Vanity of Pleasure (2:1-11)

2:1 I said to myself, "Come now, let me test you with pleasure and let you experience good things." But look!, this also is vanity. 2:2 I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?"

2:3 I explored with my mind how to cheer my body with wine--my mind still guiding me with wisdom--and how to lay hold of folly, until I could see what is good for the children of man to do under the heavens during the few days of their life. 2:4 I enlarged my estate: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself. 2:5 I made gardens and parks for myself, and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 2:6 I made pools of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 2:7 I bought male and female slaves, and I had home-born slaves. I also had a great possession of cattle and sheep, more than anyone who was before me in Jerusalem. 2:8 I also accumulated for myself silver and gold, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got for myself male and female singers, and the pleasures of men--many concubines.

2:9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 2:10 And whatever my eyes asked for I did not withhold from them. I did not restrain my heart from any pleasure; rather my heart found pleasure from all my wealth, and this was my lot from all my toil. 2:11 Then I turned (to consider) all the activities that my hands had engaged in and the wealth that I had so labored to acquire; and oh!, all is vanity and a pursuit of wind, and there is no profit under the sun.

Qoheleth previously mentioned that “he set his heart to know (the truth about) wisdom and to know (the truth about) madness and folly” (1:17). This turns out to be his evaluation of his own experiences. He begins with what he would label as madness (verse 2) and folly (verse 3): the pursuit of pleasure. It is important to note that he did not consider pleasure in and by itself madness or folly, but only the pursuit of it. For he spells out that he was testing pleasure to see what it could accomplish, in order to see “what is good for the children of man to do under the heavens during the few days of their life” (verses 1-3). That means he was evaluating pleasure when pleasure is the focus of attention so as to find out whether it is “good ... to do,” that is, worth pursuing. Furthermore, very soon we will hear him admonishing us to see our labor as “good” through having enjoyment in life (2:24-26). So he could not be saying that pleasure in and of itself is madness and folly.

Qoheleth tells us that throughout this evaluation, even when he was testing out the pleasure of wine, which is associated with drunkenness, his mind was still guiding him with wisdom (verse 3). Also, throughout the wealth-acquiring activities described in verses 4-8, which made him greater than others in Jerusalem, his wisdom “stood by him” (verse 9). This has two implications. Firstly, his pursuit of pleasure was not wanton and he avoided gross indulgence (having concubines was a “normal” royal practice, widely accepted in the ancient world). A wise man like him does not need to discover that gross indulgence is madness and folly. For it is obvious enough that it serves no purpose except self-destruction. The second implication is that, though his evaluation is experience based, it is philosophical in nature. We are thus reminded that this is part of the comprehensive philosophical investigation he talked about in 1:13-18. What exactly was he trying to do?

Oliver Rankin answers succinctly,

“Solomon” turns to the task of testing whether perchance pleasure may be a worthwhile object of human effort, the good which is completely satisfying. Wine, women, and song, the gathering of riches, the enjoyment of luxury, the acquisition of rare and special products and commodities derived from foreign rulers and countries through trade, gift or tribute, the prosperity fostered by successful projects of agriculture and afforestation, the magnificence of his buildings, of his gardens and parks and vineyards--all this “Solomon” briefly indicates in describing the means he used to find out by test and trial whether pleasure provided a soul-satisfying purpose of life (1956: 34; cited in Schoors 2004: 365-6)

Needless to say, Qoheleth’s evaluation of human effort in this particular context cannot be applied to people who are struggling just to “make ends meet.” He was testing out whether the pursuit of what we call “the good life” is worth it. Again, he is not evaluating “the good life” in and of itself, but only when it becomes “an object of human effort.” His conclusion is that it is also vanity. For his “lot,” or portion, from his pursuit of “the good life” was (just) pleasure (verse 10). A poignant way of putting it would be: “And that was all I got out of my wealth” (The Jewish Publication Society 1988: 1443). He got only pleasure but no satisfaction out of it. When pleasure fails to satisfy, it does not even have immediate profit. Thus when pleasure is pursued, whether through “wine, women and song,” or through the accumulation of wealth, or both, it is profitless. Psychiatrist Frankl observed that, “pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or a by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself” (1984: 145). In Qoheleth’s case, “the degree to which it is made a goal in itself,” can be seen from his tenacity in pursuing pleasure: “whatever my eyes asked for I did not withhold from them. I did not restrain my heart from any pleasure” (verse 10). No wonder he labeled it “madness and folly.”

But why does pleasure not satisfy when it is pursued? We are given a clue since the pursuit of pleasure is part of Qoheleth’s quest for the meaning of life. People pursue pleasure to find happiness so as to experience the meaning of life. Happiness is the state of (well-)being characterized by an overall sense of satisfaction with life. And pleasure can contribute to happiness if it is satisfying. Without happiness life is often felt to be not worth living and thus lacks meaning and purpose. And people expect pleasure to meet this need. In fact when one feels that life is meaningless one is often driven to pursue after pleasure. But the effort to find meaning by pursuing pleasure is futile. Psychologists have discovered that the “feeling that one’s life has meaning, in the sense of purpose and value, is a centrally important aspect of happiness, seeming to affect one’s satisfaction with almost every aspect of life [and not just pleasure]” (Baumeister 1991: 215). That means, pleasure does not satisfy and cannot contribute to happiness if one’s life already lacks meaning. Yet it is when life lacks meaning that one feels the need to pursue after pleasure. In other words, pleasure does not satisfy when it is pursued because it is pursued to meet an expectation that pleasure cannot satisfy.

It is no accident that when Qoheleth sought to find what was worth doing in this fleeting life (that is, beyond meeting survival needs), he began with evaluating whether pleasure is worth pursuing (verse 3). For whether we realize it or not, the motivation behind virtually every human effort beyond making a living is to find happiness and the meaning of life through pleasure. Note that Qoheleth’s pursuit of pleasure included the accumulation of wealth, which is pleasurable, though we do not usually think of it as the pursuit of pleasure. So by evaluating the pursuit of pleasure, Qoheleth evaluates every human undertaking which is motivated (usually unconsciously) by the need to make sense of life, whether as part of work or leisure. Today this would cover most activities associated with the pursuit of “the good life.” His finding here begins to substantiate his overall conclusion about human activities already presented in 1:14: “all is vanity and a pursuit of wind, and there is no profit under the sun” (verse 11). Living for pleasure or “the good life” cannot be “a soul-satisfying purpose of life.” Because it does not heal, but only numb, the pain of meaninglessness, it can only cause one to become addicted to some form of pleasure, which could even be something as “innocent” as keeping up with what is in vogue.

Though Qoheleth’s evaluation excludes illicit indulgence, we can extend the insights gained to evaluate it. For every act of indulgence, by the very nature of the impulse behind it, is an act of seeking pleasure as a goal in itself. That means we can expect indulgence, illicit or not, though pleasurable, to be not satisfying. The saying, “stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov 9:17), which refers to illicit pleasure, particularly illicit sex, is true. But, it has been reported, “A University of Chicago survey of 3,432 Americans ages 18 through 59 found that monogamous married couples reported the highest sexual satisfaction, while singles and marrieds who have multiple partners registered the lowest” (Shalit 1999: 171). Numerous other studies could be cited to support this conclusion. Thus illicit sex may be more exciting in terms of sheer momentary pleasure but could yet be less satisfying as compared to marital sex. In fact, illicit sex often leaves one feeling empty, if not guilty as well. On the other hand, it is possible to “find pleasure from the wife of your youth.… Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be intoxicated always with her love(-making)” (Prov 5:18-19).


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