I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well – the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;(Eccl. 2:1-11 NIV)
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
Many readers are not convinced that everything is hebel. So the teacher experiments and tests our various scenarios to see if something can be found that is good. He tries pleasure, he hits the town, goes for a meal, samples the best wine, goes on to a club. Next day he buys his ticket and goes to a comedy show. He tries the cinema, the theatre and indulges in wine. He tried all these things that people could attempt but he couldn’t escape the fact that our existence on earth is but a few days.
‘Our national pastimes, for all their pleasure and fun, for all their creativity, are, for most people, simply a means of anaesthetizing themselves against the pain of reality.’
Okay, the teacher rules out pleasure, now he decides to bury himself in work and amass a fortune in wealth. Project after project, houses, vineyards, gardens, parks and constructed reservoirs. He acquired male and female slaves, he built up herds and flocks beyond what anyone else had been able to do. He earned silver and gold. He put together a choir to entertain himself. He established a harem and indulged himself in every sexual pleasure. In all of this over indulgence he maintained his wisdom and he could assess what he was doing.
It’s easy to dismiss this as not being relevant to our lives because we have neither the time nor the money to accomplish anything on the scale that the teacher achieved. But we need to assess this carefully. The teacher is trying out different pursuits and taking them to an extreme to teach us that these avenues are not worth pursuing. The teacher is not saying all of these things are wrong, but he is saying that we should not live for these things. Many people neglect spiritual things because they invest in their career. They are so involved in education or work that there is no time or energy left to worship God. The teacher reminds us again of the brevity of life, just a few days and then we are gone. What is worth filling those days with? My father died just a few weeks after his 65th birthday. I was 21 when he died, and I thought then that my father was old. Now that I am just a few years away from my 65th birthday it doesn’t seem old at all. I can hardly believe that our three children are in their thirties. During the summer I had the opportunity to speak on the phone to my primary school teacher who taught me when I was seven years old. I remember her as an energetic person, always busy. Bur her voice is now the voice of an old person, showing signs of frailty. Where have the years gone? That’s exactly the question that the teacher wants us to ask.
The teacher took delight in many of the projects that he engaged in. He refused himself no pleasure. But when he sat back to assess all that he had accomplished, he concluded that it was hebel, a mere chasing after the wind. There was no gain under the sun.
The question for us is, how are we going to fill the remaining days that we have left? How should we then live?
The sands of time are sinking:
Lord God our heavenly Father, life is passing us by so quickly. Help us to pursue that which is of eternal benefit. Lord God help us to be faithful to You and to fulfil our covenant vows to walk in newness of life to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.