Solomon here, in pursuit of the summum bonum—the felicity of man, adjourns out of his study, his library, his elaboratory, his council-chamber, where he had in vain sought for it, into the park and the playhouse, his garden and his summer-house; he exchanges the company of the philosophers and grave senators for that of the wits and gallants, and the beaux-esprits, of his court, to try if he could find true satisfaction and happiness among them. Here he takes a great step downward, from the noble pleasures of the intellect to the brutal ones of sense; yet, if he resolve to make a thorough trial, he must knock at this door, because here a great part of mankind imagine they have found that which he was in quest of.
I. He resolved to try what mirth would do and the pleasures of wit, whether he should be happy if he constantly entertained himself and others with merry stories and jests, banter and drollery; if he should furnish himself with all the pretty ingenious turns and repartees he could invent or pick up, fit to be laughed over, and all the bulls, and blunders, and foolish things, he could hear of, fit to be ridiculed and laughed at, so that he might be always in a merry humour. 1. This experiment made (Eccl. 2:1): “Finding that in much wisdom is much grief, and that those who are serious are apt to be melancholy, I said in my heart” (to my heart), “Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth; I will try if that will give thee satisfaction.” Neither the temper of his mind nor his outward condition had any thing in them to keep him from being merry, but both agreed, as did all other advantages, to further it; therefore he resolved to take a lease this way, and said, “Enjoy pleasure, and take thy fill of it; cast away care, and resolve to be merry.” So a man may be, and yet have none of these fine things which he here got to entertain himself with; many that are poor are very merry; beggars in a barn are so to a proverb. Mirth is the entertainment of the fancy, and, though it comes short of the solid delights of the rational powers, yet it is to be preferred before those that are merely carnal and sensual. Some distinguish man from the brutes, not only as animal rationale—a rational animal, but as animal risibile—a laughing animal; therefore he that said to his soul, Take thy ease, eat and drink, added, And be merry, for it was in order to that that he would eat and drink. “Try therefore,” says Solomon, “to laugh and be fat, to laugh and be happy.” 2. The judgment he passed upon this experiment: Behold, this also is vanity, like all the rest; it yields no true satisfaction, Eccl. 2:2. I said of laughter, It is mad, or, Thou art mad, and therefore I will have nothing to do with thee; and of mirth (of all sports and recreations, and whatever pretends to be diverting), What doeth it? or, What doest thou? Innocent mirth, soberly, seasonable, and moderately used, is a good thing, fits for business, and helps to soften the toils and chagrins of human life; but, when it is excessive and immoderate, it is foolish and fruitless. (1.) It does no good: What doeth it? Cui bono—of what use is it? It will not avail to quiet a guilty conscience; no, nor to ease a sorrowful spirit; nothing is more ungrateful than singing songs to a heavy heart. It will not satisfy the soul, nor ever yield it true content. It is but a palliative cure to the grievances of this present time. Great laughter commonly ends in a sigh. (2.) It does a great deal of hurt: It is mad, that is, it makes men mad, it transports men into many indecencies, which are a reproach to their reason and religion. They are mad that indulge themselves in it, for it estranges the heart from God and divine things, and insensibly eats out the power of religion. Those that love to be merry forget to be serious, and, while they take the timbrel and harp, they say to the Almighty, Depart from us, Job 21:12, 14. We may, as Solomon, prove ourselves, with mirth, and judge of the state of our souls by this: How do we stand affected to it? Can we be merry and wise? Can we use it as sauce, and not as food? But we need not try, as Solomon did, whether it will make a happiness for us, for we may take his word for it, It is mad; and What does it? Laughter and pleasure (says Sir William Temple) come from very different affections of the mind; for, as men have no disposition to laugh at things they are most pleased with, so they are very little pleased with many things they laugh at.
II. Finding himself not happy in that which pleased his fancy, he resolved next to try that which would please the palate, Eccl. 2:3. Since the knowledge of the creature would not satisfy, he would see what the liberal use of it would do: I sought in my heart to give myself unto wine, that is, to good meat and good drink. Many give themselves to these without consulting their hearts at all, not looking any further than merely the gratification of the sensual appetite; but Solomon applied himself to it rationally, and as a man, critically, and only to make an experiment. Observe, 1. He did not allow himself any liberty in the use of the delights of sense till he had tired himself with his severe studies. Till his increase of sorrow, he never thought of giving himself to wine. When we have spent ourselves in doing good we may then most comfortably refresh ourselves with the gifts of God’s bounty. Then the delights of sense are rightly used when they are used as we use cordials, only when we need them; as Timothy drank wine for his health’s sake, 1 Tim. 5:23. I thought to draw my flesh with wine (so the margin reads it) or to wine. Those that have addicted themselves to drinking did at first put a force upon themselves; they drew their flesh to it, and with it; but they should remember to what miseries they hereby draw themselves. 2. He then looked upon it as folly, and it was with reluctance that he gave himself to it; as St. Paul, when he commended himself, called it a weakness, and desired to be borne with in his foolishness, 2 Cor. 11:1. He sought to lay hold on folly, to see the utmost that that folly would do towards making men happy; but he had like to have carried the jest (as we say) too far. He resolved that the folly should not take hold of him, not get the mastery of him, but he would lay hold on it, and keep it at a distance; yet he found it too hard for him. 3. He took care at the same time to acquaint himself with wisdom, to manage himself wisely in the use of his pleasures, so that they should not do him any prejudice nor disfit him to be a competent judge of them. When he drew his flesh with wine he led his heart with wisdom (so the word is), kept up his pursuits after knowledge, did not make a sot of himself, nor become a slave to his pleasures, but his studies and his feasts were foils to each other, and he tried whether both mixed together would give him that satisfaction which he could not find in either separately. This Solomon proposed to himself, but he found it vanity; for those that think to give themselves to wine, and yet to acquaint their hearts with wisdom, will perhaps deceive themselves as much as those do that think to serve both God and mammon. Wine is a mocker; it is a great cheat; and it will be impossible for any man to say that thus far he will give himself to it and no further. 4. That which he aimed at was not to gratify his appetite, but to find out man’s happiness, and this, because it pretended to be so, must be tried among the rest. Observe the description he gives of man’s happiness—it is that good for the sons of men which they should do under the heaven all their days. (1.) That which we are to enquire after is not so much the good we must have (we may leave that to God), but the good we must do; that ought to be our care. Good Master, what good thing shall I do? Our happiness consists not in being idle, but in doing aright, in being well employed. If we do that which is good, no doubt we shall have comfort and praise of the same. (2.) It is good to be done under the heaven, while we are here in this world, while it is day, while our doing time lasts. This is our state of work and service; it is in the other world that we must expect the retribution. Thither our works will follow us. (3.) It is to be done all the days of our life. The good we are to do we must persevere in the doing of to the end, while our doing time lasts, the number of the days of our life (so it is in the margin); the days of our life are numbered to us by him in whose hand our times are and they are all to be spent as he directs. But that any man should give himself to wine, in hopes to find out in that the best way of living in this world, was an absurdity which Solomon here, in the reflection, condemns himself for. Isa. it possible that this should be the good that men should do? No; it is plainly very bad.
III. Perceiving quickly that it was folly to give himself to wine, he next tried the most costly entertainments and amusements of princes and great men. He had a vast income; the revenue of his crown was very great, and he laid it out so as might most please his own humour and make him look great.
1. He gave himself much to building, both in the city and in the country; and, having been at such vast expense in the beginning of his reign to build a house for God, he was the more excusable if afterwards he pleased his own fancy in building for himself; he began his work at the right end (Matt. 6:33), not as the people (Hag. 1:4), that ceiled their own houses while God’s lay waste, and it prospered accordingly. In building, he had the pleasure of employing the poor and doing good to posterity. We read of Solomon’s buildings (1 Kgs. 9:15-19), and they were all great works, such as became his purse, and spirit, and great dignity. See his mistake; he enquired after the good works he should do (Eccl. 2:3), and, in pursuit of the enquiry, applied himself to great works. Good works indeed are truly great, but many are reputed great works which are far from being good, wondrous works which are not gracious, Matt. 7:22.
2. He took to love a garden, which is to some as bewitching as building. He planted himself vineyards, which the soil and climate of the land of Canaan favoured; he made himself fine gardens and orchards (Eccl. 2:5), and perhaps the art of gardening was no way inferior then to what it is now. He had not only forests of timber-trees, but trees of all kinds of fruit, which he himself had planted; and, if any worldly business would yield a man happiness, surely it must be that which Adam was employed in while he was in innocency.
3. He laid out a great deal of money in water-works, ponds, and canals, not for sport and diversion, but for use, to water the wood that brings forth trees (Eccl. 2:6); he not only planted, but watered, and then left it to God to give the increase. Springs of water are great blessings (Josh. 15:19); but where nature has provided them art must direct them, to make them serviceable, Prov. 21:1.
4. He increased his family. When he proposed to himself to do great works he must employ many hands, and therefore procured servants and maidens, which were bought with his money, and of those he had servants born in his house, Eccl. 2:7. Thus his retinue was enlarged and his court appeared more magnificent. See Ezra 2:58.
5. He did not neglect country business, but both entertained and enriched himself with that, and was not diverted from it either by his studies or by his pleasures. He had large possessions of great and small cattle, herds and flocks, as his father had before him (1 Chron. 27:29, 31), not forgetting that his father, in the beginning, was a keeper of sheep. Let those that deal in cattle neither despise their employment nor be weary of it, remembering that Solomon puts his having possessions of cattle among his great works and his pleasures.
6. He grew very rich, and was not at all impoverished by his building and gardening, as many are, who, for that reason only, repent it, and call it vanity and vexation. Solomon scattered and yet increased. He filled his exchequer with silver and gold, which yet did not stagnate there, but were made to circulate through his kingdom, so that he made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kgs. 10:27); nay, he had the segullah, the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces, which was, for richness and rarity, more accounted of than silver and gold. The neighbouring kings, and the distant provinces of his own empire, sent him the richest presents they had, to obtain his favour and the instructions of his wisdom.
7. He had every thing that was charming and diverting, all sorts of melody and music, vocal and instrumental, men-singers and women-singers, the best voices he could pick up, and all the wind and band-instruments that were then in use. His father had a genius for music, but it should seem he employed it more to serve his devotion than the son, who made it more for his diversion. These are called the delights of the sons of men; for the gratifications of sense are the things that the generality of people set their affections upon and take the greatest complacency in. The delights of the children of God are of quite another nature, pure, spiritual, and heavenly, and the delights of angels.
8. He enjoyed, more than ever any man did, a composition of rational and sensitive pleasures at the same time. He was, in this respect, great, and increased more than all that were before him, that he was wise amidst a thousand earthly enjoyments. It was strange, and the like was never met with, (1.) That his pleasures did not debauch his judgment and conscience. In the midst of these entertainments his wisdom remained with him, Eccl. 2:9. In the midst of all these childish delights he preserved his spirit manly, kept the possession of his own soul, and maintained the dominion of reason over the appetites of sense; such a vast stock of wisdom had he that it was not wasted and impaired, as any other man’s would have been, by this course of life. But let none be emboldened hereby to lay the reins on the neck of their appetites, presuming that they may do that and yet retain their wisdom, for they have not such a strength of wisdom as Solomon had; nay, and Solomon was deceived; for how did his wisdom remain with him when he lost his religion so far as to build altars to strange gods, for the humouring of his strange wives? But thus far his wisdom remained with him that he was master of his pleasures, and not a slave to them, and kept himself capable of making a judgment of them. He went over into the enemies’ country, not as a deserter, but as a spy, to discover the nakedness of their land. (2.) Yet his judgment and conscience gave no check to his pleasures, nor hindered him from exacting the very quintessence of the delights of sense, Eccl. 2:10. It might be objected against his judgment in this matter that if his wisdom remained with him he could not take the liberty that was necessary to a full experimental acquaintance with it: “Yea,” said he, “I took as great a liberty as any man could take, for whatsoever my eyes desired I kept not from them, if it could be compassed by lawful means, though ever so difficult or costly; and as I withheld not any joy from my heart that I had a mind to, so I withheld not my heart from any joy, but, with a non-obstante—with the full exercise of my wisdom, I had a high gust of my pleasures, relished and enjoyed them as much as ever any Epicure did;” nor was there any thing either in the circumstances of his condition or in the temper of his spirit to sour or embitter them, or give them any alloy. In short, [1.] He had as much pleasure in his business as ever any man had: My heart rejoiced in all my labour; so that the toil and fatigue of that were no damp to his pleasures. [2.] He had no less profit by his business. He met with no disappointment in it to give him any disturbance: This was my portion of all my labour; he had this added to all the rest of his pleasures that in them he did not only see, but eat, the labour of his hands; and this was all he had, for indeed it was all he could expect, from his labours. It sweetened his business that he enjoyed the success of it, and it sweetened his enjoyments that they were the product of his business; so that, upon the whole, he was certainly as happy as the world could make him.
9. We have, at length, the judgment he deliberately gave of all this, Eccl. 2:11. When the Creator had made his great works he reviewed them, and behold, all was very good; every thing pleased him. But when Solomon reviewed all his works that his hands had wrought with the utmost cost and care, and the labour that he had laboured to do in order to make himself easy and happy, nothing answered his expectation; behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit; he had no satisfaction in it, no advantage by it; there was no profit under the sun, neither by the employments nor by the enjoyments of this world.