The Problematic Pursuit of Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
Topic: Ecclesiastes Passage: Ecclesiastes 2:1–2:11
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The Problematic Pursuit of Pleasure
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
August 31st, 2014
I. Do What You Like
If I was to tell you that I had a friend who was simply “living for pleasure”, what would you think?
What would that look like to you? What kinds of things would you imagine this friend of mine was pursuing? Would you consider this to be a good thing or a bad thing?
The word that we might used for someone like this would be “hedonist”. A hedonist is someone whose chief goal in life is pleasure or happiness. A self-styled group called Hedonists International uses the following phrase as their official motto:
Do what you like, not what you must!
Though people don't typically use the word, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that hedonism has become one of the dominant influences in our modern life. How many times have you heard it said, “I just want to be happy.” Or, “Do whatever makes you happy”, or “Do what makes you feel good.”
And maybe some of us, some of you are thinking to yourself, “Yeah? Is there something wrong with that…doesn’t God want us to be happy?”
Are you living for pleasure this morning?
Turn with me, if you would, to Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. (page 553)
II. The Passage: “I Will Test You With Pleasure” (2:1-11)
Before we read this morning, let me mention to you of a few things about the book Ecclesiastes, a few things that I think will be helpful in terms of understanding the broader context of chapter 2.
First, Ecclesiastes contains the thoughts, reflections, struggles of a man who is called “the Teacher”. That’s the only title the book gives us for the writer. Of course, a good case could be made that this Teacher was King Solomon, the son of David. That would fit perfectly with what chapter one has already confirmed about this man, that he possessed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.
Second, the book begins by, in some sense, summing up the Teacher’s quest to discover the meaning of human existence. As he looked around at the world and human activities, he was asking himself, “Why? What’s the point of all of this?”
Third and finally, the Teacher sums up his insights from this quest with a phrase that serves as the theme of the book, from beginning to end. It’s the phrase we find in 1:2:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Or we could translate that as, “Absolutely pointless, says the Teacher, absolutely pointless. Everything is pointless.”
So as we come to chapter 2, we will see that the Teacher is still searching. Listen to how he describes the next aspect of his quest. Verse 1 of chapter 2:
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.
Notice how this passage breaks down. In verses 1 and 2, the Teacher describes, in general terms, this next aspect of his search for meaning. He then goes on in verses 3-10 to describe the details of this particular quest. Verses 9 and 10 seem to be a kind of summary of these details. And finally, verse 11 represents the Teacher’s conclusion as he reflects on his pursuits.
Why don’t we look at each of these parts a little more closely.
A. Pleasure as Our Purpose? (2:1, 2)
First we find, in verses 1 and 2, the Teacher describing his next strategy for discovering the purpose of life. If you look back at chapter 1, verses 16-18, you’ll see that the Teacher has already considered whether life is simply about growing in wisdom and knowledge.
His conclusion was that wisdom and knowledge only serve to bring the vanity or pointlessness of life into sharper focus.
But here in chapter 2, we read how Teacher takes a different approach to his quest:
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.”
The goal of the quest is now pleasure and all the things the world considers pleasurable or pleasure-producing. Maybe, the Teacher thinks to himself, maybe our ultimate purpose is to fill our lives with things that produce pleasure.
Keep in mind though, the Teacher is very aware of what he’s doing. In our increasingly hedonistic culture, most people don’t deliberately connect pleasure with ultimate purpose; they are not testing anything, most people have already settled the issue in their mind. Most believe that “Life is about finding a way to experience less pain and more pleasure. That’s it.”
If we were to ask, “Why are we here?” many people would say “To be happy. To enjoy life. Full stop.”
But listen to how the Teacher goes on to put that very conclusion to the test.
B. Popular Pleasure Producers (2:3-10)
You probably noticed from what we read in verses 3-8 that the Teacher certainly had the means to test this idea, especially according to what most people would identify as pleasure producers.
Look at what see in these verses; look at this collection of popular pleasure producers:
First, we see the Teacher attempting to find Pleasure in Alcohol (2:3).
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.
How many people, every single weekend, are living according to this belief, that booze enables us to really enjoy life; that a strong drink or drugs are the best way to bliss?
Notice again what the Teacher tells us here. His heart was still guiding him with wisdom the entire time. He was carefully considering the profit of drinking in excess. How many people do that when they drink? How many people really think about what alcohol does and could do; about who they are when they're drunk, about their lack of inhibitions; about their impaired judgment; about how they feel the next morning; about the risks they take; about how they put others in jeopardy; about why they’re trying to medicate themselves?
The Teacher was very deliberately trying to “see what was good for the children of man”. Would he find it through wine?
But he doesn't stop there. If we move on to verses 4-6, we find, this time, the Teacher describing his quest to find Pleasure in Accomplishments.
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.
In the ancient world, these kinds of building projects were massive undertakings. They were incredible accomplishments that greatly enhanced the prestige of a king. The Teacher tells us here that he could look around and take great pride in all of these tangible accomplishments.
How many people do you know who are living to accomplish some “great work”? To get the corner office, to complete something impressive, to pour themselves into the next venture.
People like this always seem to be living just to do one more thing. They go from project to project to project. Their life becomes or is about simply accomplishing.
The Teacher accomplished incredible things, but would such accomplishments produce the kind of pleasure that could make sense of life?
Well, we also discover here, in verse 7 and the first half of verse 8, that the Teacher also looked for Pleasure in Acquisitions (2:7-8a). We read that he:
…bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in [his] house. [He] also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before [him] in Jerusalem. 8 [He] also gathered for [him]self silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.
Not only did this man enjoy the finest wines, not only did he construct incredible buildings and gardens, but he also possessed everything most people only dream about having: people to wait on him; resources to meet all his needs, and the cash to buy anything he didn’t already have.
These are the kinds of things that make people happy right?
So many of the commercials you see on TV or the ads you find in magazines or that pop up online are built on the idea that your life will be so much more pleasurable if you acquire this or that product. The unspoken principle of course is that, if you can just acquire all the right things, and continue to get the next best, the hottest new item, your life will be all pleasure, all the time.
The Teacher was one of the few people who could say, “I have it all!” But how much closer was he to discovering the point of this thing we call life?
Finally, we see here the Teacher attempting to find Pleasure in Amusement (2:8b). In the second half of verse 8 we read:
I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.
If we go with the formula, “Wine, women, and song”, well, we know we’ve already covered “wine”, and this verse would cover the “women” and “song” parts. Or we could describe these things with the terms “song” and “sex”.
No, the Teacher was not a rock star, but he did surround himself with music and mistresses, with those who could amuse him, through entertainment and physical pleasure.
I don’t have to say much to prove that this is completey relevant for our day, do I? We are immersed in a culture that is trying to convince us that life’s goal is to stay entertained all the time: movies, concerts, TV, video games, you name it. And if we’re not being entertained, then we should be doing whatever it takes to find our next sexual encounter.
Whatever the means, we are a culture that is, to borrow a well-known book title, we are a culture that is “amusing ourselves to death”.
Not just look at that list of pleasure-producers. Doesn’t this cover a lot of the reasons people do what they do, especially today? Isn’t this how many people would describe the “American dream”? The Teacher wants us to know that he achieved all of this.
But look again at how he sums this up in 9 and 10.
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.
Verse 10 confirms that he did find pleasure in all of these things, but it’s so important to remember the point of his quest. Do you see at the end of verse 9, he once again reminds us that his wisdom remained intact? He doesn’t want us to think that he was simply swept away by a life of parties and prosperity. That’s critical because we need to know that what he’s about to tell us is completely credible and persuasive.
C. The Profit from Pleasure (2:11)
We find in verse 11 the Teacher’s assessment in light of all of this pleasure-seeking. What does he tell us, what does he conclude and reveal as someone who had it all?
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity [all was pointless] and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Without explaining why all of this was vanity, the Teacher simply tells us that if our main goal in life is living for pleasure through the pursuit of the world’s pleasure producers, then we will, you will be like someone who is trying to catch and hold onto the wind. It’s pointless.
III. Living for the Right Pleasure
This morning, I believe God is challenging all of us, because all of us live in a world where this is increasingly becoming the norm. And to one degree or another, all of us have bought into this lie.
You might say, “Well, I certainly don’t have it all. Therefore this isn’t really directed at me?” No, this part of the Bible was not written for just the Bill Gates of the world, the Oprahs, the Arabian oil billionaires. It was written for all of us because all of us are tempted to live as if the point of our life was to experience pleasure; we’re tempted to work offensively and defensively to make that happen: avoid pain, acquire pleasure.
You might ask, “Well, what’s wrong with having a drink every now and then, or accomplishing something noteworthy, or acquiring this or that, or being amused or entertained?”
Well, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things…if kept in their proper place. Remember what we’re talking about here; we’re talking about the meaning of your life, about the point or purpose of existence.
Are you living for that kind of pleasure? How would you know? Well...where do you turn when things get tough? How do you cope? How do you think about time, especially the idea of spare time? What, if taken from you or if you were unable to do, what would completely devastate you? Are there any reoccurring themes in your daily planner and checkbook? What do other people know you for? If you found a genie in a lamp and had only one wish, what would it be?
There are so many of us human beings who would answer those questions using some or all of the pleasure producers we just talked about.
Are you “living for pleasure”?
Well, what if I were to tell you that you should be, that you should be living for pleasure?
Sadly there are many teachers and preachers who are, in essence, saying that very thing. But this morning, I’m not talking about living for your own pleasure. I’m talking about living for God’s pleasure.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote to followers of Jesus in the Macedonian city of Philippi:
…Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13)
And because of that, Paul, in another letter, can say this about the goal of his life:
So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (II Corinthians 5:9)
Paul did not live with his own pleasure as his number one priority. He lived for God’s pleasure. He lived to do what pleased God. And living for God’s pleasure should ultimately bring us great pleasure.
But do you know that living for God’s pleasure can also mean pain, and loss, and shame, and rejection, and tension, and suffering? We please God, not by running from difficult circumstances in order to do something pleasurable; but we please God by trusting him in the midst of our circumstances, by listening to his voice instead of the voices of this world.
The Teacher was right about a life that pursues our own pleasure through the things of this world. It is pointless. It will not take us where we hope to go. It will not get us what we desire to have. So many who have “been there” and “done that” and “had it all” can tell you the same thing. And why is this?
Because these things were never created to be ultimately satisfying for those created only to be ultimately satisfied by ultimate things....(things like God, His love, His glory, His purpose)
So how do you and I, how do people who live for our own pleasure become people who live to please God in everything?
There's only one way. The only way we can is if someone else first does it for us. God's word tells us that Jesus Christ lived to please God in everything and did please God in everything. Think about this: if Jesus’ main goal during his life on this planet was the kind of pleasure the Teacher talks about in Ecclesiastes 2, then would He have really gone to the Cross?
But he did die on that cross. In fact, He gave up His life in order to accomplish God’s will and to rescue us from lives of pointlessness. And He rose from the dead in order to prove to us that this kind of life, His kind of life, a life lived for God's pleasure and not our own, that life is what brings true satisfaction!
The only way we can live to please God is through the new heart that Jesus alone offers. And that heart comes by faith. Faith in what? Faith in the fact that it is impossible for me to live for God’s pleasure in such a way that God will actually be pleased with me. No, we have to admit that God can only be pleased with us because He is first pleased with Jesus Christ.
All we can bring 'to the table' is the sin for which we need forgiveness.
And if we trust in Jesus Christ as our only hope in this life and the next, then we can live for God’s pleasure, not in order to earn something from God, but rather, to enjoy God himself. I love how David expressed this in Psalm 16, verse 11...
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Are you living for pleasure, for God’s pleasure? May God help us to trust in the Teacher’s wisdom, in his conclusion about the problematic pursuit of pleasure. And may God help us in this way so that we might be pointed back to the only source of real joy.
Let’s pray and ask God to convict us and change us this morning through Christ.