“I spoke to my heart, ‘Come now, let us try out joy and see what is good.’ And I beheld that this was also vanity.”
Solomon continues this little dialogue with himself. Note that chapter and verse divisions are artificial and external additions to the text to make passages easier to identify and find and thus easier to reference and to study, so do not draw a hard and fast line between the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2. In many ways, Solomon is continuing the train of thought that began in the previous chapter.
Having explored wisdom and finds that to be folly, now he seeks out a life of pleasure and the verses that follow are once again the earthly things in which Solomon seeks to find satisfaction. We will explore each in turn, but recognize that what follows is all tied back to this initial statement.
The Targum translates the word נסה (nasah) as “to experiment,” reflecting on Solomon’s seemingly “scientific” approach to discerning how to find meaning in life. He tries this and then eliminates it, then he moves on and tries that — he experiments with such things. I have simply rendered it, “try out,” which again captures the notion of testing a hypothesis but reminds us as well that Solomon is committed to the experiment personally, not as an outside observer. All I can say is what it must have been like to dwell in Solomon’s court, we cannot tell, but I imagine from the text here, that we would all marvel and cringe at the same time.
It also seems that the majority of the English translators prefer to translate שִׂמְחָה (simchah) as “pleasure.” Yet, the more commonly found usage of this term has to do with joy and there is a difference. Indeed, joy does have the power to create pleasure (while the reverse is not necessarily the case). In fact, this word is often used to communicate the joy we have as we worship God.
That leaves us really with one of two ways to understand this reference. It may be seen as a stand-alone statement referring to worship for the sake of worship and being utterly disconnected the things or cares of this life. Indeed, as we have already stated, finding pleasure in eternal things is far better than finding pleasure in temporal things. At the same time, we cannot ignore or escape this temporal world — we have a mission in it to make disciples of the nations. So, just as some go too far and lose themselves in worldly pleasures, it is just as much a danger to go too far and lose yourself in eternal ones.
While the above interpretation is an acceptable option, I prefer an alternative interpretation, as I mentioned before, that views this as a kind of blanket statement that prefaces what will be said next and joins with the language in verse 15, when Solomon again addresses his heart with the conclusion that comes from seeking after joy in its various earthly forms.
And, what is Solomon’s conclusion? Well, a little later on in the chapter he will give a fuller explanation, but for now, let us summarize the answer the way he does here. It is vanity — it is empty or without any substance. And such is the discovery that every man or woman makes when they pursue the wealth of the world apart from pursing God.