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4. Vanity of Pleasure

Introduction

A question concerning our satisfaction in life has been consistently presented to us. Are you satisfied? Do you feel fulfilled? Is their purpose in your life? A simple test1 has been offered to assist you in this process.

Directions

Below are five statements with which you may agree or disagree. Using the 1-7 scale below, indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number in the line preceding that item. Please be open and honest in your responding.

1 = Strongly Disagree

2 = Disagree

3 = Slightly Disagree

4 = Niether Disagree or Agree

5 = Slightly Agree

6 = Agree

7 = Strongly Agree

___1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

___2. The conditions of my life are excellent.

___3. I am satisfied with life.

___4. So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

___5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Score:

35-31 Extremely Satisfied

26-30 Satisfied

21-25 Slightly Satisfied

20 Neutral

15-19 Slightly Dissatisfied

10-14 Dissatisfied

05-09 Extremely Dissatisfied

And the search for satisfaction continues. If you weren’t aware that you were either satisfied or unsatisfied this chart might have helped you come to some conclusions. I would have assumed that being aware of your satisfaction is inherent in being satisfied.

In the last lesson (chapter 1:12-18) we discussed Solomon’s path towards fulfillment by means of wisdom or philosophy. His conclusion was that satisfaction in life could not come through philosophy, and instead resulted in vain effort that resulted in grief and pain.

Solomon does not yet end his search for fulfillment. Instead he turns his focus towards pleasure. Will pleasure bring satisfaction to one’s life?

The Philosophies of Pleasure 2

1. The potential for gratification is realized.

2. Our brain drives us to act on the potential. Our brain tells us we are hungry so we go and eat. Sexual desire drives one to make love with whoever is available. Loneliness drives us to a social life.

3. Our actions are rewarded by the sensations of pleasure. Often the action itself is the most rewarding. Eating with someone else brings much more pleasure than merely satisfying a hunger craving.

4. Once someone has been satisfied, the action comes to an end, at least until a new desire comes along.

Epicureanism

Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus:

“We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”

“He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every reference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear”

“When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life.”

“And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure”

Hedonism

The primary thought behind Hedonism is that all actions can be measured on the basis of how much pleasure and how little pain they produce.

There are two types of Secular Hedonism: Motivational and Normative. Motivational Hedonism claims that only pleasure and pain motivate us. Normative Hedonism claims that all pleasure has worth or value and only pleasure has worth or value. As well, all pain has disvalue and only pain has disvalue.

Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham initially proposed the thought of utilitarianism. He found that pain and pleasure were the only intrinsic values in the world. From this he derived the rule of utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

There are a number of different views of Utilitarianism. Some approach this position from its negative viewpoint. Negative Utilitarianism requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of harm for the greatest number. There are many other forms that are irrelevant to the lesson.

Characteristics of Solomon’s Pleasure

Ecc 2:1 I thought to myself, “Come now, I will try self-indulgent pleasure to see if it is worthwhile.” But I found that it also is futile. 2:2 I said of partying, “It is folly,” and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”

Comprehensive

Ecc 2:10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted; I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure. So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.

Wine

Ecc 2:3 I thought deeply about the effects of indulging myself with wine (all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom) and the effects of behaving foolishly,

It appears that Solomon’s first attempt at satisfaction through pleasure was through the venue of wine/alcohol. There are a couple possible understandings of this passage . . .

1. Solomon, since he allowed his “mind to guide him wisely,” never became intoxicated. He was merely scrutinizing the benefits of heightened awareness.

2. Another interpretation would take into consideration the fact that Solomon took hold of or embraced folly. This might imply a stronger indulgence with wine.

Either way, he describes his heightened experiment or downright intoxication as fruitless.

Nature

Ecc 2:4 … I planted vineyards for myself. 2:5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 2:6 I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.

As we remember the hanging gardens of Babylon, we are reminded that a beautiful garden was a sign of luxury as well as pleasure. These many gardens and parks that Solomon had built for himself found the nourishment through the ponds and aqueducts that Solomon built. Three ancient pools have been found southwest of Jerusalem. They are considered to be part of Solomon’s aqueducts. The presence of the plural (gardens, parks, trees, ponds) in all these categories shows the enormity of the tasks and extravagance of the projects.

Possessions

Ecc 2:7 I purchased male and female slaves, and I owned slaves who were born in my house; I also possessed more livestock – both herds and flocks – than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem. 2:8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself, as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces…

I Kings 10 reveals the enormous amount of wealth that Solomon possessed. The chapter initially tells the story of the Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon in Jerusalem and was overwhelmed by both his wisdom and his wealth. She as well left a great bit of treasure with Solomon. The rest of the chapter entails the amount of possessions and wealth that he possessed. Understanding the vast amount of wealth allows us to more easily understand how Solomon could obtain everything that his eyes looked upon. He could have easily purchased whatever he desired.

Music

Ecc 2:8b . . . I acquired male singers and female singers for myself . . .

It appears that due his wealth, Solomon had the ability to purchase his own choir. This choir would have been different than the typical levitical choir made up of just men.

Women

Ecc 2:8c . . . and what gives a man sensual delight – a harem of beautiful concubines!

In almost a crude manner, Solomon admits that he did not withhold his sexual passions. The word he used, translated ‘concubines,’ technically means ‘breast’ if not even more specific to more erogenous areas. Solomon admits that he had the power and wealth to possess whatever he liked. He also states that he does not refuse his eyes anything that they wanted. While there seems to be some self-control (my mind was guiding me with wisdom), apparently Solomon indulged in every sexual pleasure he desired.

We read in I Kings concerning the amount of wives and concubines that Solomon had . . .

I Kings 11:1 King Solomon fell in love with many foreign women (besides Pharaoh’s daughter), including Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. 11:2 They came from nations about which the Lord had warned the Israelites, “You must not establish friendly relations with them! If you do, they will surely shift your allegiance to their gods.” But Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them. 11:3 He had 700 royal wives and 300 concubines; his wives had a powerful influence over him. The above areas are so broad that they would cover any other area we might consider. Have you attempted to find pleasure or satisfaction in life through any of the above areas.

Once again, let us remember that the above areas are not being condemned as much as they are being presented as ineffectual means to a purposeful life.

Are there ever times in our lives where we might be able to say any of the following . . .

  • If I could just get a little raise at work, we would be happy; and our marriage wouldn’t be such a struggle.
  • I understand that alcohol can be dangerous, but I’m able to control it. After all, nowhere in scripture does it say I can’t drink. I have the freedom in Christ to do what I want.
  • If my spouse were more attentive to my sexual needs I wouldn’t have committed adultery, looked at pornography, dressed immodestly, flirted with another employee, etc.
  • I know we need to be more involved with church and serving but I have a cabin. I need to use it; after all, I get to see the creation of God every time I sit on my porch. It is such a wonderful experience.
  • I have such a rigorous music practice that I don’t have time for a consistent devotional life.

The problem is not necessarily that we are involved in these areas. The problem lies in what we sacrifice to participate in these areas.

  • God, I will not be satisfied in you, I will only be satisfied if I receive financially what is due me.
  • God I will ignore your clear dangers of alcohol in scripture and will instead yield to my own selfish desires with no thought to others or your glory.
  • God, I want to obey you, but I demand sex when I desire it. I will do what I have to, to fulfill my fleshly desires.
  • God, I know you desire for me to be an active part of the church body, but my own selfish and fleeting pleasures (such as sports, nature, relaxation, TV, more money) are more important than what you want.

Controlled

Ecc 2:3 … (all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom) and the effects of behaving foolishly, so that I might discover what is profitable for people to do on earth during the few days of their lives.

We have already briefly discussed the fact that Solomon’s ventures into pleasure where guided by his wisdom. There are a couple of ways to understand this fact.

1. He indulged in every type of pleasure and throughout or shortly after, he assessed its merits as far as its satisfaction was concerned. In this scenario, he may have lived a life of debauchery, but was cautious to examine all the fruits of such a life.

2. Another scenario is possible, and more likely. In a very similar vein as that of Epicurus, he followed after pleasure modestly. He wisely approached pleasure and while he kept nothing back, he never let himself go completely. It is likely that Solomon realized that pleasure in excess can result in pain (sexual disease, loss of wealth, poor relationships) and as a result considered those potential consequences when he approached a particular area of pleasure.

A question appropriate to this section concerns our level of control. We often think that we can control something, while both scripture and observation show that it is very easy to lose control. Be careful to not indulge in pleasure because you think you might be able to control it. Solomon seems to have done just that and his conclusion is that it was a waste of time.

Selfish

Ecc 2:4 I increased my possessions: I built houses for myself; I planted vineyards for myself. 2:5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 2:6 I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.

We have already looked at these verses, but another point to consider is the clear selfishness displayed in these verses. There seems to be no indication of Solomon serving someone else’s needs or desires. Everything done was simply done for himself.

There are many people in churches that appear to be very sacrificial. Others struggle in that area. Do you do things, throughout the day, with little concern for anyone else. Do you consider your family when you go home? Do you consider your spouse’s needs when you are together? Do you stay at work longer than necessary with little thought to your family? Are your evenings filled with self focused activities? Do you put your relaxation in front of serving others?

We tend to be selfish creatures. Our motivation is often even selfish, when we are serving others. The question you must answer is, “Do you place your own happiness over the needs of others and over the commands of God?”

Assuming

Ecc 2:9 So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem, yet I maintained my objectivity: 2:10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted; I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure. So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.

Solomon thought he deserved to bathe himself in all types of pleasures. He states in verse 10 that he viewed pleasure as a reward for all his hard work. “I’ve worked hard, I deserve to focus on myself for a little while.”

Have you ever had that mentality? Have you ever had a hard day’s work and came home with the mindset that you deserved a little ‘me time’? Family, spouse, church, needed projects, other people are all put on hold because you deserve some time for yourself and you don’t want to feel bad about taking it either.

Unsatisfying

Ecc 2:11 Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it, I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless – like chasing the wind! There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

Once again, we come to a familiar conclusion. Solomon’s search for satisfaction in pleasure was futile. He successfully pursued every area of fleshly indulgence and pleasure and found that it brought no lasting satisfaction.

Conclusion

Numbers 15:38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and put a blue thread on the tassel of the corners. 15:39 You must have this tassel so that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and obey them and so that you do not follow after your own heart and your own eyes that lead you to unfaithfulness. 15:40 Thus you will remember and obey all my commandments and be holy to your God.

Throughout time man has followed the impulses of his heart and the desires of his eyes. We are innately no different. It is very easy for us to become consumed by our own desires. Those desires merely bring temporary satisfaction, yet we naively and passionately follow after them.

The conclusion never changes – fear God and keep His commandments. Follow God alone.

What selfish pleasures have you justified or rationalized in your life?

Solomon clearly states that a search for permanent or even temporary satisfaction in pleasure is a waste of time.

1 By Ed Diener, Ph.D. http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener/hottopic/hottopic.html

2 This study was taken from The Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The study was associated with Hedonism. The ideas that they purport are very similar to Epicurus and other more recent philosophers.