1I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good." But that also proved to be meaningless. 2"Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?"After applying himself to the study of wisdom, and finding that it "too, is a chasing after the wind" (1:17), and that, moreover, it brings "much sorrow" and "grief" (1:18), Solomon now turns to pleasure. He says: "I thought in my heart, `Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good'" (vs. 1). Note here that Solomon was speaking to his heart when he said "I will test you with pleasure". Solomon was testing pleasure to see if it could give him inner fulfillment. Everyone knows that you can receive bodily enjoyment from pleasure. But Solomon knew that true meaning in life, and indeed complete happiness, is tied to inner fulfillment. Thus here, he tests pleasure to see if he can find, not just bodily enjoyment, but also inner fulfillment from pleasure.
3I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. 4I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well--the delights of the heart of man. 9I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. 10I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. 11Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Of all the methods of searching for fulfillment in life, as the seekers of the world try to find meaning to their existence, the seeking of pleasure is utilized the most, by far. It is to pleasure that men turn first. Madison Avenue knows this well. The theme of nearly all advertising concerns the fulfillment achieved through pleasure in the advertised product. Sadly, even Christians, just like those of the world, oftentimes search for fulfillment in the pleasures of this world, rather than turning to their own Lord. And dare I say, we all from time to time succumb to the search for fulfillment through pleasure. Let us see and learn from Solomon's experiences in testing pleasure.
Lest we get the wrong idea from the very beginning, Solomon first gives us the conclusion he reached concerning his experiment in testing pleasure: "But that also proved to be meaningless. `Laughter,' I said, `is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?'" (vs. 2). Solomon had good reason to state this conclusion before he detailed specifically his excursions in pleasure. It is very easy for us to get caught up in Solomon's pleasurable experiences, to find ourselves envying him in his experiences. They appeal to our bodily appetites. And make no mistake: Solomon enjoyed himself while he tested pleasure. But in the end, there was only emptiness: "`Laughter,' I said, `is foolish.'" Pleasure brings momentary happiness, at the expense of a sense of emptiness (and often worse) the morning after. Quite often, even the memory of the pleasurable experiences are disturbing, even painful. Solomon realized this. He wrote in elsewhere: "Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief" (Prov. 14:13).
Solomon had the means and power to test all kinds of pleasurable experiences. He began with the most frivolous of pleasures: "I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom" (vs. 3). Even as he drank wine to cheer himself, Solomon realized that he was "embracing folly." By the grace of God, Solomon's "mind still guided [him] with wisdom", as he sought to cheer himself with wine. He stayed in control. Many people lose control and become a slave to the wine, through alcoholism. God was faithful to His promise to Solomon to give him wisdom throughout his life (see I Kings 3:12).
Next, Solomon sought meaning through pleasure in a less obviously frivolous way: "I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects" (vss. 3-4). His projects were extensive and varied: building himself a great house, planting vineyards, installing gardens and parks, devising reservoirs to water groves of trees, buying slaves, raising livestock, amassing riches, acquiring a harem (vss. 4-8). Clearly, Solomon expended much effort on these projects: a lifetime of work. Admittedly, this is a more sophisticated way to seek meaning in life through pleasure than "cheering himself with wine and embracing folly", but nonetheless, it was just another excursion into pleasure.
Note the many instances of the first-person in Solomon's descriptions of his "great projects": "I... I... myself... I... my... me... I... myself... I... I... me... I... my... I... My... my... my... I... my... I..." (vss. 4-11). Clearly, the unstated goal of Solomon's "projects" was to please himself. And is not this the goal of all workaholics? They convince themselves that their work on "great projects" will bring meaning to their lives, when in actuality their true goal is pleasure for themselves: the true focus of their work is "I... me... myself..." They sacrifice so much time of their lives on their great "projects" for the accolades of men, and the right of being able to say: "Look what I have done."
Solomon forthrightly states the positive effects of his search for meaning through his work: "My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor" (vs. 10). Solomon found enjoyment while he was at work on the projects, but this, and only this, "was the reward for all [his] labor". The results, though he completed his great projects, were disappointing. In the end, there was an empty feeling: "Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun" (vs. 11). Solomon's negative verdict supercedes his positive one. "When the joy palled on the taste, nothing remained but the remembrance of labour without profit."
And so, Solomon experienced the same emptiness, whether he pursued frivolous pleasure, or pleasure through work on great projects. In both cases, Solomon was left saying, in effect: "There must be more to life than this." This is the way of pleasure. It is unfulfilling. Pleasure is for the moment, at the cost of the future. We enjoy the moment of pleasure, but are left thirsty for more. When the moment is gone, all that is left is weariness and frustration. "Pleasure promises more than it can produce. Its advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department."
In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with pleasurable experiences. Christians should enjoy life, enjoy God's creation. In fact, Paul tells us that God "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (I Tim. 6:17). The problem Solomon faced was that he was looking to pleasure as the end, pleasure as the provider of meaning in life. Such a view of pleasure leads, not to fulfillment, but to slavery: "If you live for pleasure alone, enjoyment will decrease unless the intensity of the pleasure increases. Then you reach a point of diminishing returns when there is little or no enjoyment at all, only bondage."
There is an alternative, though, provided by God. Our Lord tells us: "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:33). Solomon's priorities were backwards: he spent 7 years building the temple, but 13 years building his own palace (see I Kings 6:38-7:1). He should have sought, first and foremost, "His kingdom". True enjoyment in life, true fulfillment in life, come from letting God "richly provide us with everything for our enjoyment", not seeking them ourselves. Let God do the work! Let Him fill you with the joy of the Lord! He invites us into His joy: "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare... Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near" (Isa. 55:1-2,6). He promises: "Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalms 37:4).