Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26: What God Gives to the Children of Man
In the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher spoke in extreme, absolute generalities. He has captured our attention with his uncomfortable evaluation of everything in this world as “vanity of vanities,” but he knows that he needs to give evidence to back up his strong claims. In this next section, in Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26, the Preacher publishes the research from a grand experiment he has performed that has led him to his conclusions. As King over Israel, Solomon set out to find true, lasting, satisfaction, and ultimate joy in this world. He applied himself to searching out all pleasure and all wisdom, but he only ended up in vexation, sorrow, and despair. Nevertheless, the Preacher does not simply offer doom and gloom. Instead, he proclaims hope for this world that must come from outside this world: God gives enjoyment to those who trust in him.
1) What does the Preacher mean when he says that God “has given” an unhappy business to the children of man (1:13; cf. Rom. 8:20)? How does he characterize the broken, fallen, sinful nature of this world (1:15)? How does what the Preacher writes here accord with what the rest of the Bible says about this world because of sin? What does the Preacher hope to find by applying his heart (1:13) and acquiring wisdom (1:16)? What does he ultimately find instead (1:17–18)?
2) How does the Preacher test the pleasure of laughter and wine (2:1–3)? How does he test the pleasure of achievements and accomplishments (2:4–6)? How does he test the pleasure of wealth (2:7–8)? What modest gains does the Preacher find in his various tests (2:9–10)? In spite of these modest gains, why does the Preacher nevertheless consider the results of his tests to be “vanity” and a “striving after wind,” with “nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11)?
3) How does the Preacher test wisdom (2:12–17)? What modest gains does he discover in the wisdom that he tests (2:13–14a)? Why, then, does the Preacher ultimately reject wisdom as nothing more than ”vanity and a striving after wind” (2:17)? How should we balance this rejection of ultimate meaning in wisdom, with the wisdom that God everywhere commends to us in the Bible? What does God’s wisdom entail that the Preacher’s experimental, worldly wisdom does not (cf. Prov. 1:7)?
4) What two conclusions does the Preacher come to in his work (2:18–26)? Why does the Preacher first come to such a conclusion of despair (2:18–23)? After all his modest gains, why do none of them rise to anything beyond mere vanity? In what sense, though, does the Preacher offer a second conclusion of faith (2:24–26)? In this life, what can we reasonably expect as we walk by faith? How does Ecclesiastes help us to avoid worldliness and to look to Christ?