June 2 – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

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Main Focus: The Teacher assures us our efforts for fulfillment under the sun will ruin us, which prompts us to turn to the Lord.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wrote a handful of millennia ago, but this week we’ll see just how much we have in common with him. In 2:1-11 he describes his remarkably thorough pursuit of earthly pleasures and, after all his work to please his soul, turns around and declares it hevel. We’ll talk about how this reveals the brokenness in our own hearts, then turn to Jesus’s teaching in Luke 12 to see how seeking treasure in heaven heals our hearts from pleasure seeking “under the sun.”

Last week we saw the Teacher turn to consider wisdom but find it wanting. In chapter 2 he describes his next project, to pursue pleasure “under the sun.” That phrase gets introduced in 1:3 and describes the scope of the Teacher’s inquiry; all of Ecclesiastes is him chewing over what can be made of earthly life strictly in earthly terms. Imagine a world where God has left us to our own devices, a world in which we eat, drink, work long days, try to grab a hold of whatever we can while we can, then eventually make our way to the morgue. This is the world as Qoheleth is thinking about it, and by the end we’ll see just how much this world and humanity within it are crying out for God to liberate them from life “under the sun” (cf. Romans 8:22-23).

So the Teacher gave life under the sun a fair shake, sparing no expense in seeking his own pleasure through amusement (2:2), wine (2:3), massive building projects (2:4-6), extravagant possessions (2:7-8), and sex (2:8). In discussion we’ll start with two questions that should help us see how much we might want the life this Teacher had, first by asking ourselves what we might think of this Teacher if we met him. You’ll want to skip ahead to verse 11 and think of him as like a celebrity past his prime, washed up and fresh from another visit to rehab. But imagine this guy at the peak of his pursuits living his exorbitantly wealthy life, throwing better parties than you’ve ever seen, drinking wine you couldn’t possibly afford, schmoozing with celebrities and power-brokers, then waking up and walking around his immaculately gardened estate thinking “this is all mine.”[1]In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew points out how much Qoheleth’s word choice echoes Genesis 1-2, linguistically implying that he was trying in some sense to recreate Eden and … Continue reading As we’ll get at in discussion, this guy was basically living the American dream, to get all you can while you can. Wealth, fame, pleasure, success, freedom—what could be more American than this?

But, lest we fantasize about how great it must’ve been, the Teacher pops our bubble: “Behold, this also was hevel.” Later in Ecclesiastes he’ll dig into what was going on here; “Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business“ (4:7-8); “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7). There is a gnawing, ravenous hunger within the human heart, and particularly in our consumerist culture we tend to chuck more and more possessions, experiences, and accomplishments into that hungry pit hoping it’ll fill up. But the Teacher tells us from experience that this never ever works, and this reveals something to us about what it means to be human under the sun.

To keep chasing that thought we’ll head to Luke 12, where Jesus will address our desire to find fulfillment in earthly goods and the arresting fact of our own mortality; death strips us bare, returning us to God just as naked as we came into the world (cf. Ecc 2:18). But Jesus, unlike Qoheleth, will point us to a solution for our futile enterprise by laying up treasure above the sun instead of under it. We’ll start by noticing how Jesus points out God’s care and concern for us (Luke 12:24, 28, 30, 32). Our desire for earthly pleasures inevitably devolves into disappointment and anxious scrambling because it’s ultimately up to us to find, obtain, and keep the objects of our desire. But this is all wasted effort when we realize that God knows our needs, provides for them because we are valuable to him, and takes pleasure in giving us his kingdom. In response we can hold onto all our material existence loosely, knowing that the true treasure we seek (i.e. God himself) comes through other means.

We’ll finish discussion by seeing how Jesus’s words here help us grapple with our own pursuits of pleasure under the sun, listening for what God might be speaking to us. Some of us struggle with just wanting to be like the Teacher at the height of his wealth and success (and are bold enough to think we might come to a different conclusion). For some of us, the struggle is harder to see; you might not want exorbitant wealth but a bigger house sure would make life easier, and a bit more in the bank might help you sleep better at night. These are the sort of ways the same idolatry dresses up and looks more presentable.

One thing to consider in your discussion is making recourse to practices that help with our detachment from earthly things. These practices don’t heal our heart—only Jesus can do that—but they do help us cling to Jesus and grow in trusting him more than what we can see or hold. Practicing fasting, generosity, hospitality, and the old Christian virtue of simplicity (i.e. minimalism from before minimalism was cool) are ways to put intentional checks on the foothold that earthly desires can gain in your heart.

Discussion questions

– Could someone read Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 for us?

– Imagine you met this guy—what would you think about him?

– In what ways does the pursuit of pleasure “under the sun” sound like life in the US?

– How do you think this passage exposes the brokenness of the human heart?

– Could someone read Luke 12:13-34 for us?

– What does this passage say about how God takes care of us?

– In this passage, how does Jesus help us deal with the pursuit of pleasure “under the sun”?

– What do you think God is pointing out in your life through these two passages?

Resources

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Who wrote Ecclesiastes?

Back to all Resources →  Ecclesiastes is easily one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible, and its mystery includes questions about the suspiciously unnamed author (or authors?). We’ll get into the details below but never fear, by the conclusion you’ll see that...

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Vintage Church DNA

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References

References
1 In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew points out how much Qoheleth’s word choice echoes Genesis 1-2, linguistically implying that he was trying in some sense to recreate Eden and play the role of God. Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 133.