“I said unto my heart, ‘Come see if pleasure offers gain.’ But all enjoyment that I tried turned out to be in vain.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1)
This is the second post on Ecclesiastes, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Ecclesiastes 2, preceded by a brief reflection.
Pat and I built a stone house in rural Maine in the late 1970’s. This was not ornamental rock veneer, but structural uncut fieldstone walls nearly a foot thick resting on massive concrete/stone foundation walls. Roughly 100 tons of stone went into the construction, each stone painstakingly harvested from rocky fields and overgrown walls in the vicinity. We spent one year gathering stones together. It was hard physical labor, but easy compared to the subsequent two years of construction – hand-mixing concrete, placing stones between slipforms, and backfilling with concrete one shovelful at a time. As time passed, the beauty of the house started to be revealed. The work was backbreaking, but we persevered for the pleasure of a house to call our own.
To have a roof over one’s head is one of life’s pleasures. It’s right up there with the pleasures of loving relationships, good health, and peace. To even suggest that the pursuit of such pleasures are in vain or futile, is disconnected from reality. It is also disconnected from Scripture which speaks repeatedly about loving others, healing, peace, and joy – all of which are associated with various feelings of pleasure. Life is not meant to be an acetic dark hole, always scraping and digging, never resting or coming up for a breath of air. True, life is hard at times, but there are also divine consolations of beauty and love and joy and, yes, pleasure.
Consider then Ecclesiastes 2, where the Teacher, presumably Solomon, says that pleasure is futile. “I said unto my heart, ‘Come see if pleasure offers gain.’ But all enjoyment that I tried turned out to be in vain.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1) In this, he is simply fleshing out the premise he introduced in Ecclesiastes 1, namely, that everything is futile and in vain. In Ecclesiastes 1, much of the Teacher’s focus was on the futility of work. In Ecclesiastes 2, he turns to what he perceives to be the futility of pleasure, wisdom, and wealth. This reflection is on the first of these, namely, pleasure, which I am framing this around three questions that emerge from these verses.
1) Is All Pleasure Is Futile? This seems to be the message in verse 1 and fleshed out in verses 2-11. But most English translations are misleading because the Teacher is not referring to pleasure in the sense that most of us understand the term, namely, “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.” The Hebrew word that is translated as ‘pleasure’ is tobe, which means “that which is pleasing to the senses.” So when the Teacher says that pleasure is futile, he is referring specifically to sensual pleasures, such as drinking of wine, recreation, sex, and music that are further described in verses 2-11.
And so we can say unequivocally that the Teacher is not referring to all types of pleasure. There has been the occasional person throughout history who has advocated extreme asceticism as the way to God. But this is not consistent with the Biblical record, which speaks throughout about blessings and joy for all people. It was certainly not the way of Jesus who described his ministry, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5) God would have us find pleasure as well as meaning and purpose in him, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3-4)
2) Is Sensual Pleasure Futile? This seems to fit with the definition of the Hebrew tobe, as noted above. But we need to proceed with caution, and carefully consider the Teacher’s examples of wine (verse 3), gardens and parks (verse 5), and sex and music (verse 8). The reason being that none of these are inherently bad. Moreover, all are well documented if not sanctioned within the Biblical record. Lets consider these in turn.
Wine. The Apostle Paul at one point advised James to take some wine. (1 Timothy 5:23) Jesus himself went to a party in Cana where he turned water into wine. (John 2:1-11) And least you think Jesus did not drink, consider that he consumed wine during the Passover celebration. (Luke 22:17-18) Furthermore, this must have been a regular practice because he mentions that the Pharisees saw him drinking wine and accused him of being a drunkard. (Luke 7:34)
Gardens and parks. Let’s not forget that God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, in which he “made all kinds of trees grow from the soil, every tree that was pleasing to look at and good for food.” (Genesis 2:9). And the last place Jesus walked freely before his arrest and crucifixion was the Garden of Gethsemane. Gardens and parks provide a special relief and oasis for countless millions living in cities. Few things can be as pleasurable and soul-satisfying as a walk in a park.
Sex. Do I need to mention sex as one of the foremost God-given graces to our life on earth? Indeed, God commanded humans to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis 1:28) I am pretty sure there is only one way to do this. Sex can become perverted and distorted, but to suggest that it is futile is crazy. No sex means the end of life.
Music. Consider the following from the Psalter.
O shout for joy to God, our strength, the One who makes us strong;
With voices raised to Jacob’s God, let’s sing a happy song.
Strike up a tune and start to play the tambourine and flute;
And let the sweetest music rise from strings of harp and lute.
Blow trumpets when the moon is new and as the time draws near;
O sound the ram’s horn on the day the full moon feast is here.
For Israel this is a rule, a statute and decree,
An ordinance from Jacob’s God, His word for all to see. (Psalm 81:1-4)
The joy of music in not just the Psalms. Can anyone listen to the great masterpieces of music and not be pleasurably moved? I recall a memorable Sunday afternoon when Pat and I attended a performance of JS Bach’s St. Matthew Passion performed on period instruments. It was indeed an existential moment of pleasure – one in which we lost all sense of time itself.
And so, we must go deeper still into these verses to extract their meaning.
3) Is Self-Indulgent Sensual Pleasure Futile? Here I think we are getting closer to the meaning of Ecclesiastes 1-11. Because in these verses we see the Teacher pursuing sensual pleasures with unrestrained self-indulgence. It is not clear to me that the Teacher himself realizes the implications of what he is saying because of the way he frames his monologue in terms of the futility of tobe, sensual pleasure. But when we examine what he is saying, we see that his examples are all about self-gratification. That is, about giving in to his unchecked lust and pride. Consider just two of his examples.
Gardens and parks. Notice the language in verses 4-6: “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.” (NET) I get dizzy just counting the number of possessive pronouns. It is unclear who, if anyone, other than the king could enjoy these, but the emphasis that he built them for himself, suggests that these were not public works projects. It sort of reminds me the medieval English Forest Law, where woodlands were claimed as the exclusive hunting grounds of kings. Woe be it for anyone caught poaching.
Sex. In the Teacher’s words, he had “a harem of beautiful concubines.” (verse 8) This is almost not surprising given his boast in the preceding verse 7, “I purchased male and female slaves, and I owned slaves who were born in my house.” Is there anything more to say about the egocentricity of the Teacher’s life? Perhaps only that throughout the chapter he boasts of his unsurpassed possessions and wealth.
Suffice it to say, when the Teacher speaks of the futility of sensual pleasure, it is only in the context of extreme self-indulging lust and pride. Things that we could never in our wildest imaginations conceive of. Therefore, I find nothing in these verses to suggest that the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary pleasures of life are in anyway futile.
It is helpful to remember when reading Ecclesiastes that there are two people being heard: 1) the Author, whose words appear at the beginning in verse 1:1, and the conclusion in verses 12:9-14; and 2) the Teacher, whose words appear in the intervening verses 1:2 to 12:8, which comprise the bulk of the Book. The Author is the one who gets the final word in Ecclesiastes. And this is his conclusion of the matter: “Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the duty of all mankind.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
The kingdom of God is not opposed to pleasure, nor is it opposed to sensual pleasures. It is, however, forever opposed to self-gratifying sensual pleasures. And in this, the Teacher’s assertion of futility is well founded. For the root of self-gratifying sensual pleasures is lust and pride, which do not last according to the Apostle John: “For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:16-17)
1 I said unto my heart, “Come see,
if pleasure offers gain.”
But all enjoyment that I tried,
turned out to be in vain.
2 “To laugh,” I said, “is foolishness –
undoubtably it’s mad;
For what is gained from merriment,
what good from it is had?”
3 While seeking wisdom I drank wine,
to fill myself with mirth;
And see if it was good for those,
whose days are few on earth.
4 I undertook to build great things,
like houses for my own;
I planted vineyards for myself,
where grapes for wine are grown.
5 I made some gardens for myself,
and parks of good repute;
And in them planted many trees,
with varied kinds of fruit.
6 I built up reservoirs and pools,
to irrigate with ease –
My grove of young and flourishing,
and quickly growing trees.
7 I had both male and female slaves,
and others born to them;
I owned more droves than anyone,
8 I gathered silver for myself,
and gold to fit a king;
I kept a harem to delight,
and many who could sing.
9 I was within Jerusalem,
the greatest to that day;
As well, my wisdom never failed,
or ever went away.
10 There was no yearning of my eyes,
or pleasure I ignored;
As I was pleased with all my work,
such things were my reward.
11 Yet when I surveyed all I’d done,
and what I’d worked to gain;
I saw that it was meaningless,
like chasing wind in vain.
12 I turned to wisdom in my thoughts,
to foolishness and more.
What else can a successor do,
than what was done before?
13 I saw that wisdom’s better than,
what folly has to say;
As much as light is better than,
the darkest hideaway.
14 The wise have eyes to guide their walk,
while fools walk without sight;
But yet I came to understand,
they face a common plight.
15 I thought, “My fate is like the fool’s,
there’s nothing that I gain.”
So I lamented in my heart,
“My wisdom is in vain.”
16 For like the fool, the wise will find,
their days will hurry by;
And soon forgotten, like the fool,
the wise as well must die.
17 And so I hated life because,
of all that burdened me;
It seemed like chasing after wind,
in all futility.
18 I hated all I toiled for,
beneath the blazing sun;
For I must leave it to the one,
who comes when I am done.
19 Who knows if he’ll be wise or dumb,
yet he will reap the gain –
The fruit of all my work and skill.
This too is just in vain.
20 And so my heart began to fret,
for all that I had done;
Despairing over all my work,
beneath the blazing sun.
21 That one should work with mind and skill,
then leave what they possess;
To one who has not done a thing,
is wrong and nothing less.
22 For what do people hope to get,
what do they hope to gain;
Beneath a bright and burning sun,
from toiling and strain?
23 For all their days are full of grief,
of misery and pain;
At night their hearts and minds don’t rest.
This shows that all’s in vain.
24 It’s better just to drink and eat,
and in one’s work be glad;
For I have seen that all of this,
from God’s own hand is had.
25 For without God can anyone,
have drink or food to eat?
Apart from him can anyone,
make their own joy complete?
26 To saints, God gives good sense and joy,
to sinners, grief and pain;
For sinners leave their wealth to saints,
which also is in vain.