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Ecclesiastes 2

PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
The Futility of Pleasure and Possessions The Vanity of Pleasure The Experiment with Pleasure The Philosopher's Experience
(1:12-2:26)
Life of Solomon
(1:12-2:26)
2:1-11 2:1-8 2:1-8 2:1-8 2:1-11
  2:9-11 2:9-11 2:9-12a  
Wisdom Excels Folly The End of the Wise and the Fool A Judgment on Wisdom    
2:12-17 2:12-17 2:12-17   2:12-23
  (12-14)   2:12b-17  
  (15-16)      
The Futility of Labor (17)      
2:18-23 2:18-23 2:18-23 2:18-23  
    The First of Qoheleth's Resigned Conclusions About Joy    
2:24-26 2:24-26 2:24-26 2:24-26 2:24-26

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentarywhich means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 2:1-8
 1I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility. 2I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?"
 3I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take 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. 4I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

2:1 "I said to myself" Chapters 1-2 form a literary unit. This is a recurrent refrain (cf. Eccl. 1:16,17; 2:1,15). The author is verbalizing his unspoken thoughts.

▣ "Come now" There are three imperatives in this verse:

1. "come" - BDB 229, KB 246, Qal imperative (a Hebrew way to introduce a new thought, e.g., Ps. 34:12; 46:8; 66:5,16)

2. "I will test" - BDB 650, KB 702, Piel imperfect used in a cohortative sense

3. "enjoy yourself" - BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal imperative (literally, "and look on goodness." The UBS Handbook for Translators says this can be understood as "see what good there is in it?" or "see what pleasure can offer?" (p. 52) 

 

▣ "I will test you with pleasure" The verb "test" (BDB 650, KB 702, Piel cohortative) clarifies the experiment. Qoheleth is trying to ascertain if worldly, physical pleasure is the key to "gain," but alas, it is not! All physical pleasure fades with the doing. It becomes routine and common (as do possessions).

Pleasure (BDB 970) is used in Ecclesiastes in two different senses:

1. gaiety, laughter (2:1,2,10; 7:4), where periods of pleasure briefly dull the mind and heart of humanity's existential existence in a fallen world, but it does not last; it does not satisfy!

2. daily pleasure in life's personal relationships and activities (8:15; 9:7). Here pleasure is not the goal, but the result of a regular attitude of trust in God (cf. Eccl. 2:26; 5:19) and thankfulness about common life experiences (food, drink, family, friends, work, cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:12,13,22; 5:8; 8:15,19; 9:7-9).

It is these contrasts between the proper use and attitude toward things in this world versus a "me first," "me at any cost," emphasis of fallen humanity that characterize this book. All things have their proper place (cf. chapter 3).

NASB"futility"
NKJV, NRSV"vanity"
TEV"useless"
NJB"futile"

See note at Eccl. 1:2.

2:2 Notice the two parallel comments about "laughter" and "pleasure." They bring no lasting peace, joy, or hope!

2:3 "stimulate my body with wine. . .while my mind was guiding me" This may refer to drunkenness, but with limits, safeguards (i.e., the wisdom of the sages). This is similar to the use of "mind expanding" drugs today, which have temporary pleasurable results, but long term addiction and destruction! See Special Topic following.

SPECIAL TOPIC: ALCOHOL (fermentation) AND ALCOHOLISM (addiction)

"folly" The verb form (BDB 698) in Aramaic means "to know," "to be intelligent," or "to cause to understand." This connotation seems to fit the context best (cf. Eccl. 1:17; 2:12,13; 7:25).

"under heaven" This phrase (cf. Eccl. 1:13; 2:3; 3:1) is a synonym for "under the sun," used twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes. See note on the theological meaning at Eccl. 1:3.

2:4-11 These verses describe what the author attributes to King Solomon. These are things and accomplishments that he had done (a series of 23 Perfect tense verbs), but, there was no lasting peace, joy, hope, and happiness. St. Augustine said there is a God-shaped hole in every person. Nothing can fill that hole except God. Only when we know Him can physical things and life experiences have meaning (cf. chapter 3).

2:4 "I enlarged my works" BDB 152, KB 178, Hiphil perfect.

1. houses, Eccl. 2:4

2. vineyards, Eccl. 2:4

3. parks, Eccl. 2:5

4. orchards, Eccl. 2:5

5. ponds, b. 6

6. slaves, Eccl. 2:7

7. flocks and herds, Eccl. 2:7

Notice the number of times "myself" appears in Eccl. 2:4-8.

2:5 "parks" This is a Persian loan word (BDB 825) describing a wealthy person's garden.

2:7 "male and female slaves" Slavery was common in the ancient world. It was not all bad! Many poor Hebrews sold themselves into slavery to another Hebrew to have a better life (cf. Deut. 15:12-18)! Of course, forced slavery (military, economic) was, and is, a tragedy! There was, and is, human exploitation in this area.

▣ "larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem" This clearly shows the egocentric nature of these pursuits (cf. Eccl. 2:9; see note at Eccl. 1:16).

2:8 "I collected" (BDB 888, KB 1111, Qal perfect):

1. silver and gold, Eccl. 2:8

2. treasure, Eccl. 2:8 (taxes or tribute)

3. singers, Eccl. 2:8

4. concubines, Eccl. 2:8

 

▣ "male and female singers" This (BDB 1010) possibly refers to (1) the artistic aspect of life or (2) regular festivals.

NASB, NRSV"concubines"
NKJV"musical instruments of all kinds"
TEV"all the women a man could want"
NJB, JPSOA"every human luxury, chest upon chest of it"
NIV"harem"
REB"everything that affords delight"
LXX"a butler and female cupbearers"

The Hebrew word (BDB 994, KB 950) is very uncertain. Obviously from the varied translations this Hebrew hapax legomenon is uncertain. The key is the Semitic root:

1. From the term for "woman's breast" (BDB 994), NASB, NRSV, TEV, NIV (in apposition to "the delights of men").

2. The NIV Study Bible's footnote says that an early Egyptian letter uses a similar Canaanite term for concubines (p. 993).

3. In later Hebrew (Mishnah) it refers to a chest or coffer, NJB, JPSOA (in apposition to "the treasure of kings")

4. KJV, ASV, NKJV see it as in apposition to "singers" (cf. NIDOTTE, vol. 4, p. 99).

5. The LXX took the meaning from the Aramaic root, "to pour out (wine)" (NET Bible, p. 116).

6. The REB seems to connect it to "delights of men," but in the sense of luxuries (cf. Prov. 19:10).

 

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 2:9-11
 9Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. 11Thus 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.

2:9-11 This is a summary statement. All of these "things" did provide a moment of joy and satisfaction, but it did not last! If the wisest, wealthiest, and most powerful person (i.e. Solomon) cannot find real lasting joy and satisfaction, how can anyone? This is the conclusion of Eccl. 2:11 (cf. Eccl. 1:14; 2:17,22-23)! This is the question of how to find purpose in life without God; without God, life becomes just physical existence! Where is lasting value or gain found?

The NKJV and NIV translations see Eccl. 2:10 and 11, as well as 12-16, as poetry, but other English translations have not followed this approach.

For the key phrase, "under the sun," see note at Eccl. 1:3.

2:10 "all that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure" These are balanced lines. It is hard to know when Qoheleth moves from prose to poetry. Notice the verbs:

1. "refuse" - BDB 69, KB 82, Qal perfect, meaning "withhold"

2. "withhold" - BDB 586, KB 602, Qal perfect. NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 991, says this implies that "the searcher for meaning has abandoned all restraint in search of pleasure."

 

▣ "my labor" The author (here speaking as Solomon, i.e. a literary foil) rejoices in his works (cf. Eccl. 2:10[twice],11), but in Eccl. 2:18,20,22 he "hates" them! The question of Eccl. 3:9, "What does the worker gain from his toil?" resounds! Earthly effort will fail, fade, and forever pass away!

2:11 "there was no profit" See note at Eccl. 1:3.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 2:12-17
 12So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? 13And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. 15Then 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." 16For 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! 17So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

2:12 Our author returns to wisdom to find lasting value, but he has tried that before also (cf. Eccl. 1:16-18). There are advantages to wisdom as opposed to folly (cf. Eccl. 7:11,12,19; 9:18; 10:10; Proverbs 8), but they are not ultimate advantages (cf. Eccl. 2:14-16).

1. one fate befalls them both (cf. Eccl. 9:11; Ps. 49:10)

2. there will be no lasting remembrance of either (note the opposite in Ps. 112:6; Prov. 10:7)

 

2:13 "wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness" There is value in wisdom, but it is not ultimate.

The NASB translation has left out the significant term "profit" (BDB 452). See note at Eccl. 1:3.

2:14

NASB, NKJV,
NRSV"eyes are in his head"
TEV"see where they are going"
NJB"have their eyes open"

The two dynamic equivalent translations (TEV, NJB) show the Hebraic metaphor.

▣ "one fate befalls them both" This fate (BDB 899) is a euphemism for death. Qoheleth feels the pain of the future common experience of all human beings (cf. Eccl. 2:15; 3:19[twice]; 9:2,3).

2:16 "lasting" This is literally "forever." See Special Topic at Eccl. 1:4.

▣ "all will be forgotten" This verb (BDB 1013, KB 1489) is a Niphal perfect and denotes the completed action of a yet future event as if it were already complete.

2:17 "hated life" This verb (BDB 971, KB 1338, Qal perfect) means "hate," but with the connotation of "disgusted" with life (cf. NJB) because of the futility that all he had worked for and built (cf. Eccl. 2:18; 2:11) had no lasting value or gain.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 2:18-23
 18Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. 19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. 20Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun. 21When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. 22For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? 23Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.

2:18-21 There is an obvious poetic parallel between Eccl. 2:18-19 and Eccl. 2:20-21 (cf. NET Bible, p. 1119).

2:18 "I must leave it to the man who will come after me" Traditional wisdom teachers put great faith in one's prosperity, not so Qoheleth. Everyone leaves everything (cf. Ps. 39:6).

2:19,21 "he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them" Often that which is passed on to us is not appreciated, even squandered away!

2:20 What a lament! What a realization! In Hebrew there is a repetition (noun and verb, BDB 765, KB 845) of the term "labor," "toil," which strengthens the lament.

The verbal (BDB 384, KB 382, Piel infinitive construct) means "despair," "be hopeless," "desperate." Qoheleth uses strong language to describe the depth of his emotions about the utter futility of human effort!

2:21 "there is" This Hebrew phrase (BDB 441) introduces a hypothetical, but often occurring, human experience or example (cf. Eccl. 2:21; 4:8; 5:13; 6:1,11; 7:15[twice]; 8:14[thrice]; 10:5). It is used many times in Wisdom Literature (e.g., Prov. 11:24; 12:8; 13:7; 14:12; 16:25; 18:24; 20:15).

NASB, NKJV,
NRSV"a great evil"
TEV"it isn't right"
NJB"grossly evil"
JPSOA"a grave evil"
REB"a great wrong"

These translations reflect the Hebrew word "evil" (BDB 948-949). It is used in this context as "grievous injustice" (cf. Eccl. 2:17; 5:13[twice],16; 6:1; 9:12; 10:5). The unfairness and randomness of this fallen world lies heavy on this author! See note at Eccl. 5:13.

2:22 "What does a man get in all his labor" What are the ultimate results of physical labors? Is there anything beyond the grave?

2:23 "even at night his mind does not rest" Those who possess worldly things worry about them constantly (i.e. day, Eccl. 2:23a and night, Eccl. 2:23b; i.e., no rest). Those who seek wisdom realize "the more you know, the more you know you do not know"! There is a race no one can win (cf. Eccl. 1:18).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 2:24-26
 24There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. 25For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? 26For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God's sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

2:24-26 The Jewish Study Bible (p. 1608) asserts that these verses offer a new perspective on the author's previous comments about the futility of life (i.e., enjoy the immediate). However, they seem to answer the question of Eccl. 1:3. It is true there is no lasting benefit (cf. Eccl. 2:11) apart from God, but 2:24-26 finally brings "above the sun" into focus. There is more to life than birth, life, and inevitable death. There is God, judgment, and an afterlife. Things will be set straight (cf. Eccl. 1:15), but not here, not now. Unfairness, injustice, and vanity seem to reign (because of the Fall, cf. Genesis 3), but wait, God reigns! He and His will spend eternity together. For now, the righteous must trust in His revelation, this world-view and enjoy the simple daily pleasures that this world offers (when and while one can).

Qoheleth being an OT sage, did not know the whole picture (i.e., the new Covenant, cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-38 and the complete, ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ).

There is an interesting list concerning Qoheleth's understanding of God's actions in this fallen, temporal world (i.e., NIDOTTE, vol. 4, p. 553):

1. creator, 11:5; 12:1,7 (like Psalms)

2. judge, 3:17,18; 11:9

3. benefactor, 2:24-26; 3:13; 5:18-20

4. one to be feared, 3:14; 5:1-7; 7:18 (like Proverbs)

5. one to be obeyed, 5:4; 7:26; 8:2; 13:13-14 (like Proverbs)

6. one causality in the universe, 3:11; 5:18-6:2; 7:13-14 (like Psalms)

7. unknowable, 3:11; 8:16-9:1 (like Job)

8. fair, 8:12,13

 

2:24 "This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God" The simple pleasures of life are gifts from God (cf. Eccl. 3:13; 5:19; 9:7; Prov. 13:22; Job 27:16-17). See note at Eccl. 2:1. In many ways this is one of just a few great truths in this book.

1. enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life (2:1,24; 3:12,13,22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9)

a. food (fellowship)

b. drink (although this can refer to revelry [cf. Exod. 32:6; 1 Sam. 30:16; 1 Kgs. 1:25] in this context it refers to daily family and social life)

c. sense of self-worth from life's work

d. rejoicing in life (9:8)

e. marriage and family (9:9)

2. fear God, keep the commandments (2:25; 12:13-14)

 

▣ "from the hand of God" See Special Topic below.

SPECIAL TOPIC: GOD DESCRIBED AS A HUMAN (ANTHROPOMORPHIC LANGUAGE)

2:25 "have enjoyment" This is a rare Hebrew term used only here in the OT. Most English translations take the meaning from the Arabic "feel" or "perceive by the senses" (BDB 301 II). However, the NJB has "drink," following the Septuagint, which tried to make Eccl. 2:24 and 25 parallel.

NASB"without Him"
NKJV"more than I"
NRSV (NIV)"apart from him"
TEV----------
NJB"came from Him"
JPSOA"but myself"

A Hebrew textual variation ("apart from Him") in some manuscripts is preserved in the Septuagint, Peshitta, and Jerome. Does this phrase reflect Qoheleth's thinking or has a major theological insight been reached (i.e. "gift from God") beginning in Eccl. 2:24? I think Eccl. 2:24-26 should be seen as a whole new thought.

2:26 The question of this verse is how is a person "good in His sight?" This question must be related to 12:13-14. Notice the benefits:

1. wisdom (BDB 315)

2. knowledge (BDB 395)

3. joy (BDB 970)

All that fallen mankind seeks in self-effort will be a gift from God!

Notice the consequences for a selfish, godless life:

1. gathering and collecting

2. only to be given to another ("person who is good in His sight")

Obviously Eccl. 2:24-26 are contrasting verses 12-23! Exactly how they relate is uncertain.

Qoheleth is also challenging traditional wisdom about prosperity (cf. Job). The wicked rich are gathering for the righteous!

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. List the things in chapter 2 that Qoheleth says proclaim vanity.

2. Why does he use Solomon as a backdrop in these two chapters?

3. Why does he seem to contradict himself about the advantages or disadvantages of wisdom and pleasure?

4. What great insight do verses 24-26 convey?