And He Tried Pleasure, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)
Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.
I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.
Having explored all sources of wisdom in his search for meaning and satisfaction and come up empty, Solomon now turns to a common pursuit of this present age—trying to find meaning and satisfaction in pleasure.
Solomon turns from philosophy to hedonism. Instead of giving up his search, he turns to another possible avenue for fulfillment.
Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. This is very much the philosophy of our day. The maxim of today’s generation can be stated in these six words: if it feels good, do it! (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 14)
R. C. Sproul points out the basic problem of hedonism, which he says is often referred to as the “hedonistic paradox.” He says…
if the hedonist fails to achieve the measure of pleasure he seeks, he experiences frustration. Frustration is painful. If we fail to find the pleasure we are seeking, the result is frustration and pain. The more we seek pleasure and the more we fail to achieve it, the more pain we introduce into our lives. On the other hand, if we achieve all the pleasure we seek we become sated and bored. Boredom is the counterpart of frustration; it is also painful to the pleasure seeker. Again, the paradox: if we achieve what we want, we lose; if we don’t achieve what we are searching for, we lose. The result of hedonism is the exact opposite of its goal. Its only fruit is ultimate pain. (R.C. Sproul; Lifeviews, 131)
We today, being far richer than any previous culture, with so many opportunities for pleasure, are even less happy with our lives than Solomon was.
Now, it is not that God is against pleasure. He has intentionally given us the good gifts of creation to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17). As Solomon himself will conclude in 2:24, any fleeting enjoyments the world has to offer are just that—enjoyments. As such, they are to be enjoyed, not analyzed. The person who makes pleasure his serious business will end up with the worries and headaches that attend serious business. “Mental analysis crushes the merry heart, just as a joke that needs to be explained ceases to be a joke.”
However, our human hearts are idol factories and instead of enjoying these good gifts for God’s sake, for God’s glory, we enjoy them only for our own benefit. That is when we feel the same sense of frustration that Solomon felt.
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?” 3 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. 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 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.
If you just read the first and last verse of this portion of Ecclesiastes, you once again come away with the idea that Solomon tried to finding meaning and fulfillment in pleasure, only to conclude that “all was vanity and a striving after wind” with no benefit, no gain.
Did you notice, as I read this section, how Solomon is so self-focused? Read Ecclesiastes 2 aloud and you will be overwhelmed with the number of times the first person personal pronoun comes into play–“I”, “me”, “my”, and so forth.
As he prospered, Solomon seems to have begun thinking more and more about himself, his pleasure, and his own interests and needs rather than those of the people of Israel. Lost in self-seeking, Solomon opened the doors of Israel to idolatry, adultery, self-indulgence, moral compromise, and spiritual disaster (1 Kgs 11:1-13).
Solomon tells us that he came to a point where he said to himself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself” (Eccl 2:1a).
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.
Qoheleth becomes an experimental hedonist—one who gives their lives to pursuing pleasure. 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. (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 46)
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” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). This pursuit also ended up in 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.
This is true of sinful pleasure—it is pleasurable for a moment. The writer of Hebrews talks about the “fleeting pleasures of sin.” Satan couldn’t tempt us if there was not some pleasure attached to sin, but it is fleeting. It lasts but a moment.
Even good pleasures don’t last long. While they have some temporary, immediate value (e.g., relieving grief or boredom), they do not produce anything permanently or ultimately worthwhile.
In verses 2–8 Solomon lists all of the pleasures he tried, followed in verses 9–11 by a personal reflection on what he learned from his experience.
The Possibilities of Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:2-8)
Solomon specifically mentions wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment. It requires little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (Eccl. 2:8a). But when the party was over, it left Solomon dissatisfied and empty.
First, Solomon experimented with laughter, with entertainment. He sought to make his heart merry. We, too, seek to amuse ourselves and entertain ourselves, especially to relieve our boredom or anxieties. We use amusements as distraction from the burdens of life.
Imagine how the palace must have rocked with laughter. Every night there were stand-up comics and amazing acts.
The 17th century Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said…
…prevail upon a man to join in any amusement whatever, and as long as that lasts he will be happy; but it will be a false and imaginary happiness, arising not from possession of real and solid good, but from a levity of spirit that obliterates the recollection of his real miseries, and fixes his thoughts upon mean and ridiculous objects, unworthy of his attention, and still less deserving of his love.
Kidner believes that this is “a deliberate flight from rationality, to get at some secret of life to which reason may be blocking the way” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 31).
Like a modern celebrity Solomon ran from party to party, entertainment to entertainment. At the end of it all, he judged it to be “mad” and useless.
The word “mad” here does not speak of mental strangeness, but of moral perversity. The jokes were lewd and rude.
Not all laughter is bad, of course, because there is a kind of joyful laughter that brings glory to God (see, e.g., Proverbs 31:25). But a lot of joking is frivolous and superficial, or else cynical, sarcastic, and even cruel (see Proverbs 10:23; 26:19; 29:9).
Later Solomon will say, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 7:6). It was just noise.
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.
Solomon is not saying that laughter is wrong, neither does the Bible. He is just saying that as an ultimate answer it fails to satisfy. It is empty.
Here is how T. M. Moore paraphrases verse 2: “I concluded that laughter and merriment for their own sakes were madness. What did they accomplish to help me find lasting meaning and purpose in life?”
Thus, Sinclair Ferguson notes:
Most of the time the truth is that laughter is simply empty. Watch even a ‘clean’ comedy on television or on the stage; compare the after-effect with that of watching a tragedy. From the very beginnings of drama the difference has been well-recognized. Comedy is light, tragedy is weighty; comedy is superficial; but a good tragedy is able to produce a catharsis of the emotions, like a medicine that cleanses pollutants out of the system and makes it function properly again. (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 12-13)
Second, Solomon turned to wine. This, too, is a very popular way to increase bodily pleasure or reduce physical or emotional pain.
3 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.
This verse turns out to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. To “cheer [one’s] body with wine” strikes a decidedly negative note. It certainly seems to have the connotation of abusing alcohol (or drugs).
Rather than receiving wine as a gift and drinking it with thanksgiving to God (which was, and is, possible), he took it for himself as a selfish pleasure and indulged in it too freely and deeply.
If that is what he did, then what he said next is totally untrue — namely, that “his heart [was] still guiding [him] with wisdom.” As we know from one of Solomon’s other proverbs, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
To get an idea of the lavish banquets in Solomon’s court just read 1 Kings 4:22-23…
22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.
A cor equals 6.24 bushels, so that was 187 bushels of flour and 374 bushels of meal…a day. It has been estimated that this would feed between 10 and 20 thousand people, so there were many others besides the king involved in this search for pleasure.
Before we dismissively lump him together with the pleasure-seeking crowds of today or of any day, let us notice what he is doing. He is not advocating mindless debauchery. You would never have found him drunk and incapable or among the helpless heroin addicts. In all that he does he is determined to remain in self-control–“my mind still guiding me with wisdom” (v. 3). He would seek the stimulus of wine, yes, but never be its victim. This is an experiment. He wants to see whether it works. It does not. Like many a person before and after him, he discovers that the pursuit of pleasure, the search for happiness, is self-defeating. (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 15)
He had hoped it would act as a stimulant, and had discovered instead that it was a further depressant. (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 14)
Robert Burns exclaimed the temporary nature of pleasures in his poem
But pleasures are like poppies spread
You seize the flower, the bloom is shed
Or like the snow falls in the river
A moment white, then melts for ever…
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
In summary, David Hubbard states:
He knew the lure of pleasure, and he knew its snare. He had found that pleasure promises more than it can produce. Its advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department. It holds out the possibility of exquisite delight, but the best it can perform is titillation. It seeks to tickle the human spirit but cannot probe its depths. It daubs iodine on human wounds when what is needed if surgery. It may distract us from our problems by diverting our attention, but it cannot free us from those problems. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 76-77)
God has made us to seek after satisfaction and fulfillment, even pleasure, but His desire is that we find our greatest pleasure in Him.
John Piper calls this “Christian hedonism.” He says…
Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. We should never try to deny or resist our longings to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever.
Randy Smith clarifies…
God made us to pursue our joy. Joy is even a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Therefore I believe the pursuit of joy it is a good drive within us. I believe there is no problem with pursuing our happiness so long as our pursuit of happiness is in the pursuit of God’s glory. In other words, the problem is not with the passion, but rather the problem is with the paths to happiness that we often choose.
That is the problem Solomon was dealing with. He was trying to find ultimate joy in created things, in enjoying created things. God made us to find pleasure, to experience deepest joy, but that joy is never found in created things, but in the Creator of all things.
Augustine said, “He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.”
We can enjoy created things, but only if we enjoy them for God’s sake, for His glory. He must be our greatest pleasure and greatest treasure, or our souls will feel the vanity of created things. The only way to really enjoy laughter and wine or any created thing is to enjoy them for God’s sake; then we will really enjoy them, without guilt or regret, without a feeling of emptiness or futility.
We should enjoy the good things God has given us, but we must enjoy the Giver above the gifts. When we treasure Jesus above all things and then enjoy all things as from Him and give Him thanks, then we will experience greater fulfillment and satisfaction in life.