Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.
2 I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?
3 I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.
4 I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards:
5 I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits:
6 I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:
7 I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me:
8 I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.
9 So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
10 And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.
11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.
12 And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.
13 Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
15 Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
17 Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
18 Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.
19 And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.
20 Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.
21 For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
22 For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?
23 For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.
24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
25 For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?
26 For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
The Failure of Hedonism
The first worldly philosophy that Solomon explored was hedonism – the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. He sought out all manner of pleasures, drinking heavily among the wise and the foolish to see what all the fuss was about. And this, he concluded, was also vanity. Laughter, in and of itself, is meaningless, for it gives fleeting pleasure and is swiftly ended. Mirth is the same, for while fun is fun it comes to an end having given no lasting pleasure nor accomplished anything.
Further, he pursued all the trappings of wealth to see if they brought happiness. He built great works such as the gilded Temple, constructed great mansions (remember his 900 combined wives and concubines), and planted vast vineyards for the production of fine wines. This all was vanity and brought no happiness. He made gardens and orchards, bringing the vast production of nature under control within his domain and enjoying the fruits thereof, but this too brought no lasting joy. He made pools of water in beautiful gardens, to water his plants and to provide pastoral stillness, but this too was unsatisfying.
He acquired many servants and maids to cater to his every whim, but ordering them around brought him as much joy as that which they produced for his enjoyment. He acquired and grew a vast herd of animals, as well, but having these creatures also brought no solace. He gathered vast troves of silver and gold, and the treasures of kings, and the gifts of provinces, but all this wealth was not enough. He had singers and dancers to entertain himself, but no number of performers nor degree of spectacle was enough. Whatever he desired he acquired, whatever seemed desirable he obtained, but none of it made him happy nor eased his burdens. All his work, which brought him some happiness in the doing, was also vanity.
This is the hedonist paradox, that one must always be pursuing the next high. Greater and greater efforts are required to bring pleasure, for what once was fun is now tame and boring. All labors are ultimately reduced to dust over time, and all that is obtained must be maintained. What once brought pleasure is now toil, for you have become accustomed to the pleasures you enjoy and suffer from the maintenance of that level of pleasure and the avoidance of the pain of withdrawal from said pleasures. This is vanity and vexation of spirit.
The Failure of Philosophy
Having received no lasting reward for his physical wealth, power, and pursuit of physical pleasures, Solomon then turned toward the acquisition of wisdom and understanding of madness and folly. This, surely, would last, because he would leave a legacy of learning and wisdom that would be carried down by later kings (which, the histories of the Kings and Chronicles detail, was not so).
Wisdom is far greater than foolishness. The foolish walk in darkness, unable to perceive the ramifications of what they do, and so they frequently err and make troubles for themselves. The wise, on the other hand, perceive all things, and are thus able to make wise decisions that result in goodness and benefit for all mankind. The wise man sees, the fool does not see, but both ultimately die and are forgotten.
What is the point of gaining wisdom, if you will die and be buried with it? A wise man does not carry his wisdom into the next life any more than a fool carries his folly – both become food for the maggots and are forgotten. Wisdom does not keep one from dying, though it might serve to prolong life over the fool who makes decisions that end his life early. The decay of age does not affect the wise man any less than the fool, and an arrow will slay either. Wisdom, then, is ultimately as vain as physical possessions.
Philosophy often leads to hatred for life, because of this.
The Failure of Nihilism
Wisdom and knowledge are ultimately vanities. Possessions and the trappings of wealth and power are ultimately vanities. What else is there in this world besides these things, that a man might obtain?
A wise man comes to hate his life and all his works, for he sees them as the hollow and fleeting things that they are. A man’s wisdom is only valuable to the one who receives it after him, and a man’s labors are ultimately left to another. And who will that recipient be – a wise man, or a fool? A man may try to guide his legacy to wise men, but ultimately he has no say once he is dead and buried, and yet that recipient will have rule over that legacy. You can struggle all your life to acquire wealth only to have your children piss it away (indeed, Solomon’s mighty kingdom and great estates were divided in two in the generation after his death, splitting Israel into two kingdoms with different rulers and branching histories).
All your struggles, all your work, all your thinking, ultimately does not save you from death. All your careful planning does not protect against the very real chance that your life’s work will be ruined by those who are to care for it. You work hard, you suffer, you despair, and you die with no control over what happens past that point.
So why shouldn’t you just eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die? Why shouldn’t you just do whatever comes into your mind to do, because you only have one short, fragile life? After all, the wise have the ability to produce for themselves power, and good things, and pleasures, while the fools toil their whole lives to produce those things for the wise and the good. This is something inherent to nature, which God has designed into the world as a rule of thumb. But, this too is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Let us Pray
Mighty Father and sovereign Lord, great is your power and glory. All things are under your dominion, and all that you have created testifies to your majesty even should it wish not to do otherwise. What can rival you in power, and in greatness, and in wisdom, and in knowledge?
Lord, we are mightily disturbed by the words we have received. All our works are fleeting, and all our struggles ultimately amount to nothing. If we eat, we only convert our labors into the energy to postpone death another day. If we drink, we only hide from the knowledge of our impending fates for a short time. If we build great works, we only create a thing which is easily destroyed and scattered to the earth. If we seek wisdom and knowledge, we only discover all that we do not know and all that we will never have time to fully understand before we are dust.
Yet in You there is goodness and life. You grant us eternal life with you, though we have not earned it, and you give us good things that we can never merit. You rescue us from the consequences of our follies, you give us joy that passes understanding, and you quite the inner turmoil with a profound peace. In You we find solace that is lasting, works that endure, and knowledge that can be held firmly. All this you have given to sinners, who despised you and sought to rob you of the glory and honor that you have so richly deserved since before the creation of all worlds.
Give us peace.