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Does it ever seem like the struggle for happiness eclipses the more profound endeavor of man’s search for meaning and purpose? Separating one from the other is where we go wrong.
A wise and wealthy king—the wisest and wealthiest of his day—sought to find the secret to a happy life. He searched for it in wine, women, and song—and so much more. Comedians? Musicians? He could bring the most skilled before him at his whim. He immersed himself in books, gaining knowledge and wisdom, and he did not fail to learn by his observation of others. There was virtually nothing out of his reach in the physical realm. He said to himself,
“I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—“Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove…. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds…. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor (Ecclesiastes 2:1–6, 8, 10).
If possessions and wealth can buy happiness, certainly this king must have been the happiest man who ever lived. But was he? Here is his answer: “Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). He no doubt enjoyed the accomplishments and thrills of life, but still saw that all were futile in the end.
But surely it would be different if you were in King Solomon’s shoes! Is this not what many think? We often hear people say that money won’t buy happiness, but they conduct their lives as if it will. Consider the popularity of state-run mega-lotteries—the bigger the prize, the more money invested by hordes of hopefuls.
People attempt to satisfy their every hunger and thirst, just as Solomon did, but in the end are left empty and thirsty. Some live to play golf. Others live for the weekend to support their favorite team. Others love to “party hearty.” Still others accumulate wealth beyond what they could ever need. Then there are those who thirst for popularity or power. There is temporary pleasure in many things, but in the end, as Solomon observed in himself, no mortal pleasure satisfies forever. And hanging over the head of us all is the inevitable grave!
Solomon is not the only Bible figure who saw the futility of mortal life. The prophet Isaiah observed that it is man’s nature to chase after the fleeting wind of happiness. To those who strive for happiness through acquisition and temporal pleasures, he counsels, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:1–2).
What is it that brings the happiness so many want—and that so many fail to find?
Solomon pointed to a life of work that lets us enjoy the fruits of our labor and care for the well-being of others. “I know that nothing is better for [man] than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13). But this cannot be the complete answer, as eating, drinking, and rejoicing will all come to an end someday—which is the very lesson Solomon wanted to impart!
Solomon wrote from the perspective of the mortal man. If there is no life after death, then whether one is good or evil, wise or foolish, the same end still comes. “The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I myself perceived that the same event happens to them all. So I said in my heart, ‘As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me, and why was I then more wise?’ Then I said in my heart, ‘This also is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 2:14–15).
Does this mean Solomon saw no hope beyond the grave? On the surface, that seems to be the case:
For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun…. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6, 10).
Solomon understood something that too few realize: Our mortality is an important part of how God is working with us. “I said in my heart, ‘Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.’ For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:18–20).
Yes, God is testing each of us. He wants us to realize that life is temporary, but that—as Solomon clearly understood—it is not the end. “I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work’” (Ecclesiastes 3:17). We see this message repeated throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon recognized that our conduct during this mortal life does matter. “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12). And in one of the best-known passages, he counsels the next generation, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
Solomon’s words are important. They cut to the heart of what we value. They contrast the choice of personal, selfish desire with the choice to look to something greater than the here and now. Isaiah addresses our need to act while there is time, and the importance of God’s grace for those wise ones who turn away from living only for today.
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live…. Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:2–3, 6–7).
Solomon concludes his lesson with a warning that God judges our actions. “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14). Let us all heed that warning!