Vanity of Success (2:12-23)

2:12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man who comes after the king do except what has already been done? 2:13 Then I saw that wisdom has advantage over folly, as light has advantage over darkness. 2:14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. But I also realized that one fate befalls both of them. 2:15 Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. So why then have I been extremely wise?" Thus I said to myself that this also is vanity. 2:16 For there is ultimately no remembrance of the wise as with the fool, seeing that in the days to come both will have already been forgotten. And how the wise dies just like the fool! 2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a pursuit of wind.

Having considered the truth about the pursuit of pleasure (“madness and folly”) Qoheleth now turns to consider (further) the truth about wisdom. He has already discovered that wisdom cannot solve the problem of the vanity of life (1:12-18). Now he evaluates wisdom in terms of its practical value--success in everyday life. He highlights this value by contrasting wisdom with “madness and folly” (verse 12). In this verse “madness and folly” no longer refers to the pursuit of pleasure (verses 1-11), but retains its more general meaning--the lack of practical wisdom in everyday life. To pursue pleasure is only one specific expression of “madness and folly,” that is, acting foolishly due to a lack of practical wisdom.

He turns to consider the practical value of wisdom because “what can the man who comes after the king do except what has already been done?” He is reiterating a sub-theme of the speech first introduced in the poem in 1:4-11--there is nothing new under the sun. In this context there is nothing new in how people express the God-given “grievous preoccupation” (1:13) to seek after meaning. In other words, after having considered the philosophical value of wisdom (1:12-18) and the existential value of pleasure (2:1-11), by turning now to consider the practical value of wisdom, he would have considered all the categories of the means people tend to use to seek for the meaning of life. So his successor would have nothing to add to what he had already done.

He recognizes that the wise person does have real advantage over the foolish one (verses 13-14). Wisdom cannot solve the problem of the vanity of life. But wisdom enables a person to do better in daily life. For a wise person (who “has eyes in his head”) is more able to avoid getting into trouble, and to advance in society easier, than a foolish one (who “walks in darkness”). One who sees clearly in the light certainly has distinct advantage over one who gropes cautiously in the dark. Thus wisdom has immediate profit under the sun. Today, the pursuit of wisdom for the purpose of success takes the form of higher education. A university degree is seen as the passport to “the good life.” But no wise or educated person, no matter how successful, can avoid death. Thus they both have the same final outcome (“fate”). Hence ultimately he is no different from a fool. So success is vanity because all that we gain from our successful endeavors is transitory.

Qoheleth therefore questioned the point of being so wise. He was expressing the feeling that whatever profits he gained from acting wisely would all be left behind when he dies. And, again like the fool, even the remembrance of him and his success would not last. Realizing that “all is vanity and a pursuit of wind” is a reality that cannot be changed (1:14-15), the work done under the sun became grievous to him. It is painful to be toiling away when you are aware that it will one day amount to nothing, and nothing can be done about it. People suppress this awareness to avoid the pain, and this is one reason death is a taboo subject. But Qoheleth had to face it, and long enough, to evaluate what is worth living for. So he “hated” life. This expression of despair must be seen in the light that the more one has accumulated in terms of wealth and the higher one has attained in terms of prestige, the more grievous it is to realize that one has to leave this world empty-handed. Nonetheless, this reaction was pessimistic. But was he still pessimistic about life when he recounted this painful experience in this speech? We shall see.

2:18 And I hated all my wealth for which I toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. 2:19 And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will have control over all my wealth for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 2:20 So I gave my heart to despair over all the wealth for which I toiled under the sun 2:21 For it happens that a man whose wealth (is acquired through toiling) with wisdom, knowledge and skill must leave his estate to one who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great affliction. 2:22 For what is there for a man for all his toiling and striving of his heart which he does under the sun? 2:23 For all his days are full of pain and his work is a vexation. Even at night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

Qoheleth “hated” life because life is such that he had to leave all his wealth behind to his heir. This led him to “hate” (verse 18) and despair over (verse 20) his wealth. The Hebrew word translated wealth here (and in 2:10-11) is `amal, which basically means labor. In some contexts, as is clearly the case here, it means the fruit of labor (since it refers to something that could be inherited). In Qoheleth’s case, the fruit of his labor was wealth (2:4-8). Qoheleth acquired his wealth with wisdom but, as is unmistakable even in the English translation, it was not without toiling, the nature of which is described in verses 22-23: “striving of his heart” in the day and “even at night his heart does not rest.” His labor was mainly mental and emotional (in the Old Testament the heart refers not only to a person’s emotional but also his mental faculties). When we exert much mental effort and endure much emotional stress to acquire something, during somber moments, we ask whether it is all worth it. Qoheleth did not think it was worth it because he had to leave everything to his heir. He found it to be “vanity and a great affliction” (verse 21).

But since his wealth would benefit his heir why did he consider leaving it to him as something so grievous that he would “hate” and despair over it? Qoheleth’s explanation: he had to give everything he gained through laboring wisely into the hands of an heir who may be foolish (verse 19) and who did not labor for it (verse 21). The implication is that he feared that this heir would not have what it takes to make good use of the inheritance. This is most obvious if the heir is foolish. He will simply squander the wealth away. Worse still, it is a common observation that wealth that falls on one’s lap, whether through inheritance or other means, often destroys the recipient in one way or another. Charles KinCannon, an estate planning attorney for over 15 years, attests: “I have seen wealth ruin families, create addictions for heirs and leave future generations without means to pursue dreams” (April 8, 2006). Not surprisingly then, it has been reported that, “about one in five American millionaires is limiting his children’s legacies to ‘middle-class’ levels,” giving the rest of the money to charity (The Straits Times, March 11, 2002).

Even if Qoheleth’s heir is wise, but because he did not labor for it, he may still lack what it takes to manage a level of wealth acquired through his father’s level of wisdom and experience. We translate the last clause of verse 21 as, “who did not toil for it,” as do most translators and commentators, because it reads more smoothly in English. However, it is possible, in fact more plausible grammatically, to translate it as, “who did not toil with it.” Graham Ogden and Lynell Zogbo (1998: 76), in a translator’s handbook on Ecclesiastes, actually advocate this interpretation when commenting on this verse. The verse is then saying that Qoheleth toiled “with wisdom and with knowledge and with skill” (literal translation of Hebrew) but had to leave everything to one who did not toil “with it” (same Hebrew preposition), that is, with neither wisdom, knowledge, nor skill. To capture this meaning, the New American Standard Bible translates the clause as, “who has not labored with them.” This translation makes explicit Qoheleth’s fear that his heir may not have what it takes to handle the wealth he had acquired because his heir did not work “for it.”

Qoheleth’s fear is not unfounded. According to an editorial in the Hurun Report, “Wealth does not survive three generations, according to a Chinese proverb, and this is pretty much proven by statistics from the West too. A study in the US showed that a third of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation. Twelve percent will still be viable into the third generation, with three percent of all family businesses operating at the fourth-generation level and beyond, very much upholding the Chinese proverb.” So whether one’s heir is wise or foolish, the wealth that took such a toll on him to create will not likely last beyond the third generation. And it is even more tragic if in the process of transferring wealth across generations, families become ruined in one way or another. Humans are basically acquisitive. In an age of “economic progress” this acquisitiveness is unleashed in a manner unseen before. People are aware that they have to leave their acquisitions behind. But the idea that they can leave their wealth to their children may have given some an illusive purpose or meaning to their frantic pursuit of wealth. But Qoheleth’s warning is that, “This also is vanity and a great affliction”!

Whybray is correct that verse 23 “is not a comment on the human condition in general” but only on the kind of person like Qoheleth himself, who “is possessed by a restless ambition to achieve something--whatever it may be--for himself ... and who puts this ‘business’ (work) above everything else” (1989: 62). But today, many people in affluent societies take for granted that this is the way to live. They do not question the wisdom--or lack of it--of living this way. If we are driven to live this way it is because our life lacks meaning and we are trying to fill the vacuum. But since we do not find the meaning of life in this way we may not realize that this is what we are actually after. And we may not welcome this realization as not many of us would admit even to ourselves that we are actually chasing after wind.

The pursuit of pleasure and success is vanity. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom to solve the problem of vanity is itself vanity. How then shall we live?


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