The Pursuit of Pleasure
In the journal detailing his life experience, Solomon records the conclusions of a lifetime search for happiness and satisfaction apart from God. His journal is divided into three main sections:
- Introduction - 1:1-18
- Exploration - 2:1-6:9
- Summary - 6:10-12:14
We have noted that in the introduction he declares that the examined life will be found to be meaningless if lived without faith and obedience to God. This is largely the content of the introductory part of Ecclesiastes. If not examined one can go through life oblivious to these truths. The exploratory section describes the various things that Solomon did in his search that eventually led him to that conclusion.
In chapters 2-6 he describes four key pursuits that he examined:
- The pursuit of pleasure.
- The pursuit of wisdom and folly.
- The pursuit of meaningful work.
- The pursuit of power and wealth.
In this chapter we will examine the first of these which is the pursuit of pleasure.
I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility."
- Ecclesiastes 2:1
Solomon began his search where most of us would: in the exploration of sensory pleasures. What he could do to feel good! Remember, he had the imagination, time, money and influence to try whatever he liked. Nothing was out of his reach.
2:1a: Solomon reviews his "self-talk" at the beginning of his journey where he rubs his hands together at the sheer anticipation of the delights he was about to help himself to.
2:1b: As in the previous section, he gives us the conclusion before describing his experience. The conclusion is that sensuality is futile, empty and has no lasting satisfaction.
He goes on to describe several areas where he gave full vent to his desires:
1. Laughter - vs. 2
I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?"
He experienced fun and games through a steady stream of entertainers and materials that were meant to amuse. Comedians, clowns and plays that would keep one laughing. Solomon does not depreciate the importance of a healthy sense of humor, but rather that amusement (you are insane for a moment; you escape using laughter) in whatever measure, does not bring lasting satisfaction.
2. Consumption of Wine - vs. 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.
Solomon did not become a drunk ("my mind guiding me wisely") but he did become a connoisseur of fine wine developing his appreciation for this substance to its maximum pleasure without becoming addicted (which few accomplish). However, even this did not provide him with the satisfaction he desired.
3. Building Projects - vs. 4-6
I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 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 growing trees.
He also completed ambitious public works projects (how satisfying it is to build something). Houses, plants, parks, pools (fountains), were designed and built during his reign.
4. Sensuality - vs. 7-8
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. 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.
He lists the people and things that he collected. I Kings 11:3 says that he had 700 wives and princesses as well as 300 concubines. He had inexhaustible erotic, sensual experiences at his disposal. He had entertainment, service and sexual variety beyond measure.
The footnote in 1 King 11:3b tells us that it was Solomon's abundance of foreign wives who, because of their idolatry not their sexuality, turned Solomon's heart away from God. Solomon was unfaithful, not because he had many wives, but because his wives and concubines were pagan.
Even with all this sensual delight he ultimately declares that these left him bored and frustrated.
5. The Good Life - vs. 9-10
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.
Solomon gives an image of himself as seen by others as one living the good life, wealthy and denying himself nothing. There were rewards for this life of pleasure:
- Laughter - the joy and release that comes with it.
- Consumption of wine - the taste and feeling it gives.
- Building - the sense of pride of achievement.
- Sensual gratification - the pleasure the body feels when stimulated by music, sex and personal attentive service.
- Prosperity - satisfaction and assurance that comes with success.
These pleasures are inherently human and neither moral nor immoral. Feeling a feeling related to humor or work or sex is neutral. In verses 9-10 Solomon says that he experienced all of these feelings in their proper contexts and in great abundance (no sin there).
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.
In verse eleven he gives his verdict on what experiencing these great pleasures has taught him (not that pleasure is Bad!).
His conclusion is that although the "feelings" were real and the pleasure enjoyable and authentic, they did not linger and thus did not accumulate in order to produce something greater and lasting.
For example, how satisfying today is yesterday's supper, movie or sexual experience?
We have a memory of this happening and even a memory of the pleasure, but the pleasure itself is gone. Sensual pleasures cannot be accumulated or stored → they are fleeting and transitory.
We need to understand the difference between legitimate and illicit pleasure. Legitimate pleasure is momentary and leaves you only wanting more. Illicit pleasure is also momentary, but it leaves you feeling guilty and ashamed.
Solomon concludes that the pursuit of pleasure (even legitimate pleasure) is vanity because there is no gain in the pursuit of satisfaction. He declares that he was left as dissatisfied at the end of his search as he was at the beginning.
The seeking after sensual pleasure is the common man's treadmill. It is this factor that keeps most people working too hard, living too fast, and dying too young. Our society is geared to providing ourselves whatever feels good as a substitute for that which is good. We live and die in the rat race to obtain what will satisfy us, and try to achieve this by pursuing things that only make us feel good but cannot fulfill our basic needs:
Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that this striving for pleasure is really spiritual because we run the race with other Christians.
- We trade with each other.
- We display our status, clothes and wealth in front of each other.
The race we ought to be in is the race for the crown of life! This race strives for that which is good, not that which will make us feel good. Therein lies the difference between spiritually and sensuality. Solomon learned that sensuality was a dead-end for several reasons:
- Pursuit of pleasure promises much but delivers little. Whatever promise that sensual pleasures make, they are either not as good as they promise or only last for a short time. If they are illicit they also bring shame and guilt.
- Pursuit of pleasure promises to improve our lives but in reality our lives are rarely changed or improved by merely sensual pleasures (no matter how much I enjoy a concert, my life is rarely changed by it). Again, if it is illicit, it makes my life worse.
- Pursuit of pleasure promises to satisfy our needs but in the end our needs continue to place a demand on us or we often become disillusioned, feeling that our needs will never be met. If our pleasures are sinful, our needs become insatiable cravings.
I am not saying that pleasure is wrong. I am saying that legitimate pleasure is not the avenue to pursue in order to find meaning, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. Illicit pleasure is dangerous in that it destroys our ability to enjoy normal human pleasures and casts us headlong into self-destruction. God created us with the ability to enjoy pleasures of every kind, but the search for pleasure does not lead us to wholeness, peace and deep satisfaction of the soul.
We need the type of satisfaction that remains with us and is accumulated throughout a lifetime. Things that:
- Deliver what they promise
- Make us better people
- Satisfy our most basic needs
Solomon refers to them at the end of his journal (faith and sincere obedience to God). These things deliver great gifts and are a constant daily source of joy that affect every part of our being. Two others are like the first:
- Knowledge of Christ (a relationship with Him)
- Submission to the Holy Spirit.
The search for pleasure ends in disappointment, disillusionment and dissatisfaction if pursued as an avenue for satisfaction, enlightenment or joy. If this is so, one might ask, "What then is pleasure for?" Pleasure is for rejoicing and thanksgiving, rather than for hoarding or abuse. Only faith and obedience to God, a relationship with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can truly satisfy the deep yearnings of man. Again, someone may ask, "Why is this so?" Sensual pleasure only goes "skin-deep" and has been created for the flesh.
The yearning for peace and joy comes from man's soul and thus spiritual things are needed to satisfy these. It is a question of context. Long-term satisfaction can only be produced by long term things like faith, hope and loving service in Christ's name. Sensual pleasures, even in the most positive of settings, have been designed by God to please the flesh momentarily. Spiritual pleasure, on the other hand, was designed by God to last an eternity.