Every Friday in November, The Mudroom is featuring author Lindsey Smallwood. Lindsey recently published Ecclesiastes: Life in Full Color, her second small group Bible study. The following devotional reflection is based her book and the related materials available for small groups.
It can mean so many different things. Food. Sex. Entertainment. Alcohol. We live in a world with so many options, so many places to find pleasure. The author of Ecclesiastes did too. He starts chapter two with this recollection of all he had accumulated in his life:
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?” 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. 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. 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. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.
Listening to The Teacher talk about his life is pretty wild. This isn’t a successful guy on the scale that most of us are familiar with, finding pleasure the way most of us do. There’s wealth, like the person in whatever room you happen to be in with the biggest house, the newest car. Then there’s the kind of riches we see on reality TV, with sweet sixteen birthday parties on yachts and remodeled closets that have their own closets. Then there’s the amazingly wealthy, sheiks who own oil wells in the Middle East and internet billionaires who can give away 90% of their net worth and still have more money than is even fathomable to most of us.
The Teacher seems to be telling us that he’s in that last category. He isn’t just a rich guy, he’s THE rich guy. He has it all. If he wants it, he gets it. If you can try it, he has.
The Message paraphrases verse 9 this way:
Everything I wanted I took—I never said no to myself. I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing.
The reason I think The Teacher’s exhaustive recounting of all of the different kind of pleasures he pursued is so important is that it leaves us defenseless as we think about the kinds of pleasures we pursue in our own search for meaning.
We think “If only my house was as big as theirs…” or “Once we remodel the basement, then I’ll be satisfied.” Nope. Not true. The Teacher tells us that he had the biggest palace with the best stuff. Still, he notes in verse 11, it was all hebel, just smoke, didn’t last.
Many single people think “If only I had a romantic relationship…” Married people wonder about trading in their spouse for someone else or at least wishing they could change aspects of their partner’s personality and behavior. But The Teacher tells us he had wives and concubines (another word for mistresses) of every stripe and type – more than 900 of them – and still, in the end, he wasn’t satisfied.
Because pleasure doesn’t satisfy. Not fully. Not ultimately.
But Jesus tells us what can. Expanding the kingdom of God, doing what pleases the Father, following the example of Jesus, those are the things that will last, the parts of life that bring meaning and satisfaction that pleasure simply can’t.
The kingdom of God is not in that new backpack you’re thinking of buying on Amazon. It’s not in setting the perfect table or finally getting your book published. It’s not in the things we chase, consume and hoard in order to satisfy our longings. The kingdom of God is in those who believe – now – in the power of the Holy Spirit as we seek to do what pleases God.
Ecclesiastes reminds us of the futility of life outside that kingdom – and points us toward Jesus as we seek to make sense of this one life we’ve been given.
The Teacher ends chapter 2 with this advice:
So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?
Pleasure doesn’t satisfy, but it’s not bad in itself. Enjoying life is God’s good gift to us. Set the beautiful table. Buy the backpack. Pursue a book deal. Just know that the pleasure found in these things is hebel, it’s smoke, it’s passing away. Don’t forget your invitation to the kingdom that will last forever. Let Jesus be your example, the one who savored meals with those he loved without ever losing sight of God’s forever kingdom.
We want to enjoy our lives,
even as we remember that this world is passing away.
Give us a new vision of life in your forever kingdom.
Teach us to live as Jesus did.