Henry Nouwen was a Catholic priest and a thoughtful writer. He taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame and spent ten years serving the mentally and physically challenged at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada. While teaching at the Yale Divinity School, Nouwen met and befriended a young student named Fred Bateman, a secular Jew who, when challenged to read the Hebrew Bible, said, “It doesn’t speak to me. It is a strange faraway world.”
“Well,” said Nouwen, “read at least the Book of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes). The one that opens with the words: ‘Vanity of vanities. … All is vanity.’”
Fred returned the next day and said, “I read it. I never realized that there was a place in the Bible for a skeptic … one of my type. That’s very reassuring!”[i]
Are you a skeptic? Do you wonder if life has any purpose or meaning? Welcome to the book of Ecclesiastes, where artists, scientists, philosophers, monarchs, and theologians in every generation find answers to their questions about the ultimate meaning in life.
Apart from God, the philosopher concludes with circular reasoning, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” The humanist says, “The meaning of life is that which we choose to give it.” The agnostic asks with a twinge of skepticism, “Can anybody really know if life has meaning?” Even the British comedy troupe Monty Python tried but failed to answer the question in their movie called The Meaning of Life.
Perhaps the wisest man who ever lived can help us. Three thousand years ago, Solomon wrote this about his life: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). Vanity! Meaningless! Utterly useless! We would not expect to hear a preacher describe life that way. But Solomon, the son of David, did. Why was King Solomon so pessimistic about life? Or was he?
The Old Testament wisdom books are places to rest and fuel up your soul. However, the book of Ecclesiastes seems like a dark detour on the ultimate road trip through the Bible. Solomon takes his readers on a rhetorical road trip through agnosticism (1:13), hedonism (2:24), materialism (3:19-21), pessimism (4:2), and fatalism (7:13). A journey like that will wear out the best of us.
However, it should not surprise us that God gave us a book for skeptics that addresses the ultimate meaning of life, written by a man who tried to find satisfaction in just about everything but God. Solomon was the right man to travel on this journey and report back to us. God had given him unlimited resources to spend on his insatiable desires. Did anything or anyone ultimately satisfy Solomon? Or, like Mick Jaggar of the Rolling Stones, did Solomon conclude, “I can’t get no satisfaction”?
Jewish tradition says that Solomon wrote his love Song during his early years, Proverbs during his middle years, and Ecclesiastes during his declining years, expressing an old man’s sorrow and regret. Indeed, Solomon did not always practice the wisdom that he possessed by God’s grace. Much of Ecclesiastes describes the musings of a desperate man who was out of fellowship with God and who tried to find meaning “under the sun,” a humanistic phrase that appears twenty-nine times in the book.
Life Under the Sun
Life is meaningless apart from God. An “under the sun” existence leaves a person empty. It does not take long for Solomon to descend into the Slough of Despond. In the opening prose of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, as the author calls himself, expresses his weariness with life.[ii] Solomon is bored and unenthused because there is “nothing new under the sun” (1:9). He points to the wind that blows south and then blows north. It blows around the globe and then returns to gust again (1:6). Likewise, “the sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises” (1:5). Generations come and go, “but the earth remains forever” (1:4). “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full (1:7). On and on goes Solomon, leaving us with the distinct impression that his life lacks fullness and meaning.
Some people find joy and comfort in the predictable rhythms of life, but Solomon does not. Variety is the spice of his life; the absence of it is “vanity!” which is the Preacher’s favorite word.[iii] Solomon even refers to his pursuit of wisdom as “a striving after the wind” (1:17). We would say, “What a complete waste of time!” By the end of chapter one, Solomon sounds so negative and pessimistic that any one of us would be tempted to remove no-fun Solomon from the party guest list.
Let’s dig deeper into Solomon’s experience with vanity, starting with the vanity of wisdom under the sun. We know Solomon best for his expansive wisdom (1 Kings 3:1-15). However, in time he discovered that all the wisdom in the universe means nothing under the sun. In chapter two, he writes,
The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2:14-16)
In the end, Solomon sees little difference between the wise and the foolish under the sun.
Solomon also muses about the vanity of self-indulgence under the sun. He spoiled himself with pleasure (2:1), wine (2:3), and women (2:6). However, none of it ultimately satisfied him. Even laughter left him feeling empty (2:2, 7:6), which makes me think of the tragic death of Robin Williams, one of the most gifted comedians in our lifetime who took his own life. Apparently, Chuckles the Clown was a deeply sad man.
Solomon also experienced the vanity of work and wealth under the sun.
I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and province. (2:4-8).
Solomon achieved much during his lifetime and amassed great wealth. He reflected upon his many building projects by using the personal pronoun “I” seven times in five verses. He admits that all the work he did was “for myself” (2:18-23). He lived to get, not to give. However, when Solomon realized that he would “leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it,” he concluded, “This also is vanity and a great evil.” How depressing to reach the end of one’s life and conclude that all the work you did under the sun was just a pile of vanity projects. In 8:16-17, Solomon describes the workaholic, lumping together the vanity of wisdom and work under the sun.
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
As any skeptic might, Solomon also wrestled with the vanity of death under the sun. Consider his musings about the grave.
I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? (3:18-22)
Solomon’s perspective about death under the sun is, frankly, depressing. He sees no life or hope beyond the grave. Our destiny is no different than the beasts; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The humanistic, atheistic theory of the origin of life called Darwinian evolution reaches the same conclusion: Homo sapiens are no different than the apes from which they evolved. Thus, the best we can do is to live for the present and glean as much joy from our work as we can. To this point, Solomon also writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9:10).
Perhaps this is where the Epicureans got their philosophy of life, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Is this how we are to live? Is Solomon’s assessment of the meaning of life correct?
Time and space do not allow a full treatment of all vanities under the sun. Others that Solomon experienced include the vanity of envy (4:4), the vanity of greed (4:7), the vanity of fame (4:16), the vanity of the love of money (5:10), the vanity of covetousness (6:9), and the vanity of religion (8:10-14).
Life Above the Sun
Fortunately, Solomon does not remain pessimistic about life. The vanity he experienced under the sun pushed him to find ultimate meaning in a relationship with God above the sun. We first catch a glimpse of this in chapter 3, where Solomon acknowledges that life under the sun is short, rhythmic, and calculated with a time and season for everything.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace (3:1-8).
If you are of a certain age, you might start humming a song called “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” made popular in 1965 by a folk-rock band called The Byrds. Yes, God “has made everything beautiful in its time,” Solomon goes on to say in 3:11. “Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
In my book Mysteries of the Afterlife: Exploring Its Amazing Secrets, I reflect upon Ecclesiastes 3 this way: “Solomon sticks his head ‘above the sun’ long enough to catch a glimpse of God and eternity. Beauty comes in understanding there’s a purpose and meaning to everything under the sun. No matter how random life appears or painful it becomes, God is always up to something good and eternally appropriate for us.”[iv] Do you agree? It takes an ‘above the sun’ perspective to embrace that by faith.
Regarding God placing eternity in man’s heart, I go on to write, “From the very beginning, God planned that you and I would live forever with him. He put eternity in our hearts to remind us of that and to create in us a thirst for the transcendent. The meaninglessness of life evaporates when we know we are part of God’s eternal plan, and we allow that to become our focus. [A]s Augustine of Hippo famously said, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’”[v]
Because eternity resides in our hearts, we cannot live under the sun and find true meaning in our daily existence. The shout in our spirit says, “There must be more to our existence!” and there is. I find eternity in our hearts speaking the loudest when we stand graveside, mourning the death of a friend or loved one while facing our own frail mortality.
What more can we say of Solomon’s conclusion? Solomon summarized wisdom at the start of Proverbs by saying, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). However, Israel’s most glorious king summarized the meaning of life at the end of Ecclesiastes by saying, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon travels eleven long and sometimes despairing chapters to get to his conclusion about life. According to the Preacher, the fear of God—the kind of deep awe and respect for Him that leads to obedience—is the way to gain wisdom and discover the meaning of life. In other words, life has meaning only in relation to the Giver of life.
According to Solomon, the best time to make this important discovery is when you are young. At the beginning of his conclusion, he writes, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (12:1). Did you know that most people who come to faith in Jesus Christ and become one of His disciples do so before they leave adolescence and before skepticism grows deep roots?
Whatever your age, Ecclesiastes sets the whole duty of man before you. If you seek God who is above the sun, you will find Him and discover the ultimate meaning of your life.
[i] Henry J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p. 18-19.
[ii] Qoheleth, the Hebrew title of the book, is a rare term and found only in the book of Ecclesiastes (1:1, 2, 12, 7:27, 12:8-10). It comes from a word which means “to convoke an assembly, to assemble.” It refers to one who addresses an assembly, like a preacher.”
[iii] The word “vanity” appears nineteen times in Ecclesiastes to describe how empty life is under the sun and without a relationship with the Lord.
[iv] Ron Jones, Mysteries of the Afterlife: Exploring Its Amazing Secrets, p. 24.
[v] IBID, p. 25-26