Summary: 4th in a series from Ecclesiastes. Joy in life comes from the journey, not the destination.
On June 5, 1965, the Rolling Stones released their single “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” which went on to be their first number one hit in the U.S. The song was a response to the rampant commercialism that the band had observed in America. But the idea behind the song was certainly nothing new. When Qoheleth wrote the book of Ecclesiastes well over 2,000 years earlier, he expressed that same idea. Let’s read his version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
1 I said in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure"; but surely, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter - "Madness!"; and of mirth, "What does it accomplish?" 3 I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. 4 I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. 5 I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. 7 I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. 9 So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.10 Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor.11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done And on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.
In this section, Qoheleth continues to address the question he asked all the way back at the beginning of Chapter 1:
What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:3 (NKJV)
The author has already answered that question implicitly by describing how man is unable to even influence the cycles of nature that God has put into place, no matter how hard they might try. And then he went on to describe how man’s attempt to gain wisdom and knowledge apart from God only produces grief and sorrow. Here at the beginning of chapter 2, Qoheleth expands his search for the answer to his question.
In order to answer that question, Qoheleth engages in an intellectual exercise to explore whether the pursuit of joy and pleasure provide man with any profit in this life “under the sun” here on earth. It is important that we understand up front that it is not so much that Qoheleth is put to the test with pleasure, but rather that pleasure is put to the test by Qoheleth. The author is careful to point out at both the beginning and end of this discourse that his wisdom remained with him throughout this experiment. There is no evidence here that Qoheleth gave himself over to wanton self-indulgence in pleasure. Instead, he makes it clear that this evaluation is something that takes place in his mind – probably as he looks back over his life and thinks about whether or not he had found satisfaction in his pursuit of pleasure.
We find the answer to that question right up front. Qoheleth begins with his conclusion in verse 1: “this also is vanity”. It is the same conclusion that he will repeat again at the end of this section in verse 11. In the intervening verses, he goes on to describe the process by which he came to that conclusion.
Once again, we can’t be sure whether or not this is a firsthand account by Solomon or merely the author taking on his persona, but Solomon certainly comes to mind as we read this passage. Much of the description of what the author achieved and acquired echoes that which we know of Solomon’s reign from the accounts in 1 Kings 3-11. He constructed buildings, had many slaves, engaged in relationships with a large number of women and amassed much wealth. But once again, the lessons that we can learn and the principles that we can glean from this passage really aren’t dependent upon the identity of the author. Many, even in our culture today, have embarked on the same path that we find described here in this passage.