I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:12–15 NIV84)
“There has to be more to life than this,” a man says to himself as he lies awake in bed one night. Bill is a middle-aged man in his forties. If you knew him, you would think he has it all together. He has a loving wife, beautiful children, a good job, and they live in a nice home, surrounded by friends. What else could there be? The world says: “this is what life is all about,” “this is where happiness is found.” Bill is grateful for all of these blessings, and yet he senses that there’s something missing. Even though he is successful on so many levels, there is an emptiness he cannot escape.
He wonders: “What is my purpose? Am I here for a reason? Is my life going somewhere? Or is this all there is?”
Bill started wrestling with these questions ever since his next door neighbor died suddenly from a major heart attack. They had been friends. They were about the same age, at the same place in life. Their children played together in the back yard. Every morning, before heading off to work, the two men waved to each other as they pulled out of their driveways. But one evening, Bill came home and saw the flashing lights of an ambulance parked in front of his neighbor’s home. He was not only sad to lose a friend, but he was shaken by it. He realized, “that could have been me.” It made him pause and consider the focus of his life. “Why am here?” “Is this all there is, or is there a bigger purpose I have missing?
Maybe you have wrestled with this same question. All of us search for significance, looking for something to fill our lives with meaning. We know instinctively that there has to be more than making it through another day. Sometimes we lie awake at night wondering, “What is my purpose?” “Why am I here?” “Am I making a difference?”
It is possible to spend my entire life searching for meaning in the wrong place. I could devote all of my time and energy in pursuits that are good, but at the end of the day are incapable of offering real or lasting significance to my life. I don’t want that to happen. When my time on this earth comes to an end, I don’t want to look back with regret because I have missed out on the things that matter most.
So what is the meaning of life? The book of Ecclesiastes helps us wrestle with that question, and points us to the ultimate answer. We must look to the Lord for purpose, because the world is unable to provide true meaning to our lives.
In the opening verses, the author calls himself “the teacher.” We can tell that he is an older man, with plenty of life experience. While he doesn’t tell us his name, we get a pretty good idea of who he is by the way he describes himself. He tells us that he is the son of David, and ruled as king in Jerusalem for many years. He was able to grow in wisdom more than all who had come before him. He acquired tremendous wealth, and oversaw great building projects throughout the country. He wrote many proverbs. There’s really only one person in the history of Israel who fits this description, and that is King Solomon. That means the book was written at some point during his reign, between 970-930 B.C. But like I said, we can tell that he is an older man, so he likely penned these words towards the end of his rule.
The past two weeks we have talked about the life of Solomon. We saw how he began well. Shortly after he became king, the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream offering to grant any request. “Tell me what you would like me to do for you, and I will do it.” Solomon replied, “Give me a wise and discerning heart so I can govern your people.” His answer pleased God, and the Lord was willing to grant his request. Solomon became known throughout the world for his great wisdom. Under his rule, Israel enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. His greatest accomplishment was building a beautiful temple in Jerusalem to the Lord. Everything was going well.
And yet, later in life, Solomon lost his focus and he began to drift away from God. Scripture tells us that he married more than 700 wives (1 Kings 11:3). You don’t have to be a genius to know that wasn’t a good idea. Most of them were political marriages. Part of establishing a peace treaty, with another country was marrying the princess of that land. But these wives worshipped idols, and to make them happy he built shrines where they could worship the gods of their people. In the process, his own heart was led astray.
It was during that period of his life that Solomon struggled to find meaning. He seemed to have everything going for him, but he wasn’t satisfied. So he searched for significance in every pursuit he could think of. “Maybe this will make me happy…” “Or maybe this will fill the void in my heart.” But no matter where he looked, he knew that there was something missing. Despite all of his success, his life felt empty.
Finally, the Lord opened his eyes, and Solomon came to realize where he went wrong. He wrote this book to help us learn from his mistakes. His conclusion is that everything is meaningless, apart from God. There is nothing in this world we can substitute for the Lord… nothing else that will fill the emptiness in our heart. If we leave God out of the picture, we will never be truly satisfied. One commentator puts it this way, “It is as though [Solomon] were saying, ‘Come on then. Let’s see what a life without God is really like. What have you got if you only live for the things of the world? Life is futile and meaningless, frustrating and miserable. But God can make a difference!’” (Derick Tidball, “Illustrated Survey of the Bible,” p.97)
If you came this morning hoping for a light and cheerful sermon, I’m sorry to say you’ve come to the wrong place. But we need to hear the message of Ecclesiastes. Its wisdom is just as relevant to our lives today as it was 3,000 years ago.
Throughout the book, Solomon talks about some of the places where he tried to find purpose. It’s not that these were bad things; most of them were very noble and good. But the trouble is expecting these pursuits to make us happy, or to bring true and lasting joy. No matter how noble these things might be, when we allow them to take the place of God, we will ultimately be disappointed.
The meaning of life is not found in our work. (2:18-23)
Look at verses 2-3: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?”
You might feel that way on Monday morning, when it’s a struggle to roll out of bed, and you’re not ready to head back to the daily grind. Or maybe it’s the thought you have at the end of the day, when you are completely exhausted from another difficult week.
The passage isn’t saying that work is a bad thing. Even though you may not always enjoy what you do, you can be thankful to have a job. Work allows us to earn a living. It teaches responsibility. You probably become friends with some of your co-workers. In many ways, work is a blessing. But ultimately, it’s not where we find fulfillment in life.
Solomon came to realize that from first-hand experience. He took his responsibility, as king, seriously. He was dedicated. He invested a great deal of time and energy strengthening the nation, building cities, handling conflicts, maintaining peace throughout the land. He wanted to govern well, and he did. Few kings in the history of Israel were as successful as Solomon. We might expect he would have found satisfaction in that… pat himself on the back… congratulate himself for a job well done… rest easy at night thinking about all of these accomplishments. But despite all he was able to achieve, his work wasn’t enough to provide fulfillment.
He talks about that in the next chapter. In Ecclesiastes 2:17-20 tells us,
“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.
His words are almost prophetic here. Solomon devoted his life to building Israel into a major superpower, but after he died his son made foolish decisions that split the nation in two. All of his hard work was gone, just like that. His achievements didn’t last. It was all for nothing.
I’m sure none of us have the job title “King,” but the same principles apply whether you are a farmer or a factory worker or a builder or a teacher.
I spent a couple of summers working in a factory, years ago. I met some guys who were very good at their job. They knew their machine, and could fix it when something went wrong. They took pride in making good parts. Before sending the box down the assembly line, they made sure that part measured just right, according to the required specifications. If it didn’t, if something went wrong, they scrapped the parts and recalibrated the machine. They clocked in every morning on time, unless they were sick or on vacation. They put in a full eight hours, and worked overtime when they were able. They had a solid work ethic. But over the years, things changed. People changed. Young workers came in who didn’t have the same dedication. Instead of running their machine, they were too busy talking on their cell phone. If it was a nice day, they might call in sick, to go fishing. Quality changed. Parts that were once were rejected, were now being passed down the line. The pay changed. With each contract negotiation they lost more benefits. As you talked to the old guys who had been there a long time, you could hear the frustration in the voices. They devoted 30 years or more to the company, but the place just wasn’t the same.
I’m sure all of us have been frustrated with our work, at one time or another. You wake up early, and spend all day working through problems. You are worn out by the time you leave, and there is still a stack of papers on your desk that need attention. You try to enjoy a few hours with your family in the evening, and fall asleep on the coach. Before you know it, the sun is rising and its time to head back to the office to do it all over again. If that’s all you have, if that’s where you are looking for meaning and purpose, your life will become bitter. Maybe you know people like that. They are constantly depressed. You barely ever see them smile. They are always complaining. It’s like a dark cloud that follows them around throughout the day. They hate their job, and they don’t have a very happy life, because they don’t know where to look for meaning.
In Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 Solomon asks, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.”
He’s not trying to depress us, but he is warning us not to make the same mistake he did. Don’t get so wrapped up in your work, that you forget about the Lord. Don’t expect it to make you happy. No matter how important your job might be, or how high up the ladder you might climb, or how many projects you complete, ultimately, that’s not what will bring fulfillment to your life.
Our work can be meaningful when we approach it with the right attitude. But your work cannot make your life meaningful. That’s something only God can do.
Elsewhere the Bible teaches us how to approach our work. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” Colossians 3:23 (NIV84)
When our life is centered on the Lord, we can find joy in all that we do.
The meaning of life is not found in our knowledge. (2:12-17)
Look at chapter 1, verses 16-18. Solomon writes,
I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Education is important. God has given us a mind with the capacity to study and to think and to discover new things about the world around us. Hopefully, we never stop learning throughout our entire lives. This a good thing. But even if you were to become the most intelligent person in the world, you wouldn’t find fulfillment in the things you know.
Does anyone like to watch the game show “Jeopardy” on TV? I’m not sure if it’s still on, but we used to watch that every once and awhile. There are all different categories on the screen: it could be history, or famous people, or books… and as you go down the board the questions become more and more difficult. It is fun to try to answer the question before the contestants hit the buzzer. And it feels good when all of the contestants get it wrong, but I know the right answer. That doesn’t happen very often, ok, probably never, but if did, I would feel pretty good about myself.
Even if I could answer every question correctly, so what? That’s not what makes a person happy. Just ask Solomon. He became the wisest person in the world. He studied all kinds of subjects, learning about trees and animals and music. He could tell you everything there was to know about birds and reptiles and fish. He composed songs. He not only wrote books, but read the greatest works of literature from around the world. He became smarter than all the wise men of his day. His reputation spread, so that people came from distant lands to listen to his teaching.
If knowledge was enough to solve all our problems, Solomon’s life would have been trouble free, but that wasn’t the case. Not even the wisest person in the world has all the answers. There were things he couldn’t understand. There were problems he couldn’t solve.
In 2:13-14 he tells us, “I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.”
He is talking about death. “…like the fool, the wise man too must die!” (2:16) There are brilliant people in the world, who write books about things I can’t even begin to comprehend. But no matter how intelligent you might be, you cannot outsmart death.
Knowledge is important. By all means, study, and read, and continue to learn new things. But I hope you are wise enough to admit that there are problems our intellect cannot solve. We need the Lord. It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you don’t know God.
The meaning of life is not found in pleasure. (2:1-11)
Look at Ecclesiastes 2:1-3,
1 I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.”
Many people live by the philosophy, “you only go around once in life, so you might as well have a good time while you’re here.” Personal enjoyment becomes the goal of their existence. They are always thinking about the weekend, when they will be able kick back, do something fun, and have some laughs with friends.
Now having fun isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the themes, of Ecclesiastes, is that we ought to appreciate the life God has given to us and delight in his blessings. Sometimes we don’t pause to enjoy the little things like a nice summer day, or a beautiful sunset, or the laughter of children. But it is easy for us to carry this too far, when pleasure becomes the driving force in our lives. We think that having a good time will make us happy and fill our life with meaning, but it doesn’t.
Solomon learned that lesson for himself. He looks back a time when he thought living a life of luxury would make him happy. He was the king. He could have anything his heart desired. So he threw fancy parties, and invited the most distinguished guests. He surrounded himself with happy people. He tried to cheer his heart with wine. He had hundreds of wives. He built vacation homes, and planted vineyards. He sponsored concerts, featuring the most talented musicians in the land. There was no limit to his wealth, so if it really is possible for money to buy happiness, Solomon would have found it. But guess what? None of these things made him happy. At best, these were momentary distractions from the reality of life, that left him feeling just as empty as before.
Skip down to verses 10-11. Solomon says,
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. 11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
We all take pleasure in different things. For me, I enjoy watching a good football game on TV with friends, especially if good food is involved. Someone brings the chicken wings, someone else brings nachos and cheese, I cook up a rack of ribs on the grill… and that’s a perfect recipe for a good time. You kick back in the recliner, and wait for the game to start. The only way it could get any better is if my team is winning. Every time they score I touchdown, we cheer. “Go Buckeyes!”
On a Saturday afternoon, when I have a chance to watch football, life is good! But you know what? It’s just a game. In a couple of hours, it’s over. The food is gone. My friends have gone home. And whether my team wins or loses, it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Life goes on. Whatever problems I was dealing with before the game, are still there.
It’s okay to watch football, and to have fun, but if we make pleasure the focus of our lives, we’re going to be disappointed. How can we enjoy life, if we neglect the author of life? True and lasting joy is found in the Lord.
So what’s the answer?
If we grow weary from labor and our knowledge isn’t enough to solve the problems we face each day, if our quest for pleasure leaves us empty, where can we find true and lasting meaning?. Skip to the end of the book, to Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.
13 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. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Solomon came to realize the only thing that can bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives is a relationship with the Lord. Other pursuits let us down, but the Lord remains constant. We can trust him with our lives.
Remember the man we talked about at the beginning of the message? Lying awake in bed, he told himself, “there has to be more to life than this.” What if he got up, and walked over the bookshelf across the room. He searched through the titles, and pulled out his old, dusty Bible, opened the pages, and began to read. Falling to his knees his prayed, “Lord, I need you. I have been trying to find the meaning in all the wrong places, but I realize now you are the only one who can make my life meaningful. Come into my life. Forgive my sin. I trust in you, Lord Jesus, as my Savior. Let me discover your purpose for my life, so that I can know true and lasting joy.”
Maybe that’s a prayer you need to pray. Maybe, like Solomon, you know God, but you haven’t been walking with him. You’ve allowed yourself to be distracted, and your heart has drifted away.
The book of Ecclesiastes challenges us to think deeply about the kind of life you want to live. Do you have a purpose? Are you part of something that is bigger than yourself? If this were your last day on the earth, would you be satisfied with the time that you have been given? Or would you be full of regret for pursuing things that ultimately do not matter. It isn’t too late to return to him.