Studies in Ecclesiastes

Words and Work of God and Man
Part Three
by Vladimir Gelesnoff

Wisdom and Toil

Within the book of Ecclesiastes there are five "books" presenting the words of the Assembler concerning the works of the human, viewed finally as God's word concerning His works. In the first "book" (1:12-2:26) the author analyzes the perplexing problems of individual experience in the spheres of wisdom and toil. First of all he takes up wisdom, and in tracing knowledge finds that the condition of affairs under the sun is not what it should be, and that it is beyond man's power to correct. "What is distorted cannot be set in order, and what is lacking cannot be counted" (1:15).

Further pursuit of knowledge yields nothing beyond this positive idea. To go beyond is useless labor ("a grazing on wind"), which, while augmenting vexation and pain, contributes nothing of value towards the solution of the riddle (1:12-18):

12 I myself , the Assembler, came to be king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 I applied my heart to inquiring and exploring by wisdom
    concerning all that is done under the heavens:
It is an experience of evil Elohim has given to the sons of humanity
    to humble them by it.
14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun,
And behold, the whole is vanity and a grazing on wind.
15 What is distorted cannot be set in order,
And what is lacking cannot be counted
16 I spoke with my heart, saying,
Behold, I have grown great and have added in wisdom
Over all who were over Jerusalem before me;
My heart has seen much of wisdom and knowledge.
17 Then I applied my heart to know wisdom,
As well as to know about raving and frivolity;
I realize that even this, it is a grazing on wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
And he who adds knowledge adds pain.


The Assembler turns to the sphere of toil. As a king, he is endowed with the combination of all objects of human envy, and enters upon an experiment, by which the several kinds of good things are successively subjected to review. First, he accumulates without limit all possible objects of pleasure, and then engages in all kinds of human effort. The experiment includes the pleasures that are called frivolities; he gives himself freely to them, but while experimenting in frivolity he retains all the while "wisdom of heart" that could reflect on the frivolity.

The experiment is successful considered as an experiment. Success in achieving these enterprises brings with it an impression of pleasure; but when reflection is turned upon them there is no satisfaction. Ability to gratify his every wish and carry out his extensive undertakings has, after all, only met the wants of physical existence. Rich delights have pandered the soul, pleased the eye, tickled the palate, but have only appeased the feeling of hunger the same as a common meal, providing nothing for the spiritual cravings (2:1-11):

1 I said in my heart: Do come then,
Let me probe you with rejoicing;
Now look at what is good.
But behold, even this was vanity.
2 Mirth, I said, is a raving,
And rejoicing, what then is it achieving?
3 I explored within my heart by stimulating my flesh with wine
(While my heart was leading with wisdom)
And by getting a hold on frivolity,
Until I should see just where good may be for the sons of humanity
In what they do under the heavens
    during the number of days in their lives.
4 I made great things as my works;
I built houses for myself;
I planted vineyards for myself;
5 I made gardens and parks for myself,
And I planted in them trees of every fruit.
6 I made reservoirs of water for myself,
To irrigate from them the sprouting grove of trees.
7 I acquired menservants and maidservants,
And any sons born in the household became mine;
Moreover, abundant cattle, herds and flocks became mine,
More than all who were over Jerusalem before me.
8 I collected also silver and gold for myself,
The valuable treasures of kings and provinces;
I provided male singers and female singers for myself,
And with the rich delights of the sons of humanity,
    a wine waiter and wine waitresses.
9 As I grew greater and added more than anyone
    who was over Jerusalem before me.
Indeed my wisdom, it stayed by me.
10 All that my eyes asked for I did not deny to them;
I did not withhold my heart from any rejoicing,
For my heart had rejoicing from all my toil,
And this itself was my portion from all my toil.
11 Yet when I faced all my deeds that my hands had done,
And the toil that I had toiled in doing them,
Behold, the whole was vanity and a grazing on wind,
And there was nothing of advantage under the sun.


Next, with burdened heart, the Assembler turns reflection on to wisdom itself, together with its opposites, raving and frivolity (2:12), to see if here any genuine satisfaction is to be found. He sees at once that wisdom excels as light excels darkness; but this is neutralized by the further consideration that both are involved in the same destiny of death; so that in the presence of the King of Terrors the pursuit of wisdom, despite infinite superiority to its opposite, seems not only profitless but "evil" (vs.17). "Since the destiny of the stupid man is also mine, and it shall befall me, to what advantage then have I been wise? Hence I spoke in my heart, This too is vanity" (2:15).

12 Then I turned around to see wisdom compared with raving and frivolity
(For what will the man who comes after the king do
Beyond what others have already done?),
13 And I saw there is more advantage for wisdom than for frivolity
Just as there is more advantage for light than for darkness;
14 The wise man uses his eyes in his head,
While the stupid man walks in darkness;
Yet I realized indeed that the same destiny befalls them all.
15 So I said in my heart,
Since the destiny of the stupid man is also mine, and it shall befall me,
To what advantage then have I been wise?
Hence I spoke in my heart, This too is vanity.


Next he returns to survey the fruit of his toil wherein he had toiled under the sun. But this again appears hateful in the light of death, and the necessity of leaving it to a successor, who may prove to be frivolous. The thought and energy expended in the accumulation of goods do not even guarantee that after his departure they will be used in accordance with his wish. The survey has in all its departments ended in illusion (2:16-23):

16 For there is no remembrance of the wise man
    or the stupid man for the eon;
In the days which are already coming everyone is forgotten;
Alas, the wise man dies along with the stupid one!
17 Then I hated life,
For to me the work was evil that was done under the sun,
For the whole is vanity and a grazing on wind.
18 And I hated all the fruit of my toil for which I was toiling under the sun,
That I would leave to the man who shall come after me.
19 Who knows if he shall be a wise or a frivolous man?
Yet he shall have authority over all the fruit
my toil for which I toiled,
And in which I was wise under the sun;
This too is vanity.
20 So I turned around again with despair in my heart
Over all the fruit of toil for which I had toiled under the sun.
21 For there is a man whose fruit of toil is
    in wisdom and in knowledge and in success,
Yet to another man who has not toiled for it,
    he must give it as his portion;
This too is vanity and a great evil.
22 For what is coming to a man for all his toil,
And for the shepherding of his heart which he is toiling under the sun?
23 For all his days, pains and vexation are his experience;
Even in the night his heart will not lie still;
This too, it is vanity.


The knowledge the Assembler has gained is now summed up and wisely related to the hand of Elohim (2:24-26):

24 There is nothing better for a man
    than that he should eat and drink,
And cause his soul to see good from his toil;
This too I see that it is from the hand of Elohim.
25 For who can eat, and who can have pleasure outside of Him?
26 For to the man who is well pleasing before Him,
He gives wisdom and knowledge and rejoicing;
Yet to the sinner He gives the experience
    of gathering and of collecting together,
To give it to one who is well pleasing before the One, Elohim;
This too is vanity and a grazing on wind.

These concluding verses gather up the results. Thus far the experiment has shown that while the processes have been satisfactory and enjoyable the result has invariably been disappointing, even despairingly so when considered in light of the future. Evidence forces the conclusion that present enjoyment is man's only portion. But the important thought occurs that even appreciation of life as it passes is a gift of God, and is not in the power of the seeker.

Vladimir Gelesnoff

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