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"MESSAGE FOR JUNE 9, 2013"

FROM ECCLESIASTES 9:7-10

Many people in the world think “evangelical” and “pleasure” are mutually exclusive terms.  Much of that comes from the false notion that a person can’t really experience pleasure unless he’s doing something risqué or sinful.  It’s not only the world who doesn’t know the truth about pleasure.   Some evangelicals are confused about what the Bible teaches about pleasure.  For instance, we know the New Testament at least ten times tells us we are to be a sober people and sober-minded [1 Timothy 3:2,11]—self-controlled.  Paul says, “I beat my body and keep it under control, lest having preached to others, I myself might be disqualified.”  How does being sober-minded and having this kind of almost ascetic self-control fit in with pleasure?  Hey, Duncan how about a round of golf?  No thanks, the last time I did that, I almost enjoyed myself.”  Some in the church believe if they are having too good a time, there must be something wrong.  If their boat gives them too much pleasure, they should probably sell it. That confusion about the role of pleasure in a believer’s life is one reason why the opening of this morning’s text may strike some as strange. “7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

That verse may seem inconsistent with the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:19 where he says, “19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” Next the parable reads, “20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  Those verses aren’t a call to abstain from life’s pleasures, but the wording is strangely similar to Ecclesiastes 9:7.  Paul says in First Corinthians 15:32, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  Paul equates enjoying the pleasure of eating and drinking with a life of dissipation, appropriate only for those who have no hope in this life and Paul here is quoting a condemnation first uttered by Isaiah.  Where does this morning’s text on enjoying the pleasures of life fit in with all this?  You’ll recall last week the text preceding this one could hardly be more removed from this.  The Preacher or Qohelet basically says there that the only things that are certain in this life are injustice and death. 

These next verses are written in response to that dark truth.  He is saying—because life is hard and short, “7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”

The basic meaning of this text in the larger context is clear—because life is short and filled with injustice, God’s will is that we should enjoy the pleasures he has given us.  It may seem strange that someone capable of such skepticism and even cynicism could be calling us to enjoy life’s pleasures.  But, as we’ve seen before, the author is merely reflecting the complexities of life.  Life is difficult and filled with many trials, but there are also moments of profound joy and we should savor them.  The author is telling us on the one hand, don’t expect too much out of this unjust, vain life but on the other—enjoy the pleasures that this life has to offer.  In fact, the author urgently commands us to eat our bread with joy and drink our wine with a merry heart.  Let’s flesh that out by looking more closely at three supporting truths here. The first is found in verses seven and eight. “7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.”  The truth could be stated in light of the larger context, Offset life’s difficulties with merriment from the Lord.

This is not a call to debauchery or extravagance—but it’s as close to a call to “party” as you’ll find in Scripture.  That’s what the two exhortations in verse eight mean.  “Let your garments be always white.”  That’s not about our need to bleach our clothes.  White garments were worn to festive occasions—parties, weddings and the like.  He’s telling us not to miss opportunities to celebrate—have a good time.  “Let not oil be lacking on your head.  This kind of oil smelled good so he’s telling us to put on our cologne and or perfume.  The point is not about perfume any more than the first sentence is about the color of our clothes.  He’s telling us to prepare for a party.  Philip Ryken says, “…the Preacher is telling us to put on tuxedos and evening gowns so we can dance the night away.  This is an unapologetic call to deeply enjoy life where that is possible.

The reason we’re to do this is even more interesting as the Preacher puts it in verse seven. “…for God has already approved what you do.”  That is—this command to vigorously enjoy life has God’s seal of approval.  He commands us to do this. The mention of God here in this context of pleasure gives us another important insight into this text.  The call to enjoy life is one of the major themes of this book and it’s no accident that every one of these calls to enjoy life has God at the center.[1]  Ecclesiastes 2:24 “24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,”  In chapter three, verse 13 the Preacher writes, “…13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”  Finally in 5:20, speaking of a man God has given the power to enjoy the blessings of life he says, “20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”   When taken together, these verses teach that God is the one who gives enjoyment in festive times and our work.  Rather than God being opposed to pleasure, as some wrongly think, God is the source of pleasure.

Because this pleasure is a gift from God, that informs our understanding of the pleasures and enjoyments of life.  As we look in other parts of the Bible, we can tease out a more developed theology of pleasure.  There’s much to be said here—books have been written on this, but let’s look at three foundational truths about God and pleasure.  These are very important because they stand as a corrective for much of the church’s history that betrays a distorted understanding of pleasure that has greatly compromised her witness to a pleasure-seeking world.  The first truth about pleasure or joy is:  The ultimate pleasure in life is God and being rightly related to God. 

Jesus clearly taught this.  In Matthew 13 in his parable of the talents, he says in verse 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.”  Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven where God reigns is so wonderful—so far better than anything else that this man sells everything he has to get it and he parted with those formerly treasured things with joy because selling them enabled him to get the best thing. To be rightly related to God is worth surrendering every other pleasure and surrendering it, not grudgingly but joyfully.  Do we believe this—does our life reflect this?  The Psalmist says in 37:4, “4 delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  Philippians 4:4 says, “4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  Psalm 43:4 says, “4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.” God is our exceeding, ultimate joy.

A second truth is:  Pleasure only becomes sinful when it’s pursued as the ultimate good.  Tim Keller tells us: “sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things.”[2]  When we pursue pleasure to give us ultimate satisfaction, it becomes sinful.  It’s an idol at that point.  Paul in Philippians 3:19 says of the enemies of the cross, “…their god is their belly…with their minds set on earthly things.”  When a person more intensely desires food more than God, then food and the pleasure we derive from it—which are good things--have become ultimate things.  In Romans chapter one, Paul speaks of sinners as those who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  Because they do this—intentionally pushing God away, their minds become darkened and they become futile in their thinking.  Paul says that causes them to pursue as their ultimate desire things that are not God—things “resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

In Romans 1:24 Paul discloses the consequence of looking to the things of this world for ultimate pleasure instead of God. “24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”  They foolishly rejected God, but their desire for pleasure remained—those desires are placed in us by God—we are born pleasure seekers.  But for those who seek their ultimate pleasure in things that are not God, he gives them over to zealously pursue their sinful desires for things that will never satisfy as they (to use Paul’s terms) “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. 

Sinners under God’s wrath are more intense in their pursuit of the gift of God and forget about the Giver because they sought their ultimate pleasure in the wrong place.  Jeremiah chapter two says it this way, “11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. 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.”  God is the fountain of living waters, the source of ultimate pleasure.

In neither Romans nor Jeremiah did the rebels simply reject God.  They rejected him in favor of something else.  They exchanged the right pleasure—the highest pleasure—God, with what he created—food, sex, nature, hobbies, money or career which are far lesser treasures.  Again, it’s vital that we know that our desire for pleasure is by no means sinful.  In fact, C.S. Lewis says our problem is not that we are pleasure seekers, but that we are too easily pleased by inferior pleasures.  His famously says, “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are too easily pleased.”[3]  Seeking after pleasure is a good thing!  Pleasure only becomes sinful when it is pursued as the ultimate good.

A third truth about pleasure is:  Pleasure that is God-centered always results in praise and thanksgiving to him.  In 1 Timothy 4:4 Paul says, “4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,”  Receive everything with thanksgiving as God’s good gift.  One of the ways we can test whether we’re receiving a pleasure as a gift of God or sinfully as a substitute pleasure we’ve exchanged for God is—is the pleasure we’re receiving something for which we are drawn to praise God?  If you are enslaved to pornography, your root sin is that you have exchanged the impure, unsatisfying pleasure  you receive from that with the ultimate pleasure you could be finding in God.  If you’ve substituted the pleasure you receive from pornography for pleasure in God, do you feel inclined to thank God for a session in front of the computer monitor?  If you’re pursuing alcohol as an ultimate pleasure in place of God, do you worship God as you nurse your hangover? 

If you’re so hungry for admiration from others that you lied about your accomplishments, would you thank God for the high opinion they have of you?  As we look at the whole Bible’s testimony about pleasure, doesn’t contradict Ecclesiastes call to enjoy life.  It simply develops more fully what the Preacher says about pleasure.  Neither the Preacher nor the larger witness of the Bible communicate that followers of Christ should feel guilty about enjoying life’s pleasures, as long as God is at the center of those pleasures.  We should offset life’s difficulties with merriment from the Lord.

A second major supporting truth is found in verse nine.  “9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”  The truth stated here is simply:  Share your pleasures and joys in life with your spouse or other loved ones. The Preacher says, “Enjoy life’s pleasures with the wife you love.”  Notice the implied call for husbands to love their wives—that is taught in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.  Paul simply revealed how believing husbands are to love their wives--as Christ loved the church.  It’s hard to enjoy something with someone you are not wild about. 

What the author is getting at is something many of us have discovered.  That is, our pleasures are magnified when they’re shared with someone else.  That’s why, when we see or experience something very enjoyable without our spouse, our first thought is—“I wish Betty were here to see this—she’d love this!”  In the midst of the pleasure, there’s a feeling of incompleteness because the one you love is not there to share it with you.  If he/she isn’t there to share it with you, you do the next best thing.  You call him/her as soon as you can, “Honey, you’ll never guess what I just experienced!”  Telling the story to the one(s) you love sometimes brings us more pleasure than the experience itself because we delight in their delight as much or more than we do our own.[4]

Whether we’re married or not—we weren’t made to be alone. We were made for a community to share things with—family and the church.  The Preacher says we’re to share these joys with our wives “all the days of your vain life.”  That’s not exactly something to put in a wedding vow, is it?  “I solemnly pledge to share all the joys of my vain life with you.”  The author isn’t being sarcastic.  “Vain” here means short—life is like a vapor—here today and soon to dissipate.  He ties this truth about enjoying life with one of his other favorite themes—that this life short.  The other main pursuit beyond a person’s family is his/her job so he tells us in the last part of verse nine that we are to “Enjoy life…in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”  He completes the thought in verse 10.  “10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”  The main truth here seems to be:  Practice your life’s work with all your heart in light of the short time you can be productive.

We should work with all our might.  This is the consistent message of the Bible.  Paul tells us in Colossians 3:23, “23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” Work heartily—with our whole heart because our ultimate boss is not the man or woman in the corner office, it’s God who will one day evaluate our labors.  Romans 12:11 says, “11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”  Zealous, fervent, focused, intense—those should be words that accurately describe our work ethic.  If you’re a person who does the least possible amount of work in order to accomplish a task—or if you’re on “auto pilot” at work, it’s not only that you’re a poor worker—you’re a poor witness to Christ.  Believers should be recognized for their strong work ethic, their desire for excellence and their dedication to the task because they’re doing it for their Savior who does all things well.

In addition to our work being done as unto the Lord, the Preacher also adds, “for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”  We again see how the Preacher expects the next life to powerfully impact this life.  This implies that we’re people who regularly think about our death—how short our lives are.  Psalm 90:12 says, “12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  It’s not maudlin to think about the brevity of life—it’s a powerful reminder to make the most of today.

Jesus is our chief example here.  He uniquely knew the brevity of his earthly ministry and he said in John 9:4, “4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  A popular bumper sticker reads, “Life is short, play hard.”  The Bible would amend that to say, “Life is short, work and play hard.”  It’s not a contradiction to say on the one hand—enjoy life and its God-given pleasures and on the other, “Work hard.”  Work hard and play hard because both are enjoyable and we are to do both as unto the Lord.  When we work hard as unto the Lord, we’re worshipping Jesus as we present that work to him as a love offering.  When we play hard in God-centered pleasures, we worship Jesus as we give him praise and thanksgiving for the pleasures he brings into our lives.

Both our work and play must be God-centered.  That will bring us the highest joy.  Philip Ryken brings out another important truth when he says, “Our earthly pleasures are telling us that we were made for another world.  Every honest day’s work brings us one day closer to our eternal rest.  Every good meal is a reminder that we have been invited to the last and best of all banquets.  Every God-centered party anticipates the heavenly celebration that will never end…Whenever we [see] an eager groom and his bride dressed in white, we [are] catching a glimpse of the eternal love that Jesus has for his people…Every earthly joy is the foretaste of a better life to come, in the Paradise where God has promised us pleasures forever more.

In Psalm 16:11 David says to God, “11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  In this life, all pleasures are tempered with the knowledge that suffering might be right around the corner.  In this life we aren’t able to experience the fullness of joy because even the purest of pleasures are tinged with sin, but in glory we will know fullness of joy.  Pleasures forever more—no sin, no suffering!  Do we think about life as heaven-practice?  Do the imperfect pleasures of this life regularly connect the dots--draw our attention to the perfect pleasures awaiting believers in glory?  That’s part of what is included in being God-centered in our pleasures.

Maybe you’re here today and you don’t know God as your ultimate joy. God sent his Son Jesus so that we might have life and have it to the full but our sin separates us from God—alienates us from him.  You can only know the fullness of joy as you repent of your sin—turn from the things that you’re looking to for ultimate joy instead of God.  Confess that those sins have separated you from a holy God who hates sin.  Jesus died on a cross to restore the relationship with God that our sin destroyed.  The Bible says God cannot look upon sin and there is no forgiveness of sin apart from the shedding of innocent blood.  Jesus hung on the cross as an innocent bloodied sacrifice—he took my sin upon himself—he became sin for me so that he might receive the punishment my sin deserves.  God punished him—allowed his eternal relationship with him to be severed on the cross so that my relationship with him might be restored.  The only way to come to know God and the ultimate joy he has for you in Jesus is to repent of your sin—repent of your efforts to be good enough for God and turn to Christ—place your trust in him and his death on the cross to pay for your sins and restore a relationship with God.  If you haven’t done that, trust in him today.

For those who claim to know Christ, do you count God as your greatest joy or do you find it in something or someone else?  It’s so easy to turn good things into sinful things by making them ultimate things.  Do you delight yourself in the Lord?  Where is your joy found—is it in God?  God calls us today to repent of any idol that we may be looking to for ultimate joy.  This may be a person, a desired relationship, a possession, talent or hobby.  Confess that you’ve been trying to find your joy in something other than God.  Maybe it’s something scandalous like an adulterous affair or pornography.  But it can just as easily be something good that we’ve put in the place of God—our jobs or family.  We will not know the joy of the Lord and be able to fully rejoice in him if we’re looking for joy in a gift God has given more than the Giver.  Come to the cross; confess that you’ve been seeking your ultimate pleasure in the things of this life. By God’s grace, repent of that idolatry and God will restore your joy as you find it first and foremost in him.  May God grant us the grace to enjoy the pleasures of this life for his glory and our joy.


[1] Ryken, p. 213.

[2] As cited in Ryken, p. 217.

[3] http://www.cslewis.org/journal/the-pursuit-of-happiness-c-s-lewis%E2%80%99s-eudaimonistic-understanding-of-ethics/

[4] These concepts are all taken from Piper, John, “Desiring God,” Multnomah, 1996 (10th anniversary edition).  P.104-5.

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