The Problem with Pleasure
Week of March 10, 2019
The Point: Pleasures and possessions don’t offer lasting joy.
The Vanity of Self-Indulgence: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”  I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine–my heart still guiding me with wisdom – and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.  I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.  I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.  I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.  I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.  I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.  So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.  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.  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. [ESV]
“Meaningless Hedonism [2:1-11].  Most Americans today are richer than most people in the history of the world. Yet in spite of our material prosperity – or maybe because of it – we still suffer from poverty of soul. The taste of pleasure has grown our appetite for this world beyond satisfaction. Meanwhile, we are still searching desperately for meaning in life. The Solomon of Ecclesiastes asks the question: Is this all there is to life, or is there something more? First he tried to think his way to an answer, using his mind to figure out the mysteries of human existence. But his quest for knowledge ended in vexation and sorrow. At this point it must have been tempting to give up, or else sink into depression. Yet the Preacher decided to take another approach. He started talking to himself – not about something life-changing like the beauty of God or the good news of His grace – but about doing something new to get more out of life. So he said to his soul, Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself . Every term in this short statement is important. The word test indicates that what follows is an experiment, a deliberate attempt to learn something from personal experience. The word pleasure shows what he wants to experience – the pleasures of life. The other important word, which gets repeated in every single verse in this passage, is the word “I.” Admittedly, the writer is speaking autobiographically, so there are times when he needs to refer to himself. But does he need to do it quite so often? There is so much “me, myself, and I” in these verses that we get a strong sense of self-indulgence in the pursuit of self-centered pleasure. So Qoheleth becomes an experimental hedonist. In other words, he chooses to make his own personal happiness his chief end in life. This is the way that many people live today, and it is a temptation for all of us – to live for ourselves rather than for God. Immediately the Preacher tells us that this quest failed as spectacularly as the first one. Pleasure did not satisfy his soul any more than wisdom did. Behold, he says, demanding our attention, this also was vanity . In other words, it was vapor and smoke. Pleasure seemed to hold out the promise of purpose in life, but it didn’t last. In the end it turned out to be empty, elusive, and ephemeral. By the time his pleasures floated away, the Preacher was left with absolutely nothing. His hedonism proved to be meaningless. In announcing the result of his quest right at the beginning, Qoheleth was not prejudging things. On the contrary, this was a comprehensive experiment, as he proceeds to explain. In verses 2-8 he lists all of the pleasures he tried, followed in verses 9-11 by a personal reflection on what he learned from his experience. First he experimented with comedy, an entertainment that many people use to make it through life. When they feel insecure, they make a joke about something. When they get down on themselves, they make fun of other people. When they are bored, they look for something to give them a giggle, like one of the sitcoms on television or a funny video clip on YouTube – anything to get a laugh. The Preacher tried this sort of thing too; yet it failed to bring him any lasting fulfillment. Listen to his conclusion: I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” . Here mad does not refer to being out of one’s mind, the way we might use the word today, but to something sinful, to moral perversity. A lot of laughter is like that: it is morally perverse. Not all of it, of course, because there is a kind of joyful laughter that brings glory to God. But a lot of joking is frivolous and superficial, or else cynical, sarcastic, and even cruel. To honor God, we need to ask whether our laughter is rejoicing in the goodness of God or is coming at someone else’s expense. Qoheleth discovered that when it comes to understanding the meaning of our existence, laughter turns out to be a useless pleasure. Life is no laughing matter. Some people laugh all their way to the grave, but there is nothing funny about the deathbed of someone who dies without Christ. The next pleasure the man tried was alcohol, and this too is a popular way to find enjoyment in life, or else to escape from its troubles. The Preacher found a lubricant for his laughter: I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine . The Preacher seems to be abusing alcohol the way so many people abuse drugs and alcohol today. Rather than receiving wine as a gift and drinking it with thanksgiving to God, he took it for himself as a selfish pleasure. The end of verse 3 introduces a theme that will become increasingly prominent throughout the rest of the book, namely, the brevity of life. One of the main reasons people pursue pleasure is because life is so short. In addition to wine and laughter, there are many other pleasures in life, and the Preacher-King was rich enough to try almost all of them. He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, building a beautiful home and planting many magnificent gardens [2:4-6]. The Bible describes Qoheleth’s building and landscaping projects as great works, but they were not public works. They were part of the man’s private residence. He was living large in the garden of his own pleasure. But that is not all. Beyond his building projects, the Preacher was pleasurably and enjoyable wealthy, as we can see from his many possessions [2:7]. Needless to say, the Preacher-King also has a lot of money [2:8]. Sex is a more common pleasure, but few people have ever experienced it on quite the scale of King Solomon. Here he speaks of many concubines, but 1 Kings 11:3 gives us the raw statistics – seven hundred wives and princesses, with three hundred concubines – more sexual partners than anyone could imagine. The erotic luxury of this vast harem was the royal icing on his cake of pleasure. The Preacher-King summarized his experiment with pleasure in 2:9-10. The Bible warns against the desires of the flesh, and the desires of the eyes, and pride of life [1 John 2:16]. Solomon disregarded God’s warning completely. Whenever he spied something he wanted, he took it. Whenever he was tempted to indulge in a fleshly pleasure, he did so. There was nothing he denied himself. It sounds strange to hear him say that his wisdom remained with him [2:3]. Obviously he could not possibly be talking about the kind of wisdom that begins with the fear of God. More likely, he meant that he was still serious about conducting his experiment, about testing his heart to see whether pleasure would show him the meaning of life. So what was the result? What happens to people who pursue any and every pleasure as their main passion in life? The answer Ecclesiastes gives in one that we ought to know already, based on what happens to us when we pursue our own pleasures. Are we satisfied, or do we still want more? No matter how much we have, we always want more. At the end of his quest, the Preacher-King reached the same conclusion: behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun [2:11]. Solomon is facing up to his situation, seeing his life as it really is, and he wants us to know that it isn’t pretty. The word behold is emphatic. Life is vanity; there is nothing to it. Life is striving after wind, you can never catch it. Squeeze out all the pleasure you can, and there is still nothing to be gained from living under the sun. Pleasure, pursued for its own sake, does not and cannot satisfy the soul. Learn this lesson from Ecclesiastes, or else learn it from sad experience. Is this all there is? And if it is all there is, what should we do about it? What do you do when you have everything you thought you ever wanted and it still isn’t enough? The answer is that our dissatisfaction with life should point us back to God – not away from Him but toward Him. If all the pleasures under the sun cannot satisfy our souls, then we need to look beyond this world to God in Heaven. Our unsatisfied longings give us a spiritual clue that we were made for the pleasure of God. Satisfaction does not come in the pleasures themselves; it comes separately. Satisfaction only comes in God Himself, so that our dissatisfaction may teach us to turn to Him. This is one of the main reasons why Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. It is here to convince us not to love the world or live for its pleasures. This message is not intended to discourage us or to make us any more depressed than we already are, but to drive us back to God. This is not all there is. There is also a God in Heaven, who has sent His Son to be our Savior. That Son resisted the pleasures of this life to fulfill the purposes of God for our salvation.
Meaningful Hedonism. When we turn back to God, asking Him to save us in the name of Jesus Christ, something very surprising happens: the very pleasures that once failed to satisfy us now help us find even greater joy in the goodness of God. This is not true of foolish and sinful pleasures, of course, which we are still warned against. Like Moses, we are called to suffer for the cause of Christ rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin [Heb. 11:25]. But there is such a thing as holy and legitimate pleasure. For the people of God there is meaningful hedonism – pleasure that comes in the enjoyment of God. This will never happen when we pursue pleasure for its own sake or take pleasure for ourselves or make it our main passion in life. But it will happen when we receive every pleasure as a gift from God. He is the God of pleasure; thus, whatever legitimate pleasure we experience is a gift of His goodness. God is not a spoilsport. He is not trying to take pleasure away from us but to give it to us. Once we learn how to find our satisfaction in God Himself, then all of His other gifts become the best and truest pleasures. Happily, we do not have to be as rich as Solomon to experience meaningful hedonism. We simply have to see what is in the world around us and know that it comes to us as a gift from God.” [Ryken, pp. 45-54].
“Theological Implications. In this first test we get a good look at Qohelet’s epistemology in action, the means by which he will try to answer the question of the benefit of labor under the sun. Experience and observation are core elements. Pleasure presents itself as an answer to his question, and he abandons himself to it relentlessly, using all the resources at his disposal. He explores the pleasure of wine, extensive building projects, gardens and parks, the accumulation of wealth and treasures, music, sex, and so on, but all to no avail. Once he stops and reflects on this test, he concludes that it too leaves his quest unanswered. Qohelet is at pains to name his epistemology wisdom, but clearly this is something very different from wisdom in Proverbs, in which abandonment to wine, women, and pleasure as a way to find meaning is folly, not wisdom. In Proverbs the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom. With this motto Proverbs enunciates a fundamental principle in biblical wisdom. The result is that wisdom in Proverbs is not empirical but observes the world from the vantage point of the fear of the Lord. Qohelet depends on experience and reason alone, and in this sense manifests an autonomous epistemology that is quite different from that of Proverbs. His consciousness, rather than the fear of the Lord, is the center from which he operates, hence the constant repetition of the first person “I” throughout the book. What Qohelet calls “wisdom” may be quite the opposite. This is not to detract from the existential pain of his exploration but to attend to his means of exploration. His repetition of wisdom in verses 3 and 9 is intentional and foregrounds his method in a context in which it is something very different from wisdom in Proverbs. Indeed, his use of “wisdom” here is ironic. Philosophically the test that Qohelet here embraces is that of hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure as the key to meaning in life. The contemporary relevance of Qohelet’s quest is clear. Consumerism, one can argue, is the dominant ideology of our age, and central to consumerism is the quest for pleasure through possessions and experience. The heroes of Western culture have multiple houses, accumulate phenomenal wealth, and are able to buy all the pleasures of life they desire. The undermining of modernity and the shattering of socialism have created an ideological vacuum in the West, and it has been filled by the grand narrative of consumerism that is driven by market fundamentalism. Thus pleasure attained through alcohol, sex, multiple residences on different continents, music, and art have become the Good of our day. Yet the quest for fulfillment and meaning remains as elusive as ever. Depression has become so common that some are calling our age the “age of melancholy,” in contrast to the “age of anxiety” that followed World War II. To this context Qohelet’s test of pleasure and his decisive no to its effectiveness speaks powerfully. Central to the problem with hedonism is its idolatry – pleasure is a creational good but hedonism seeks in pleasure what can be found only in the Creator. While looking at chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes, I noted that Qohelet’s concern with life under the sun serves as a powerful reminder that faith relates to the whole of life. In a negative way that concern is given content in chapter 2. The extent of his explorations is remarkable and includes cuisine, architecture, farming, gardening, relationships, and gathering antique and other treasures. Life under the sun is comprehensive for Qohelet, and although in this section he despairs of finding it meaningful, positively it reminds us that the question of faith and meaning relates to the whole of life as God has made it.” [Bartholomew, pp. 134-137].
Questions for Discussion:
- How would you define pleasure according to this passage? Describe Qohelet’s pursuit of pleasure. What was his conclusion [2:11]?
- The contemporary relevance of Qohelet’s quest for pleasure is clear. List the ways people today search for pleasure. Note the similarities to Qohelet’s search.
- What does Ryken mean by “meaningful hedonism?” What is “holy and legitimate pleasure?” How do we make our pursuit for pleasure in this life honoring to God? What can you do by the way you live your life to prevent falling into the trap of seeking pleasure in worldly things that does not provide lasting satisfaction?
Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker.
Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman Press.
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway.