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The Perils of Pleasure

Ecclesiastes 2

Solomon begins his exploration of the meaning of life with pleasure.Lesson Audio

Test You With Pleasure

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NASB (1) I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility. (2) I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" (3) I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me 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 their lives. (4) I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; (5) I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; (6) I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. (7) I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. (8) 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. (9) Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. (10) 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. (11) 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 – vanity. Why?

· 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.

The Experiments

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.

The results

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 dog status.

· 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 life:

Ecclesiastes 2:12-16 NASB (12) So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? (13) And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. (14) 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. (15) 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." (16) For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in 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 doesn’t work.

· 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.

But still

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 (17) 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 wind. (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. (19) 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. (20) 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 (21) 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. (22) For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? (23) Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity. (24) There is nothing better for a man than 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. (25) For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? (26) 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.

Useless Labor

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 doesn’t.

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 to.

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 him.

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 meaning.

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