In Ecclesiastes we see that what we long for most from the world is the one thing it cannot give us. The ways of the world don’t deliver what they promise.
I would venture to say that every person in the world believes that happiness— contentment and meaning and purpose in life—is our inalienable right as citizens of earth, as human beings, as the most highly developed primates on the planet.
Yet too often in our pursuit of happiness we are frustrated. We are like the man Stephen Crane wrote of:
A man said to the universe, “Sir, I exist.” “However,” replied the universe, “that fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.”
Like the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, we find our honest search for meaning in life truncated and frustrated by a universe that doesn’t always cooperate.
Ecclesiastes is the Preacher or Teacher, the one who addresses the assembly. He is an old man when he writes this sermon, an old man who has had it all—wealth and wisdom, power and pleasure, health and happiness, family and friends. Yet with all this he is disgruntled.
In chapter 1, verse 2, Ecclesiastes offers us his opening premise: “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Now this is his starting point and not his conclusion or central theme. He accepts this truth, and says, in essence, “Because everything is empty, let me offer you counsel as to what to do about it and what manner of person to be.” This is his central theme, the hub of the wheel. (Scripture quotations are from the New International Version and the Revised Standard Version.)
In verse 3, he sets us up for his message of hope, offered in bits and pieces throughout the book, by asking a question we have all asked:
“What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” This is his way of asking, “Why should I get out of bed on Monday morning and get back on the meaningless treadmill of life?”
From there he takes us on a long journey to explore the various avenues in which we might find the key to ultimate meaning and lasting happiness in life.
In chapter 1 he explores the possibility of wisdom being the answer to life’s meaning. He says, “I became wiser than anyone else who lived before me.” In chapter 3 he considers the work ethic, and wonders if there is good in all his labor. Elsewhere he tries wealth, asserting with due modesty that his wealth was unequaled in all the world. Likewise, he tries family life, the health routine, and longevity.
As he approaches the end of each endeavor he offers the same nauseating conclusion with his usual devastating candor:
“This too was empty. It didn’t live up to its billing. It didn’t keep its promise of fulfillment.”
But there is one more avenue Ecclesiastes travels in his search for life’s ultimate meaning. It is probably the most heavily traveled route in mankind’s history. As we accompany Ecclesiastes on this journey, he takes us to the world of pleasure.
Is there anything more common to man than the endless pursuit of pleasure? Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, said,
We call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us; and from pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge good.
I wonder how many of us are modern day Epicureans? How many of us live for the weekend, for the summer vacation, for leisure, recreation, and comfort?
Let’s turn to chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes’ sermon and evaluate our own quest for meaning through the pleasures of life. Perhaps no one was more qualified to explore the endless pursuit of pleasure than Ecclesiastes himself—Solomon. As Old Testament scholar Herbert Leopold observed, “No era of Israel’s history was richer in possibilities for various pleasures, and no person in a better position to make the most of them than Solomon.” He had the whole gamut of pleasurable experiences before him, and here he submits his evaluation of them.
The style of writing frequently employed by Hebrew authors is one that offers the conclusion even before the matter is fully presented. Ecclesiastes does this in verses 1 and 2 of this chapter. But disregard his conclusion for a moment and continue on to some of the pleasures in which he engaged (verse 3). He specifically mentions that he explored with his mind the pleasures of wine and folly.
Folly is a fascinating word, somewhat difficult to evaluate. It involves enticing the mind with things that are fatuous or morally suspect. It is involvement with tainted things that most of us should stay away from.
In addition to folly he also sought pleasure in wine. He wasn’t given to drunkenness or alcoholism. He insists that his mind was still guiding him wisely. Rather, wine became a hobby for him and a socially acceptable way to loosen up and enjoy people and conversations.
Ecclesiastes evaluates these pleasures and concludes that they are ultimately futile (verse 1). They don’t deliver the promised goods; they don’t bring success and esteem; they don’t give health and happiness; most of all, they don’t yield ultimate meaning and satisfaction.
How easily and subtly we can become slaves to such psychological pleasures in life! They can control our happiness rather than providing opportunities for happiness. Just ask the person whose life is under the control of alcohol, drugs, or sensuality. He will tell you that rather than freedom, there is only bondage; rather than deep contentment, only fleeting highs.
What is the role of psychological pleasure in your life? Perhaps you are filling your mind with questionable entertainment. Maybe it’s the books and magazines you read, or the movies you see, or the parties you attend. Are you consciously or unconsciously seeking happiness and meaning through things that alter your mental perception?
If we are seeking ultimate meaning here, Ecclesiastes tells us that we will come away empty-handed. He says laughter is madness; and as for pleasure, what’s the use? Laughter only breaks the monotony of crying, and pleasure is only the intermission of pain.
Along with psychological pleasures, Ecclesiastes immersed himself in the physical pleasures of life: those things we can point to and say, “Look, I did this”; “I own that”; “I’ve been there.” It makes us feel good to say “I built our furniture,” or “I vacationed in Europe,” or “I own a BMW,” “I’m dating a medical student,” “I buy only designer clothes.” We enjoy the sensation we derive from such pleasures.
Here in chapter 2, Ecclesiastes, a man who had all the physical pleasures imaginable, cautions us:
“Enjoy the pleasures of life. However, don’t spend your life seeking ultimate fulfillment in them because they can’t give it, and in the end they are only vanity.”
Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 and was the epitome of the twentieth-century man. At age 25 he sipped champagne in Paris, and later had well-publicized game hunts in Africa and hunted grizzly bears in America’s northwest. At the age of sixty-one, after having it all—wine, women, song, a distinguished literary career, Sunday afternoon bullfights in Spain—Hemingway chose to end his life, blowing his head off, leaving a note saying, “Life is one damn thing after another.”
Ecclesiastes says that this is what seeking after ultimate meaning through pleasure is like. And he wants us to wake up to this fact before we’re sixty-one years old and realize too late that our lives have had no meaning and fulfillment.
A CRITIQUE OF PLEASURE
Here we must pause to attempt a critique of pleasure from a biblical perspective. Does the Bible Advocate an ascetic lifestyle in which we reject every worldly enjoyment? Or does it allow for legitimate enjoyment of pleasure?
In forging a critique of pleasure, it may be helpful to first ask three questions: (1) Why is pleasure ultimately unsatisfying? (2) What is the danger of pleasure for the Christian? (3) What is the role of pleasure for the Christian?
The disgruntled Preacher offers us two reasons why pleasure ultimately falls short. His first reason is that we never get enough of it. Read Ecclesiastes 5:10. When we pursue money and the pleasures it will buy, we never have enough.
You know the truth of this if you have a hobby such as computers, photography, or stereos. You purchase the basic stereo system that’s adequate for your home enjoyment, or a camera body and lens that meet your desire for good photographs, or the necessary computer hardware and software for your home and office needs. You think you are satisfied with what you have until someone tells you about a new component or attachment or program that you’ve just got to get! Suddenly you’re overwhelmed with how inferior your present equipment is and how much you need that new gadget. So you start saving and counting the days until you can buy that little piece of happiness. (I know whereof I speak—my hobby is photography.) Ecclesiastes says that happiness—ultimate meaning—just isn’t there, because you can never get enough.
The second reason Ecclesiastes offers as to why pleasure is ultimately unsatisfying is that it is all so ephemeral, so temporary. An expensive bit of cocaine produces a two-minute high. A liter of wine offers a four-hour high and a six-hour headache. A Rolls Royce is probably the best car in the world but it eventually rusts.
Look at chapter 5, verses 13–15. Ecclesiastes says,
“Don’t kid yourself! Those pleasures you give your life for—you can’t take them with you.”
In a funeral procession you will never see a hearse pulling a trailer.
Our next question concerns the danger of pleasure for the Christian. What is it?
I believe Scripture is clear that the danger is one of misplaced affection. It is deceptively easy for pleasure to usurp the place of God in our lives. It’s easy for pleasurable activities to steal away opportunities for solitude, reflection, fellowship, and worship.
Ecclesiastes says the center of life is fearing God and obeying him—not a Rolls Royce or a BMW. According to Jesus, we are to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness—not a vacation to Greece or China.
In Ecclesiastes 12:1 we read,
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days [old age] come, and the years draw nigh when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.'”
One pastor I know told of a successful businessman, a member of the church, who sat in his office discouraged and dejected. He admitted that he had spent all his life climbing the ladder of success, only to discover when he got to the top of the ladder that it was leaning against the wrong wall.
The day is coming when you will find no pleasure in your accomplishments or your possessions. Before that day comes, Ecclesiastes says, make sure you haven’t misplaced your affections. Make sure God is at the center of your life.
So what is the correct role of pleasure in the life of the Christian?
You may be bracing yourself now for a verse that gives a biblical command to stop having fun. There is no such verse to be found, but Ecclesiastes offers us counsel that may be even more startling. He concludes chapter two with these words:
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The real issue is not having pleasures versus not having them, but realistic versus unrealistic expectations of pleasure. As Derek Kidner discerned, what spoils the pleasures of life for us is “our hunger to get out of them more than they can give.”
Ecclesiastes encourages us to enjoy the pleasures of life with thankfulness to God, from whose hand they come. Enjoy the pleasures, but don’t expect more from them than they can offer. Never forget that pleasures proceed from a loving heavenly Father who wants you to find ultimate fulfillment and eternal meaning in him, not in the gifts he gives. Worship the Giver, not the gifts.
Do you love God more than you love the pleasures of life? Are those pleasures he gives reminders to you of your gracious and loving heavenly Father? Are your pleasures the catalysts by which you serve him more effectively and enjoy him more fully? These are the questions Ecclesiastes would ask us.
This article by Gary D. Preston was originally published in issue 18 of the Discipleship Journal. Gary is the former pastor of the International Chapel in Vienna and the Bear Valley Baptist Church in Denver.