This week in our small group Bible study, we’ll be looking at Ecclesiastes 2.
“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 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. 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.”
Eccl 2:9-11 (ESV)
Two things stand out to me about Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure. The first is that he tied pleasure to success. The verses that precede this are a list of all the ways Solomon sought to please himself – gardens, fountains, wine, women, a private orchestra. And he sums it up by saying, “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me . . .” In other words, he who dies with the most toys wins. All the grandeur of his palace and all the pleasures of his (overstocked) harem were meant to promote Solomon’s greatness as a king. Yes, it was fun, but it was also about public image as the biggest man in the kingdom. The problem was that Solomon got no satisfaction whatsoever out of the pleasure his “toys” gave him or the bigshot image he was able to project.
The second thing I see is a sense of entitlement — “and this was my reward for all my toil.” Solomon has a point that work should have rewards, and certainly there should be enjoyment in the fruit of our labors as Solomon states later in the book. The problem is that this can be used to excuse all kinds of destructive behavior. I wonder how many honest or good people have fallen into pits of sin by thinking that the system owed them one. “I’ve done so much for them, isn’t it my turn to be happy?” Or the ever-growing number of politicians who seem to think that power and success entitle them to do whatever they want. How many important men have we seen on the news looking completely shell-shocked that they didn’t get away with whatever they thought they were powerful enough to do?
It seems to me that these two motives behind Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure are part of the reason why it didn’t work. Pleasure as a way of showing off success is going to be really shallow pleasure. Why? Because it’s not about having fun. It’s about looking like you’re having fun. It’s about looking like you’re having more fun than the next guy, whether you really are or not. Perhaps, the celebrities we see continuously in the news for their excessive merry-making really are having a blast. Maybe they are getting a high that’s high enough to make the sudden crashes and hangovers seem worthwhile. But I suspect it has a lot more to do with showing the world that they have the money and mojo to live like the dickens and get away with it. I’m no psychologist, but you have to wonder if the point of the party isn’t as much about being a “freaking rock star from Mars,” as it is about actually getting some enjoyment from life.
Likewise, pleasure by entitlement strikes me as a tricky thing at best. After all, some of the best things in life are the things that no one deserves. Like sunsets, the love of small children, birthday presents, and the frozen watermelon lemonade they let me sample at the coffee shop today. Feelings of entitlement have a way of poisoning things like these. Part of the pleasure of life lies in the happiness you get that you didn’t plan for, didn’t expect, and feel blessed to have received. On the other hand, who wants to be continually keeping score about whether or not you got what (you think) you deserved. That is surely the path to bitterness and resentment – the two most joy-killing feelings in the world.
Scripture suggests another kind of pleasure: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). In whose presence? In God’s presence. And they are forever pleasures – the kind that don’t fade away or get used up. He’s the one with the glory and the fame, and He’s the one who is worthy. For you and me, it is enough to be wherever He is – to live in His presence. That’s where the life really is.