The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Just for fun, right where you’re at, reach out and grab a bunch of air.
Go ahead and be greedy. Take as much as you can. Hold it close. Squeeze it tightly.
Now, open your hands and look at it.
It’s gone. It’s already been replaced by some other air.
In the reckoning of King Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ presumed author, human life is like that. “Meaningless” here translates a Hebrew word – hevel – that carries a number of oblique connotations; at its most basic level, the word means vapor. Mist. Like steam escaping from a teapot. Like your breath on a cold morning.
Life, Solomon concludes, is a fog. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. You can’t cling to it. It evaporates. So does it even have a point?
What Solomon pondered is not a dilemma locked away in Bible times. It’s a front-burner heart-matter for people today, too. Can we make meaningful sense of human existence?
If you listen closely, you’ll find that most modern responses fall out into one of two categories: The answers people offer are generally either extremely depressing or totally egotistical.
Exhibit A: This is Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who created Charlie Brown:
“I don’t know the meaning of life. I don’t know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.”
Ashleigh Brilliant, an English artist and poet, layers on the fun with this summary:
Life may have no meaning. Or even worse, it may have a meaning of which I disapprove.
Total pessimism. It’s French Existentialism in our own time. Sartre. Camus. Nausea. Life is pointless; we are aimless organic entities, briefly conflicting with one another before reverting to carbon ash. We’re just ants on a log, as Hemingway put it.
On the other hand, you’ll find some people who say – sure, life is hard, but if you look down deep inside, you can generate purpose for yourself:
“Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.”Henry Miller
“Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves, is all we will ever have—and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life.”
“For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
Five points for honesty. But none of these appraisals particularly thrill the heart, do they?
The particular irony of Ecclesiastes, of course, is that Ecclesiastes’ depressed language comes straight from the One Guy Who Had It All. The writer who cries “meaningless” is the same man who possessed the greatest capacity to realize a statisfying life.
According to 1 Kings 3, God came to Solomon at night and offered the young ruler anything his heart desired. Whatever you want, Solomon. You name it; it’s yours.
You desire a long life? Just say so. You want riches? I’ll make it happen. You want power? I’ll give you power. A Super Bowl victory for your favorite team? Done.
But in his dream, Solomon replied – God, the truth is, I have pretty much no idea what I’m doing as king. I guess my request would be for a discerning heart that can tell right from wrong and can help me to lead this people well.
This request pleased God. And true to God’s promise, the king received his wish. Solomon became the wisest person in the region (1 Kings 4:30). (There’s actually a Jewish tradition that when Solomon woke from his dream, he was able to understand what the birds chirping outside of his window and the donkeys braying on the street were saying to each other!)
Moreover, the Bible says, God was so impressed that Solomon had asked for discernment rather than wealth or longevity that God added all of those things to the young king as well.
With this blessing, Solomon became strong and prosperous. He had horses and chariots. He amassed great quanitities of silver and gold. People came from everywhere to to ask him for advice. On top of his material and political resources, Solomon became a brilliant artist and composed hundreds of verses of poetry.
All around Jerusalem there were people who must have said: “Solomon has it all. I would do anything to trade my life for his! If only I could be more like Solomon!”
But Solomon was as disappointed with life as anyone else.
You ever wish you could live somebody else’s life? If only I could have the financial security of Bill Gates! If only I could have the adoration and fans of Taylor Swift! If only I could play my short irons like Phil Mickelson! (Preachers like me say – If only I could communicate like Andy Stanley or exegete like Alister Begg!)
It’s common to envy the lives of others. But in point of fact, maybe other people’s gilded existences aren’t any less vaprous than our own.
Solomon tried everything to find purpose. In his first go of things, he went out for pure pleasure. The king cut loose like a frat boy, setting aside prudence and the buttoned-down expectations of royalty for the bars and the comedy clubs. He tried humor. He tried wine. But Solomon discovered that life to be madness.
Solomon tried shopping, too. He acquired vast numbers of slaves, orchards, and precious metals. A harem of women stood ready to provide the king any sexual favor he wanted. Solomon even set up a house band to play live music in his palace. But these toys failed him too.
Solomon tried everything; he found meaning in nothing. None of it staved off his existential awareness that something was missing. No activity, acquisition, or accomplishment could hold his heart fast. Everything was meaningless.
Here’s how Solomon summed it all up:
So I hated life…my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.Ecclesiastes 2:17-23
In the end, glorious King Solomon loathed his life as nothing but grief and pain and toil.
Or, at least, that’s what life amounted to under the sun.
“Under the sun” is a kind of literary shorthand implying “from the perspective of this world.” Under the sun is where we live on Darwin’s tree. Under the sun is what we’re about for the duration of our nasty, brutish, short ride.
The last hundred or so years has instructed us to see human life in “under the sun” terms. To the modern mind, existence is a haphazard array of molecules and scarcities. There is nothing transcendent, nothing enchanted, nothing redemptive beyond ourselves. As Malcom Gladwell says, “We are experience rich and theory poor.”
And if that’s all we are – atoms and charges and impulses – then we should get Solomonic with it and spend every moment chasing what we crave. @ Nietzche.
Right now, some of you are fixated on getting a promotion. Others are desperate for a vacation. A few are single-minded about finding a husband or girlfriend. But these are not the things that you have been created to need.
Others of you soldier on with that self-sufficient streak. You will create your own meaning. But what happens when your hand can’t clutch the vapor? You will loathe yourself and you’ll become even more depressed.
We need something else, something more. Humans require a kind of meaning that comes from beyond the sun.
Because we aren’t just clumped material. We were made for a relationship with God. That’s Solomon’s conclusion in Ecclesiastes 2:25: Without God, who can find enjoyment?
When we find that life feels empty and meaningless, and when we run out of other things to entertain us and despair for the point of it all, we have to remind ourselves that these are not the things we are made for. We aren’t molecular; we are spiritual. There is something more to life than those things upon which the sun shines. Our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in someone.
The Christian faith resolves Solomon’s Paradox by finding a new kind of life in Jesus. Jesus reignedbefore the sun and will shine long after the sun’s hydrogen is exhausted. It is in Jesus that a life always falling through the cracks holds together.
There is nothing meaningful under the sun. But under the reign of the Son, everything is eternally new and beautiful and meaningful.