In verse 12, he is shifting gears a bit, but continuing the thought process. Instead of looking at pleasure and possessions, he is looking at wisdom, madness, and folly. He starts out with a question:
for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done?
Again, like he has done a few times already, this is a rhetorical question with the implied answer of “nothing.” This points back to verse 1:9:
That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
But why does he mention this again in 2:12? He starts by saying what he is now going to consider, then adds this in, and then in verse 13 he goes back to wisdom and folly. It is sandwiched in the middle with no clear explanation. Perhaps it is to say that when considering these things, it is easy for him to come to a solid conclusion because there will be nothing new in terms of wisdom or folly. His conclusion will be a lasting one because nothing that will happen in the future will be able to change it.
Wisdom Is Greater
Now he makes a judgement about wisdom versus folly in 13-14:
And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
If there is darkness, and light is introduced, the light wins. Wisdom is greater. In terms of humanity, the one with wisdom can see with the mind. He can make decisions and think rightly because his mind can see clearly as if in a lit room. The fools eyes are elsewhere and therefore the decisions he makes are not based off of clarity and sight of the mind, but off of other impulses.
This verse also sounds like a proverb, to which there is a similar line in Proverbs 2:13.
The Fate Of All Men
Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!
Certainly there are major benefits to wisdom, but he is saying here that it was worthless to be so wise. The Bible has many good things to say about wisdom, so how can it be vanity? There must be a lens through which he is viewing this that we must be mindful of so that we don’t come to the conclusion that one of the wisest men in history tells us that it’s worthless to be wise. I think he must be viewing wisdom in terms of what is left of it after death. What counts at that point?
Hatred of Life
He says in verse 17 that he “hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me.” This is interesting because just back in verse 10 he said “for my heart was pleased because of all my labor…” This seems like a contradiction. However, I think he is working in different scopes. In verse 10 he seems to be looking at the moment. He is in the scope of living life out. In verse 17, he’s in the scope of looking at life as a whole and what happens at death. So in that scope, seeing how all his work does nothing in the grand scheme of things, it then seems grievous. So I would not consider this a contradiction.
But why hate life? This is a very strong statement. How can absolutely everything be futile? Is it helpful to be as negative as he is? I don’t think the feeling of hating life is meant to last. I think he is trying to help his readers wipe the slate clean and rid of all ideas of what has any sort of value in life, and then work on rebuilding it. I don’t think he intends for us to join him permanently in hating life.
There is no real conclusion to come to in this section, as it is in the middle of a chapter and in the middle of a thought process he is taking his readers through. But he is continuing to point out different aspects of life and determining it all to be futile. He even challenges things that we may have never thought could have been considered worthless, namely, wisdom.
I think it is interesting that my Bible has a title for this specific section of verses called “Wisdom Excels Folly.” This almost seems like a completely moot point given his conclusion that both wisdom and folly are both just futility in the end.