and there is no payoff under the sun (i.e. anywhere on earth – anywhere among the living).
The next unit begins, ”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” (Ecc 2:12). Here is a hint of that theme – ”there is nothing new under the sun.” Qoheleth says that none of his successors will be able to duplicate his quest, nor would it do any good to try. And if that is true for kings, it is even more the case for the rest of humanity.
And he continues by making the odd comment that wisdom has ”more יִתְר֛וֹן ” than folly and likewise for light than darkness. This statement is odd because ultimately nothing has any profit/payoff. But apparently this does not mean that it might not have some temporary appearance of a payoff. As with anywhere that Qoheleth begins to sound hopeful, he will quickly dash our hopes. That profit/payoff, we can call it, is only good for this life – ”the wise dies just like the fool” (Ecc 2:16) and no one remembers the wise or the fool (Ecc 2:15).
The first explicit mention of death leads Qoheleth to exclaim: ”So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, כִּֽי־הַכֹּ֥ל הֶ֖בֶל and a striving after wind. 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, 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 הָֽבֶל ” (Ecc 2:17-19).
Thus whatever payoff/profit you might find in this life is relativized by death. Everyone suffers the same end – everyone dies and no one remembers them. And then whatever they did passes on to others who did not work for it and it is unpredictable whether that person will be wise or a fool. This is absurd (הָֽבֶל) ! And it is all because of death! (Ultimately because of God!) Elsewhere in Scripture the faithfulness of God to His people is demonstrated through their descendants. Qoheleth, however, has been saying that he does not find this comforting at all.
Qoheleth continues, ”What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 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 הֶ֥בֶל ” (Ecc 2:22-23). Thus not only does his toil have no profit/payoff because of death but his toil causes sorrow (pain) and vexation (greviousness) now – even sleepless nights.
This leads Qoheleth to utter the first of what some have called an invitation to ‘carpe diem’: ”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, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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 הֶ֖בֶל and a striving after wind” (Ecc 2:24-26). It is quite misleading to call this an invitation to carpe diem – seize the day – it is a statement of resignation to reality. Here is the first of many ”there is nothing better than…” statements in the book. No doubt you noticed that Qoheleth was not thanking God for this state of affairs – it is God’s doing, so we might as well be resigned to it. He will give everything that we gather and collect to whomever He wants to give it. The term sinner here is again not being used with morality in view but simply to refer to someone who offends God (not due to sin, but it is just his bad luck). It is not as if the sinner separated from God dies and then the righteous inherit. Qoheleth is complaining that there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to it – everyone dies and there is no way to know whether the one to inherit will be a fool or wise. Enns says, ”This very set of circumstances, which occurs at God’s discretion, is judged by Qohelet as absurd. God does as he pleases, even if it is an affront to reason, and explains himself to no one.”
Qoheleth continues in much the same vein in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Like I said, I wanted to spend some time seeing what Qoheleth says for himself in these verses before we move onto the most misunderstood passage of the book – very misunderstood by people today because of the pretty song written by Pete Seeger and popularized first by the Byrds in the 1960s.