In chapter 2, the teacher gives an autobiography of his attempts to escape vanity: first, by pleasure; and second, by wisdom. He explains how he learned that these two paths both lead to despair and hatred of life. Because of his prosperity and wisdom, he is in the best position of anyone to escape the vanity of life by pleasure or wisdom—yet even he cannot.
If we pursue God’s Creation, whether sinfully or not, we may be rewarded with pleasure. The fruits of our labor are a gift from God, and it’s best to enjoy the fruits of our labor. However, our labors also bring grief and restlessness. Either way, our labor and it’s consequences are futile, because we will ultimately die, and these things will be rendered meaningless. If we understand this as deeply as this wise man did, then we might despair and hate life.
Similarly, if we possess wisdom instead of folly, we are metaphorically walking in the light, which is a benefit. However, this is also futile, because we will ultimately die, and our wisdom and it’s outcomes will be rendered meaningless. If we understand this as deeply as the teacher did, then we might despair and hate life.
This despair over the futility (or “vanity”) of pleasure and wisdom is even intuitive to many unbelievers. We can even find this understanding in the gutters of modern hip hop music. The Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid complain in one of their songs:
In this song, the Clowns conclude that it makes no difference whether you shoot them in the head, and that the only thing they’re looking forward to is the “next phase where flesh and bodies [are] consumed.” This warped conclusion from comprehending Nietzschean meaninglessness, outside of Christ, is a believable outcome.
Nietzsche himself taught that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks purpose, and later he went insane.
The philosophy of unbelievers exposes the wall between human wisdom and godly wisdom. Human wisdom cannot bridge the impasse of the dilemma of meaninglessness; any human conclusions based on awareness of vanity are necessarily foolish.
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But what about the conclusions of the teacher here in this scripture? It is ironic, at the very least, if not contradictory, that he should call pleasure and wisdom “good,” but also call them “futile” at the same time.
However, he does not intend to perplex the reader with an apparent contradiction; therefore, we may resolve this.
In the first place, the teacher is only at the thesis part of the his essay, so he is intentionally presenting an apparent contradiction that he will resolve throughout the remainder of the book, especially in chapters 5, 7, and 12. [3:14, 5:1-7, 7:16-18, and 12:9-14]. We may also find the answer to this apparent contradiction elsewhere in scripture, such as in Psalm 49 and in 2 Corinthians 5. [Verses 1-11]. The biblical answer to this dilemma is that the wise are redeemed from the Pit by God. Death is rendered incapable of making their lives vain or pointless.
Secondly, the author’s abundant use of the word “vanity” is intended as hyperbole. He would not call something “vanity of vanities” while also finding goodness in the same thing, unless he intended it as hyperbole. Neither absolute is true. Pleasure and wisdom are good, but they are not ultimate antidotes to our vanity under the sun. The Creation is tainted by the Fall into sin, so we experience frustration alongside pleasure. In this way, the author’s advice to enjoy life can be seen more as a balance against futility, rather than as a contradiction.
The teacher is guiding us through his autobiography, wherein he applied his wisdom to search for meaning in his labors. In contrast, the prophets wrote truths that were expressed directly by God, rather than via the progression of a man’s learning.
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In summary, this chapter is about the reality of fallen Creation, and ultimately the devastating void left by death. In the meantime, we will remember that every good gift is from God and is to be enjoyed, and that our resurrection in Christ brings purpose and meaning to every labor we undertake.