1I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3I 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. 4I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I 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. 8I 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. 9So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10And 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. 11Then 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 2:1-11 ESV)
In today’s passage we read of a grand experiment on life conducted by King Solomon. Solomon not only wondered about the meaning of life, he put life to the test to see if he could find that meaning with pleasure. He sought to enjoy himself. But he found pleasure also was like a vapor (vanity) – short-lived and empty.
Solomon tried to find fulfillment in many of the same ways by which people have sought through the ages to find contentment in life. To that end he tried to find satisfaction in entertainment (laughter), alcohol (wine), accomplishment (great works), possessions (herds and flocks), money (gold and silver), and sex (many concubines). Whatever his eyes desired he did not keep from them.
Notice that throughout the entire experiment, which clearly would have had to last years, Solomon approached his life in a very level-headed way. He states that his heart guided him with wisdom and his wisdom remained with him. Solomon discerningly put life to the test without letting himself get carried away. He knew what he was doing the entire time.
The ancient Jews believed that the heart was the source of thinking. This is why Solomon says he was guided by his heart. He is not saying that he was guided by emotions. He is saying that he was guided by reason.
After a while Solomon reflected (considered) on what he had done with his life. What he concluded was there were some benefits to living this way. He became great and he even found pleasure in all his toil – he enjoyed doing these things. The problem was that the enjoyment was the reward he received for all his toil. And this was, obviously, only a temporary reward. Once his work or experience ceased the accompanying enjoyment ceased along with it.
Solomon lived for pleasure, including legitimate pleasures, and found that all that he had done and all the toil he had expended doing it was vanity – none of it gave him long-term fulfillment.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the things that Solomon did (although we know from the Bible that he often did go to excess, especially when it comes to sex). It is not wrong to want to accomplish things in life or to build a business or to laugh and have a good time. But none of those things should be the reason for living.
No earthly accomplishment or experience provides enduring fulfillment. None of it puts meaning into life. All our experiences are like a candle. It burns for a time but ultimately is no more. When one experience ends we seek another.
There is nothing on this earth (under the sun) that can truly fulfill us. Even if one were to gain the entire world, it would not be worth it [Mark 8:36]. True fulfillment can only come from God Himself [John 10:10; 1 John 2:15-17].
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