2. The Pursuit of Meaning in Pleasure (2:1–11)
Qohelet turns from his consideration of wisdom and folly to pleasure. He hoped to find meaning in pleasure and sets out to test its possibilities. Even before narrating the exact contours of his quest, he tells us his conclusion: it is meaningless.
Nonetheless, he continues to explain both the search and his conclusion is some detail. The pleasure that Qohelet explores is self-oriented. He tried to find joy in drinking and sex. He also used his great wealth to build for himself a great house and grounds. He had many servants. In spite of all of his efforts to find meaning in such self-seeking pleasures, he failed.
Roland Murphy rightly identified this section as a reflection. 1 Qohelet here looks back on his actions as he sought to find meaning in pleasure and carefully considers their significance.
1 I said to myself, 2 “Come on, I will now test you with pleasure and experience the good life.” But this too proved meaningless.
3 Still guided by wisdom, I mentally explored by cheering myself with wine and embracing folly until I could see what 5 was good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
4 I did great works. I built for myself houses and planted for myself vineyards.
5 I made for myself gardens and parks. I planted every kind of fruit tree in them.
6 I made for myself pools to water the flourishing forest of trees.
7 I acquired male and female servants, and I had house-born servants as well. I also acquired herds and flocks. I had more than anyone before me in Jerusalem. 6
9 I surpassed 9 all who lived before me in Jerusalem, and all the while, my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I did not refuse myself anything that my eyes desired. I did not hold myself back from any pleasure that made me feel happy in all my toil. This was my reward from all my toil.
11 But then I turned my attention to 10 all the acts that my hands performed and to the toil that I toiled hard to do. Indeed, they were all meaningless and like trying to catch the wind. There was no profit under the sun.
1 The section begins with Qohelet’s announcement that he will explore the real value of pleasure. He will narrate what he means specifically in the following verses, but for now he simply states his intention and anticipates his ultimate conclusion. There is no lasting meaning in the pursuit of pleasure.
The verse appropriately introduces a reflection on life. It is a conversation between Qohelet and his “personified mind.” 11 He speaks to himself and urges himself into action with the command to “come on” (lᵊkâ nāʾ).
The verbal root of I will test you is nāsâ, not nāsak as it is taken in the Vulgate (affluam). The ending is a full spelling of the second-person pronominal ending and refers to Qohelet’s mind or inner voice.
It is true that the word pleasure (s̀imḥâ) can denote joy arising from indisputably moral behavior, for instance, the joy in God and worshipping him, 12 but the examples that follow indicate that Qohelet is speaking of a more sensual, material joy.
The good life is a rather modern rendition of the Hebrew phrase, which is simply the common word “good” (ṭôb). The word occurs frequently in Ecclesiastes, and the precise nuance must be gleaned from the context.
2 Qohelet here continues his thought about the significance of pleasure. He pronounces judgment using two separate words, laughter and pleasure, which he used in v. 1. James Crenshaw 13 is likely right in regarding the first as indicating superficial joy, and the second as indicating a more profound joy, though the latter is used of both throughout the Bible. In any case, whether they are used synonymously or with different nuances, the force of the verse is to deny the possibility of meaning through pleasure.
Proverbs noted that laughter and pleasure often hide grief and sorrow (14:13). Indeed, Proverbs frequently pictures fools laughing on the road to destruction (10:23; 26:19; 29:9). Nonetheless, the wise, and even Lady Wisdom herself, laugh (1:26; 8:30, 31; 31:25). The difference between the fool and the wise person in Proverbs is the timing of their laughter and its object. While Qohelet recognizes that there is an appropriate time for laughter (Eccles. 3:4), he also notes that the wise person cannot discern the times (see 8:8; 9:11, 12; 10:14). So here in 2:2, as well as 7:3, 6, and 10:19, Qohelet denigrates laughter.
3 Qohelet now specifies his exploration of pleasure as a source of meaning or profit in life, beginning with the most sensual one, alcohol. He is looking for something worthwhile, something meaningful in the short years that human beings have on this earth.
The verse is very difficult to translate smoothly, but its general sense is quite clear. He began by cheering himself with wine. The verb here translated cheering has been widely discussed. The basic meaning of the root mšk is “to pull” or “to drag.” Some argue that the meaning here is like that found in the Talmud, “to refresh,” but Daniel Fredericks debates this. 14 Still others contend that the word is the result of metathesis and should be read from the root s̀mk (see BHS). The difficulty in this reconstruction is that the initial sibilant is wrong, so proponents must also posit a by-form. A third approach is that of Godfrey Driver, 15 who cites Aramaic and Arabic cognates with the meaning “to sustain,” but R. Norman Whybray correctly criticizes this view. 16 Whybray takes his key from the context and admits that the precise sense and etymology of the verb leave the interpreter with questions. 17
Most, especially conservative, interpreters are careful to preserve Qohelet’s dignity in this experiment with wine. For instance, Leupold 18 emphasizes that Qohelet explored wine “not as a debauchee, but as a connoisseur.” His textual clue is the phrase still guided by wisdom. Leupold thus finds it hard to believe that Qohelet ever drank so much as to be intoxicated. While we cannot be sure one way or the other, the phrase indicates only that Qohelet is carefully weighing the significance of the act as it relates to his overall search for meaning, not that he always retained his rational abilities. As with cheering, some have argued that the primary biblical Hebrew meaning of nāhag (here translated as guided) does not appear to be operative. Charles Whitley, 19 for instance, says that the verb normally means “to drive” or “to lead,” while here it seems to have the sense of “to behave,” which was its meaning in later Hebrew. Fredericks 20 once again takes issue with the argument that this verb is an indication of a late date of composition. In any case, the meaning guide is appropriate to the context and is listed in the dictionaries as a well-attested meaning in the qal.
Qohelet does indeed describe his experiment by saying he mentally explored the experience of at least heightened awareness, if not downright intoxication. Literally, this expression is rendered “I explored in my heart,” but “heart” is taken here in its typical idiomatic sense of “the center of one’s mental activities.” 21 For explored, consult the comments to 1:13.
It may be possible to establish that Qohelet is more than a connoisseur of fine wines by appeal to the phrase embracing folly. Michael Fox argues, along with BHS, that there is a textual error here, specifically, that the preposition lamed should be emended to the negative lōʾ. This is conjectural and not necessary. For folly, see the comments to its semantic equivalent, though phonological variant, in 1:17.
Qohelet specifies that the days of the human race are few on earth, and this comment fits in with his overall theme that death renders all human endeavor fruitless.
4 We now shift from the purely sensual and self-centered pleasure of alcohol to the more grandiose achievements of constructing large works. Qohelet built houses and planted vineyards. The language of this and the following verses (particularly the repeated for myself) makes it quite clear that Qohelet’s efforts are still self-centered.
I did great works introduces the next few verses, which describe a number of Qohelet’s building projects. Here we see the usefulness of the fictional association with Solomon. Who built more than he? His great building projects are clearly enumerated in the historical books (1 Kings 7:1–12; 9:15; 2 Chron. 8:1–6), and Song of Songs 8:1 (cf. 1 Chron. 27:27) associates Solomon with vineyards. If Solomon could find no significance or profit in his building activity, what hope was there for anyone else?
Adrian Verheij goes beyond this theory and posits that Qohelet here not only associates himself with Solomon by allusion but also with God. He notes that the language in this verse and the next two correspond closely to God’s creation of the garden of Eden. He suggestively argues that “the passage can be read as referring to a failed attempt on the part of ‘Qohelet’ at creating something like Paradise.” 22
Note that at this point Qohelet is not talking about philanthropy or public building. The ethical dative myself (lî) occurs twice in this verse and a number of times in the verses that fill out this section. As Robert Gordis states, this building was for “the end of his own pleasure.” 23
5–6 These verses continue Qohelet’s description of his viticultural endeavors begun in the previous verse. He built gardens and parks with every kind of fruit tree. He also constructed irrigation pools to provide the necessary water for their cultivation and growth.
The language, particularly the plurals, emphasizes the magnificence of his works. The continued use of the ethical dative, for myself (lî), further indicates Qohelet’s self-orientation. His purpose is self-pleasure, not philanthropy.
In both verses, he uses the rather bland word made. Indeed, the language in these verses is rather uninteresting, with the exception of parks. The Hebrew word pardēsîm is apparently a loanword related to Persian pair:daēza. The word means “enclosure” and is also found in Nehemiah 2:8 and Song of Songs 4:13. Aarre Lauha 24 and George Barton 25 cite this word as evidence of a late date for the language in Ecclesiastes, but Daniel Fredericks argues otherwise. 26
7 Qohelet’s large property holdings required many servants, and in this verse he tells us that he owned both male and female servants, whom he purchased, as well as their offspring, born while their parents were working for him; as a result, they also belonged to him. Genesis 15:3 and 17:12, 27 appear aware of such a distinction. Exodus 21:2–11 comments that, though a Hebrew slave only must serve for seven years, any children that he has during this time belong to his master. Furthermore, this verse mentions Qohelet’s wealth of herds and flocks, concluding with a general statement of his unprecedented wealth.
Solomon, of course, had many slaves (1 Kings 10:5) as well as herds and flocks. The herds refer to large farm animals like cattle, while flocks indicate smaller livestock such as sheep and goats. The point is that Qohelet was very rich. Some scholars 27 take the lack of mention of horses as an indication that this is Solomonic fiction, since that king had a penchant for horses. This attempts to draw too much from the verse, though the conclusion is nonetheless correct.
anyone before me in Jerusalem. See 1:16.
8 Qohelet rounds off his description of sensual pleasures by reverting to three more items, returning to the level of sensuality noted in verse 3. First, he possesses great amounts of precious gold and silver, the money of his day. Second, he constructs a choir to regale himself. Third, he describes his sexual explorations.
First, he describes his royal treasure (sᵊgullat). The term is often used of Israel as God’s treasured possession (Exod. 19:5; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 26:18), but is also found elsewhere in the sense of precious goods (1 Chron. 29:3). The treasure is the product of foreign tribute (the treasure of kings) and of taxation (and provinces). The latter has been debated because the Hebrew term seems to be late (for the irregular use of the article, see n. 7 in the translation). While many regard the word as a postexilic Aramaism, Fredericks gives evidence that it is preexilic. 28 In this case, it is probably best to regard it as a reference to Solomon’s new administrative districts that he created in order to cut across traditional tribal boundaries. These districts were responsible for the monthly upkeep of the central state structure (1 Kings 4:7–19). Solomon’s silver and gold reserves are mentioned in the historical books (1 Kings 10:14–25; 2 Chron. 9:27).
Qohelet also enjoyed music by creating a choir of mixed gender. It is possible that the fact that his choir was made up of men and women differentiates it from the cultic choirs, which would have been composed of levitical men only.
The final arena of sensual pleasure mentioned by Qohelet as part of his experimentation is sex. The allusion is somewhat indirect, but nonetheless clear. It is also fitting for Qohelet, who continues his Solomonic fiction. After all, Solomon was a well-known lover (1 Kings 11:1–3) whose sexual exploits contributed to his downfall. It would have been surprising in the extreme if this aspect of his life went unmentioned.
Nonetheless, the wording here is difficult. many concubines is a hapax legomenon and was treated in a variety of ways by the ancient versions. The Septuagint started things off on the wrong track by taking the word from an Aramaic root (sdy, “to pour out”), thus rendering the line “male and female wine stewards.” In this it was followed by the Peshitta. The Vulgate, the Targum, and Aquila were close to the Septuagint in translating “goblet.” The etymology of the word is unclear, but the context is not. The reference to women is supported by the following phrase, the pleasure of humankind. Possible etymologies, though, include šdd “to seize,” supposing a reference to women seized in battle, or, much more likely, šd “breast,” and thus a crude reference to women who are used for sexual pleasure only. The analogy that has often been drawn since the time of Ibn Ezra is to Judges 5:30 (see BHS), where the NIV translation of a “girl or two” hides the reference to the girls as “wombs,” or perhaps, to speak frankly in modern obscenity, “cunts.” In Ecclesiastes 2:8 we have the singular followed by the plural, which is likely a form of the plural (but see comments by Michael Fox. 29 )
These concubines are called the pleasure of humankind. The term pleasure here refers to erotic pleasure as in Song of Songs 7:7, though it may also carry the broader reference to “luxury” as in Proverbs 19:10 and Micah 1:16; 2:9.
9 Verses 9–11 provide a kind of summary statement to this section on sensual pleasures. Verse 9 boasts that Qohelet lived better and celebrated life harder than anyone else. He did it while retaining his wisdom; that is, he kept his mind alert to evaluate possible benefits during the sensual experience.
The verse echoes the sentiment also expressed in 1:16 and 2:7. In 1:16 Qohelet asserts his superiority over all previous kings in the area of wisdom; 2:7, 9 do not restrict the claim of superiority explicitly to kings but extend it to everyone who lived in Jerusalem before him. Also, instead of wisdom, in 2:7 and 9 Qohelet claims that he surpasses others in the realm of material pleasures.
Once again, as in 2:3, Qohelet maintains that he remained wise even as he indulged in his pleasure. Edward Plumptre offers an analogy with Goethe in that he, like Qohelet, “analyzed his voluptuousness, and studied his own faculties of enjoyment.” 30 For the translation of ʿāmad lî as “to stay with,” compare its use in Ecclesiastes 8:3, Psalm 102:27, and Jeremiah 48:11.
10 Qohelet makes it clear in v. 10 that he exercised no restraint, no self-denial in his pursuit for meaning in sensual pleasure. In light of the preceding verses we may not limit his exploration to the “higher” pleasures. He explored fully the delights of wine, women, and song, as well as architecture and gardening. What is new in this verse is that Qohelet believed pleasure was a consequence of his efforts (see comment below on reward).
James Crenshaw 31 is correct in pointing out that his experiment is at odds with Numbers 15:39: “You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own heart and eyes.” The sentiment is also far from the statement of humility expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 131:1.
anything that my eyes desired is literally rendered “anything that my eyes requested.” Whatever he wanted he got for himself, a sentiment that he repeats in the next sentence.
in all my toil. The preposition here is min and not the usual bᵊ. This led some ancient copyists to emend the text accordingly (see the note in BHS). There are analogies, however, elsewhere in the biblical text (Prov. 5:18; 2 Chron. 20:27). 32
The term reward occurs here for the first time but will surface again elsewhere (2:21; 3:22; 5:17–18 [English 5:18–19]; 9:6, 9; 11:2). It literally signifies a “share” or a “portion.” Franz Delitzsch 33 and Hans Hertzberg 34 compare it to the word yitrôn “profit,” to which it is related.
One of Qohelet’s favorite words is toil (see the discussion in 1:3). The issue here is whether toil indicates all the labor that Qohelet performs under the sun or simply refers to his efforts to discover meaning in material pleasure. In either case the negative connotations of the word need to be taken into account.
11 Though Qohelet discovered that there was a “reward” for his efforts, the ultimate objects of his search, “profit” and “meaning,” were lacking. This verse states this conclusion in no uncertain terms. He worked hard, but there were no lasting results from his labors.
acts and toil may here either designate the efforts involved in the search or have a broader connotation. Indeed Charles Whitley, 35 James Crenshaw, 36 and others argue that toil is perhaps better translated “gain” or “wealth” in this context. See the discussion of the word in 1:3.
Qohelet ends the section by citing three of his most common phrases—meaningless, there was no profit, and under the sun. They are discussed in 1:2 and 3. Each imparts a note of pessimism, and together they are a very negative conclusion.
2 See the comments on the near parallel phrase in 1:16.
3 This word derives from the same root as the word in 1:17. This is an instance of a poal participle.
4 zōh is a feminine singular demonstrative pronoun. The issue is that here and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes zōh stands for zʾōt. This is often taken as a Mishnaism, but for counterarguments, see Fredericks, Qoheleth’s Language, p. 100.
6 This verse has a number of minor textual variations. For instance, some manuscripts add lî (“to me”) after the initial verb. This is an unnecessary addition motivated by the frequent occurrence of lî in this section of Ecclesiastes. Also note that the first occurrence of hāyâ (had) in this verse is a singular in the MT but plural in some Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint, and the Syriac version, but this is an unnecessary emendation (cf. GKC §145u). Lastly, the second occurrence of hāyâ (had) is unnecessarily emended from plural to singular on the basis of a number of manuscripts and versions.
7 There is an anomaly in the use of the article here. The article does not appear prefixed to kings, but it is prefixed to provinces. For different emendations and suggestions that have been proposed, see Whitley, Koheleth, p. 21. Gordis (“The Original Language of Qohelet,” JQR 37 [1946–47]: 81–83; and Koheleth, p. 218) indicates that the article is used unusually in Ecclesiastes.
9 The verse is similar to 1:16 with the exception that the first verb in this verse is in the qal, not the hiphil. Note Lys (L’Ecclésiaste, p. 217): “La juxtaposition des deux verbes de même sens constitute une sorte de superlatif.” (“The juxtaposition of two verbs with the same sense constitutes a type of superlative.”)
10 For pānâ in this meaning and followed unusually by the preposition beth, see Job 6:28.
16 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, NCB, p. 53.
17 Even though we are left with difficulties, this is no reason to submit to the drastic emendation and rereadings offered by A. D. Corré, “A Reference to Epispasm in Koheleth,” VT 4 (1954): 416–18.
21 See BDB, pp. 524–25.
22 A. J. C. Verheij, “Paradise Retried: On Qohelet 2:4–6,” JSOT 50 (1991): 113–15.