In Acts 17:16-19, Luke tells us about Paul’s opportunity to preach to a crowd of Greeks that embraced two diametrically opposed philosophies. The Epicureans believed that man’s chief happiness could be found in pleasure or bodily ease. In contrast, the Stoics strove to be led by their intellect and suppress their physical desires.
There is a reason that they are mentioned in the Bible. Everyone has a spiritual need and without God people find only two ways to fill it: (1) by living for today and for carnal pleasure or (2) by pursuing man-made knowledge and suppressing physical desires.
In his book, “Our Oriental Heritage,” originally published in 1935, author Will Durant makes the following observation: “A nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean. At its cradle (to repeat a thoughtful adage) religion stands, and philosophy accompanies it to the grave.” The Old Testament points out that the Jewish nation succumbed to both of these philosophies… and they paid dearly for it.
Israel in Epicureanism
The Epicureans focus only on material things and put pleasure above all else. Israel had fully adopted this theology in the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The inspired writer tells us that the Israelites left the wives of their youth and pursued the gods of foreign nations (Jeremiah 2:27-28).
Earlier in the Biblical record, in Exodus 24, Israel made a covenant with the Lord and promised to keep it. In Exodus 32, however, we see how the Israelites chose to worship a soulless idol. At this stage in their nation’s development, it was as if the Jews had entered a marriage covenant with God… and cheated on him during the honeymoon! Israel could not restrain itself from the passions it came to know in Egypt. The Lord forgave them, but they continued to look back to Egypt and the pleasure it held. Numbers 14 is just one example of how they earnestly desired to return to Egypt rather than follow the path of the Lord to Canaan.
Israel Tried Stoicism
Stoics have one vital flaw in their theology: they believe that the answer is within man and that man can solve all of society’s ills. Israel also believed they did not need God but that they could save themselves.
Back in Jeremiah, Israel had another choice to make. Ishmael had just killed Gedaliah, the governor of the land of Judah placed there by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jeremiah 41:1-2). Gedaliah and those with him came to Jeremiah and asked him what the Lord wanted them to do (Jeremiah 42:1-3). They could stay in Israel and trust in the Lord to save them or leave for Egypt. Ten days later, Jeremiah revealed in no uncertain terms that the Lord’s will was for them to remain in Judah and that moving to Egypt meant death by sword, famine, and pestilence (Jeremiah 42:7-22). Sadly, they chose to trust in their own knowledge and leave for Egypt (Jeremiah 43:4-7).
Israel had a detrimental relationship with Egypt ever since they were delivered from there by God. They always looked back as if there were something to be missed or something better than what God had provided for them. They missed Egypt’s food, so the Lord gave them manna (Exodus 16:3-4), they missed Egypt’s fish, so the Lord gave them quail (Numbers 11:5,31). Egypt is to Israel what materialism is to us. The Israelites still could not see beyond what they observed with their eyes. They trusted in their own knowledge; they trusted in man over God.
The world’s objective is to seek pleasure (like the Epicureans) or solve man’s ills by means of their own knowledge and power (like the Stoics). Both groups strive to give true meaning to their existence but ultimately fall short.
Only the message of the cross can save humanity from this never-ending cycle of death brought about by man-made philosophies. The world may view this message as foolishness, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, NASB)!
–Based on a sermon by Donald Turner