The most popular philosophy of all time is the most ineffective.
Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon is on a quest for purpose. He first tries the most obvious approach known to man: do whatever makes you feel good. We call this attitude hedonism, a philosophy of life that encourages gratification of the senses—doing whatever makes you tingle.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity (Eccl. 2:2).
And so almost immediately, within one verse, Solomon informs us that raw pleasure cannot provide ultimate meaning for human life.
If it did, celebrities would be the happiest people on earth. And why not? They have all the money, the power, the fame, and the sex appeal. But just this last week I stumbled across something called “the 27 Club.” Apparently, a number of high-echelon celebrities, folks who attained to almost mythical status, all died due to alcohol and drug-related causes at the age of twenty-seven.
- Janis Joplin, legendary rock and blues singer from the late sixties, heroin overdose.
- Jimi Hendrix, consistently ranked the greatest rock guitarist who ever lived, barbiturate overdose.
- Jim Morrison of The Doors, pioneer of experimental rock, drug overdose.
- Kurt Cobain, frontman for the band Nirvana, a combination of drugs, and suicide.
And not making “the 27 club,” but cultural icons, nonetheless:
Hank Williams, father of country western music, dead at twenty-nine, of a drug-related heart attack. Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and actors like John Belushi, Chris Farley, Philipp Seymour, and a host of others too numerous to mention, all lived large, yet became victims of drugs and alcohol.
These talented people whose music and acting we so admire, could only cope by medicating themselves. It was as if their pleasures had become their pain. The more freedoms they allowed themselves, the steeper their decline. Something is obviously wrong with hedonism. Unleashed, it doesn’t lead us into happiness. Instead it funnels us into troubled relationships, drugs, and then maybe, death.
Yet, weirdly enough, our society encourages hedonistic pursuits. We change the labels knowing that the term hedonism isn’t cool, so instead we call it freedom, elimination of boundaries, or some other courageous pseudonym. It’s a philosophy that beckons everyone—adults, and kids, Christians, or non-Christians. The trail is wildly popular, even though it is littered with the dead and dying. Why do we take it? Because it feels good, like the fellow dying of thirst, who keeps drinking saltwater. Each gulp brings satisfaction, while simultaneously creating thirst.
As an ultimate purpose in life, pleasure fails.
Solomon lists all the substances, accomplishments, and materials he tried from Ecclesiastes 2:2-8, until, in verse eleven, he says, “behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
But then in verse 13, a reflective ray of hope? He says, “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.”
If it was a brief positive interlude, it was just as quickly interrupted by a discordant note:
“…And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Solomon realized that his heart would one day stop, just like everyone else, including the village idiot. Why had he tried so hard to be, and do the right thing? The question left him in a depressed state, hating life.
He also began to despise his accomplishments:
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.
We’ve seen this dynamic play out many times, where the first generation builds wealth, only for fools in the second and third to squander it. “Why even try?” Solomon wonders.
At this point you might expect the wise king to end with something familiar to the modern-day evangelical. Read your Bible. Pray. Do nothing except God-related activities.
Instead, listen to his surprising conclusion:
24 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,
Solomon does not recommend gluttony and drunkenness, just eating and drinking like a normal person, and living a simple life. He adds that we should also find some measure of enjoyment in our work, because like it or not, you will spend most of your life in the workplace. As much as it depends on you, make your office a low impact, non-toxic environment. Do what you can to be productive. After all, Solomon says, all of it is from the hand of God.
Verse 25 adds, “apart from him, who can eat and who can have enjoyment?”
This is a stunning Old Testament observation. If you are excluding God from your daily life, you’re going to have a hard time enjoying even the little things.
By the time I graduated seminary, I was running on nothing but Red Bull and the Holy Spirit. For years I had been a full-time student, while serving as a full-time pastor. I remember sitting in the commencement ceremony, looking at the commencement program with all the names and their academic honors. Next to mine was “Magna Cum Laude.” I enjoyed my listing for four seconds. That’s when I noticed the name ahead of mine had gotten Summa Cum Laude. My enjoyment shriveled when I realized someone had earned something bigger and better. In the moment I had forgotten God, therefore the joy I should have experienced evaporated instantly.
Outside the presence of the Lord, we either excessively binge, or endlessly complain. It is a serious issue also brought up in the New Testament, where, in Philippians chapter 3, Paul writes,
18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
The “many” the apostle spoke of indicates the popularity of hedonism. The fact that he often told the Philippians about this, means it was a warning that figured prominently into his ministry. And it was heartbreaking to him. Maybe as he wrote, he remembered the names of professing Christians who had opted for a lifestyle of pleasure seeking.
You see, hedonism is absolutely antithetical to the cross. The cross of Christ is all about self-denial, of putting something down when God deems it appropriate, and trusting that He is able to resurrect it at a certain time, and in a certain form that is good for Him and for you. Hedonism has no such trust or desire. It clutches even the cheapest things in life with a death grip, until in verse 19, it says, “their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Destruction comes from turning God-created things like food and drink into objects of worship—”their god is their belly.” It is an idolatry of pleasure that celebrates shameful excess, parading it in front of others. Paul said that such people have “minds set on earthly things.” They see their purpose as being here, under the sun.
If this is the lifestyle that emerges from hating the cross, what will be the outcome of embracing the cross? First, that of belonging. Verse 20 says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” That is the place of our ultimate allegiance. And speaking of mindset, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what our heart and hope is set upon.
Verse 21 continues, saying, he “will transform our lowly body.” We are living not for the stimulation, but for the transformation of our bodies, “to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
If we are occupied with such big hopes, we probably won’t expect a multitude of little things to give us purpose. In fact, even if we don’t currently have a surplus of extras, it’s amazing how with God, our sense of blessing doesn’t diminish.
I read of a pastor who went on a short-term mission trip to a leper colony. When he stood up to preach there on Sunday morning, he caught sight of what he described as a woman who had the most horrible face he had ever seen. Leprosy had ravaged her features, leaving her with no ears or nose. She raised her hand, which no longer had any fingers on it, and asked, “Could we please sing, ‘Count Your Many Blessings’?” ¹
The pastor was shaken to the core. He ran out of the pulpit to a back room where he wept. One of his ministry team members found him, and said, “Well, I guess you’ll never be able to sing that hymn again.” The pastor replied, “Oh, I’ll be able to sing it again. I’ll just never sing it the same way.”
Without Christ, there never seems to be enough money, never enough pleasure. You’re never comfortable enough, thin enough, tan enough, accomplished enough. And yet with the transforming power of God in Christ, even when we’re bereft of everything, we still sing of our cup overflowing.
Today, the message that filters downward from the corridors of power all the way to your kids’ Disney movies, tells everyone to do whatever they want, as long as it feels good. The world hasn’t given up on Ecclesiastes chapter 2. It is still trying to prove Solomon wrong—that hedonism actually does work.
But believers in Jesus practice being with God, and embracing the cross. That means you can pick up things and enjoy them, and then put them down again without worshiping them.
We can enjoy a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream, take a long walk through an Autumn Forest when it is lit up with fall colors. You should be able to feel the pleasure of holding a puppy, or when you’re tinkering with an old car you’re hoping to restore. Maybe on a rainy afternoon in the summer, you’ll have the satisfaction of spreading out all your craft stuff on the kitchen table as you get ready for a big project. Or maybe, like me, you relish the adventure of trying to catch that personal best Largemouth bass.
In these and a thousand other possibilities, you’re able to have a blast, enjoying things from the hand of God. You can do this, because you know that none of them are the reason you’re here on this earth.
Even while you’re having fun, you’re holding back. You’re reserving your heart for something a whole lot bigger, that can’t possibly fit under the sun.
¹ “Count Your Blessings” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hb4JBNDWhOA
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