Solomon having tried what satisfaction was to be had in learning first, and then in the pleasures of sense, and having also put both together, here compares them one with another and passes a judgment upon them.
I. He sets himself to consider both wisdom and folly. He had considered these before (Ecc 1:17); but lest it should be thought he was then too quick in passing a judgment upon them, he here turns himself again to behold them, to see if, upon a second view and second thoughts, he could gain more satisfaction in the search than he had done upon the first. He was sick of his pleasures, and, as nauseating them, he turned from them, that he might again apply himself to speculation; and if, upon this rehearing of the cause, the verdict be still the same, the judgment will surely be decisive; for what can the man do that comes after the king? especially such a king, who had so much of this world to make the experiment upon and so much wisdom to make it with. The baffled trial needs not be repeated. No man can expect to find more satisfaction in the world than Solomon did, nor to gain a greater insight into the principles of morality; when a man has done what he can still it is that which has been already done. Let us learn, 1. Not to indulge ourselves in a fond conceit that we can mend that which has been well done before us. Let us esteem others better than ourselves, and think how unfit we are to attempt the improvement of the performances of better heads and hands than ours, and rather own how much we are beholden to them, Joh 4:37, Joh 4:38. 2. To acquiesce in Solomon's judgment of the things of this world, and not to think of repeating the trial; for we can never think of having such advantages as he had to make the experiment nor of being able to make it with equal application of mind and so little danger to ourselves.
II. He gives the preference to wisdom far before folly. Let none mistake him, as if, when he speaks of the vanity of human literature, he designed only to amuse men with a paradox, or were about to write (as a great wit once did) Encomium moriae - A panegyric in praise of folly. No, he is maintaining sacred truths, and therefore is careful to guard against being misunderstood. I soon saw (says he) that there is an excellency in wisdom more than in folly, as much as there is in light above darkness. The pleasures of wisdom, though they suffice not to make men happy, yet vastly transcend the pleasures of wine. Wisdom enlightens the soul with surprising discoveries and necessary directions for the right government of itself; but sensuality (for that seems to be especially the folly here meant) clouds and eclipses the mind, and is as darkness to it; it puts out men's eyes, makes them to stumble in the way and wander out of it. Or, though wisdom and knowledge will not make a man happy (St Paul shows a more excellent way than gifts, and that is grace), yet it is much better to have them than to be without them, in respect of our present safety, comfort, and usefulness; for the wise man's eyes are in his head (Ecc 2:14), where they should be, ready to discover both the dangers that are to be avoided and the advantages that are to be improved; a wise man has not his reason to seek when he should use it, but looks about him and is quick-sighted, knows both where to step and where to stop; whereas the fool walks in darkness, and is ever and anon either at a loss, or at a plunge, either bewildered, that he knows not which way to go, or embarrassed, that he cannot go forward. A man that is discreet and considerate has the command of his business, and acts decently and safely, as those that walk in the day; but he that is rash, and ignorant, and sottish, is continually making blunders, running upon one precipice or other; his projects, his bargains, are all foolish, and ruin his affairs. Therefore get wisdom, get understanding.
III. Yet he maintains that, in respect of lasting happiness and satisfaction, the wisdom of this world gives a man very little advantage; for, 1. Wise men and fools fare alike. “It is true the wise man has very much the advantage of the fool in respect of foresight and insight, and yet the greatest probabilities do so often come short of success that I myself perceived, by my own experience, that one event happens to them all (Ecc 2:14); those that are most cautious of their health are as soon sick as those that are most careless of it, and the most suspicious are imposed upon.” David had observed that wise men die, and are involved in the same common calamity with the fool and the brutish person, Psa 49:12. See Ecc 9:11. Nay, it has of old been observed that Fortune favours fools, and that half-witted men often thrive most, while the greatest projectors forecast worst for themselves. The same sickness, the same sword, devours wise men and fools. Solomon applies this mortifying observation to himself (Ecc 2:15), that though he was a wise man, he might not glory in his wisdom; I said to my heart, when it began to be proud or secure, As it happens to the fool, so it happens to me, even to me; for thus emphatically it is expressed in the original: “So, as for me, it happens to me. Am I rich? So is many a Nabal that fares as sumptuously as I do. Is a foolish man sick, does he get a fall? So do I, even I; and neither my wealth nor my wisdom will be my security. And why was I then more wise? Why should I take so much pains to get wisdom, when, as to this life, it will stand me in so little stead? Then I said in my heart that this also is vanity.” Some make this a correction of what was said before, like that (Psa 77:10), “I said, This is my infirmity; it is my folly to think that wise men and fools are upon a level;” but really they seem to be so, in respect of the event, and therefore it is rather a confirmation of what he had before said, That a man may be a profound philosopher and politician and yet not be a happy man. 2. Wise men and fools are forgotten alike (Ecc 2:16): There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool. It is promised to the righteous that they shall be had in everlasting remembrance, and their memory shall be blessed, and they shall shortly shine as the stars; but there is no such promise made concerning the wisdom of this world, that that shall perpetuate men's names, for those names only are perpetuated that are written in heaven, and otherwise the names of this world's wise men are written with those of its fools in the dust. That which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. What was much talked of in one generation is, in the next, as if it had never been. New persons and new things jostle out the very remembrance of the old, which in a little time are looked upon with contempt and at length quite buried in oblivion. Where is the wise? Where is the disputer of this world? 1Co 1:20. And it is upon this account that he asks, How dies the wise man? As the fool. Between the death of a godly and a wicked man there is a great difference, but not between the death of a wise man and a fool; the fool is buried and forgotten (Ecc 8:10), and no one remembered the poor man that by his wisdom delivered the city (Ecc 9:15); so that to both the grave is a land of forgetfulness; and wise and learned men, when they have been awhile there out of sight, grow out of mind, a new generation arises that knew them not.