The Perils of Pleasure
Solomon begins his exploration of the meaning
of life with pleasure.
Test You With Pleasure
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NASB
I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy
yourself." And behold, it too was futility.
I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it
I explored with my mind
to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding
wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good
there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of
I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards
I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds
of fruit trees;
I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of
I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I
possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in
Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of
kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers
and the pleasures of men--many concubines.
Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in
Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me.
All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold
my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all
my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.
Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the
labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving
after wind and there was no profit under the sun.
Look at the first two verses. Solomon tells you
his answer to start with: laughter and pleasure are futility –
· Consider laughter first. Why do
we laugh? Is it not true that humor is the result of the
sudden perception of absurdity? Which implies, therefore,
that the universe has a lot of absurdity in it. Laughter is
the admission of the futility of things. We cultivate it for
just that reason.
· Pleasure, per Webster, is the
gratification of the senses. Pleasure must be sought;
therefore it is not the normal state of man. In short, our
senses are not normally gratified – which is to say that
pain, the opposite of pleasure, is the normal state of man.
In short, what is the ultimate benefit of
laughter? And of pleasure? They are the admission that life is vain.
Solomon takes a rather scientific view here: he’s
going to give these things a try and observe the result. So what
does he try?
· Wine, women and song. Literally.
The finest wine, a harem of delights and his own personal
musicians. Result? Vanity.
· Great works. He builds; he
accomplishes – and his works are far beyond anyone else he
can know. Result: vanity.
· Vast possessions – the biggest
boat on the lake, the largest house, the most money.
· Top dog status – this is a guy
who had to slaughter twenty cows a day just to feed his
posse, his personal retinue.
One thing is sure: most of us couldn’t come close
to this. Feeding one wife is hard enough; what would I do with three
hundred, not to mention the 700 concubines on the side? But you can
see the dream; “if only I had the money…” And here you can see the
results of one who lived that dream. Vanity.
Solomon reports back his results:
· First, it felt good at the time.
Getting drunk feels good; sex feels good; I even like
classical music. We all know the feeling of accomplishment.
We all know the pleasure of adding the new toy to our
collection. And we can all at least envy the man with top
· Solomon isn’t saying that it
doesn’t feel good at the time; it does. It just doesn’t work
as meaning; it’s ultimately meaningless.
The Obvious Objection
There is, of course, an obvious objection to
Solomon’s experiment. “The problem you have is that you’re trying to
retain your wisdom while chasing pleasure. Give up the wisdom; make
pleasure your ultimate good. Turn your brain off while you do this.”
Solomon reminds us that he was not seeking pleasure but meaning in
Ecclesiastes 2:12-16 NASB
So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what
who will come after the king
what has already been done?
And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.
Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also
befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?" So I said to
myself, "This too is vanity."
For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man
with the fool, inasmuch as
the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the
fool alike die!
In short, says Solomon, there are three ways to
approach the problem:
· Wisdom – you can go into
this search with your eyes wide open. Do it knowing what
you’re doing. That’s what he did.
· Madness – of course, you
can always go insane. You can become a drunkard, a drug
addict, a compulsive gambler (or any number of things). But
you have only to look at that lifestyle to see that it
· Folly – of course, you
can just be foolish too. Don’t think; just party. The
problem is in the first step: don’t think. God gave you a
brain for a reason.
You see the point. Wisdom is better than madness
or folly just as light is better than dark. But you need to see the
other point as well. Wisdom itself is vanity; the madman, the fool
and the wise man all die. Then what?
So I hated life
Ecclesiastes 2:17-20 NASB
So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was
grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after
(18) Thus I hated all
the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I
must leave it to the man who will come after me.
And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will
have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored
by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.
Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for
which I had labored under the sun.
The essence of Solomon’s complaint might be
familiar to anyone contemplating his death: I’ve worked hard all my
life, accomplished a lot – and now what?
Indeed, he hates even the fruit of his labors –
the accomplishments shining in the sun before him – because he knows
he’s going to die. He can’t take it with him. Worse, it’s all going
to go to someone else – and who knows what a fool he might be. (I
think maybe Solomon had an inkling of Rehoboam’s lack of wisdom.)
Apparently, the Prodigal Son is not a new phenomenon.
The result is despair – the lack of hope. What
hope can you have when you see your possessions are going to go to
your nitwit kid? And how much worse that feeling is when your
possessions and accomplishments are truly great? Had he been a bum,
Solomon might have felt he was losing nothing. But the more you
accomplish, the greater the despair.
In View of Death
Ecclesiastes 2:21-26 NASB
When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and
skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with
them. This too is vanity and a great evil.
For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with
which he labors under the sun?
Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night
his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.
There is nothing better for a man
to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also
I have seen that it is from the hand of God.
For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?
For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and
knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of
gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in
God's sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.
Solomon gives us an insight on human behavior.
The reason we regret giving up our accomplishments is not just
because we’ve labored for these things – it’s also because we’ve
applied our “wisdom, knowledge and skill” to them. In short, how
many nights we’ve been up with “hamster brain” because of these
things! Possessions are one thing; the things you’ve worried over
are quite another. And now it’s going to someone who has never sat
up nights worrying about it.
So what should we do about it? The best you can
do is just eat and drink, and be happy in your work.
That’s it? Yes. Solomon here opens the window
just a crack so that you can see what’s been missing. This is from
“the hand of God.” In other words, human beings are designed this
way by God – and if we work as He designed us, things will go
better. Ultimately, doing it God’s way works. Doing it our way
Perhaps even more is the fact that those who
follow God’s way (“good in his sight”) are the ones who will be
blessed with the truly good things of life – like wisdom, knowledge
and (surprise) joy. Not pleasure; joy. If you haven’t experienced
the difference, I can’t explain it to you. If you have, I don’t need
If you’re on the other side? How often have you
seen it: an evil man works hard, accumulates wealth and dies – and
God either destroys that wealth, or gives it to those who please
But, Solomon tells us, even this is vanity, a
striving after the wind. It’s better to be wise than foolish – but
still, both are ultimately useless.
It’s a down ending. But as we shall see next
time, Solomon begins to look at it from a point of view closer to
God. This will lead us further down his trail from wisdom to