Mining the Scriptures – Of Pleasures and Palaces by Paul Earnhart

 

“I said in my heart, ‘Come I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ ” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 2).

Solomon, his failed experiment with wisdom having been recounted, now tells of a similarly empty attempt to find contentment in pleasure. From the discipline of careful thought he turns first to a passionate pursuit of the sensual. He pours himself into every activity pleasing to the senses, bombarding himself with delights of the flesh. If he could not think his way to life’s purpose perhaps he could experience his way to it. But even before he relates the details of his new research he declares its results—complete and utter madness. It accomplished absolutely nothing.

 

“I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives” (v. 3). It strikes us as strange that the Preacher should begin intentionally to experiment with “folly” but this is likely a word used in retrospect. The Hebrew verb from which its original is formed usually indicates moral and spiritual stupidity rather than just intellectual foolishness (1 Samuel 13:13; 2 Samuel 24:10), thus, “the wickedness of folly” (7:25).

 

Solomon speaks specifically here of gratifying himself with wine. Does he mean to refer to drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29, 30; 31:4, 5) or simply to the delights of good and nourishing but non-intoxicating food (Ecclesiastes 9:7, 8)? And is the folly here in immoral excesses or in trying to turn otherwise innocent pleasures (delectable food, pleasing clothing, lovely music, 2:8b) into the whole purpose of life? The Preacher seems very intent on telling us that his experiment with pleasure never led him to mindless excess (“while guiding my heart with wisdom”). Perhaps, practically, it does not matter. Whether one dives headfirst into pleasure or tastes its delights with respectable prudence, neither will bring any ultimate satisfaction. The former may cause more momentary havoc but both will end in emptiness of heart.

This is an important warning for a generation intent on living in a continuous party, entertaining itself into stupefaction. All too soon the endless banqueting grows stale and the laughter dies or becomes hollow (7:6). The pursuit of pleasure is necessarily flawed by its essential selfishness and devaluation of others. It becomes increasingly addictive increasingly unsatisfying. This is not to disparage innocent fun but building our lives on it is to mindlessly and endlessly relive some sophomoric stage of life.

 

Solomon refers later in this section (v. 8b) to another sensual delight to which he gave himself, “the delights of the sons of men”(NKJ) or as it may be better translated “the pleasures of menmany concubines” (NAS). This may be a case of understatement for the king actually had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). One wonders how in his relatively short lifetime he ever managed to hold even a brief conversation with each of them! His proverbs suggest that they must have given him as much pain as pleasure (Proverbs 21:9, 19; 27:15) and they became the primary reason for his apostasy from God (1 Kings 11:4). Marriage is truly a blessing from God (9:9) but not even a wonderful marriage can bear the load of being life’s ultimate purpose! It is evident in this age of serial polygamy that some are still seeking to find transcendent happiness in marriage, running from one partner to the next. None of them will ever approach the level of Solomon’s experiment and like him they too will fail. We ought to be wise enough to learn from the other fellow’s experience.

 

But not all pleasure is sensual. “I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them” (2:4, 5). Failing to find life’s meaning in physical gratifications Solomon turns to more substantial and useful pleasures, the creating of great palaces and delightful gardens, the multiplication of great herds and flocks and the accumulation of great wealth. The purpose of all this frenetic building was to somehow bring a sense of fulfillment and peace and compared to his plunge into sensuality it was certainly a step up. Solomon did find pleasure in the midst of his work (2:10) but when it was done and he reflected on its ultimate significance he concluded that it, too, was meaningless (2:11).

 

Solomon with his virtually limitless resources had restricted himself from no desired pleasure or pursuit (2:10) and it worked to make him surpassingly great among men (2:9). Yet for all his achievements he concluded with an emptiness perhaps even greater than that with which he began. It was destined to fail from the beginning because he was searching in the wrong places and always for the wrong reason—for himself (2:4–6, 8). Life is not made of pleasures and palaces.[1]

[1] Earnhart, P. (1999). Mining the Scriptures: Of Pleasures and Palaces. Christianity Magazine, 16(3/4), 35.

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