FROM ECCLESIASTES 2:1-11
Read: Eccl. 2:1-11
This week, we continue in our trek through the book of Ecclesiastes. This is book is part of what is called “Biblical wisdom literature,” but it’s unique among wisdom books. This wisdom is not the godly wisdom of the Proverbs rooted in the fear of God; it’s the wisdom of fallen humanity without God in the equation. This book chronicles the methodical search of one man for meaning in a life…minus God. Last week in chapter one, we saw the author record his attempts to find meaning and satisfaction in life through the pursuit of this worldly wisdom. He came up empty. In all of his strivings to find meaning, he discovered that wisdom brings no lasting satisfaction or meaning. As we read from chapter two a few minutes ago, he turns to an area of life that is pursued for satisfaction by more people than perhaps any other. He turns next to the pursuit of pleasure from the things of this world to find meaning. The Greek word for pleasure is hedone from which we get the word “hedonist.” A hedonist is one who seeks for meaning in life through the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. To say that the author of this book is an accomplished hedonist is a bit like saying, “volcanic lava is a little warm.” Like few if any man in history, he seeks to completely plumb the depths of pleasure as a possible source of meaning. This pursuit of pleasure is of course especially applicable to contemporary America where hedonism has been called the national religion. We are the wealthiest people in world history and an incalculable amount of our wealth is annually given to pursue pleasure. Our national motto “In God we trust” has functionally been displaced by, “If it feels good, do it.” According to this author of Ecclesiastes, who more thoroughly and intentionally than anyone else, tried to find meaning in pleasure, his verdict in verse one is “…this also is vanity.” Pleasure yields as much meaning to life as a disappearing vapor does to the atmosphere.
Don’t miss that he’s more critical of pleasure as a potential object of meaning than he is wisdom. Of pleasure he says, “What use is it?” He never says of wisdom, “What use is it?” Although wisdom doesn’t produce lasting satisfaction or meaning, it’s not useless. With pleasure, he not only declares it vain as a means of finding meaning in life, he says-- it is useless. It feels like he’s “burned out” on pleasure. He ultimately finds no use for pleasure. Anyone who has ever worn themselves out in their pursuit of pleasure will say the same thing. It’s like eating way too much of something. Immediately after you eat it, you don’t think you’ll ever be able to stomach the stuff again. After the withering emptiness of the pursuit of pleasure sets in you temporarily feel like you never want to chase after it again. It’s temporarily repulsive—useless to us until the desire for it returns. In the text we read earlier, the author takes us on a guided tour of his manifold attempts to find meaning in pleasure as, one by one, he explores and then disqualifies each successive area he pursues to find lasting satisfaction. I count nine specific areas of pleasure he pursues and finds lacking. That he breaks down pleasure into nine separate areas illustrates how methodical he is in his pursuit of meaning. He’s like a researcher doing detailed studies utilizing the process of elimination—first investigating this area and, finding it lacking, moving to another.
In the first two verses he introduces this area of pleasure as a possible source of meaning. “1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” The author recounts how he began his search by telling us he urges himself to, “enjoy yourself.” Again, note the strange mix here between, on the one hand, his analytical side, that understands this as part of his methodical search for meaning in life and on the other, his sinful flesh, that impetuously bolts out of the gate like a wild animal in this pursuit of pleasure. He finds that laughter and pleasure, which he uses synonymously, are both vain in yielding lasting satisfaction or a sense of meaning in life. Next, he moves into the various areas of pleasure he field tests for meaning. First, in verse three is his search for pleasure in alcohol. “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom…” There are two schools of thought on how Qohelet pursues meaning through wine.
One school says that he pursued it by abusing alcohol—escaping the pain of life by medicating himself with alcohol through drunkenness. This is possible, but notice the phrase he uses to describe his quest for meaning through wine—“my heart still guiding me with wisdom.” That has caused others to see the nature of his quest differently. Because he says he did not abandon wisdom in his field testing of wine for meaning, many believe the Preacher became a wine connoisseur. Wine became for him one of the finer things in life—like art or the symphony. He was a high brow drinker. Whichever the case, he finds that the pleasure he received from wine gave no pleasure. When it comes to the topic of alcohol, the wisdom literature is mixed in its appraisal. Some wisdom texts are positive. Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, “7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart….” Chapter 10:19 says, “19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life…” Both of those put wine in a very positive--even desirable light. The book of Proverbs, which relates godly wisdom, says in 3:9-10, “9 Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” There, abundant stores of wine seem to be the blessing God gives to those who honor him with their wealth. However, Proverbs 20:1 says, “1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Three chapters later the writer says, “31 Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. 32 In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.” Those texts clearly warn of the potential for destruction alcohol can bring.
Today within evangelicalism, all sincere believers agree that drunkenness is sin and should never be practiced. Beyond the question of intoxication, there tends to be a generational divide over how to apply the Biblical witness on alcohol. My observation has been that in our church, those 55 (or so) and over who are not recent converts are much more likely to be drawn to and influenced by the warning texts. Those under 55 in our church are generally more inclined to feel the freedom to enjoy some wine or beer. It’s a pity that too often we can’t listen to one another because both sides have some truth. The Bible teaches that alcohol—when consumed with self-control--can be a blessing from God. It’s also truth that for countless people over the centuries it has proven to be a trap that has shipwrecked lives, ruined marriages, families, careers and reputations. The warning texts must not be overlooked by those who feel free to drink. Those on either side are free in the Lord to do as they wish regarding alcohol—outside of intoxication, but both should listen to each another because if you hold one view completely without reference to the other, you are in danger or either self-destruction through the abuse of alcohol or pharisaism. As for the Preacher, who later makes positive comments about alcoholic consumption, he finds that when you pursue alcohol as a means of finding meaning in life, it leaves you with only an empty glass.
Next, Qohelet briefly mentions folly. “I searched my heart…how to lay hold on folly.” The reference is to sin and points to the overarching sin within all his pursuit of pleasure and that is—self-centeredness. This entire pursuit of worldly pleasure reeks of selfishness. These verses indicate what he pursued, he did so for his pleasure alone. There is no mention of sharing these pleasures or using them to benefit others. Second, in the English translation of these texts, the word “I” is used 18 times. This pursuit of worldly pleasure is clearly all about ME. The ultimate reason why the pursuit of worldly pleasure is not satisfying is because God has not created us to find meaning and satisfaction by focusing on ourselves. Jesus, who understood joy and meaning better than anyone—when he came to earth as a human being, pursued joy by sacrificing himself for his Father and for others. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus, “…for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Joy is found by following the example of Jesus and surrendering yourselves to God and others, not by using this world as your personal playground to squeeze out of its pleasures. That’s ultimately why, from God’s perspective, this pursuit of meaning through worldly pleasure is doomed to fail. However, the Preacher saw pleasure as bankrupt is in verse three for another reason. He wants to “…lay hold of folly, tilI I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of his life.” As we’ll see in much more detail later in the book, one reason this pleasure-filled pursuit of meaning is empty is because we live only “a few days.” It’s interesting how this observation contradicts other worldly wisdom. One of the axioms of our hedonistic culture is—“life is short—play hard.” Because life is short, go for all the gusto. The Preacher, who is looking for lasting satisfaction from pleasure, says just the opposite. The reason the pursuit of pleasure is meaningless is because life is so short and therefore all pleasures are fleeting and temporary. What is so temporary, cannot bring lasting satisfaction.
In verse four, the Preacher turns to the pleasure of creating things. He says, “4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.” There’s something very rewarding on a human level in building something. We see this temporary satisfaction in King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter four as he reflects on the kingdom “he” has built. Verse 29 says, 29 …he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” He’s expressing the satisfaction involved in being able to look over his kingdom and saying, “Mine—I built that!” God in his mercy humbled him for that arrogant attitude. There’s something satisfying about creating something—whether it’s building a house, installing a new light fixture, knitting an afghan, composing a song or in the case of the Preacher—building a vast estate. The creative process taps into part of who we are as beings made in the image of a Creator God. When we create (or, more accurately, fashion) things, we are imaging God. The problem is—we are fallen creatures and our sinful flesh seeks to create for our own glory, not God’s and that brings no lasting satisfaction. The Preacher was building a vast domain for himself and he was obviously an enormously gifted person—a real renaissance man. He was involved in the land development, the architectural design, engineering and the construction of this huge project. One commentator says the Preacher was the ultimate builder of “better homes and gardens.” He not only built gardens and parks for his enjoyment, he designed an irrigation system that kept them vital and healthy.
The estate was so large that Qohelet needed to own slaves to maintain it. Verse seven says, “I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house.” It’s one thing to own land, but it must make a worldly person feel very important to own another human being. He owned slaves by purchase and by birth. In most cultures where slave trade has been allowed, for the slave owner, slaves are a status symbol. Sadly, a person’s wealth and influence is often measured in the number of humans they own, but there’s not satisfaction in it according to the Preacher. In the second half of verse seven, another pleasure is described. That is—the pleasure of great possessions. This isn’t the estate itself; it’s what you put on the estate. In Qohelet’s case he says, “I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.” This man had vast holdings. In the Ancient Near East, possessions weren’t measured in cars and yachts and Lear jets, they were measured in livestock. In the book of Job, he is described as the “greatest of all people of the east.” The author makes that claim because Job “possessed 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 5000 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants.” The sense from the text here is that the Preacher made Job look like a piker. He says that the number of his possessions is unequalled by those who came before him in Jerusalem. This means that if you wanted to talk to THE authority on whether possessions can bring genuine meaning and satisfaction into your life, Qohelet is the man to ask and his opinion has been rendered—no, no lasting satisfaction can be found in what you own.
The next pleasure the Preacher was able to test for meaning was money. He tried to find lasting satisfaction in the pleasure of great material wealth. This man was rich beyond description. Verse eight, “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.” King Solomon—who either is the author or who the author greatly resembles in this respect, owned thousands of tons of gold and countless tons of silver according to First Kings. Today, one pound of gold is worth $20,000. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s total net worth would be like the interest income Solomon earned from his wealth. Nothing was too expensive for this man to purchase by the 1000’s. Excess was a way of life for him. His animals probably lived better than anyone other than the very wealthy. In verse five, we see one more source of pleasure the Preacher sought out for meaning. That is—the pleasure of the arts and entertainment. The second section of verse eight says simply, “I got singers, both men and women.” The main form of entertainment in those days was music and surely the most involved means of making music was by forming a choir. Choirs didn’t sing except in the context of the temple and only those in the temple had the chance to hear them. And this choir would have been more pleasurable to listen to than the temple choirs because those choirs were made up only of Levites, which means they were all male choirs. This was a MIXED choir which would have been an incredible extravagance. The Preacher liked music and entertainment, so he made his own choir. He produced his own Ancient Near Eastern version of “Israel’s Got Talent,” conducted auditions and chose the best singers for his choir that would come and sing for him whenever he was in the mood for some entertainment. There’s no mention of anyone else in the audience.
There were no stereos, CD’s, DVD’s or MP3’s so if you wanted music, you either sang to yourself or played a simple musical instrument, went to the temple and worshipped or, in the case of the Preacher, you invited your own personal choir in to favor you with a few selections they had rehearsed. Today, this would be like renting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Metropolitan Opera for a week or two to come and give private performances for you. Or, it would be like hiring your favorite singer or band to come and put on a series of private shows. The point in all of this is—if you think you can find meaning in life through the pleasure you get from music or entertainment—movies, television or other media, this man was able to exhaust that source of pleasure in ways you could never do or even imagine doing…and he found this to be vanity, a vacuum devoid of true joy or lasting satisfaction. Next, he turns to the form of pleasure most worshipped in our society--the pleasures of sexual activity. He says in verse eight, “I got…many concubines, the delight of the children of man.” He marks sexual activity as a uniquely powerful source of pleasure by differentiating it from the others by calling it, “the delight of the children of man.” Concubines existed for one purpose—to give sexual pleasure to men. As a reference point, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines—enough to be engaged with a different woman every day for nearly three years. A man with Qohelet’s resources could have had as many as his heart desired. Again, the point is--no matter how much experience you have in pursuing lasting satisfaction through sexual pleasure, this man had more and he speaks definitively when he pronounces there is no lasting satisfaction in sexual activity. This is no news to those who have been trapped in the sexual sin available via the 1000’s of potential virtual partners on the internet. People enslaved to pornography find no lasting satisfaction—only emptiness and despair punctuated with short-lived, addictive and shame- inducing highs.
In verse nine, the author treats as a source of pleasure the natural consequence of being this incredibly talented and wealthy. “9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.” The Preacher knew better than anyone the pleasures of fame and celebrity. There would have been no one in his culture who didn’t know this man. By any human measure in terms of talent, wisdom, wealth, or influence this man was the greatest man in the Ancient Near East. He would have been exalted, admired, worshipped, and esteemed in every corner of the culture. In terms of his fame, he had far broader appeal to his people than any contemporary entertainer. His admirers would have come from many spheres. He was like Howard Hughes, Bill Gates, Confucius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Warren Beatty and Donald Trump all rolled into one. There’s nobody like this guy around today. On a purely human level—he has no peers AND… he finds no meaning in his status, fame or reputation. If you aspire to BE somebody and find satisfaction in that, don’t waste your time. This man was uniquely SOMEBODY and it gave him no lasting satisfaction. In verse 10 he summarizes what he has said up to this point. “10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
He says that not only did the fruits of his labors —the wine, the real estate, the possessions, the money, the entertainment, the fame, the women fail to bring him lasting pleasure; he also says the toil he expended in acquiring these pleasures gave him no satisfaction. Sometimes you will hear the super-wealthy say that—even though they’re wealthy, they could never retire because they love the work—they couldn’t just retire to inactivity because the real reward is in the toil--the process, not the payoff. The Preacher says, “There’s no lasting meaning there either. There’s no satisfaction in that. It’s “vanity and a striving under the sun…nothing to be gained under the sun.” This is perhaps the ultimate indictment of those who waste their lives chasing the pleasures of this world. This man knew them all and to the ultimate level and found no lasting satisfaction from any of these worldly pleasures. As we’ve said before, the Bible does not teach that pleasure seeking is wrong. In fact, it commands us to be pleasure seekers! We should not only pursue pleasure, we should pursue pleasure to fine meaning and satisfaction. Qohelet didn’t ere in his pursuit of pleasure, but in the object of his pleasure. He was pursuing the pleasures this fallen world had to offer and he inevitably came up empty and crest-fallen.
The Bible teaches that desire for pleasure is God-given, but that he intends our desire for pleasure should be met, NOT by pursuing the things of this world, but by pursuing him. We are commanded to pursue satisfaction, but genuine, lasting satisfaction is found in God and the pursuit of him. Psalm 100:2 says, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” God wants us to be glad in him. Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” God wants us to show our joy by rejoicing in him. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” The command is to delight yourself…in the Lord. One of the summary curses of the Mosaic Covenant is in Deuteronomy 28 and says, “47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart…, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies…” The Bible teaches we should pursue meaning or satisfaction in God. Listen to the reason why God condemns the Jews in Jeremiah chapter two “12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” The sin was not only that his people had forsaken God, the source of living waters—joy and satisfaction--they had pursued it in ways and things that would not produce any ultimate satisfaction.
The way God converts sinners teaches that we must pursue our satisfaction in God. Jesus says in Matthew 13:44, “44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” The treasure that brings satisfaction is the kingdom of heaven and when you discover that treasure, you will sell all you have to get it and will do so with joy because you KNOW you have finally found the real thing—the eternal, unending joy in God. Finally, in Philippians 3:8 Paul teaches, “I count everything—[everything this life has to offer] as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul would have said to Qohelet, “Your quest for meaning in pleasure will only be met when you are willing to cast all the pleasures of this world aside in favor of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.”
As you sit here today, are you more like Paul or Qohelet? Do you pour your resources—your time, energy, thought, money and toil into pursuing the pleasures of this world--your possessions, money, status, career, wine, sex and entertainment? Or do you invest more time, energy, thought and toil into pursuing the eternal pleasures found in God? The lesson of the Bible is that if we are pursuing earthly pleasures for meaning, we are on a fool’s errand because lasting pleasure is found only in giving ourselves to the pursuit of Christ—knowing him, loving him and serving him in response to who he is and what he has done for us on the cross. If you are pouring your life into the leaky bucket of this world’s pleasures, come to Christ. He showed us the way to joy by giving himself for us so that he could know the lasting joys of eternal glory. If you claim to be a believer and have discovered the inevitable emptiness of pursuing this world’s pleasures, that’s not going to change. To continue to dip into that empty well is the definition of insanity. By God’s grace, pursue Christ and know joy unspeakable and full of glory!
all this comes down is in places like this: The
next time you are feeling empty and reach for the T.V. remote to fill you up. The
next time you go for your credit card to medicate your sense of emptiness or are tempted to visit a raunchy web
site—the next time you try to fill the void in your heart by counting up all your accomplishments and doing a mental
inventory of your possessions, know that you are on a fool’s errand. There’s
only one source of lasting joy and Qohelet had cut himself off from him by limiting his search to the things of
Only in Christ
do we find satisfaction. May
God give us the grace to seek hard after pleasure that lasts—the pleasure found in God alone.
Page last modified on 10/23//2012
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