THE MEANING OF LIFE
by Jeffrey Hagan
We’ve all heard the same repeated sad tale. A rising star rockets to the height of celebrity status and then crashes and burns hitting rock bottom.. They seemingly gained all that life had to offer—fame, money, admiration, power—but somehow they still felt empty. At the top of their game, they realized that it was all meaningless.
The book of Ecclesiastes speaks directly to this person, and to all of us, from the perspective of someone who had it all, became disenfranchised, and eventually realized that it's the surprisingly simple things that are ultimately important in life. It's written in the genre called Wisdom Literature.
The book of Ecclesiastes provides relevant wisdom for Christians today who struggle with the seeming meaninglessness of life. Why are we here? What is it all for? Does what we do even matter? What is truly important in life? All of these answers and more can be found in the Ecclesiastes. At the end of the book Solomon sums up with the wisest statement he can possibly round up: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” This is the overarching theme of Ecclesiastes and should be the overarching focus of the Christian life, but Solomon also has other wisdom to share.
Three Lessons From Ecclesiastes
1. For now we live in time but we were made for eternity.
Though we live our lives on a timeline now--birth, life, death--Ecclesiastes says that “he has put eternity into man's heart” but in such a way that he can’t fully understand yet (3:11). The New Testament echoes this, encouraging believers that we have eternity to fully grasp God’s glorious works in the world: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
This longing for something beyond this earthly life is a divine gift meant to help us “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). C.S. Lewis has put it this way: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
2. Real meaning in life can only be had when in a relationship with God.
Solomon wants his readers to know that he has tried everything in a tireless pursuit to find the meaning of life. He’s tried gaining knowledge and wisdom and being very righteous. He’s tried indulging himself with everything that money can buy. He’s tried working hard and playing hard. He’s tried pursuing fame, greatness and passion, but in the end found all of it empty. Depending on what translation you’re reading, the resounding refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is some variation on these words:
Meaningless, pointless, vanity, futility, and useless.
When any of the things mentioned above are pursued wholeheartedly, they become “a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 1:14). We all want to be happy and try to get there in various ways like Solomon did, but only one way will truly provide happiness: pursuing God Himself.
3. Joy in life comes from thankfulness for God's gifts and grace.
Life is a gift. I know it sounds like a cliche, but deep down we know it's true. We did not create ourselves, and, after all, “what do we have that we did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Though life is full of difficulties, it is also full of beauty if we choose to see it. After experiencing all the world had to offer in terms of extravagant luxuries and worldly pleasures, Solomon emphasized simple things as the ones which could bring real joy “under the sun." He mentions family, food, drink and honest work as aspects of life that can give satisfaction in a temporary sense while we live out our lives on earth. But we don’t put our hope in them or expect them to give us lasting fulfillment, but we can thank God for them and enjoy them as good gifts knowing that “whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (James 1:17).
Solomon had it all but found in the end that only one thing was important: a relationship with God characterized by reverence and obedience. Pursued as a means of ultimate happiness, everything else in the world ends in futility. But when God is central in life, all of his gifts come into proper perspective and are able to be properly enjoyed. While we may not fully understand the meaning of everything in life while we are here on earth, we can trust that God has full wisdom even when our wisdom falls short. As Ecclesiastes 5:2 says: "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few."