In verse 1, the author makes the decision to experience the fullness of what this life has to offer in terms of material possessions and pleasure. He says to himself, “come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” What is it that he is testing for? He isn’t explicit about that, however, I think he is testing it all to see if he can find some real purpose, something that is not just vanity. He seems to find no value though, because he declares upfront again at the end of verse 1, “and behold, it too was futility.”
The latter half of verse 2 talks about testing pleasure. He asks the question, “what does it accomplish?” We all want to believe that God created us to have pleasure and enjoy things, so therefore it should be a good thing, at least when enjoyed in a proper context. But by asking the question the way he does and supplying no answer, it seems that he is implying that it accomplishes nothing. In terms of everlasting purpose, it would seem that he is right. But I don’t think he’s saying that pleasure shouldn’t be had. Perhaps he would suggest that pleasure can be good, but that we should not have a perspective that pleasure is what we seek for ultimate fulfillment.
Verse 3 gets a little confusing:
I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to make hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.
I don’t think it was any mystery of the effect on the body when one drinks wine. Yet he says he “explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine.” So what is he trying to do then? He makes it even more interesting by trying to merge in the guidance of a wise mind to the process of drinking wine. Perhaps he recognized that wine can make one a bit goofy, but he wanted to try and see if he could turn that into good. But, this is made more unclear when he talks about doing this “until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do.” Most people do the majority of the things they do without alcohol. So ultimately, I’m really not sure what he is trying to say here.
In 4-11 he explores all that the material world provides. He had everything, and a lot of it. He says in verse 10, “All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure.” Our culture is very caught up in the pursuit of more and more. Rare is the person without want. We keep thinking that if we only had this or that, then we’d be really happy, yet the more we get, the more we want.
Listen to nearly any hip-hop song, and many other popular pop songs these days and you’ll find lyrics about sex are paramount. Our culture is sex-craved, and seemingly sex-starved, because people can’t seem to get enough. He must have experienced this as well, for in the latter part of verse 8, he had many women to have sex with: “I provided for myself…the pleasures of men – many concubines.”
Then we get to his conclusion of it all at verse 11:
Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.
All the wealth we think we need, all of the possessions we think we need, all of the sex we think we need, all amounts to nothing in the end. No profit!
Conflict With The Heart?
Here is something interesting that the author writes in verse 10 shortly before saying all is vanity:
I did not withhold my heart form any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.
I can’t tell if his heart being pleased is a good thing here, especially because it is within the context of not withholding from any pleasure as a reward for his labor.
I have definitely felt pleased with my work before, to the point of wanting to reward myself with something. But is that a good thing? I think it can be either good or bad depending on how your self-rewarding is done. Sometimes I may just want something, and I use my work as a reason for why I deserve it. Other times I have needed something and set a goal for myself to work towards it.
But unfortunately we can’t tell which direction he is going here, as it could go either way. In the end though, it was for no profit, and was striving after the wind, no matter which way we look at it. But it does leave me to wonder what his point in writing this line was.
The main conclusion in this section is that all pleasure and possession is meaningless. But we can’t just leave it at that. We are in the middle of a chapter in the middle of a book. There is plenty of time yet for the author to bring up more points and draw more conclusions and tie it all together.
The question that I have currently is this: What metric does he have to consider all these things vanity? In order to say something like that, you need to have an idea of what is NOT vanity. I can tell you that a single penny is pretty much worthless, because I know that even to buy a single lunch would cost 600-1500 of those. I have something to compare it to.
If all he did was tell us that everything is meaningless, but didn’t say what is meaningful, this book would be either be meaningless, or amazingly depressing. So we must continue reading.