Pursuing Pleasure and Pursuing the Wind--
Solomonís Lesson on Hedonism
|Copyright © 2005 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
If it can be said of any man that he knew how to be a hedonist, it can assuredly be said of King Solomon. King Solomon pursued every pleasure he could imagine and did not restrain himself from experiencing anything he could imagine. Sex, drunkenness, music, education, riches, power, conversing and fellowshipping with God as a prophet of the Most High, builder of the most lavish house of worship ever constructed in that time, organizer of a national three-week-long worship service--every pleasure a man can desire. Pleasures holy and pleasures evil; pleasures in God and pleasures not of God.
Hedonism was experienced, in fact pursued with abandon, in its truest and purest form by Solomon.
All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:10a)
Solomon, the Ultimate Hedonist, Judges His Philosophy
As the ultimate hedonist, King Solomon, prophet Solomon, Solomon the Wise, was the perfect test case for whether the philosophy of hedonism has any value in the life of a believer. Solomon pursued every pleasure--he did not just simply let pleasure happen to him. Solomon wanted to determine if human philosophers were right, that the pursuit of pleasure is the key to happiness. And Solomon did not restrict himself to pursuing pleasure in God (though he certainly did that as well) but he also chased after ordinary, wholesome, and even wicked pleasures, all in a comprehensive experiment to determine whether any aspect of pursuing pleasure had lasting value.
I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men--many concubines. Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me.
All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!" In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly. The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11,12:8-13)
It should be surprising to most all Christians that Solomon's conclusions regarding the value of the philosophy of hedonism are simply ignored, and very often even derided, today. Such an attitude of mockery and ignorance belies its own lack of wisdom, for ignoring Solomonís conclusions is to ignore the Word of God, and understanding the Word is a beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). No one was wiser than Solomon, so says the Lord God (1 Kings 4:30), yet theologians arise today announcing they have more insight than Solomon in the matter of hedonism, even calling all men to become hedonists of one sort or another.
"So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" (Ecclesiastes 2:1b,2)
Solomon pursued the best of pleasures in God. He decreed and opened a nationwide three weeks of worship to God (2 Chronicles 7:9). He built a temple to God having been encouraged through the process by direct revelation from the Lord (1 Kings 6). He talked with God as one might talk with their friend, God asked questions, Solomon answered, and God responded (1 Kings 3). Solomon used his unsurpassed wisdom to teach the people knowledge of God (Ecclesiastes 12:9,10). He wrote these proverbs knowing he was writing Godís Word. Yet of all this pursuit of pleasure in God, Solomon wrote:
Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
These two phrases could not be more poignant when compared: "pursuing pleasure" is the same as "pursuing the wind". Pursuing pleasure as a motive or a goal is as silly a goal as chasing after the air that has already blown by. There is no lasting or eternal benefit, if attainment of pleasure is the goal.
Solomon, in addition to pursuing pleasure in God and in the worship of God, pursued pleasure in the ordinary work-a-day world. He built for himself: houses, vineyards, gardens, ponds, and parks. He amassed wealth and acquired servants and musicians. Of these relatively common pleasures, Solomon also concluded, "Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Sadly, Solomon also pursued the unlawful pleasures so adored by the wicked. He purchased sex slaves, called concubines, for himself and indulged in the adulterous sexual "pleasures of men" as heartily as he pursued his other pleasures. Expanding on his fatherís legacy, Solomon violated Godís intents for marriage by accumulating multiple wives, all in the name of the pursuit of pleasure. He even experimented with drunkenness. Still, his conclusion was the same, "all [pursuit of pleasure] was vanity and striving after wind."
In fact, as a result of all his hedonism, what Solomon called his "labors" (labors of hedonism) of which there were holy pursuits of pleasure in God, wholesome pursuits of pleasure in work, and the unholy pursuits of pleasure in adultery and drunkenness, he found his heart was actually pleased with all he had accomplished. That was his human heartís conclusion, it felt good and pleased.
But the spiritual conclusion was very different--it was all vanity, every pursuit of pleasure was empty of true value. In fact, Solomon realized that the ONLY reward for hedonism is the temporary good feelings it engendered. For the pursuit of pleasure, even pleasure in God if pleasure is the true target of the pursuit, is eternally worthless.
All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
When the goal of worship is personal pleasure, the reward is a temporary good feeling in oneís heart, but the eternal value is already spent and is now void. When the goal of service to God is pleasure, one is rewarded with the temporary good feeling of pleasure, but the eternal value is gone. When one greedily pursues pleasure in possessions or illicit sex, the temporary payoff is good feelings of pleasure, but the eternal value is missing.
This same lesson Jesus taught us.
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." (Matthew 6:5)
These hypocrites got pleasure from being seen in worship in the synagogues. Since pleasure was their objective, they achieved their objective in full. Yes, they got pleasure, but they missed the better outcome of worship. There are better motives for worship than the accomplishment of self-pleasure. In any activity, if the chief outcome desired is pleasure, then Solomon instructs us that we are striving after wind and investing in vanity.
If hedonism had any value in worship or any useful essence in service to God, Solomon would not have called the pursuit of pleasure vanity, folly, and pursuing the wind.
Pursuit of Pleasure Is Vanity, But Is It Sin?
There is a further question that Solomonís experiment raises.
God hands us pleasure freely. Pleasures from and in God are constantly compassing us. It would not be possible to wake up, shower, and eat breakfast without bumping into, stumbling over, passing by, and consuming elements of God's creation that He provided for us to gladly and thankfully experience.
In this understanding C. S. Lewis concurs with Solomon, "[the pursuit of pleasure is] greed. Instead of saying, ĎThis also is Thou,í one may say the fatal word Encore." (Lewis, Letter 17, Letters to Malcolm) Lewis referred to pursuing pleasures as the practice of "adoration in infinitesimals," a practice which he would never permit to gain prominence over and above obedience, "Donít imagine I am forgetting that the simplest act of mere obedience is worship of a far more important sort than what Iíve been describing (to obey is better than sacrifice)." (Lewis, Letter 17, Letters to Malcolm) Had Lewis not agreed with Solomon in his conclusions about the pursuit of pleasure being a valueless greed then it would have been Lewis whom we would have been required to distrust and whose teachings would have had to be discarded as imprecise reflections of Scripture. In any conflict between modern philosophy and the judgments of Scripture, Scripture must always be given dominance and the errant philosophy repudiated.
Solomon chased pleasures, both of the moral and immoral variety. Solomon's conclusion was that making pleasure an end, a goal, an object of desire, was vanity--an empty waste and a distraction to the real business of life. He concluded that the godly goals of life were to "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." (Eccl.12:13b NIV)
Experiencing pleasure as a side benefit to genuinely biblical pursuits is part of the reward system God has created. Pursuing pleasure, as if it were itself a goal, according to Solomon, is unwise. Pursuing pleasure is nowhere commended by God's Word as a healthy focus or activity. It is called unwise, quite often, even a folly:"The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure." (Ecclesiastes 7:4)
For example, we know that God is the one who originated pain. Pain, as a tool to keep us focused on God and as a mechanism to keep us from injuring our own bodies, is a good and valid aspect of being human. Yet, as good as pain is, it would be unwise to pursue it. Certainly the Bible calls us to be sorrowful and to gnash our teeth and agonize as if in pain over our sins, but it does not call us to pursue the pain as if it were the goal. No, repentance is the true goal and pain is but the tool that God uses. We do not invoke the pain on ourselves, it is the gift that God gives us to goad us to do better. So it is with pleasure, it is not the goal which we actively seek, rather it is the unbidden tool that God imposes on us to accomplish His will. No one seeks the tool, one seeks the finished product fashioned by the work of the tool.
King Solomon wrote:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." (Eccl.12:13 NIV)
Through the tool of paraphrasing Solomonís summary statements, we may be able to gain a deeper understanding of his insights regarding the pursuit of pleasure, hedonism.
Solomon: Now all has been heardÖ
Paraphrase: After all the persuasive arguments have been pitched, and when the best arguments for the philosophy of the pursuit of pleasure (be they pleasures in God, in religion, in nature, in labor, or in sin) have been profferedÖ
Solomon: here is the conclusion of the matter:
Paraphrase: here is the summary judgment having weighed hedonism on the scales of wisdom and having it measure up short as a philosophy for living a God-pleasing life:
Solomon: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Paraphrase: As your highest priority, love God with an attitude dominated by fear and respect, and so obey His commandments. For making this your philosophy of life is the entire duty of every man.
Solomon's wise words rebuff all pleas to make "the pursuit of pleasure" into a philosophy useful to the one who loves God. Solomon properly concludes that the only valid philosophy is: "to fear God" (an expression that combines love with extreme respect) and "obey His Word." Fear God and obey His Word. Why have so few made that expression of Scripture into a motto or a creed?
" ĎCome now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.í And behold, it too was futility. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure. Behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun." -- King Solomon, the Wise