The Myth of Excess (Ecclesiastes 2)

Let’s start basic: we were made for this world.  Originally, I mean.  In the story of Genesis, God creates man “and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).  This happened before sin, before everything went horribly wrong.  So yes, we were made to take care of the environment that God placed us in.  Even paradise was no place for the lazy.

Now, we might take a moment to reflect on this, specifically in light of what we might call our “vocation.”  Where has God placed us?  One of the most recurring temptations throughout human history has been to drive a wedge between the “sacred” and the “secular”—that is, to value the “spiritual” life to the neglect of the earthly one.  But that’s hardly necessary—nor is it helpful.  No, from literal gardeners to teachers to accountants, each of us serves to tend to the created world around us through creativity and through relationships.

So the problem has never been the work itself.  The problem has always been an issue of worship.  Remember Augustine?  We’ve referenced him before.  He thought of the human heart as something of a pyramid.  You will never flourish, Augustine would say, unless God rests at the top of this pyramid, and your lesser loves—such as career and family—occupy the other spaces below.  Sin is therefore a form of misdirected worship—of placing something else at the top of the pyramid, something through which we find our comfort, joy, and satisfaction apart from God.   That’s why in Eden we discover that our ancestors “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).  The tree—the only one that God commanded not to eat from—suddenly went from mere object to god.

And have you ever read a better marketing slogan?  Take out “fruit” for a second, and insert—I dunno, an SUV, or a famous brand of jeans.  Aren’t those things “a delight to the eyes?”  Don’t we fool ourselves into thinking that they are “good for gaining wisdom?”  There’s a reason that advertisers are often former religious folks—they know how to hook you.   In his famous work Amusing Ourselves to Death, social analyst Neil Postman observes that rarely do TV commercials advertise their actual products.  Instead, they usually focus on the character of the consumer.   Eat this.  Wear that.  Use this product, and you’ll be happier than you were before.

Jean Kilbourne of NPR  goes further, citing research that argues “that the label of our shirt, the make of our car, and our favorite laundry detergent are filling the vacuum once occupied by religion, education, and our family name.”  Advertising, she says, has a spiritual component:

“Advertising is not only our physical environment, it is increasingly our spiritual environment as well. By definition, however, it is only interested in materialistic values….Advertising and religion share a belief in transformation and transcendence, but most religions believe that this requires work and sacrifice. In the world of advertising, enlightenment is achieved instantly by purchasing material goods. The focus of the transformation has shifted from the soul to the body. Of course, this trivializes and cheapens authentic spirituality and transcendence. But, more important, this junk food for the soul leaves us hungry, empty, malnourished.” (Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love)

In the Bible, we meet a man who’s had this exact experience.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, the mysterious “Teacher” (who writes as if he were Solomon, though he mysteriously never identifies himself…) writes of his own quest for identity through material wealth:

“I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

Now, you might be thinking that there are things on this list you find morally objectionable.  But that’s half the point: he’s sought identity and purpose through things, through stuff.  But the more he’s searched, the more he was left empty.

The Teacher goes on to discuss other sources of identity—education, career—but even these fail to slake his spiritual thirst.  Finally he draws a strange conclusion—a conclusion he actually repeats five times throughout this strange book:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)

So The Teacher isn’t telling us to abandon all hope.  No; he’s saying we should find joy in the material world (!).  This is a far cry from the anti-materialistic views of other religions, such as Buddhism.  Why would The Teacher reach this verdict?  Because he recognizes that these good and perfect gifts come “from the hand of God.”  The problem of self-indulgence can’t be solved through self-denial.  That just replaces one idol (wealth) with another (self-righteousness).  Instead, we must turn our focus away from the blessings and toward the Blesser; away from the gifts and toward the Giver.

I love John Mayer’s music.  In a recent interview he confesses to being “a recovered ego addict.”  It’s a statement that instantly made me recall a speech he’d made during a live performance on his album “Where the Light Is.”  What he tells the crowd was almost straight out of Ecclesiastes:

“I’ve tried every approach to living. I’ve tried it all. I haven’t tried everything, but I’ve tried every approach. Sometimes you have to try everything to get the approach the same, but whatever. I’ve tried it all. I’ve bought a buncha stuff. ….I thought I would shut myself off. I thought maybe that’s cool. Maybe that’s what you have to do to become a genius is you have to be mad. So if you can get mad before the word genius, then maybe you can make genius appear. Right? That doesn’t work either.

And I’m in a good place. I’ve paced myself pretty well. I’m 30, I’ve seen some cool stuff. I made a lot of stuff happen for myself. I made a lot of stuff happen for myself. That’s a really cool sentence when you’re in your 20s, right? “I made it happen for myself.” But all that means is that I’ve just somehow or another found a way to synthesize love. Or synthesize soothing. You can’t get that, and what I’m saying is I’ve messed with all the approaches except for one, and it’s gonna sound really corny, but that’s just love. That’s just love.

I don’t know where this musician is spiritually, but he’s onto something altogether basic.  Source your identity in things and achievements and it will lead to greed.  Source your identity in love and it will lead to gratitude.  Jesus’ self-sacrificial love was—and is—the greatest example of love of all.  Because we are united with him in death and resurrection, we can put to death the desires that once ruled us, and stand amazed at what he’s accomplished on our behalf.  Is it any wonder that the New Testament would so frequently use “riches” language to describe the gift of forgiveness and transformation?

“the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience” (Romans 2:4)
“oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33)
“the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7)
“the glorious riches of his inheritance” (Ephesians 1:18)
“the incalculable riches of the Messiah” (Ephesians 3:8)
“the riches of his glory” (Ephesians 3:16)

What more do we need?



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