Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man;
he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.
The word "pleasure" in line one of our proverb is the same Hebrew word translated as "joy" just two verses earlier in verse 15: "When justice is done it is a joy to the righteous." As John Kitchen says, "The two verses help form a theology of pleasure." Verse 15 teaches that pleasure/joy is a by-product of the pursuit of the Lord and his righteousness. Verse 17 teaches that the pursuit of pleasure/joy directly is self-defeating and brings spiritual poverty. Sandwiched between the two verses is verse 16, warning us "that more than pleasure is at stake." Which theology of pleasure we opt for carries eternal consequences.
The competing theologies of pleasure form the pleasure paradox. The direct pursuit of pleasure is self-defeating and brings spiritual poverty. But the pursuit of righteousness or right conduct brings the spiritual by-product of joy. The pursuit of pleasure is idolatry and it will lead to spiritual emptiness. But the pursuit of the Lord and his kingdom brings pleasure and joy, which the direct pursuit of pleasure can never bring. Jesus taught this paradox in the Beatitudes, when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6).
I often hear people in our prosperous culture talk about how good life is. It doesn't get better than this, they say. One of our modern heretic's most famous slogans is about living "your best life now." But these sentiments are hard to square with Jesus' words from John 12:25: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." I rarely hear people say, I hate my life in this world. What would make anyone hate their life in this world?
At the heart of our proverb is what a person loves. In fact, in Hebrew there is a chiasm that is hard to duplicate in English that might be rendered rather clumsily like this:
Will be poor a man whoever pleasure loves;
loves wine and oil he will not be rich.
The pattern is ABBA, with the A elements contrasting the poor and rich man, and the B elements in the center of the chiasm emphasizing the word "loves." Thus, love is at the middle of the proverb and is central. Love is the key to what we are and become. What we love determines what we pursue. If we love the Father, we will, as Jesus taught, "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). But if we love an alternative kingdom --- a different view of what constitutes the good life --- then we will pursue that kind of life.
Who, then, would say they hate their life in this world? The answer is someone who loves the Lord and his righteousness. The answer is a person who is longing for his kingdom to come. The answer is someone who sees the beauty and glory of the triune God of love, who is blessed (joyous) forever. The answer is a person who sees that this world is a place where his Father and his Lord are dishonored; a place where death has entered because of sin; a place that is filled not with the self-giving love that comes from the triune God, but rather the self-grasping desires and passions that James says causes conflict and enmity between persons, families, communities, and nations (James 4:1-5).
Our Lord is not a kill-joy. But he is a jealous God. He is our Husband, and he calls us to have no other gods before him. We must forsake false husbands/gods in order to love the true God. Pleasure/joy is one of those false gods we must forsake because we love Christ our heavenly husband. Will we lack joy and pleasure if we forsake pleasure and joy as our god? No, actually in forsaking pleasure/joy and serving and loving the Lord, our joy will be great and our hearts satisfied. This is the pleasure paradox, and how relevant it is for our hearts to learn in a world that hungers for pleasure, but not for the Lord, his righteousness, and his kingdom!