Ecclesiastes 2: Pleasure is Vanity, but what is Vanity?

Vanity. The definition of the word can be boiled down to three concepts:

  1. Pride
  2. Arrogance
  3. Foolishness

These are all friends and cohorts of vanity. They travel together and often accompany one another in human behavior. As we review Ecclesiastes 2, please keep the ideas of vanity, pride and arrogance in mind.

In the first portion of tonight’s text, Solomon tells us that enjoying pleasure is vanity, laughter is madness and that mirth accomplishes nothing. To come to this conclusion, Solomon completed the following activities:

  • Sought how to satisfy himself with wine
  • Identified folly (in order to avoid it)
  • Tried to see what constitutes a pursuit that is inherently good
  • Worked hard and took pride in his efforts
  • Built houses
  • Planted vineyards, gardens, orchards with irrigation
  • Had many servants
  • Owned the most livestock in Jerusalem
  • Owned much silver and gold and “special treasures”
  • Acquired talented male and female singers, accompanied by all kinds of musical instruments

What is his conclusion after all of these things? Solomon says that having  all of these was no different than grabbing wind. So they were useless, worthless, a waste of time. But what if we put these things into a modern context? What if you had completed and acquired the following:

  • Sought how to satisfy with the finest wine, the best bourbon
  • Identified common mistakes people make and learned how to avoid them
  • Bought only the best of everything for yourself and your family, including home, car, clothes, education, etc.
  • Got up early and worked very hard, maintaining a busy and productive calendar
  • Built a large home and two vacation homes, one in Florida, one in the Bahamas
  • Bought only organic food, supplemented by a garden with the finest vegetable strains
  • Had a housekeeper, gardener, and a personal assistant to help with shopping and other needs
  • Owned a farm from which you gathered milk, beef, chicken and eggs
  • Owned millions of dollars worth of fine jewelry, diamonds and precious stones
  • Had your favorite variety of artists on retainer to come to your home anytime to perform

Do we consider these things useless, worthless, or wastes of time? Certainly we recognize that these things are very highly valued and sought after in the modern context. All of the material things listed would bring us pleasure and instill in us pride of life. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with most of these things  –  so would they still be vanity (arrogant pride) for us? If we follow Solomon’s wise logic and divinely inspired conclusion, we have to be honest and say yes. Let us look a little deeper into what is meant…

When Solomon says that all pleasure is vanity, is he saying that pleasure is arrogant pride? Yes and no. Pleasure is not proud arrogance in the sense that it is a welcome diversion from the strain and difficulties of life. The pleasure of a free afternoon spent relaxing, the enjoyment of a recreational activity, or the company of a friend are all fun, innocent pleasure. But are these things really proud arrogance? Well, no. If we take pleasure in this context to mean proud arrogance, then we would call Solomon foolish. But to do this would be to misunderstand Solomon.

Hyperbole is when something is overstated for effect, and nearly all of Ecclesiastes is hyperbole. When Solomon says that all pleasure is vanity, he is saying it in the context of eternity. As we study this book, we should try to keep it in the forefront of our thoughts that Solomon is speaking from the lofty heights of wisdom bestowed upon him by God; Solomon is speaking as a king that has been granted everything under the sun and he has not prevented himself from attaining anything that he wishes. With the combined blessings of great wisdom and great wealth, Solomon has a unique perspective to see what truly matters. As having wisdom granted by God, Solomon sees that in the long run, in the big picture, pleasure and material things are meaningless. And this is true because we will ultimately all pass away and stand before God to have our actions judged. What purpose will our pleasures and material possessions serve then? No purpose at all! In fact, it is the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth that very often drives man to sin. In this sense, pleasure IS vanity. In this sense, Solomon is absolutely right. Pleasure is indeed vanity.

The other half of this chapter addresses wisdom and foolishness in the context of eternity. In verse 14, Solomon concludes that the same death is experienced by the wise man and the fool alike. In the fullness of time, neither is remembered. Think of the smartest person you know. Do you think they will be remembered 100 years from now? What about 500? 1000? What benefit will their wisdom will have served if it has not led them closer to God? None. So then to believe in and put faith in wisdom is vanity. The blessing of wisdom from God brought Solomon to the conclusion that the pursuit of God is the only worthwhile pursuit.

The chapter goes on to describe the futility of amassing material things. We can work for a lifetime, but ultimately all will die and someone else will get our things. What if it is a fool that gets and squanders them? What then? Even the work done for these things is stressful, so what is the point?

So then, what conclusion are we to take from Solomon’s hyperbolic ramblings? In relation to our eternal destiny, even God’s rich blessings on earth do not amount to much. So we should enjoy pleasure in its proper context, keeping in mind that we will one day have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10).

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