You’ve seen the old cartoon strips: A man struggles and struggles to scale a high, steep mountain. He reaches the top to find a “wise man” sitting cross-legged and humming in deep meditation. The climber kneels before the man and asks, “Oh, wise one, what is the meaning of life?” Usually the cartoonist ends the strip with some wisecrack like, “Sorry, buddy, wrong mountain. I’m the guru of income tax evasion.”
What is the meaning of life? People have searched for it, pastors have preached on it, atheists have spurned it, pundits have pondered it, and cartoonists have exploited it. It remains, however, an important universal question, one we’d all like answered. And I believe King Solomon, in his great wisdom, answered it for us in his research paper known as the book of Ecclesiastes.
God had given Solomon great wisdom and wealth. So vast was his wisdom and wealth that his fame spread throughout the known world. Yet even with all this, Solomon felt there was something more, something he was missing. Life seemed meaningless. The sun rises and the sun sets, again and again, over and over. The winds blow, the streams flow, generations come, generations go. “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). To Solomon, life seemed boring and empty. There’s got to be something more, he thought. (Ever been there yourself?)
So Solomon set out on a quest for meaning. He devoted himself to explore all things under the sun to see if he could find the ultimate answer to the meaning of life. To do so, he denied himself nothing but allowed himself to experience everything. Did the answer lie in:
- Pleasures like laughter, folly, and wine?
- A great house with beautiful gardens?
- Possessions of all kinds, great and small?
- Entertainment and the arts?
- A harem — “the delights of the heart of man”?
- Work, work, and more work?
- Career advancement?
- Much dreams and many words?
- Money and net worth?
- Youth and vigor?
After diligently searching all of these, Solomon found that they were “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (1:2). He found that you can’t stay in a state of pleasure all the time; sorrow and hardships eventually come. He also discovered that no matter how great a house you build or how much possessions and wealth you amass, you still die and leave them behind to someone else who did not work for them. And, although work is a gift from God that you should enjoy, it is not the most important thing; for no matter how hard you work to build a career or a business, at some point you must leave it to a successor. Youth fades; strength wanes; relationships change. And wisdom? Yes, wisdom is better than folly but even the wise die and are forgotten.
Solomon came to a somber conclusion: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:14). Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? Sounds like he’s saying there is no meaning to life. Or maybe he’s just saying he failed to find the ultimate answer. But did he fail? I don’t think so; I believe he found the answer. Look closer at his conclusion. Do you see it?
The answer lies in three little words: “under the sun.” You see, as long as you look for the meaning of life in worldly things, you’ll never find it. The meaning of this life is found in the next life, when we are no longer “under the sun.” If you live for the things of this world, you will be sorely disappointed, for nothing on earth satisfies or brings fulfillment. If you live your life focused on the eternal things, then you’ll find meaning in the temporal things. As Jesus taught, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). (See also the parable in Luke 12:13-21.)
Ecclesiastes is an amazing book. I don’t profess to understand all of it, but what I do understand always jolts me back to reality. What am I living for? If it’s for anything “under the sun,” then it’s meaningless. As Solomon closed his amazing book:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.