Ecclesiastes 2
Benson Commentary
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 2:1-2. I said in my heart — Being disappointed of my hopes from knowledge, I resolved to try another course. Go to now — O my soul! I will try whether I cannot make thee happy by the enjoyment of sensual delights. This also is vanity — Is vain, and unable to make men happy. I said of laughter, It is mad — This is an act of madness, more fit for fools who know nothing, than for wise men in this sinful, and dangerous, and deplorable state of mankind. What doth it — What good doth it? Or how can it make men happy? I challenge all the epicures in the world to give me a solid answer.

I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?
I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.
Ecclesiastes 2:3. I sought to give myself unto wine — To gratify myself with delicious meats and drinks; yet acquainting, &c. — Yet resolving to use my wisdom, that I might try whether I could not arrive at satisfaction, by mixing wine and wisdom together. To lay hold on folly, &c. — To pursue sensual pleasure, which was my folly; till I might see, &c. — Till I might find out the true way to contentment and satisfaction, during this mortal life.

I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards:
Ecclesiastes 2:4-7. I made me great works — Magnificent works, for my honour and delight. I builded me houses — Of which see 1 Kings 7:1, &c.; 9:15, &c.; Song of Solomon 8:11. I made me gardens — Hebrew, paradises, or gardens of pleasure; I planted trees, &c. — Mixing pleasure and profit together. I made me pools of water — Because the rain there fell but seldom; to water therewith the wood — The nurseries of young trees, which, for the multitude of them, were like a wood or forest. I had servants born in my house — Of my bond-servants, which therefore were a part of my possessions.

I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits:
I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:
I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me:
I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.
Ecclesiastes 2:8. I gathered me silver and gold — Vast riches; and the peculiar treasure of kings — Riches, answerable to the state of a king, or, he means, the greatest jewels and rarities of other kings, which they gave to me, either as a tribute, or by way of present; and of the provinces — Which were imposed upon or presented by all the provinces of my dominions.

So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.
Ecclesiastes 2:9-10. So I was great — In riches, and power, and glory. My wisdom remained — As yet I was not wholly seduced from God. And whatsoever mine eyes desired — Whatsoever was grateful to my senses, or my heart desired; I kept not from them — I denied myself nothing, at least, of lawful delights, but went to the very bounds of them; which was the occasion of his falling afterward into sinful pleasures. I withheld not my heart, &c. — As my heart was vehemently set upon pleasure, so I did not resist, or curb it therein, but made all possible provision to gratify it. For my heart rejoiced — I had the comfort of all my labours, and was not hindered from the full enjoyment of them by sickness or war, or any other calamity. This was my portion — This present enjoyment of them was all the benefit which I could expect from all my labours. So that I made the best of them.

And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:11. I looked on all the works, &c. — I made a serious review of my former works and labours, and considered whether I had obtained that satisfaction in them which I had expected to find; and behold, all was vanity — I found myself disappointed, and wholly dissatisfied in this course. And there was no profit, &c. — The pleasure was past, and I was never the better for it, but as empty as before.

And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.
Ecclesiastes 2:12. And I turned myself, &c. — Being frustrated of my hopes in pleasure, I returned to a second consideration of my first choice, to see whether there was not more satisfaction to be gotten from wisdom, than I discovered at my first view. For what can the man do — To find out the truth in this matter; to discover the utmost satisfaction possible to be found in pleasure; that cometh after the king — That succeeds me in this inquiry. So this is added as a reason why he gave over the pursuit of pleasures, and directed his thoughts to another object; and why he so confidently asserted the vanity of pleasures, from his own particular experience; namely, because he had made the best of them, and it was a vain thing for any private man to expect that from them which could not be found by a king, and such a king, who had so much wisdom to invent, and such great riches to pursue and enjoy all imaginable delights; and who had made it his design and business to search this matter to the bottom. Even that which, hath been already done — As by others, so especially by myself. They can make no new discoveries as to this point. They can make no more of the pleasures of sense than I have done. Let me then try, once more, whether wisdom can give happiness.

Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.
Ecclesiastes 2:13-14. I saw that wisdom — I allowed thus much. Although wisdom is not sufficient to make men happy, yet it is of far greater use than vain pleasures, or any other follies. The wise man’s eyes are in his head — In their proper place. He hath the use of his eyes and reason, and foresees, and so avoids, many dangers and mischiefs. But the fool walketh in darkness — Manages his affairs ignorantly, rashly, and foolishly, whereby he shows that his eyes are not in his head, or are not used aright. And, or yet, I myself perceived also, &c. — That, notwithstanding this excellence of wisdom above folly, at last they both come to one end. Both are subject to the same calamities, and to death itself, which takes away all difference between them.

The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 2:15-16. Then I said — why was I more wise — What benefit have I by my wisdom? or, to what purpose did I take so much pains to get wisdom. For there is no remembrance of the wise — Their memory, though it may flourish for a season, yet will, in a little time, be worn out; as we see in most of the wise men of former ages, whose very names, together with all their monuments, are utterly lost. As the fool — He must die as certainly as the fool.

For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Ecclesiastes 2:17-19. Therefore I hated life — My life, though accompanied with so much honour, and pleasure, and wisdom, was a burden to me, and I was ready to wish, either that I had never been born, or that I might speedily die; because the work, &c., is grievous — All human designs and works are so far from yielding me satisfaction, that the consideration of them increases my discontent. I hated all my labour — All these riches and buildings, and other fruits of my labour, were aggravations of my misery. Because I should leave it, &c. — Because I must, and that everlastingly, leave them all behind me. And who knoweth whether he shall be wise or a fool? — Who will undo all that I have done, and turn the effects of my wisdom into instruments of his folly. Some think he had such an opinion of Rehoboam.

Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.
And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.
Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:20-21. I went to cause my heart to despair — I gave myself up to despair of ever reaping that satisfaction which I promised to myself. For there is a man whose labour, &c. — Who uses great industry, and prudence, and justice too, in the management of his affairs; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein — shall he leave it for his portion — A portion which he will probably consume upon his lusts. This also is a great evil — A great disorder in itself, and a great torment to a considering mind.

For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 2:22-23. For what hath man — “To what purpose,” a man may well say, “is all this toil of my body, and these solicitous thoughts, and this anguish of my mind? For all that a man can enjoy himself of the anxious labours wherein he spends his days, amounts to little or nothing; and what comfort hath he in thinking who shall enjoy the fruit of them hereafter?” For all his days are sorrows, &c. — “And yet, such is our folly, there is no end of our cares; for we see many a man, whose life is nothing but a mere drudgery; who never is at leisure to enjoy any thing that he hath, but still engaged in one troublesome employment or other to get more; which he follows so eagerly, as if it were his business to disquiet and vex himself, and make his life uneasy to him! being not content with his daily toils, unless he rack his mind also with cares in the night! This is so void of all reason that nothing can be imagined more vain and foolish.” — Bishop Patrick.

For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
Ecclesiastes 2:24. There is nothing better — Or, Is there any thing better for a man? — Which implies that there is nothing better, namely, for man’s present comfort and satisfaction; than that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour — That, studying first to free his mind from overmuch care and anxiety, he should, instead of heaping up perpetually for his heirs, allow himself a moderate and decent use of all the good things that he hath gotten by his honest labours; praising God for them, and cheerfully communicating them with his friends and neighbours, and to the relief of the necessitous poor and afflicted. This also — Namely, that a man should thankfully take, and freely and cheerfully enjoy and communicate with others, the comforts which God gives him; I saw — was from the hand of God — Was a singular gift of God, and not to be procured by a man’s own wisdom and diligence.

For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?
Ecclesiastes 2:25. For who can eat, &c. — For the truth of this you may rely upon my experience: for who can more freely and fully enjoy the comforts of this life than I did? Or who else can hasten hereunto more than I? — Who can pursue them with more diligence, obtain them with more readiness, or embrace them with more greediness? And yet, (as his words imply,) I had not comfort in these things till God was pleased to impart it unto me; till he gave me grace to see and consider that they were his gifts, to acknowledge his goodness in bestowing them upon me, and to use and enjoy them with prudence and moderation according to his will, not seeking my happiness in them, or in any creatures, but in himself, above all creatures. For this verse is evidently added to confirm, from his own experience, what he said in the foregoing verse: and surely no man’s experience, in such a case, was ever greater; no man was ever a more capable judge in these matters: none could either have more creature-comforts, or more addict himself to the enjoyment of them, or improve them to better advantage than he did; and therefore he could best tell what was the greatest good to be found in them, and whether they were able of themselves, without God’s special gift, to yield a man satisfaction.

For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Ecclesiastes 2:26. For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight — Who not only seems to men to be good, as many bad men do, but is really and sincerely good; or, who pleaseth him, as the same phrase, שׂוב לפניו, is rendered, Ecclesiastes 7:26, and often elsewhere: whereby he seems to intimate the reason why he found no more comfort in his labours, namely, because his ways had been very displeasing to God, and therefore God justly denied him that gift; wisdom and knowledge — To direct him how to use his comforts right, that so they may be blessings, and not snares and curses to him; and joy — A mind thankful for, and contented with, his portion. “This is a blessing,” says Bishop Patrick, “which God reserves for him whom he loves; whose sincere piety he rewards with wisdom to judge when, and with knowledge to understand how, he should enjoy and take the comfort of all he hath; especially with inward joy, satisfaction of heart, and tranquillity of mind in this favour of God to him; whereby the troublesome affairs of this life are tempered and seasoned.” But to the sinner he giveth travail — He giveth him up to insatiable desires, and wearisome labours, to little or no purpose, that he may have no comfort in the riches he gains, but leave them to others, yea, to such as he least expected or desired, to good and virtuous men, into whose hands his estate falls, by the wise and all-disposing providence of God.

Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

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