Is there any point to pleasure?

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 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.

Ecclesiastes 2: 10-11

I was reminded of this over the summer. It was a gloriously hot afternoon, so my family and I walked down to the seaside and spent some time playing on the beach. After a while I became thirsty, so my wife handed me one of those little cartons of apple juice. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to satisfy your thirst on one of those cartons but it seemed to me about as satisfying as licking a wet rock. Two sips and it was gone.

The pursuit of pleasure is just like that for the Teacher. He says, “Listen, I’ve denied my heart no pleasure,” but realises it’s no more satisfying than a carton of apple juice. No matter how much he has,  it leaves the same feeling: “I wish I had more. I wish I could keep hold of it, could sustain the pleasure.” But he can’t. There’s nothing to grab hold of. It’s just vapour.

So what is his problem? Look at the beginning and the end of this chapter, where we see parallel phrases in verses 2 and 11. In verse 2 he says, “‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’”. In verse 11 he says, “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.”

He’s pursued pleasures of every kind, but, at the end of the day, what does it actually do? What does it leave him with? What does it accomplish? And the answer to that is… well… nothing.

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood movie stars, who make more with one movie than we earn in our lifetime, go on making more movies? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to just pack it in right there and then, and do whatever you wanted for the rest of your life? But they don’t. They carry on. Why? People want to know that they’ve done something with their lives. It’s not just about making money, it’s about achieving something. One of the big problems with pursuing pleasure, one of the things that make it such vapour, is that at the end of the day we haven’t achieved anything.

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done,” the Teacher says in verse 11, “and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was vapour, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Notice those parallel statements: “What does pleasure accomplish?” and “Nothing was gained.” There’s the answer to the question. A life spent pursuing and holding on to pleasure will gain nothing.

What is so helpful about Ecclesiastes is that it not only reminds us that we will be tempted to find meaning in pleasure, it also tells us why. Behind the impulse to indulge in pleasure in sinful or sinfully excessive ways is the yearning we have to create lasting experience in a world of transience. We don’t want the feeling of pleasure to end, so we keep going back to the websites, the bars, the bottles, the lovers and the television series until we find ourselves in slavery to them.

No, the purpose of pleasure can never be pleasure itself. Rather the point of all of the temporary gifts of pleasure we enjoy should point us to the giver of those gifts. He alone can satisfy our desire for lasting pleasure because He alone is eternal. As the Psalmist writes,

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11


Bible Overview 1: There is a Creator

I’m no scientist. I’m not even an armchair scientist. This means that the level at which I engage with cosmology and astronomy basically amounts to looking at the stars and going “oooh!” So please don’t switch off if some of the facts are wrong or outdated because the simple point that I’m trying to make is that the universe is mind-blowing.

Apparently, the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second which is so fast that it travels the circumference of the earth roughly 7 or 8 times per second.

Our galaxy is so vast that in order to measure the distance between the stars, we are forced to use something called “light-years”. This is the distance that light can travel, at 186000 miles per second, in one year.

Our galaxy, the “Milky Way” galaxy is approximately 100,000 light-years in diameter. I’ll let you do the math. The Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.75 million light-years away. And our Local Group of galaxies is about 6 million light-years in diameter. The farthest objects ever viewed were photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope and are thought to be about 12.5 billion light-years away!

It’s completely befuddling isn’t it? Yet here is something even more amazing… Before the oldest star, and beyond the furthest star, is God. God was there in the beginning and is infinitely greater than all of the combined galaxies that we will ever discover.

I was recently asked the question “who made God?” by a group of 8 year olds. Even at that age the question is inevitable. Everything in our experience has a beginning and an end. Even those who do not believe the Bible know that the universe began at some point. Surely it is the same with God we think. Yet it is precisely this finitude that separates God from everything else. He is the Creator and everything that exists was made by him. God is the only being, the only entity, that is infinite and eternal.

This is the beginning of the gospel: There is a God and he is the only eternal Creator and this is only a sliver of the mystery behind the words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)