Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
We are all familiar with stories of people who become rich-whether through inheritance, sports, or the lottery-and use their wealth to gratify their desires. They later discover that the quest for pleasure quickly sours, no matter how much money and energy they pour into it. We have also heard of many in the modern world, particularly those with time and money to spare, who are amusing themselves to death: filling their days with an incredible variety of leisure activities rather than attempting to find a deeper meaning in life. Today's passage resonates with our consumerist and escapist age.
The Teacher tells us that he turned to the pursuit of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1), in order to learn how humans should live. As he tells us already in 2:1-2, it was a misguided enterprise, but he didn't fail for want of trying! He sampled choice vintages (v. 3); he engaged in large building projects and landscape gardening (vv. 4-6); he had many servants to look after the royal estates (v. 7); he amassed great wealth; there was music to delight the ears; there were concubines to delight the flesh (v. 8).
The Teacher enjoyed everything that royal power could bring him. He took pleasure wherever he found it, and saw it as the reward for his toil (v. 10). We may question his statement that ″in all this my wisdom stayed with me″ (v. 9; see also v. 3): What have indulgence in wine and sex to do with wisdom? Perhaps the Teacher simply means that during this time he kept assessing what he was doing: Have I found what I am looking for? Is this the path to fulfilment?
His answer is clear: No. When he saw everything he had accomplished, he was filled with a sense of futility and emptiness (vv. 1, 11; see also vv. 3, 14). Why? Because he knew it would not last? Because it didn't answer his question (v. 1)? Because he sought pleasure in a self-centred way (note how God is not mentioned in 2:1-11)? Later sections will continue to explore these issues.
It is not that pleasure, joy, or satisfaction lie beyond our grasp; nor is the Teacher against these things. See, for example, later passages such as 2:24-26, 5:18-20, and 9:7-10. But, as those texts will make clear, joy, pleasure, and satisfaction-when sought as ends in themselves-cannot bring complete fulfilment or yield any kind of ultimate meaning; to seek them in that way is simply misguided.
What will we learn from the Teacher's experiment in pleasure?
Is there a right way for Christians to enjoy the good things this world has to offer? How does it differ from the Teacher's approach as described in today's passage?
What is the dividing line between appropriate and enjoyable relaxation (e.g., when watching a movie) and amusing ourselves to death?