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As we considered last week, Solomon is engaged in a great experiment. It is important, therefore, that we understand the scope of his enquiry. Solomon uses the phrase ‘under the sun’ twenty eight times throughout Ecclesiastes to define the scope of his investigation. He also similarly uses the phrase, ‘under heaven’,
'And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven…' (Ecclesiastes 1:13a)
We must ask, then, what does Solomon intend us to understand by this phrase, ‘under the sun’ or ‘under heaven’? In the first week of this series, we considered the way in which Solomon examines life in this fallen world. The key reference point for understanding Ecclesiastes, then, is Genesis Chapters 1 to 3 which describe God creating all things, man rebelling and then this same creator God judging and cursing his creation to futility. It is as if Solomon reads this portion of Scripture and then determines to trace out the consequences of the fall and subsequent judgement in the world around him.
It is true, therefore, that Solomon sees life as frustrating, painful and inscrutable. There is no suggestion in this book, however, that Solomon is either atheistic or agnostic. There is no suggestion of an absence of God. Rather, Solomon understands that the world is this way precisely because of God. This leads me to my second point of clarification.
We find that Solomon’s outlook upon this vain existence under the sun is profoundly theocentric. As we considered last week, Solomon understands that this world is as it is because God has willed it thus,
'…It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.' (Ecclesiastes 1:13b)
It is an unhappy business that God has given. Solomon looks at the world and sees suffering, injustice and frustration and yet there is no attempt to distance the Creator from his creation. Solomon instead sees the hand of God active in all that he has made.
This requires careful consideration. There are three principles which help guide our thoughts as we consider such weighty matters.
This is a fundamental principle that is found on virtually every page of the bible. Indeed, Ecclesiastes ends with a dire warning,
'For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.' (Ecclesiastes 12:14)
Similarly, the Apostle Paul warns in the New Testament,
'For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.' (2 Corinthians 5:10)
The warning of Scripture is clear; God will hold all people to account (as Paul writes) for every deed that is done (as Solomon adds).
This truth should be cause for sombre reflection. Few believers would question this truth if challenged doctrinally, but, when it comes to practice, we too often look to blame others for our own shortcomings, failings and sin. The phrase, ‘it’s not my fault’ is as common within the church as it is without.
The warning of Scripture is clear; I sin and I am held responsible for my sin. The promise of Scripture is similarly clear; for those who receive Christ, the penalty for sin is satisfied at the cross.
This is a difficult and profound truth reiterated throughout Scripture. Indeed, in Ecclesiastes, Solomon urges the believing community to remember that God is Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1) and that this same God provides good things for men and women to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25). Scripture presents a God who creates, regulates and reigns over his creation. Consider then the words of Jesus,
'And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.' (Matthew 10:28-31)
This God, our God, is awesome. Jesus says that not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside God’s sovereign design. The truth of this is amazing.
Now, I do not know how many sparrows are currently living and doing whatever sparrows do at this particular moment in time, but I am willing to guess that they number in the millions. Our God knows each one and, more than this, God exercises his sovereign will over every sparrow. And not just sparrows. Jesus is not suggesting that God has a thing for sparrows, but rather, if God is interested in a sparrow, how much more is he concerned with cats, dogs, horses, cows, lions…
Jesus expects believers to derive great comfort from this, ‘Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.’
This is the same truth which underpins Solomon’s observation that,
'…It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.' (Ecclesiastes 1:13b)
Scripture presents a sovereign God who holds all things in his hand, be it peace, blessing, calamity, wickedness or even death. God is and remains in control. God is at work moving, ordaining and decreeing all things in accordance with his sovereign will. This is why the Prophet Isaiah is able to proclaim,
'I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.' (Isaiah 45:7)
Interestingly, the word translated ‘calamity’ in Isaiah is the same word in Hebrew that underlies the phrase ‘unhappy business’ in Ecclesiastes. Both Solomon and Isaiah understand that God is in control. In the midst of the horror of war, God is in control. In times of famine, starvation and want, God is in control. In the day of disaster when a Tsunami wipes out a hundred thousand people in just a few short hours, God is in control.
This leads me to my third point.
The third glorious truth is that although God is sovereign he cannot be implicated in any wrongdoing whatsoever. His sovereign rule over all things does not in anyway compromise his character. This is why the Apostle John is able to write so emphatically,
'…God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.' (John 1:5b)
The struggle for believers then is to balance these glorious truths: we are responsible for our own sin and God is sovereign over all things without ever compromising his character. He is light and in him is no darkness at all.
I find this ultimately reassuring and echo the words of Pastor John Piper who has written,
'We believe that all the wrestling to understand what the Bible teaches about God is worth it. God is a rock of strength in a world of quicksand. To know him in his sovereignty is to become like an oak tree in the wind of adversity and confusion. And along with strength is sweetness and tenderness beyond imagination. The sovereign Lion of Judah is the sweet Lamb of God.'
As we grapple with these weighty truths we can better understand what Solomon intends when he writes that it is God who has give this unhappy business to the children of man (Ecclesiastes 1:13). As we understand this, we better understand what it means to live this life under the sun; this life ordained by a sovereign creator God.
And so we move into our text for this evening.
'I said in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself." But behold, this also was vanity. 'I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?"' (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
We come now to the great experiment and Solomon begins by saying to himself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure’ (Ecclesiastes 2:1). This should shock us. If it doesn’t shock us, we maybe need to reflect on how we spend our Friday nights and weekends. This should shock us because it is a shocking statement.
Solomon sets out on his great experiment by determining to test himself with pleasure. My question is what on earth do we do with this?
I am reassured, in part, to find that commentators and bible scholars with IQs considerably greater than mine similarly struggle with this passage.
The first issue to be resolved is the Hebrew word here translated ‘pleasure’. The Hebrew word 'simchah' is ambiguous and can be taken to describe the joy experienced in the worship and celebration of God (e.g. 2 Samuel 6:12) or to describe mirth and enjoyment in a secular setting.
We must question then what Solomon means when he sets out to test pleasure. It is here commentators divide. Some argue that Solomon, ‘urges himself to embark on a course of sensual pleasure, i.e., that which delights the senses without being necessarily sinful.’ (J.E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and the Psalms, 1996).
My issue with this is that in order for this view to make any sense, we must seriously distort the way in which we approach the remainder of the text. In order to accommodate this benign understanding of pleasure, commentators interpret the text in a way which seems bizarre to me. There are commentators who will argue that Solomon’s enjoyment of wine (Ecclesiastes 2:3) is that of a connoisseur wine-taster and some even take the ‘concubines’ in verse 8 to be male and female wine stewards.
The more natural reading, given the context, is to take the word ‘pleasure’ in its purely secular sense. Solomon sets out to experience pleasure and enjoy life. We will find, as we move through the text, that he experiments with drink (v. 3), sex and rock ‘n’ roll (well, choral music, v. 8).
This, however, leaves a bigger question unanswered; how then should we take Solomon’s experimentation with ‘pleasure’ or, more specifically should we ask if Solomon, in his determination to test enjoyment, is indulging in sinful behaviour?
In truth, this is the controversial question which underpins much of our discomfort with the book of Ecclesiastes. As we understand, however, that Solomon is the speaker, this question becomes easier to answer.
Solomon was greatly blessed by God and given wisdom, power and great riches and yet he turned away to other false gods. For Solomon, the road to rebellion was lined with women,
'Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods." Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods.
And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the LORD commanded.' (1 Kings 11:1-10)
The truth is that Solomon did pursue pleasure and this pursuit of pleasure led him into sin. Tradition has it (and I place light emphasis on this as Scripture is silent on this matter) that in his later years Solomon returned to the Lord and wrote Ecclesiastes as he reflected upon his vain life. This perhaps helps us to understand the framed narration device; I would suggest that the voice in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 is an old Solomon. The rest of the book is, in effect, one long flashback.
There is control in Solomon’s determination to test pleasure, his wisdom remained with him, and this differentiates his experience from ours.
'So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.' (Ecclesiastes 2:9)
Similarly, in verse 3, Solomon says that he tested himself with wine and yet his heart still guided him with wisdom. This is significant. When you and I engage in sin pretty soon the activity becomes habitual, then it becomes compulsive and then we are trapped; the thing becomes the thing which defines us. We become a lustful person compulsively driven to consume sex. We become a greedy person, motivated in the pursuit of wealth. We become an angry person, unable to control the rage burning within us.
It seems, however, Solomon retained his God-given wisdom and maintained a measure of control which you and I do not possess. Solomon tests pleasure; you and I are commanded to flee from sin (1 Corinthians 6:18). Sin will not be domesticated.
'I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.' (Ecclesiastes 2:2-3)
Solomon begins his search by pursuing pleasure in laughter and folly. The picture Solomon paints here is a familiar one. Solomon is describing a scene in which there is drinking, socialising and frivolity, but with very little substance.
Consider our social circle. It is common in our day to have a wide circle of friends. We meet, we joke, we tell amusing anecdotes and we laugh, but we never get beyond the surface. This is just entertainment by association, avoiding deep conversation and deep relationships.
Just think about significant stages in your life, school, college, university, your first job; how many people from those social circles do you still see? We have traded deep friendship for amusing acquaintances. This is the scene Solomon describes for us. There is drinking, laughter, foolish pranks and yet, ultimately, the time spent and the connections made are pointless and meaningless and of no lasting value.
Solomon describes a scene straight from a Judd Apatow movie, this is bromance in all its glory.
I often hear of men and women who neglect their family, train-wreck their marriages, jeopardise their jobs and even walk away from Christ because they want to spend more time with their mates, or because they miss the lads/girls night out. This is tragic.
Believers are called to live in deep relationship with one another and it is the headship of Christ and the Holy Spirit that binds us all together.
'I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.' (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6)
This is Solomon. Scripture tells us that Solomon devoted himself to a spectacular construction programme. We are told that it took thirteen years and astonishing resources to construct his palace; we are told that his building project involved expensive cedar and costly stones (1 Kings 7). We are told that he planted vast forests and vineyards and even built new cities to store provisions and resettle his people (2 Chronicles 8).
It is easy reading this list of achievements to believe that Solomon is acting as a civic benefactor or wealthy philanthropist. Ecclesiastes makes it clear, however, that the principle motivation in all of these projects is Solomon’s selfish pursuit of pleasure, ‘I made’, ‘I built’ (v. 4), ‘I made myself’ (v. 5) and ‘I made myself’ (v. 6).
There is a sobering thought for believer and unbeliever alike. There is a way of doing great works that benefit others and yet the primary motive deep at the heart of it is still self. Perhaps our true motive is the pleasurable feeling altruism brings or perhaps our motive is the admiration received through conspicuous works of righteousness.
'I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.' (Ecclesiastes 2:7-8a)
Solomon continues his test by searching for pleasure in possessions and wealth. The conviction that pleasure and satisfaction can be derived from (or through) wealth is utterly endemic within western culture. We see this everywhere from the advertising that tries to sell us happiness through stuff; to the television programmes which promote a way of life that depends on the right designer clothes and furnishings; through to celebrity which presents an image of how this healthy, wealthy and satisfied life might look.
Solomon tests wealth on a level to which you and I will never attain. Scripture tells us that Solomon climbed golden steps in order to reach his golden throne and that he ate from golden plates and drank from golden vessels. Such was Solomon’s wealth that we are told that,
'…silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.' (1 Kings 10:21)
'And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah.' (1 Kings 10:27)
'I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.' (Ecclesiastes 2:8c)
We learn elsewhere that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines of many different nationalities and backgrounds. The phrase in Hebrew, ‘the delight of the children of man’, is a euphemism to describe sexual pleasure.
Every culture and time has its own high profile womanisers. Solomon, however, is operating on an entirely different plane.
'So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. '(Ecclesiastes 2:9-10a)
Solomon finds himself in a unique situation where he is able to take possession of all that he desires. The truth is that we have many desires, but oftentimes do not possess the resources to fulfil them. Our circumstances and lack of resources are a great check on us and limit our experience and potential to sin.
Solomon had no limits and no control. Anything he saw and wanted, he had the absolute freedom to take. The only limit on Solomon’s desires is that ‘his wisdom remained with [him]’.
Having pursued and tested pleasure Solomon arrives at three conclusions.
Solomon begins his great experiment by resolving to test his heart with pleasure,
'I said in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself." But behold, this also was vanity.' (Ecclesiastes 2:1)
He now concludes,
'I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.' (Ecclesiastes 2:10b)
Solomon’s heart found pleasure. This is a reality check to the church and again reminds us of the importance of seeing the world as it truly is.
We often see our unbelieving friends engaged in all the world has to offer and we can kid ourselves that everyone around us is miserable and unhappy (and, of course, sometimes they are). We see people sleeping around, drinking to excess and engaged in other sinful behaviour and we find ourselves responding, condescendingly, and assuming that they are miserable and unhappy.
Solomon concludes that pleasure is pleasurable.
How then should we live, should we ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we die’ (1 Corinthians 15:32)? Solomon proceeds to unpack the implications of his pleasure test further.
'And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.' (Ecclesiastes 2:10)
It is interesting to me that Solomon uses the word ‘toil’ to describe his testing of pleasure. Think about this carefully, this pleasure test has involved drinking, parties and a succession of beautiful women. Why does Solomon think of these pursuits as toil?
The truth is that this way of living is wearing. We all know this to be true. Most of us have experience bad relationships, excessive living and selfish pursuits and know that eventually such living becomes incredibly wearisome. This is precisely where we were at week 1,
'All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.' (Ecclesiastes 1:8)
'Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.' (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Solomon concludes that the pursuit of pleasure under the sun is, ultimately, doomed to frustration. In the end the women will desert us, the things we make will crumble, the wealth we acquire will be passed to our idiot sons and our name will be at best maligned and at worst forgotten. Such living has no lasting value. The question is, how should we then live?
Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to Titus,
'For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.' (Titus 3:3-7)
Paul understands that before Christ we were slaves to our passions. We wanted sex; we spent our will, energy and ingenuity trying to fulfil our desires. We wanted money, our mind turned constantly and restlessly to how we could boost and supplement our income.
Paul sees as Solomon sees that this pursuit of passion and pleasure ultimately leads to destruction.
But rescue comes in the shape of a person. The goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appears and he brings rescue. More than this, however, Christ Jesus brings the hope of eternal life. This is significant, I think. Paul’s point is that this Christ-centred hope supplants our desire for lesser things. Paul’s point is that in Christ we trade up because our hope of eternal life is focused on and in him. We do not desire to live longer, we desire to be with him forever. Our petty passions and earthly pleasures are fully satisfied in him.
This is why Jesus urges believers to replace our pursuit of earthly treasure with a wholehearted devotion to building up heavenly treasure. We build up heavenly treasure as we pursue, serve, worship and adore Christ Jesus.
'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.' (Matthew 6:19-21)
Preached by Andrew Evans on the evening of the 21 June 2009 at Firwood Church, Oldham, Manchester, UK
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