The Vanity of Hedonism

The Vanity of Hedonism

The Preacher has been making an argument about the vanity of life. When we remove God from the picture and consider life apart from him, everything is meaningless and frustrating.

Remember, this entire section from Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26 is an argument that follows a classic form of speech called “the chase technique.” The Preacher points to several avenues man looks to in search of meaning, and at the very end of his argument he provides the solution.

Last week, we zeroed in on the vanity of wisdom. Our ability to understand all that we want to know leads to further frustrations. Now the Preacher focuses on pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 2:1–11 ESV

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

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.

In an article titled “The Functional Neuroanatomy of Pleasure and Happiness”, authors Morten L. Kringelbach, and  Kent C. Berridge refer to an important scientific experiment that was published in 1954:

Just over fifty years ago, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner, working at McGill University in Canada, carried out their pioneering experiments which discovered that rats would repeatedly press levers to receive tiny jolts of current injected through electrodes implanted deep within their brains (Olds and Milner, 1954). Especially when this brain stimulation was targeted at certain areas of the brain in the region of the septum and nucleus accumbens, the rats would repeatedly press the lever — even up to 2000 times per hour (Olds, 1956).

These powerful findings seemed to suggest that Olds and Milner had discovered the pleasure center in the brain. Research in the next two decades established that dopamine is one of the main chemicals aiding neural signaling in these regions, and for many years dopamine was suggested to be the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” The results seemed to promise an easy fix to the unhappiness and suffering which is the traveling companion of far too many people. They certainly emboldened writers to envisage brave new worlds where drugs and electrical stimulation could induce bliss for the masses.

Although Olds and Milner’s experiment was a bit more sophisticated than the Preacher’s, their “discovery” was much less accurate as proved by numerous future experiments. It would seem that humans, will not be connecting themselves to electrodes to enjoy endless pleasure anytime soon. Sensory pleasures, as tempting as they are, do not provide purpose and meaning, which are indispensible to human happiness. For these we must all turn to religion and philosophy.

The Preacher, more than 2000 years before Olds and Milner, conducted his own pleasure experiment. And what he discovered is that:

The continual pursuit of pleasure, for its own sake, leads to a sense of emptiness.

1. I Sought Things That Brought Pleasure (1-3)

2. I Made Things That Brought Pleasure (4-6)

3. I Bought Things That Brought Pleasure (7-11)

1. I Sought Things That Brought Pleasure (1-3)

Ecclesiastes 2:1 ESV

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.

The Preacher is shifting his focus from seeking meaning through wisdom to seeking it through pleasure. It isn’t so much that he sought pleasure to find purpose, but in order to see if living in a general state of happiness is possible.

“Enjoy yourself” is literally, “see good”. He wanted to put his heart to the test with a series of pleasurable experiences to see if it would provide a lasting satisfaction. But all of it was empty.

Now, before moving on, we need to remind ourselves that the Preacher is talking about life apart from God. Later on, he will use the same phrase in a positive light.

Ecclesiastes 2:24 ESV

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,

Like wisdom, pleasure, in and of itself, is not bad. It is where we are seeking that pleasure that creates the tension. Seeking joy is a good thing if it is sought in the right way.

Ecclesiastes 2:2 ESV

I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”

Superficial laughter is madness. In light of all that he experienced and saw of life under the sun, laughter didn’t seem to have any place. He isn’t defending stoicism—maintaining a stiff upper-lip at all times was not necessarily the Preacher’s attitude. Rather, he is merely pointing out the emptiness of laughter.

Pleasure is useless. It doesn’t ever bring us the ultimate satisfaction that a sense of meaning and purpose can provide.

The Preacher continues,

Ecclesiastes 2:3 ESV

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.

Drinking wine is pictured throughout Scripture as a sign of enjoying God’s blessing. Although, the Preacher doesn’t explicitly state it in this verse, the context indicates that the joy he sought in wine was temporary at best. Wine does “gladden the heart of man” (Ps. 104:15), but an over-indulgence of it can lead us into gross sin.

It would seem at this point the Preacher’s method for grasping folly, was getting drunk. However, he claims he was continuing to allow wisdom to guide him.

It is generally true that the pursuit of pleasure is more satisfying than the reality.

Kids, how many times have you begged your parents for a certain toy, only to find you had moved on to another toy not too long after receiving it?

This seems to be true whether you are talking about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your house, or spending a few dollars on Pokemon cards or fidget spinners.

In the case of fidget spinners, the anticipation of everyone receiving one lasted longer than they were actually played with.

But, lest you think I’m just picking on the kids, let me acknowledge that I do the same thing with systems of productivity. I’m constantly switching how I track the things I’m supposed to be doing and the things I’ve done. If I could have back the countless hours I’ve lost switching to new systems of productivity, I’d probably add a year to my life.

The thing is, all of us are guilty of pursuing pleasure in a similar way. And all of us find some temporary pleasure in that pursuit. In some few cases, that pleasure may even linger for a season. But, eventually, it wears off and we begin our search again.

The pleasure we pursue has a tendency to vanish the moment we grasp it.

One of the hardest lessons for anyone to learn is that the pleasure we are seeking is more likely to follow our gratitude for the things we already have, than a pursuit after something we don’t have.

Joy is a gift from God, as the Preacher will point out at the end of the chapter as well as a few more times beyond (Eccl. 2:26; 5:20; 8:15; 9:7).

› Not only did the Preacher seek things that brought pleasure, but he also…

2. I Made Things That Brought Pleasure (4-6)

Ecclesiastes 2:4 ESV

I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.

One of the signs of covenant blessings was the privilege of building houses to inhabit and planting vineyards from which to drink the wine (Is. 65:21). These blessings, which God promised, were never meant to provide ultimate satisfaction.

“For myself”…The Preacher’s pursuit of pleasure has led him to a very ambitious and selfish approach to life.

Ecclesiastes 2:5–6 ESV

I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.

The translators of the LXX, the Greek version of the OT, use “παραδείσους” for “parks”. It is used often to refer to the Garden of Eden. Essentially, the Preacher is suggesting that he sought to create a utopia for himself with gardens and parks filled with fruit trees and streams which kept the trees fed. It is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, and ultimately an image of heaven (Luke 23:43).

There are many examples of utopian cities that have failed. Either they were never built, or they were never successful.

In an article titled “10 Failed Attempts to Create Utopian Cities,” the number one example was Jonestown:

What’s truly remarkable about Jonestown is not that it ended in a brutal massacre in which over 900 people died. It’s that it briefly seemed like a viable utopia. For Americans fed up with the racial divisions thrown up in the Civil Rights era and after, it was a way of coming together. Some 68 percent of the original Jonestown members were black—a staggering number in the mid-1970s. Although Jones was clearly a little loopy (and, it later emerged, a drug addict), the idea of a sharing, caring, socialist-style city clearly touched a lot of people. A small number who escaped later said it felt at the start like a place of hope.

You know what happened next. After allegations of child abuse by Jones surfaced, California Congressman Leo Joseph Ryan and several journalists went down to investigate. Jones’s followers murdered them. Immediately afterward, Jones convinced everyone to commit suicide by drinking Kool Aid mixed with cyanide. Prior to 9/11, it was the single largest loss of American life outside a war setting. While most utopias seem doomed to self-destruct, none did so quite as tragically as Jonestown.

Utopian cities will fail wherever sin exists. In this life, we will never escape corruption and perversion. But that won’t stop most people from trying. Unfortunately, the common result, as the Preacher discovered, is emptiness.

Vern Poythress points out:

“The fading pleasures in this life contrast with the eternal pleasures in God’s presence.”

Psalm 16:11 ESV

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Peter quoted this in his sermon at Pentecost in reference to the resurrection life of Christ (Acts 2:28). It was Jesus who had ascended to his throne and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.

Jesus said:

John 15:11 ESV

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

That boundless and endless joy awaits us in the only true utopia, or better yet κοινωνία – a fellowship of Christ followers, the culmination of which John portrays:

Revelation 21:4 ESV

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

› The Preacher sought, made, and finally…

3. I Bought Things That Brought Pleasure (7-11)

Ecclesiastes 2:7 ESV

I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.

The Preacher bought slaves, herds and flocks. It would indeed be a strange statement for Solomon to say, “any who had been before me in Jerusalem” (c.f. Eccl. 2:9) considering the only king in Jerusalem prior to him would have been David.

Ecclesiastes 2:8 ESV

I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

He obtained money, entertainment, and women. And here the Preacher is being a bit crass in the way he speaks of the women he gathered. He wasn’t interested in love, he was simply searching for pleasure through sexual gratification. The more the merrier.

Ecclesiastes 2:9 ESV

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.

I became great because of my possessions and wisdom. In all of this, his pursuit never diminished into a chaotic mess. He remained wise in his approach.

Ecclesiastes 2:10 ESV

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.

I kept gathering more possessions and found more pleasure. There was indeed pleasure to be had in all of his searching, making, and acquiring. But, it was also empty. The pleasure was temporary and we might add of lower value than the true joy that he was seeking.

Ecclesiastes 2:11 ESV

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.

In the end, I considered all that I had sought, made, and bought – all of it was vanity!

Michael Eaton notes:

“All the Preacher’s key terms combine at this point: toil, vanity, striving after wind, no profit, under the sun. The pileup of terms conveys bitter disillusionment.… Secular man is being shown the failure of his life-style, on its own premises.”

The goal of marketing is to make you discontent. They can sell more products and services if they can show you how their company will bring greater joy into your life. But, consumerism doesn’t really lead to greater joy.

Do you remember when it was cool to own the smallest cellphone?  The price actually increased the smaller they got. Just when I could afford a small phone, Apple released their first iPhone. Then, a few years ago I got an iPhone, but my friend showed me his massive Samsung Galaxy Note.

Jesus warned:

Luke 12:15 ESV

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The rapid pace of technological advancement is a perfect example of the endless and fruitless pursuit of pleasure. For all of our advantages over previous generations, we are not any happier. In fact, many studies show that the more we are superficially connected, the less happiness we truly experience.

But there is one relationship that leads to eternal joy. It is only when we look beyond the king in Ecclesiastes to the true King, Jesus that we find the joy we’re longing for.

Philippians 1:21–23 ESV

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

When we live our lives for selfish gain we are left empty, but when Jesus Christ becomes our central hope, we will not be disappointed.

› In summary…

Conclusion

The Preacher discovered a paradox that is built into life. The law of diminishing returns states that there comes a point where the value of benefits gained is less than the amount of energy expended. The more something is done, the less benefit is derived from the experience. Thus, what might at first be an incredible experience at first will eventually become mundane.

Those living their lives for repeated experiences of emotional pleasure will never reach their goal. They simply cannot find that in this life. Matt reminded me of another quote from C.S. Lewis that is particularly relevant to our study of Ecclesiastes:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

While the Preacher discovered that the continual pursuit of pleasure, for its own sake, leads to a sense of emptiness—we also discover that the continual pursuit of God, for His sake, leads to a sense of joy that never diminishes.

Only in Jesus Christ do we find the happiness our hearts are longing to experience. Let us look to him now in prayer.