Less or Full: A look at pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2
July 31, 2016 Series: Less or Full: A Look at Ecclesiastes 2
Topic: Pleasure Scripture: Ecclesiastes 2:1–2:11
Less or Full
A Look at Pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2
July 31, 2016
By Matt Wilcox
Winnie the Pooh is a timeless classic. Adored by so many and often remembered as one of the most thoughtful cartoons. Christopher Robin and his friends would explore and play together all the while learning valuable lessons and caring for one another. I have to admit though, that I was not the biggest fan of Winnie the Pooh growing up. I was more of a Ninja Turtles type of guy. But my sister LOVED Winnie the Pooh. Like many, she had her favorite characters. Piglet is the one that stands out the most in my memory but I also remember her liking Eeyore. Eeyore. That depressing, wet-blanket, sorry little stuffed donkey. I could never wrap my mind around why she liked him. Why would anyone like a character so gloomy and negative and down-right depressing?
Well, some might consider Ecclesiastes the “Eeyore” of the biblical books. It declares over and over how so many things are meaningless and sports gems of verses like 4:2 that says, “And I declared the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.” Add on top of that the fact that the primary time most folks hear Ecclesiastes read at church is at funerals with the classic “a time to live and a time to die” passage out of chapter three and you find some serious downer mojo right there. Not that different from the dark cloud of Eeyore’s presence that comes face to face with the unending energy of Tigger or the unrelenting optimism of Pooh Bear. But in reality, I think Ecclesiastes has gotten a bad rap.
For the next two weeks we’re going to look at Ecclesiastes 2 and I want us to uncover whether this ancient Hebrew writing is really toting the Eeyore-like, depressing message of everything being meaning-less or, perhaps, we are being given a realistic glimpse into just how meaning-full life can be. Sort of a glass half full vs. glass half empty type of exploration. It will be a chance for us to discover the true worth and meaning of two incredibly important parts of human existence: pleasure and work. Today we start by looking at what we can learn about pleasure.
Read Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
Like most of Ecclesiastes, this text hits us with a pretty sobering tone. Like Eeyore in the midst of a celebration in Hundred Acre Wood, Ecclesiastes can come off as a bit of a wet blanket. But we have to try and understand where our text is coming from. What is our author trying to accomplish? Often times, Solomon is placed as the author of the book. We hear their identity declared at the beginning as a teacher and son of David. Couple that with the teachers emphasis on wisdom and you come to Solomon. For the sake of sticking to the text though, we’ll call the author Teacher, as they describe themselves.
Teacher isn’t just coming in and trying to rain on everyone’s parade. The entirety of the book is actually an exercise in a profound and meaningful spiritual venture. Our teacher is attempting to find something in this world that cannot ultimately be declared meaningless. This Hebrew word for meaningless, hebel, appears 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. Our teacher is looking for something truly meaningful. Something that transcends the ordinary and fleeting things of this world. He’s looking for something worth-while. And so he begins a checklist to perform his search. First on the list: pleasure.
From our earliest years, we look for things we like. I remember shortly after Isaac was born starting the pacifier experiment. We’d received a bunch of different kinds of pacifiers from the two different baby showers folks had thrown for us. But we learned very fast that not all pacifiers are created equal. Some Isaac would use and be fine with. And then there were others that you’d think were made from onion roots and dipped in tabasco sauce. He’d have nothing to do with them. Ultimately, he decided to go all-natural and make extensive use of his thumb. From the time we make a pacifier preference as a baby to the day we decide where we want to retire, we are always looking for the option that will bring us the most pleasure. This isn’t an inherently sinful decision process, not any more than choosing vanilla over chocolate can be called sinful. By most, anyway.
Blaise Pascal, one of the most renowned Christian philosophers, said this: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of going to war, and of avoiding it, it is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object.” Pascal lays out a reality that the end-goal of happiness and pleasure is hard-wired in our very existence.
So since pleasure plays such a massive role in the human experience, our Teacher takes it to task right off the bat. And like someone performing a tax audit, he meticulously examines every facet and item. Don’t misunderstand though what is happening here. This is not some thoughtless, hog-wild spree of debauchery. It’s a testing. He reminds us on several occasions that, through it all, his wisdom remained with him.
Most of you know I lived and served in Lancaster, PA for 8 years. Lancaster is known for a bunch of different things but none more famous than the Amish communities that live there. Folks travel from all around the northeast to come catch glimpse of the Amish and take in the view of a simpler life. I know this not only because I lived and worked there but because my family was one of those tourist groups. Living outside Philadelphia, every summer we’d drive to Lancaster to go to a local amusement park, take an Amish buggy ride, and come home with the teeth-achingly sweet confection known as Shoe Fly Pie. I can tell you that, as a kid, Lancaster was not my favorite vacation spot. But Lancaster County draws thousands of tourists every year in large part of the Amish.
In Amish culture there is a practice called Rumspringa. Literally, it means to “run around.” Maybe some of you have heard of it. It is a time in adolescence where an Amish youth can step outside of the strict demands and consequences of the Amish lifestyle and experiment with the outside world around them. It rarely takes the form of a crazy, all-out sin-fest. But they would experiment with new things not allowed in their communities. It was not uncommon to drive up to the local convenience store and see a few Amish youth smoking while you filled up for gas. These youth are given the freedom to explore what the world calls “good” and compare it with what they have in their own communities. I’m told that most of the time, these youth choose the stability and steadfastness of the Amish lifestyle after their brief foray into the outside world. Our teacher in Ecclesiastes 2 sees all the pleasures of the world before him and decides, much like a young Amish teen, to try it out and see if it’s really worth it.
Our author and teacher here has his own calculated, intentional Romspringa. Humor, alcohol, the arts, building, gardening, riches, sex, music, fame…he gives an extensive list of everything he tried and tested. Verse 10 is the telling reality: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” And he says that after all of it he looked at everything he had done and collected and declared it all one thing: meaningless. “A chasing after the wind.”
We’ve heard stories like this before, haven’t we? Stories of misspent youth or wealth. Stories of searching for meaning and, as always, pleasure. My example of Amish Romspringa might have jogged a fairly obvious biblical memory for you. It’s a simple story but one we use as both a cautionary tale and a reminder of truest love. It’s the story of a son who walks out on his family and who disrespects and abandons his father. It’s the story of that same young man spending all he has to seek out everything good in life and then coming face to face with not only nothing but with emptiness. It’s the story of a reunion between father and son. It’s a story of forgiveness. It’s story of meaning. It’s story of coming home to the great after seeking the good. It’s the story of the prodigal son. He’s searching. Searching for love. Searching for truth. Searching for himself. He’s searching for something meaningful. Just like our teacher in Ecclesiastes 2.
Really, this is a search we all take at some point. We seek something good. Something worth it. Different people seek it in different ways. Some turn to the destructive practices of addiction or promiscuity. Still, others seek it out in family. Some in the work they do. Sports, physical health, the balance of the bank account, the end result of building something with your own two hands, the love of another person. The possibilities are as numerous as the people. And you know what, I think many of us would be hard-pressed to call some of those things meaningless. In fact, some of those things might be the most valuable treasures we possess.
So where does our teacher in our text get off calling them meaningless? I don’t think our teacher here is dealing in the realms of black and white. Instead, shades of grey. It isn’t about good or evil. It’s about good and great. James Collins is a business consultant and an author. He wrote a book called “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.” He’s writing for the business world and the health of a company but his words are striking when we hold them beside our text this morning.
He says, “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
Wow. If we truly take the time to digest that statement we might come face to face with some difficult realities. And when we hold the lense of our faith against that concept, well, a whole new world opens up. You see, our teacher in Ecclesiastes isn’t out to spoil all the fun or tell us that nothing is worth it. He’s not trying to ruin everything good in our lives. He is trying to find something great. Namely, he is trying to find the One who is great.
Our text this morning, if we could take it in and employ it help us examine our faith, shouldn’t cause us simply to despair but to more passionately search for the One who is truly meaningful. To the one who is not simply good but the single Great in all of existence. It should draw us, just like our teacher, to a desire to know God more deeply and to love him more richly.
Blaise Pascal continues his thought from earlier. Moving from the reality of humanity seeking out pleasure, Pascal concludes what such searches will result in. He says this, “There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”
This points us to Christ. In the book of John Christ takes a moment to describe the security and surety the people can have in Him. He sets a scene of a flock of sheep encountering a thief and a good shepherd. He is the good shepherd and Christ tells them, tells us, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Friends, Christ is the pleasure that we seek. In Christ alone can we find the fulfillment and meaning we try to find in other places. He is the Ultimate Good, the Perfect Great.
So how do we move toward Christ with this in mind? Our teacher in Ecclesiastes starts us on this journey. We are shown, through his example and the countless others throughout history, how fruitless a pursuit of pleasure and happiness can be. And even though he does not reference Christ, I believe this text points us to Christ in a profound way. A way that shapes and transforms not only us but those things and people that we love.
Let me give you an example. If I dedicated my entire heart and life to being a good husband and father there is not a soul on the planet who would call that a meaningless pursuit. In fact, it would be deemed as noble and probably become one of those tear-jerking accounts we see on Facebook. And I would surely love Caitlin and Isaac but I want to share something I hold with all my heart to be true: I would not be capable of loving them in the most perfect way I could be capable of loving them if I did not love God more than I loved them. I liken it to trying to appreciate a profound work of art while being color-blind. Yes, I can perceive the shapes and the images and the shades and tones…but I’m missing the vibrancy and life of the piece. My family would be missing the vibrancy and life of my love and affection if my heart did not belong to Christ.
This goes with every other venture and interest in our lives. Next week we’ll look at what our teacher in Ecclesiastes 2 has to say about work. And, spoiler alert, I can tell you that we’ll find ourselves arriving at a similar conclusion but with different ramifications. But for this morning, we learn that the things we love and take pleasure in can be redeemed and given new vibrancy by our love of Christ.
So what do we do? I fully believe that, while on the surface, Ecclesiastes 2 seems to be a message about what is meaningless that it is actually leading us and revealing to us that, or whom, which is truly meaningful. Christ and a relationship with Christ. In Him and Him alone can we find full and abundant life. Luke Timothy Johnson says, “To seek self in created things is to distort everything. That which we make ultimate grows distended and monstrous, for creatures cannot bear the weight of worship.” That which we love (our families, our hobbies, our physical health and appearance, wealth, prestige, toys, possessions, relationships) cannot bear the weight of our worship and our full selves. They become fractured and twisted. And we can end up harming that which we love by loving in this unhealthy way. This is where our Teacher’s claim of meaninglessness comes from. All these things truly do become fruitless if they are not enjoyed in and through a relationship with our Great God.
But when we lay our hearts in the person of Christ and allow His person to serve as the lens through which we love other people and things, then we are able to offer a perfected and meaningful love. We are able to truly leave behind the meaningless things and find that which is truly meaningful.
More in Less or Full: A Look at Ecclesiastes 2
August 8, 2016Less or Full: A look at work in Ecclesiastes 2