Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Someone once said (perhaps at the end of a bad day): ″Life is greatly overrated.″ In today's passage, the Teacher sums up his views on the brevity and apparent futility of life, and comes to a similar conclusion (Ecclesiastes 2:17): ″I hated life″; ″I hated all the things I had toiled for″ (v. 18). His description of his experiences becomes a complaint, punctuated by the phrase ″this too is meaningless″ (vv. 19, 21, 23). He does not mention God in this section, perhaps because he is deliberately adopting the viewpoint of one who leaves God out of the picture and attempts to achieve great things for his own glory.
The Teacher has previously linked wisdom, madness, and folly (1:17; 2:3). He now draws a more extended comparison between them. Who better than he to do this? His conclusion: wisdom is better than folly (vv. 13-14), just as walking by daylight is better than blundering around in darkness. If you are wise, you can see where you are going; you can see danger at a distance and avoid it; you can choose between options rather than simply suffering whatever life throws in your path (see Proverbs 3:23; 4:12, 18-19). But wisdom won't spare you from death. In the end a wise person dies just like a fool, and is forgotten just as quickly (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16; see also 1:11). So what does wisdom amount to in the end? Perhaps the fool is better off: at least he doesn't torture himself with such questions (2:20)!
Ecclesiastes 2:17-23 helps us understand why the Teacher found his great achievements so unsatisfying (v. 11). The themes of hard work and wisdom come together here. The Teacher specifically speaks of work well planned and executed (vv. 19, 21). And yet, what is the point of such work, since we have to leave it behind when we die? As he contemplates the possibility that his heir may neglect and misuse all that he has poured his life into, the Teacher is close to despair (vv. 21-23). How futile his anxious strivings now seem! Why did he even bother (see 1:3)?
The shadow of death hangs over today's reading, and it forces us as believers in Christ to confront major life issues. What will we pour our energies into? What do we hope to achieve? How will we respond when the time comes to hand over the fruits of our labours to a successor (assuming there is one)? What is the dividing line between self-centred striving (which may be the main problem in 2:17-23) and a genuine desire to attempt great things for God?
Ecclesiastes 2:12-16 mostly dwells on the limitations of wisdom, but what are its positive benefits? Consider Proverbs 3:13-16; 5:22-23; 13:14.
As Christians, we believe in the resurrection from the dead and the life of the age to come. In other words, death does not mark the end of all we have lived and worked for (contrary to what Ecclesiastes 2:14, 16 suggest). Does this mean that we are spared from the kind of disappointment and even despair expressed in 2:18-23?