So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem.
Considering all that Solomon wrote prior to this verse, fame would be the seemingly inevitable outcome. Nevertheless, he made the point, even as he did earlier – “I became great” (2:9a; cf. 1:16). Having surpassed his predecessors in wisdom, works, and wealth, he also surpassed them in magnificence and as a result he became a titan of notoriety. Yes, the geographical reference of Eccl. 2:9 is limited to Jerusalem, but the reverberations of Solomon’s fame spread well beyond Israel’s capital. The Queen of Sheba, for instance, “heard of the fame of Solomon” (1 Ki. 10:1) and came from “the ends of the earth” to hear his wisdom (Mt. 12:41). Perhaps this is where the previous conclusions of meaninglessness would give way to that which is meaningful. Perhaps the vanity of pleasure and possessions was a poor substitute for the worthy endeavor of a celebrated perception. Not quite.
Although Solomon does not specifically deconstruct the folly of fame-seeking in this passage, he does illustrate the transience of popularity a little bit later on by painting a textual picture using the backdrop of a political landscape with regal figures (4:13-16). The section opens with a proverb observing that it is better to be a poor man who is wise and young than an old foolish king who doesn’t heed warnings or receive instruction (vs.13). Moving from that generality, Solomon thought of “a second youth” (vs.14) who arose to take the king’s place. To say that this man had a following was an understatement. Solomon said,
I saw all the living who walk under the sun;
They were with the second youth who stands in his place. (vs.15)
That’s quite a following. Yes, the expression is hyperbolic, but you get what Solomon is saying – just about everybody was behind this guy. The old king was dethroned – how we are not told; and this new king is acclaimed and enthroned to reign in the former monarch’s stead.
Might we now find a happy ending in the Book of Ecclesiastes? Nope. The reason being – living for popularity is vanity. Even though there was no end of all the people over whom the young man was made king (vs.16a), those who came after him wouldn’t rejoice in him (vs.16b).There appeared to be no end of the young king’s support and praise, until there was. And that was the point. Even if the king’s fame endured his whole life – a rare phenomenon in itself, the generation to come would not love him like the generation that was. Once loved, yes; but later, by and large, forgotten. The either/or possibilities of fickleness and forgetfulness make fame fleeting
Better than fixating on recognition we ought to be fixated on God’s revelation. The glory of man is like the flower of grass which withers and falls (1 Pet. 1:24), but the word of God endures forever (vs.25). Beauty is fleeting. Those interested in the interesting will at some point lose interest. The successes of yesterday will be succeeded by a relentless stampede of tomorrow’s successful successors. And if, say, you run hard after fame and finally get it, you will worry about losing it. And if you don’t go from acclaimed to notorious, eventually you will go from celebrated to forgotten (cf. Job. 7:10; Ps. 103:16). Just as it’s not good to eat much honey (Solomon’s illustration not mine), nor is it glorious to seek one’s glory (Prov. 25:27). At least not the worldly way. Learn a lesson from Solomon and don’t chase after the wind of popularity. Why seek the praise of men which is here today and gone tomorrow when you can seek the praise that comes from God (Rom. 2:29; 1 Cor. 4:5; Jn. 12:43)? The geographic reverberations of Solomon’s fame cannot compare with the eternal echoes of Jesus’ words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21a).