In the opening section of the book (1:1-3:8), Solomon moves from discussing the ramifications of the common curse on man's work and wisdom to sharing his own frustrating experience with work and wisdom. Now in this third part of the opening section, Solomon concludes with a closing lament of the failure of man's work and wisdom. Solomon uses the literary structure to facilitate communicating the progression of the disintegrating relationship between work and wisdom. In 1:1-18, work and wisdom are discussed in tight parallel:
A King (1:12)
B Research (1:13)
C Findings (1:13-14)
D Proverb (1:15)
A Wise Man (1:16)
B Research (1:17)
C Findings (1:17)
D Proverbs (1:18)
Then in 2:1-17, work and wisdom are held together in a chiasm:
A “I said in my heart … Behold…” (2:1)
B “I turned… Behold” (2:11)
B’ “I turned…” (2:12)
A’ “I said in my heart…” (2:15)
But in this third part regarding work and wisdom, there is no literary structure holding the two together (work 2:18-27, wisdom 3:1-8). All is undone. Whereas God created Adam with wisdom and commissioned him to work and build the Kingdom of God on earth and enter into the glorious enthroned Sabbath, sin and the subsequent common curse has left the sons of Adam waiting for Judgment Day and frustrated in work that doesn’t work and wisdom that doesn’t produce the lasting kingdom. In discussing work in this third part, Solomon moves from discussing work's frustration (2:18-23) to finding satisfaction in work (2:24-27). Then he closes the opening section of the book with wisdom's frustration at the box we live in (3:1-3).
Frustrated Work 2:18-27
The discussion about work has two parts. The first focuses on the frustration:
A Leave it to another 18-19
B Despair 20-21
A' No gain, no rest 22-23
The three sections end with “This also is vanity.” The center section adds “and a great evil.” Solomon writes,
“18 And I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? And he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have acted wisely under the sun. This also is vanity.”
Solomon laments that not only does his work not gain anything lasting, but he has to leave the temporary profits of his work to the person who comes when he is gone. When Solomon speaks of leaving his "work" to another, he is using "work" as today's reader may think of "fruit of work," as an artist leaving his "work" (finished work) to another; he leaves the fruit of his work. To compound the pain, that person may not even be a wise person. He may be a fool. Solomon contemplates the fruit of all his hard work being left to a fool! Did he spend his life working for a fool’s enjoyment? This is vanity! He continues,
“20 And I turned my heart to despair over all the labor in which I had labored under the sun. 21 For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and he leaves his portion to a man who has not labored in it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”
He underlines the contrast. There is a wise man who labors with knowledge and skill. Now he is gone. But he leaves it to someone who just walks in and enjoys the fruit. That is not why God gave man wisdom and labor. It is a great evil, a great brokenness. He concludes,
“22 For what has to man for all his labor and in striving of his heart in his labor under the sun? 23 For all his days are sorrow and his occupation is vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”
The laborer has worked his whole life striving in his work: an expression of himself, his heart and mind, his values, his dreams. His work has known days of sorrow and he has been occupied with vexation. He couldn’t sleep at night worried about his labors. His work did not bring him the sabbath rest; it didn’t even bring him a good night’s sleep! But Solomon knows there is more.
The second part introduces Solomon’s discussion about finding satisfaction in the midst of the frustration. Almost out of nowhere, Solomon interjects,
“24 Nothing is good for a man than that he eat and drink and bring out his soul good in his labor. Also, this I have seen that it was in God’s hand. 25 For who eats or who enjoys outside apart from Him. 26 For to a man who is good before Him, He gives wisdom and knowledge and joy. And to the sinner He gives the task to gather and collect to give to the good before God. Also, this is vanity and chasing wind.”
In the world under the sun, before the final judgment day, faced with the brokenness of the world and the common curse, there are still blessings. Solomon says the good thing to do in this fallen world is to enjoy the fruit of labor, to find satisfaction in God’s blessings. Eat and drink, and enjoy life! The good things God’s hand gives. No one can find this contentment in his own heart. It cannot be found apart from Him. But He gives wisdom and knowledge, but also joy! There is something beyond work under the sun. The blessings now testify that there is something greater on the other side of “under the sun.” Here is Solomon’s initial glimmer. He is not a nihilist. He concludes by pushing the point. In God’s providence, He is even having the disobedient sinners gather and collect what God will give to His wise man! Smile! This is still not work building the Kingdom Adam was commissioned to build. It is still vain labor.
Frustrated Wisdom 3:1-8
Solomon turns to wisdom’s frustration. God dictates the appointed times. The sons of Adam no longer live in wisdom building the eschatological kingdom. They live in a box God has made constructed of common blessings and common curses. The first verse provides the theme,
“1 To everything an appointed time and a time for every activity under the heavens.”
He then reiterates the formula fourteen times,
“time to … and a time to …”
This is not the world God created. It is the world groaning under the curse. Yes, there are blessings: birth, planting, healing, building, laughing, dancing, gathering stones, embracing, keeping, sewing, speaking, loving, peace. But they are not the good times that attend man’s work and wisdom building the eschatological kingdom. They are the blessings of a delayed judgment. This is the world of a curse common to man: death, uprooting, killing, tearing down, weeping, mourning, throwing stones, shunning, giving up, throwing away, tearing apart, silence, hating, war! The details of God’s box of providence are unknowable to the wise. It is frustrating to try to know all that God is doing under the sun!
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Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are from NASB. Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org
trans. indicates my translation
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