1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 ESV
Pleasure, laughter, wine, work, possessions. Solomon was on a quest. He was a man on a desperate search for meaning in life. Blessed by God with remarkable wisdom and abundant wealth, he found himself in the seemingly enviable position of being able to afford all that his heart could desire. But that was the problem. Enough was never enough. Despite all of his purchases, possessions, and pleasures, he remained discontent, lacking any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction.
So, he used his wisdom to investigate all the options available to him, and because of his great wealth and influence as king, there was little he could not acquire. And in this chapter, Solomon provides us with a glimpse into the somewhat hedonistic experiment that became his life.
One of the contributing factors to Solomon’s dilemma was likely the peace that marked his reign. Unlike his father, David, Solomon ruled during a time in Israel’s history when the nation enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. The book of First Kings describes the situation.
The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They were very contented, with plenty to eat and drink. Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River in the north to the land of the Philistines and the border of Egypt in the south. The conquered peoples of those lands sent tribute money to Solomon and continued to serve him throughout his lifetime. – 1 Kings 4:20-21 NLT
Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden. – 1 Kings 4:24-25 NLT
David had spent the entirety of his reign fighting the enemies of Israel and extending the borders of the nation, and his son inherited the kingdom he had established. That left Solomon with little to do, other than maintain what he had been given. So, he went on a building spree. He constructed an opulent palace for himself that took 13 years to complete. He also built a temple for Yahweh, in fulfillment of his father’s dream. But Solomon didn’t stop there.
It took Solomon twenty years to build the Lord’s Temple and his own royal palace. At the end of that time, Solomon turned his attention to rebuilding the towns that King Hiram had given him, and he settled Israelites in them.
Solomon also fought against the town of Hamath-zobah and conquered it. He rebuilt Tadmor in the wilderness and built towns in the region of Hamath as supply centers. He fortified the towns of Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon, rebuilding their walls and installing barred gates. He also rebuilt Baalath and other supply centers and constructed towns where his chariots and horses could be stationed. He built everything he desired in Jerusalem and Lebanon and throughout his entire realm. – 2 Chronicles 8:1-6 NLT
Solomon built. But none of these massive construction projects brought him lasting satisfaction. So, he set his sights on the pursuit of pleasure.
I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 2:1 NLT
This wasn’t a case of Solomon running headlong into a life of unbridled hedonism. His pleasure quest was well orchestrated and the byproduct of an inquiring mind. Like a scientist in search of a cure for a deadly disease, Solomon was looking for the source of man’s satisfaction and significance.
Being king was not enough. He had discovered that great wealth and unparalleled wisdom were insufficient sources for providing satisfaction. So, he attempted to fill the void with pleasure. He dabbled in wine, architecture, horticulture, and ranching. He purchased countless slaves to serve him and meet his every desire. He surrounded himself with concubines, literally hundreds of them, whose sole purpose in life was to satisfy his sensual desires. He filled his vaults with gold and silver and his palace with the sounds of singers.
Solomon was on a never-ending quest for meaning in life. And he lived by the motto: “Enough is never enough.” In fact, he stated, “Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 NLT).
But none of it brought lasting satisfaction. He describes his efforts as producing nothing more than vanity or futility. It had no more profitable than trying to chase and capture the wind. It had all ended in a dead end of frustration and futility. His accumulation of material goods had left him surrounded by all the trappings of success, but the void in his life remained. He had hundreds of wives and concubines, thousands of slaves and servants, and countless admirers and courtiers, but Solomon was a lonely and discontented man.
It would be a mistake to assert that Solomon received no pleasure or satisfaction from the many things listed in this passage. He most certainly did. The sex was probably satisfying, for the moment. But the satisfaction didn’t last. The gold and silver made his extravagant lifestyle possible and brought him short periods of happiness, but no lasting joy. The palace in which he lived provided all the comforts he could ever desire, but it couldn’t make him content.
Solomon was learning the difficult life lesson that acquisition and accumulation are lousy substitutes for a vital relationship with God. Only He can satisfy our deepest longings and desires. The blessings of God are never intended to be a substitute for God. Somewhere along the way, Solomon had lost sight of his father’s warnings. Nearing the end of his life, David had given his son some final words of wisdom, encouraging him to remain faithful to God.
“I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man. Observe the requirements of the Lord your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the Lord will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 2:2-4 NLT
And while the early years of Solomon’s reign were marked by faithfulness, it didn’t take long before he began to allow his wealth and power to turn him away from God. He became self-sufficient and self-reliant and began to fill his life with everything but God. He even began to worship other gods, the sad result of his marriages to hundreds of women from other cultures who brought their pagan idols with them.
Solomon forgot God and he lost sight of the fact that his wisdom and wealth had been gifts to him from God. The minute he began to think that he was a self-made man, he began his descent toward self-destruction. Yes, he maintained all the outward signs of success, portraying to all those around him the visible manifestations of extreme affluence. To everyone else, he looked like a man who had it all. He was handsome, wealthy, and powerful. He was admired and envied by all. Kings and queens found themselves jealous of his success, looking on in awestruck wonder at his many accomplishments and extensive political influence.
But it was all a facade, a house of cards. It added up to nothing and provided Solomon with no lasting satisfaction. This great king, like everyone else who has ever lived, was learning the painful lesson that possessions always end up possessing their owner. What we hope will deliver us, almost always ends up enslaving us. And thousands of years later, Jesus, a descendant of Solomon, would speak these powerful words of warning:
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT
And the apostle Paul would echo the words of Jesus when he wrote to his young protege, Timothy.
Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLT
Solomon had taken his eyes off of God and made the fateful mistake of placing his hope in anything and everything but God. He found himself mired in a never-ending cycle of accumulation and acquisition that always ends in dissatisfaction. In his quest to know the meaning of life, Solomon forgot what it meant to know God, the author of life.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.