Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 (text); 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 1 Peter 4:1-5, 12-14
|May 26, 2013||Download this sermon (PDF)|
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in our previous studies in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we looked at why the author concludes that life, wisdom and work are vanities or meaningless. Today, we read that he turned from the pursuit of wisdom and work to pursuing the pleasures of life. And his conclusion was the same: life’s pleasures are meaningless, a chasing after wind.
The Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 2:2, “I said … of pleasure, ‘What use is it’?”Are all life’s pleasures really “useless” and meaningless? Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:1-4 that in these last days after the first coming of Christ, people will be, among other evil things, “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” In Greek, the word used for “lovers of pleasure” is philedonoi, a combination of philos, which means “love,” and hedone, which means pleasure. Also, “lovers of God” is another combined word, this time, philos is combined with theos, the Greek word for God (so the name “Teofilo” means “beloved of God”).
From the Greek word for pleasure, hedone, came the English word “hedonism.” Hedonism has come to mean that “pleasure or happiness is the highest good,” or “devotion to pleasure as a way of life.” Using this definition of hedonism, it is impossible to have a Christian or Biblical doctrine of hedonism. In fact, in all five uses of this word in the New Testament, all of them refer to the pleasures of life that is not pleasing to God (Luke 8:14; Tit 3:3; Jas 4:1, 3; 2 Pet 2:13).
So John Piper’s term “Christian hedonism” is an oxymoron. But why does he teach this? In Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Multnomah Publishers, 2003), he even rewords Q&A 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” The catechism actually says, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” So even his interpretation of this is different: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”
Though I haven’t read the book (and I have no desire to) there are three things that many sound critiques have found questionable in this teaching:
First, doesn’t this mean that God is merely a means for man to attain his highest pleasure, which is what the Teacher experimented in? Second, doesn’t this mean that God needs human beings to get what he wants, which is to be glorified? Piper even places Christian hedonism as the goal of all creation, “Christian Hedonism… is what the whole universe is about,” an astonishing statement. Third, he redefines salvation according to man’s pleasure: “Unless a man is born again into a Christian Hedonist, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is one of the most amazing distortions of Christian salvation!
In short, Piper’s doctrine reduces God to be the means by which a Christian can satisfy his quest for pleasure—utilitarianism.
But is there pleasure that is not sinful hedonism? We will dwell on the subject of human pleasure today, “Two Lovers, Two Destinations,” under these headings: first, Lovers of Pleasure: Passing Away; and second, Lovers of God, Remaining Forever.
Lovers of Pleasure: Passing Away
Notice that right at the beginning of our text, the Teacher begins the subject of man’s quest for pleasure already with a conclusion, “But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” (v 2). Hedonism, like wisdom and work, is also vanity.
His experiment with pleasure is a colossal failure. So in the following verses, he explains why. His list of things in the world that gave him pleasure fall into three categories.
Pleasure in Projects
The first category is his own projects, his “great works.” In these verses (4-6), there are four “I’s” and three “myself’s.” All these projects are for his own pleasure, not for his people’s benefit. He was like King Nebuchadnezzar after he built his famous palace and hanging gardens in Babylon, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30).
He describes all his projects in the plural: houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, trees, and pools of water. The description reminds us of the garden of Eden, especially the words “all kinds of fruit trees.” For Adam, God planted “a garden in Eden,” and he “made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:8-9). From the garden of Eden flowed a great river that divided into four rivers to water the earth. In the same way, the king built many pools of water to irrigate his garden. It is not surprising then that his “parks” was translated from Hebrew to Greek as paradeisos, which means “paradise” (Rev 2:7). He was trying to re-create the paradise in the Garden of Eden for his own pleasure!
His building projects obviously required slaves, so he “bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house” (v 7). Surely, he bought not 10, or 100, but thousands of slaves, not only for his building projects, but also for his own household of hundreds..
From the very beginning, man was already obsessed with great building projects: the tower of Babel, great temples, dams, buildings. All of us are obsessed with building our own empires, whether it’s a small apartment or a big mansion. We are proud of whatever things we have provided for our families, and rightly so. Even this is commanded in Scripture (1 Tim 5:8).
And churches are not exempted from this quest of building bigger and better things. This last week, we saw the opening of a huge, multi-billion-peso “church” building. Surely, the many pastors and officers of that church, including the congregation as well, are now congratulating themselves for this great accomplishment to satisfy their pleasure. Except for the Jerusalem Temple, which foreshadowed the eternal city of God, where in the Bible did God command the church to build huge church buildings?
Pleasure in Possessions
The king in Ecclesiastes also hoarded for his own pleasure all kinds of possessions. The description “filthy rich” doesn’t do justice to his wealth. His opulence compares with today’s Fortune 400 billionaires (vv 7-8).
In King Solomon’s kitchen, the chefs and slaves would prepare every day, “ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl” (1 Kings 4:23). He could have fed thousands of his citizens, not just his own, with this amount of food!
His thousands of slaves were not only for his many building projects and possessions and his big household. They were also personally serving him: officials, attendants, servants, cupbearers, etc. Even the attire of his servants astonished the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10:4-8).
He also amassed great amounts of gold, silver and other precious stones. The Queen of Sheba gave him a staggering 4,000 kilos of gold and “a great quantity of spices and precious stones.” In one year, 20,000 kilos of gold were given as tribute to him. He had so much gold that “silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon.” He had a fleet of ships that brought him “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kgs 10:10, 14, 21-22).
In the ancient Near East, possession of a good number of livestock was considered wealth, and Solomon “had also great possessions of herds and flocks.” He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen (1 Kgs 10:26). At the dedication of the temple, he offered sacrifices of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep! (2 Chr 7:5).
His obsession for pleasure was truly “madness.” But what did God think about this madness of wealth? Before they entered the Promised Land, Israel was given instructions by God on how much wealth the king should have:
Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You shall never return that way again.” And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold (Deut 17:16-17).
We have looked at how Solomon has violated the acquisition of excessive wealth such as horses, gold and silver. We will look now at how he violated one last command.
Pleasure in Passions
In verse 2, the Teacher talks about one of his pleasures: laughter. This can mean “joy,” but because he says that laughter is madness, this laughter is more of a careless, lighthearted kind of fun. Surely, he must have experimented with jokes, comedy, and “fun and games.”
Most laughter is not pleasing to God. Laughter caused by crude joking, corrupting talk, making fun of other people, especially if they are different from us, is not acceptable behavior (Eph 5:4; 4:29). Today, we are obsessed with comedy, laughter and jokes. Our favorite shows are the noontime variety shows which are full of laughter, most of them from crude and perverse jokes. We love sitcoms. We love Youtube clips of comedies. (I love the Three Stooges). Even radio is full of corrupting talk followed by recorded laughter every 5 seconds, when there’s nothing to laugh about.
Did you know that our saying, “Just kidding!” is in the Bible: “the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” is a madman (Prov 26:19) And when a fool argues with a wise man, “the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Prov 29:9), because he doesn’t know what to say.
However, there is laughter that is also pleasing to God. The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is said to trust God so much that “she laughs at the time to come,” which means she doesn’t worry about the future (v 25). When God forgives and restores his people, the psalmist says, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psa 126:2). After a righteous man suffers, God will “fill [his] mouth with laughter, and [his] lips with shouting” (Job 8:21). Even food “is made for laughter” to make one happy (Eccl 10:19).
This is what has happened to most churches. Because of lack of knowledge among both pastors and congregations, churches are full of laughter from puppet shows, talk shows, announcements, and Powerpoint presentations. Everything has to have entertaining laughter, including sermons. A sermon without jokes and laughter is boring. I’ve heard some people laugh even while they are praying, though there is nothing to laugh about. The whole worship of God, even God’s Word, has become a laughing matter!
There is no seriousness in the churches. Everything has to be fun and games, and if you don’t jump on the entertainment bandwagon, you will be left behind (the Reformed kind). Carl Trueman, in “Tragic Worship,” comments, “This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities.”
The Teacher now turns to a second experiment: wine. He wanted to “cheer his body with wine” (v 3). But he says that his heart was “still guiding him with wisdom.” This could mean that he was not abusing alcohol, just enjoying it. Solomon knows very well that abuse of wine is foolishness, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov 20:1). And drunkenness is condemned by God (Ezek 23:33; Rom 13:13). But the enjoyment of wine is not prohibited, because, as “bread is made for laughter,” so “wine gladdens life” (Eccl 10:19; Psa 104:15). However, it may be that when the Teacher says he still has wisdom even when he drinks wine, he is just like any other drunkard—never acknowledging that he is drunk and still has his senses!
The third experiment in his search for meaningful pleasure is music, “I got singers, both men and women” (v 8). This is not the Levitical singers who were ordained to sing at the Temple’s morning and evening sacrifice, because there were no women priests. These are only for his own pleasure. He had choirs and soloists singing for his ear’s pleasure, while he ate and drank and slept.
Music is the obsession of many churches, close to being a sacrament. Reading of Scriptures? Skip it. Prayers? Let’s do it some other day. Sermon? Let’s have a testimony instead. Music and instruments? We must have them every time, and we must have plenty of them! It has become an idol. This is why one of the biggest capital investments of most churches is for music: instruments, an overhead projector, a blaring sound system, even hired singers and musicians leading the service. Bibles, books and missions are neglected in favor of the most important thing: music.
Lastly, the Teacher experimented with sexual pleasure. “I also gathered for myself … many concubines, the delight of the sons of man” (v 8). How many women did he have? “He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kgs 11:3). Even the excesses in building projects and possessions do not compare with this sexual excess. Remember God’s commandment regarding Israel’s kings in Deuteronomy 17:16-17? One of his commandments is, “He shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away.” What happens when he possesses many wives? The king’s heart will turn away from God, and this is exactly what happened to Solomon. He started worshiping his women’s pagan idols, bringing God’s judgment against his kingdom after his death: the kingdom divided into two.
In his quest for the world’s pleasures, the Teacher belongs to what Paul refers to as “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.” But John says that all these pleasures are already going away, and will be done away with on the last day, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:16-17). Because of the preaching of the gospel, multitudes of people are being saved from their obsession to worldly desires and pleasures. The destruction of these vain worldly pleasures is not yet fulfilled, but is slowly but surely coming to completion.
Lovers of God: Remaining Forever
The author of Ecclesiastes does not offer a glimpse of hope about the meaning of his quest for pleasure. He merely says that he has pleasure in his toil and all his projects, possessions and worldly passions were his reward for his hard work. The only positive things about man’s search for pleasure can be found elsewhere in the Bible.
Piper is right when he says that man can find his highest pleasure only in God alone. But what is wrong with his teaching is that man uses God to get what he wants in life: pleasure.
So how do we find meaning in pleasure? The psalmists repeat the command, “Rejoice in the LORD!” We find ultimate joy and pleasure only in God, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We are to rejoice in the LORD because he saved us (Psa 35:9); he is our refuge (Psa 64:10); he is holy (Psa 97:12); he conquers our enemies (Isa 41:16); and he gives life’s blessings (Joel 2:23). Our meditations are pleasing to God only because we rejoice in him (Psa 104:34).
Paul commands us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 3:1; 4:4). Hebrews 11:25-26 says that Moses chose suffering over the pleasures of Egypt. He “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” How was he able to reject worldly pleasures? By faith in Christ, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
His reward is Christ, the only Treasure that does not pass away, but remains forever. Since the kingdom of Christ is the hidden treasure, and the pearl of great price, and since we are citizens of his kingdom, he will give us his treasures.
Christ is completing the greatest building project, the Church, his Temple in the heavenly city. Better than Solomon who built an earthly paradise, we will dwell in this Temple, the heavenly paradise full of all kinds of trees for our pleasure.
Better than Solomon who had thousands of slaves, we also reign as kings over all God’s creation. So we have authority even over the host of angels. The finest bread and choicest of wines will be our feast. Better than Solomon, we will have more gold, silver and precious stones, because the whole heavenly city will itself be built of all kinds of precious stones. If Solomon had a great number of oxen, sheep and horses, Christ will have more. He has a multitude of his own sheep gathered from all nations. When he returns from heaven, he is pictured as a Warrior-King riding on a white horse who conquers all the kings of the earth, not just the ancient Near East. And his horsemen will be a multitude of the heavenly host riding on conquering horses.
Better than Solomon’s feasts filled with laughter because of crude joking, insults, and sarcasm, we will rejoice forever because we have “entered into the joy of our Master” (Matt 25:21). Better than Solomon’s choirs, we will join our voices as one congregation, singing heavenly music, a new song of praise to the LORD of our salvation.
Finally, in contrast to Solomon’s hundreds of wives and other women, Christ will have a single Bride. But this Bride is made up of multitudes of all kinds of peoples and languages from all nations who have believed in him as Savior and Lord. His bride is the Church, “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). Christ will present to himself this Bride “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). This fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of a great rejoicing in heaven on that day:
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).
As the Bride in the holy city, we will not have husbands or wives or children. But we will have a perfect “communion of saints,” a perfect fellowship, feasting together at the Lord’s Table as one great family of God. Jesus assures us of this perfect, joyful fellowship, “All these things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
In our Call to Worship, the psalmist sang, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa 16:11). Only when we’re in the presence of the LORD that we have pleasures that remain forever with us. This is exactly what God promises when he brings us to the new heaven and new earth:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4).
Complete, perfect joy only in the LORD. The only true pleasure that will remain forever.