Ecclesiastes Lesson Three: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 – The Emptiness of Pleasure and Possessions
I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. 2 I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” 3 I explored with my mind how to let my body enjoy life with wine and how to grasp folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
4 I increased my achievements. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. 6 I constructed reservoirs of water for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees. 7 I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house. I also owned many herds of cattle and flocks, more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me. 10 All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. 11 When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun. (HCSB)
In this section, the teacher will tell how the pursuit of pleasure and the amassing of possessions left him feeling empty. In the thousands of years since this was written, mankind still hasn’t changed. Those with money and power still pursue after pleasure and possessions, only to be left feeling unsatisfied and desiring more. The teacher has discovered a valuable lesson that we need to remember today. I’ll split this lesson into two parts.
- The pursuit of pleasure – verses 1-3.
- The pursuit of possessions – verses 4-11.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
As we look at these first three verses, we need to think like the original Hebrew readers would have thought. One of the main viewpoints is that the Hebrews correctly believed that God intended mankind to enjoy the blessings of creation.
- Psalm 104 (entire Psalm).
- 1 Timothy 6:17 – Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy.
If we consider the different harvest seasons the Israelites enjoyed, we can see how they would have rejoiced as they collected a bountiful harvest. The teacher used the Hebrew word for “pleasure” numerous times in Ecclesiastes. Because of its numerous use, it’s clear God intended us to enjoy the fruits of our labor in conjunction with His will and instructions. If we close our eyes, we can picture Solomon in his banquet hall enjoying life.
- 1 Kings 10:21 – All of King Solomon’s drinking cups were gold, and all the utensils of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold. There was no silver, since it was considered as nothing in Solomon’s time.
- 1 Kings 4:22-23 – Solomon’s provisions for one day were 150 bushels of fine flour and 300 bushels of meal, 23 10 fattened oxen, 20 range oxen, and 100 sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and pen-fed poultry.
However, when the parties were over, and the teacher had time to reflect on the activities, he felt empty. Chasing after pleasure and laughter were temporary emotions and quickly vanished. It’s very likely that the servants envied those enjoying the pleasures of life, but the king wasn’t happy with his experiences. Proverbs 14:13 – Even in laughter a heart may be sad, and joy may end in grief.
When we look at the world today, especially areas of affluence, people have become obsessed and will pay any amount of money to buy experiences to temporarily escape the burdens of life. Let’s consider the idea of seeking fun in greater detail.
- There is nothing wrong with innocent fun as long as it doesn’t become an idol.
- The person whose life is built on seeking fun will always be disappointed in the end.
- Pleasure-seeking is almost always a selfish act.
- Selfishness destroys joy.
- Those who live for pleasure almost always exploit others in their pursuit of pleasure.
- Often, a trail of broken relationships is left behind, in addition to empty hearts.
- Too often, we forget that people are more important than things and thrills.
- Chasing pleasure is like taking drugs.
- Once we get numb to the pleasure created by “things,” we need to increase the intensity of the pleasure to get the same result.
- Increasing the intensity means going deeper into the habit.
- For those who drink, it means drinking more.
- For those who chase money, it means having more money.
- For those viewing pornography, it means viewing it more often or going to more extreme forms.
- For those who chase fame and adulation, it means seeking greater attention.
- The list could go on and on, but the idea is the same. If we aren’t satisfied, we will seek more extreme means to “get our fix.”
- An ancient example of this is the Epicurean form of hedonism.
- Epicurus taught that by avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure, people would obtain happiness.
- Paul encountered Epicurean philosophers when he addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17:18.
- The main problem with hedonism is that it will consume us and blind us to eternal truth.
- False pleasure alone can’t bring satisfaction.
- It appeals to only a portion of our being, not the total being.
- Shallow entertainment will always leave us empty.
- Enjoyment, where the “whole person” is involved, brings enjoyment and enrichment.
- True pleasure brings both delight and builds character.
The Pursuit of Possessions
The teacher now talks about acquiring possessions of many kinds.
- He talks about different kinds of projects, each one an attempt to find satisfaction and make life worth the effort.
- He built houses and his palace – 1 Kings 7.
- He built cities. 2 Chronicles 8:4-6 He built Tadmor in the wilderness along with all the storage cities that he built in Hamath. 5 He built Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon —fortified cities with walls, gates, and bars — 6 Baalath, all the storage cities that belonged to Solomon, all the chariot cities, the cavalry cities, and everything Solomon desired to build in Jerusalem, Lebanon, or anywhere else in the land of his dominion.
- Possibly his greatest building undertaking was the construction of the temple. 1 Kings 5ff.
- Not only did the teacher build great works, but he also had an abundance of workers.
- He had two types of slaves.
- Those who were purchased.
- Those who were born in his household.
- He also “drafted” 30,000 Jewish men to work on various projects. 1 Kings 5:13-18 Then King Solomon drafted forced laborers from all Israel; the labor force numbered 30,000 men. 14 He sent 10,000 to Lebanon each month in shifts; one month they were in Lebanon, two months they were at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. 15 Solomon had 70,000 porters and 80,000 stonecutters in the mountains, 16 not including his 3,300 deputies in charge of the work. They ruled over the people doing the work. 17 The king commanded them to quarry large, costly stones to lay the foundation of the temple with dressed stones. 18 So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders, along with the Gebalites, quarried the stone and prepared the timber and stone for the temple’s construction.
- He had two types of slaves.
- The teacher acquired great wealth.
- He had an enormous amount of livestock. 1 Kings 8:63 Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep. In this manner the king and all the Israelites dedicated the Lord’s temple.
- His monetary wealth was unmatched.
- 1 Kings 4:21 Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines and as far as the border of Egypt. They offered tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.
- 1 Kings 10:1-14 The queen of Sheba heard about Solomon’s fame connected with the name of Yahweh and came to test him with difficult questions. 2 She came to Jerusalem with a very large entourage, with camels bearing spices, gold in great abundance, and precious stones. She came to Solomon and spoke to him about everything that was on her mind. 3 So Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for the king to explain to her. 4 When the queen of Sheba observed all of Solomon’s wisdom, the palace he had built, 5 the food at his table, his servants’ residence, his attendants’ service and their attire, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he offered at the Lord’s temple, it took her breath away. 6 She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your words and about your wisdom is true. 7 But I didn’t believe the reports until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, I was not even told half. Your wisdom and prosperity far exceed the report I heard. 8 How happy are your men. How happy are these servants of yours, who always stand in your presence hearing your wisdom. 9 May Yahweh your God be praised! He delighted in you and put you on the throne of Israel, because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel. He has made you king to carry out justice and righteousness.” 10 Then she gave the king four and a half tons of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again did such a quantity of spices arrive as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. 11 In addition, Hiram’s fleet that carried gold from Ophir brought from Ophir a large quantity of almug wood and precious stones. 12 The king made the almug wood into steps for the Lord’s temple and the king’s palace and into lyres and harps for the singers. Never before had such almug wood come, and the like has not been seen again even to this very day. 13 King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba her every desire—whatever she asked—besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she, along with her servants, returned to her own country. 14 The weight of gold that came to Solomon annually was 25 tons.
- The teacher was the wealthiest and wisest man in the entire world, but he was not happy because these things didn’t bring lasting pleasure.
- He derived joy while engaged in these projects, “I took pleasure in all my struggles.”
- Yet once it was finished, there was emptiness, “When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind.”
- The teacher wasn’t condemning work. Work is a blessing from God. Adam worked in the Garden before the fall. But, the intent of the heart regarding work is what’s important.
- 1 Corinthians 10:31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory.
- Isaiah 55:2 Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and you will enjoy the choicest of foods.
- The teacher’s words, as he reflected back on his life, help us to understand why those who achieve great things are often unhappy people.
- An overachiever is often a person who is trying to escape themself by being a workaholic.
- The result of being a workaholic is often disappointment.
- It’s not uncommon for workaholics, once they retire, to feel useless or even die from a lack of meaningful activity.
- It’s not just the teacher who warns us about the empty pursuit of pleasure instead of pursuing God.
- Paul warns us about this. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people!
- James tells us to examine our motives for our pursuits. James 4:3 You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.
One final point of discussion regarding this passage. Read through the passage again and note how many times “I” is used. Now, let’s compare that to the teaching of Jesus and Paul.
- Mark 8:34-38 – Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it. 36 For what does it benefit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his life? 37 What can a man give in exchange for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
- Galatians 2:20 – And I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
- Philippians 3:1-11 – Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you. 2 Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh— 4 although I once also had confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; 6 regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless. 7 But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.
It should never be “I” or “me,” but always Christ.
- Evaluate where you find your happiness and fulfillment. If your greatest fulfillment doesn’t come from God, your priorities are misplaced. The things of the world may give us temporary “fixes,” but they will never leave us feeling satisfied or fulfilled.
- At the same time, we shouldn’t become people who avoid fun or pleasure. Scripture is clear that we should enjoy what God has created. But do it in a way that honors God and follows His instructions.
- Check to make sure that the things you enjoy doing don’t take advantage of or harm others. Every person is created by God and has intrinsic value. If we hurt them in any way, we harm God’s creation and bring judgment against ourselves.