The End of Pleasure
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.
I said of partying, “It is folly,” and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”
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, so that I might discover what is profitable for people to do on earth during the few days of their lives. I increased my possessions: I built houses for myself; I planted vineyards for myself. I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees. 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. I also amassed silver and gold for myself, as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces. I acquired male singers and female singers for myself, and what gives a man sensual delight – a harem of beautiful concubines! So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem, yet I maintained my objectivity: 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.
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” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
The Preacher has seen the end game of pleasure. It is absurdity and a chasing after wind.
The Preacher has established the core emphasis of his message: everything is hevel, a vapor, futile, absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). Time under the sun proves cyclical: what has happened before will happen again; there is nothing truly new on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11). Man’s activities and behavior are a “chasing after wind”: pursuing them for their own ends will never lead to getting much of anything permanent; even the pursuit of wisdom is chasing the wind, since wisdom leads to greater frustration and vexation with the way things are (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
The Preacher’s message is a hard pill to swallow. We humans do not like to imagine our existence as ephemeral and our labors ultimately futile; we invest a lot of energy into our pretenses of meaning and permanence. The Preacher’s audience can think of many objections and difficulties with what he is trying to advance. To this end the Preacher developed his theme by expanding on many of its components.
The Preacher began such expansions by considering pleasure. The desires and passions of life are basic and primal: humans want to avoid pain and thus to enjoy some level of pleasure. We want life to be enjoyable and pleasant. We want to satisfy our desires. We think this is well and good for us.
“We” should be taken very literally and seriously: the Preacher might be adumbrating the general posture of Epicureanism in the tenth century BCE, but many in the Western world have fully accepted it, however unconsciously, as the default philosophy of modern secularism. What do a lot of people imagine the universe to be? Mostly dead, having developed essentially by chance. Thus, how should people live? We cannot expect to find much meaning intrinsically in the world, so we should do what we can to avoid pain and to find some enjoyment in life. This is what Epicurus had advanced 2300 years ago; this is how many modern people imagine is the way of the world.
But is life really all about comfort and enjoyment? What if we could play out the end game of comfort and enjoyment: if we could have all comfort and all enjoyment, would we find joy and satisfaction? If we could truly avoid pain, would we find life satisfying?
Most of us can only play out this end game in theory. The Preacher, however, can speak from experience, and relied on his personal testimony to provide wisdom regarding the end of pleasure. As Solomon, king of Israel, he was infamous for his great wealth in power, riches, wisdom, and women (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10; cf. 1 Kings 3:1-10:29). So he fully indulged in pleasure. He withheld nothing from himself: he partied. He got all the possessions he wanted. He built houses and elaborate gardens. He owned slaves, livestock, silver, gold, and plenty of jewels. He enjoyed the performance of great singers. He enjoyed the fleshly pursuits with many wives and concubines. In terms of wealth and pleasure, it seemed good to be the king.
Therefore, if anyone could tell us whether or not pleasure could really satisfy, it would be the Preacher. But what did he conclude? It was futile, foolish, accomplished nothing, and was a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10-11).
The Preacher’s conclusion might seem harsh and dismissive but proved true. For example, consider some delicious food. We can enjoy the sensual experience of the first bite: the flavors, the texture, the quality of the food. We may enjoy another few bites. Yet after a few bites the food cannot replicate that first experience. Those who use drugs recreationally bear witness in a similar way: the first high might prove to be a powerful and exhilarating experience, and such people will continue to use the drugs to attempt to enjoy that experience again. Yet future highs never quite reach the same level as the first one; often more and more of the drug is required to get any kind of experience; ultimately, those who use those drugs become dependent on and truly enslaved to them. Every other pleasurable pursuit will end in the same way: we become habituated to the experience and it does not provide as much pleasure as it used to. We have to put in a lot more effort to receive diminishing returns of enjoyment. And none of this even begins to touch the process of aging and decay and its concomitant effects on the ability to enjoy pleasures.
Jesus would provide similar wisdom a millennium later: what would a person gain if they gained the whole world but would forfeit their lives (Matthew 16:26)? If all we are living for is comfort and pleasure, what will we do when we can no longer enjoy either? How much are we sacrificing, and how many people are we hurting, in order to obtain something ephemeral and can never deliver on its promises?
Thus the Preacher has explored the end of pleasure for us. Pleasure promises much but delivers little. We cannot find comfort, deliverance, or rescue in pleasure. At the bottom of that well can only be disillusionment, frustration, and pain. Life cannot be just about satisfying our desires. May we instead seek to find deliverance, joy, life, and rescue in God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry