In the book of Ecclesiastes we are told that life should not be expected to be self-fulfilling because life only has meaning when it is lived in a right relationship with God. Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, summarized this when he said, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). The meaning of the word Vanity, as used by Solomon throughout this book, is best described as fleeting and frustrating. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is an old man who captures the vain attempt of mankind’s longing for relevance and meaning in a sinful world.
Solomon’s first attempt at finding meaning in a meaningless world was wisdom. Wisdom is vanity because it cannot provide lasting solutions in our world and therefore increases sorrow. Solomon’s second attempt at finding meaning is in pleasure. Let us consider the vanity of pleasure in that pleasure can quickly move from a gift to be enjoyed into an idol that demands worship.
Proper Pursuit of Pleasure Produces Praise
Let us begin with what should not be a controversial statement: God wants us to experience pleasure. Pleasure is not a result of sin. Pleasure was built into the creation that God declared “very good” (Gen 1:31). The world before the Fall (Gen 3) included fields, plants, fruits and vegetables, etc. Genesis 2:9 says, “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” There was only one thing that was not good before Genesis 3. The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). God created woman for man to be a helper fit for him. Therefore, we can conclude that pleasure is good. We have a body with a sensory nervous system. We have 5 primary senses that recognize what is pleasurable and not pleasurable: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch.
It is wrong to assume that pleasure is bad. It was the ascetics who practiced a severe form of self-discipline; abstaining from many forms of pleasure in the belief that abstaining from sensual pleasure was a means of becoming more godly. Simeon Stylites is notable because he lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years. It is said that the Gnostics believed the physical world was inherently evil and that salvation constituted escape from the material world. This may have been behind Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:3-4: “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods…” Pleasure is not evil.
Improper Pursuit of Pleasure Induces Idolatry
It is wrong to assume that pleasure is bad and it is also wrong to assume that pleasure is always good. Pleasure can become very bad. It is important to stress that pleasure must only be pursued according to God’s standards, not our own. We must not pervert pleasure. God wants us to experience pleasure and He graciously provides avenues for pleasure to be pursued that will be a blessing to us and glorify God. For example, God gave us taste buds that let us know what is good and bad. Good food is a blessing; especially when it tastes good and is good for you. Food is good and is necessary, but the abuse of food is the sin of gluttony. Food is a good gift from God that helps us live that must be used appropriately.
God warns us about how pleasure can quickly become an idol. Pleasure is good, but sin can pervert pleasure. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, warns us about making pleasure the goal of life. Pleasure is vanity because it cannot produce meaning. Solomon tells us that pleasure is temporary. He laments after pursuing pleasure: “there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). All that he was left with after the pursuit of pleasure was a desire for more. Solomon said to himself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself” (Ecc 2:1). To summarize Ecclesiastes 2:1-22, Solomon says enjoy yourself…but this is vanity (1). Life is short (3). He “made great works…built houses and planted vineyards” (4). He had gardens, parks, fruit trees, pools, slaves, flocks, silver, gold, singers, concubines, etc. He said, “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” (10).
Enjoy Pleasure as You Love God
It is wrong to assume that pleasure is bad and it is wrong to assume that pleasure is always good; therefore, we should pursue pleasure as a means to enjoy God. Going back to what Paul told Timothy “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). Holiness is not determined by what you give up, but on how you use what you have been given. Remember our discussion of food earlier? Food is necessary and a source of enjoyment. It must be used appropriately. One does not become more holy by abstaining from foods, but intentional fasting can be very beneficial if it is done to draw closer to God and to break the hold that food may have on your heart. Pleasure is vanity if it becomes idolatry. There are many things provided by God for our enjoyment, but sin can corrupt anything into an idol. How can we keep good things from becoming idols? Ask yourself these three questions: 1) Would I sin to get it? 2) Would I sin if I didn’t get it? and 3) Would I sin to keep it?
Like wisdom, pleasure overpromises. This is why it is vanity. Pleasure promises to make you happy. For Solomon, this was sought in possessions, money, beautiful people around him, beautiful landscaping and gardens. It has been said that Solomon attempted with his grand gardens that he wanted to recreate the Garden of Eden. Let us enjoy God’s good gifts and that we use them to love God and enjoy Him more. If we are fearful that one of God’s good gifts is becoming an idol, let us abstain from it for a time so that we may keep it in its proper place. In Deuteronomy 11:16 we read, “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve others gods and worship them.” Isaiah prophesied of the Lord, “I am the Lord; that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8).