I’d like us to listen to some words from 2 men who walked this earth before us. One was a very happy man. The other was a very unhappy man. I hope listening to these 2 men will clarify in our minds what it is that we really want in life.
The first guy I’d like us to hear from is…
He was appointed king of Israel in place of his father David at the pinnacle of Israel’s power and prosperity as a nation. He started off on a good footing with God. Early in his reign God visited Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he wanted. Of all the things he could have asked for, he asked for wisdom that he might rule God’s people well. God honored his request by granting him not just unparalleled wisdom, but also unparalleled wealth, power and fame.
I Kings 4:29-34 speaks of Solomon’s wisdom. “Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men, [then it gives some examples of famous wise men of the ancient world that Solomon excelled]… and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” He was gifted with a brilliant mind and an incredible knowledge gaining apparatus, great analytic skills and observing skills. And he became a world famous sociologist and botanist and zoologist and poet and song writer and life counselor. I Kings 10:24 says, “All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart.” And people brought gifts, silver gold, garments, weapons, spices, horses, mules in order to just have an appointment with Solomon. Wouldn’t you love to be that brilliant and famous and have the whole world just in awe of you?
I Kings 4:21 speaks of his power, “Now Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.” He was the most powerful man in the world. Wouldn’t you love to have the power to do anything you wanted, and to just snap your fingers and speak your heart’s desire and it would be done?
And he was probably the wealthiest man to have ever lived on this earth. I Kings 10 describes his wealth. If you take that information and convert it to today’s money you realize he would make Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie and Carlos Slim look like broke people. Wouldn’t you love to be able to no longer have to think about whether or not you could afford something? If you like it and money can buy it, it’s yours.
Then in I Kings 11:3 says that he came to have 700 wives and 300 concubines. And unfortunately it says that these wives turned his heart away after other gods. He become no longer wholly devoted to the true and living God because of the influence of these women. If we were to depict Solomon as someone more modern, he might be considered a mix between Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, but just magnified. Surely Solomon was the happy man, right?
Well, let’s turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and listen to some words from Solomon.
Words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes
1:1, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. [That’s Solomon. He begins this book with his summarizing observation of everything about human existence.] 2 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The word rendered “vanity” is the Hebrew word for breath or vapor. He is saying all that I have, all that people want, all that people work for, all of human existence in all its endeavors and achievements and glory is just a “whhffff.” There is no substance, no meaning, no significance, no lasting value to it. It’s barely there and gone. Or let me illustrate it this way. Here’s his perspective. [Take balloon out of pocket.] Here’s the significance of all your schooling, all your acquiring of knowledge. [Blow into balloon.] Here’s the significance of all the wealth that you work so hard for. [Again.] Here’s the significance of all the popularity and position you’re after [Again.] And then pretty soon this is what happens to all you achieve and accumulate in this world [Release inflated balloon and let it sputter into crowd.] Aren’t you glad you came this morning for this encouraging message?
1:3, “What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?” This man with seemingly everything is questioning whether life is worth living.
1:16, “I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. 18 Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” I read a couple articles this week that spoke of how intellectually gifted people, genius people, are especially vulnerable to what’s called existential depression. Existential means relating to our existence. Very smart thoughtful people often can’t help but see how fleeting life is, and how futile and insignificant everything is that we do in this world, and how this world does not offer anything that would really fulfill and satisfy us. So Solomon’s wisdom and knowledge was causing him pain.
2:1, “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. 2 I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” 3 I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” So he immersed himself in the party kind of life, in wine and women and comedy. I imagine he had the world’s finest wine and most desirable women and was entertained by the greatest comedians. And he found all those pleasures to be only momentary and shallow, and there was no fulfillment or lasting satisfaction in it. And he got bored with it.
2:4 I enlarged my works: I built houses [more like palaces] for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6 I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8 Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men — many concubines. 9 Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10 All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not refuse them.” He built and bought and acquired every single thing he could imagine that he might want.
Then he says, “I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” In other words he says there was a measure of pleasure and enjoyment in the work and accomplishing of these things, but that was it for my reward in all this.
It’s like if you’ve ever built a big puzzle, one of those 1000 piece puzzles. It’s kind of fun to build a puzzle. There’s some enjoyment in trying to figure out where the pieces go and seeing it come together as you work. Then finally you put the last piece where it goes and you have that moment where you say, “Yeah, I did it! I did this! Hey everybody look! I did it!” But then what more reward do you get than that for your efforts? You might leave it out on the table for a day or two in case anybody cares to see that you built it. Some people actually put glue on it and hang it up in their house, thinking maybe somebody will care that they built the puzzle. But most of us realize that nobody cares and there’s nothing more to be gained from the puzzle, and so you take it apart and put it back in the box. Solomon says that’s like everything I built and accomplished. My heart was pleased with my labor and that was my reward for all my labor. There was no lasting satisfaction or fulfillment in it.
Have you experienced this? You decide you want a new car. You work hard and save up your money. You do research on cars and you find the car you want. Then you shop around for a good deal, you’re excited to find a good deal, and you’re excited to go the dealership and you’re excited to drive it off the lot, and you’re excited for a day or two or three. Then pretty soon the excitement wears off and life’s back to how it was before you had the car. Then you turn to something else to make you happy and you work for it and your excitement grows as you get close to getting it and then you’re excited to get it and you get it, and then pretty soon life’s dull again. Getting stuff just doesn’t satisfy us.
I think of the man whose dead body the police found a number of years ago. He had committed suicide. On his body when they found it was $30,000 in cash and a note which read, “I have discovered during my life that piles of money do not bring happiness. I am taking my own life because I can no longer stand the solitude and boredom. When I was an ordinary workman in New York, I was happy. Now that I possess millions, I am infinitely sad and prefer death.” There’s more reward in the building of the puzzle than there is in having a completed puzzle.
2:12, “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? 13 And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. [So he says there is some advantage to wisdom in that it’s like you can go about life able to see, rather than blind. With wisdom you can see how to avoid traps and painfully bumping into stuff and you can see the easiest way to get where you want to be in life. So there is that advantage to wisdom.] “And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. 15 Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” 16 For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!” Now, do you see what Solomon could not see? Solomon at this point in ch2 it appears wasn’t seeing anything beyond the grave. And so to him the wise and the fools end up the same.
2:17, “So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.” This explains the midlife crisis. People pursue one or two of these things Solomon had, they reach their goals, finally in their 40s they get to the top of the hill they’ve been climbing, and they look around and it’s not at all what they were hoping for. They’re not fulfilled. So they hurriedly try to start again. They trade in the minivan for a sports car, and trade in the wife for a newer model. But those things won’t fulfill them either.
18 Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. 20 Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun. 21 When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. 22 For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” People work so hard all their lives for the things they want. It’s a painful and grievous task. And if they happen to achieve the things they want, then they find out that they’re not very satisfying, and then they die, and then everything that they worked so hard for goes to somebody else.
So then he makes some application of these observations. 2:24, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? 26 For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” So from his perspective, which I think at this point doesn’t go beyond death, here is the best thing for a person to do in life. “Don’t strive for wealth, position, prestige, women, all this. Trust me, I’ve had it all, it’s not worth the struggle. Work enough that you have what you need. And just try to enjoy the simply blessings of life. Savor just sitting down and having a meal. Tell yourself that your labor is good. Try to enjoy building the puzzle. God has so made us that we can get enjoyment from work and accomplishing things. So enjoy your work. Don’t be in such a hurry to complete the puzzle, so you work so hard and such long hours that you miss the enjoyment of building the puzzle, because there’s not much enjoyment to be had once you complete the puzzle. Savor the simple blessings, try to enjoy what you do. And be good in God’s sight, fear God and keep his commandments, because it appears to me that those who are good in God’s sight, generally, God will enable them to have more joy in life than those who are evil in His sight. So do things God’s way in life, be good in His sight, and you’ll live a happier life.”
Notice just a few more verses. 3:18ff, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’ 19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21 Who knows that the breath of man [or “the spirit of man”] ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Who knows if when we die we’re not just dead like Rover, dead all over. Who knows if the spirit of man goes to be with God when we die or not? He not seeing at this point in the book much of anything beyond death. I think later he came to see that there must be more than just this life. Toward the end of the book, 12:9, he will say of death, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” But at this point in his investigation of the big questions of life recorded in the first few chapters he was less certain about an afterlife.
Notice this statement 4:2-3, “So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 3 But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” That is not a happy man. Without hope that transcends death, you cannot be really happy no matter how much you have.
And look at one more bit of advice from him. 4:5-6, “The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh. [Work for a living. Don’t be lazy.] 6 One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.” Work to have what you need, but don’t work so hard that you miss savoring the simple blessings of life.
Reminds me of the story of a humble fishermen who was sitting back relaxing beside his boat looking out over the sea. And a rich industrialist man came by and said, “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” The fisherman said, “Because I’ve caught enough fish for today.” “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked. The fisherman said, “What would I do with them?” “Well,” the rich man said, “You could earn more money, and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish and make more money. Then you could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you could have a whole fleet of boats and be rich like me.” The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?” And the rich man said, “Well, then you could sit back and enjoy life.” And the fisherman, as he looked calmly out at sea, said, “What do you think I’m doing now?” You don’t need a great abundance in order to enjoy life.
Now, let’s turn to the NT and get some insight from a happy man.
The Apostle Paul
Here was a man who had very little. He had no money, no home, no wife, many enemies. But he had the one thing that Solomon was missing. And he had an inextinguishable joy. He was generally happy, when he wasn’t being beaten up and worried about false teachers destroying the churches he’d established. Here’s a little snippet of his life. Acts 16:22-25, “The crowd rose up together against them [Paul and Silas], and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. 23 When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; 24 and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God“. You could take away all he had and put him through a lot of pain, but you could not take away his joy. How could that be?
Philippians 3:7ff, “But whatever things were gain to me [Referring to the things he used to have and think were important, his standing in the Jewish community, his Jewish descendant and education, all his Jewyness.], those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things [money, trophy elk hunting, athletic achievements, houses, property, vehicles, business success, fame, everything the world is after, I count it all] to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” That word “rubbish” refers to the most detestable kind of garbage and waste you can think of. The KJV translates it “dung”. Solomon may have seen everything as just a breath or vapor. Paul viewed it all as dung. I decided not to bring up here a visual aid for that one. He saw it all that way because he could see the surpassing value of knowing and having relationship with Christ. V9 he says, if I have Christ, I “may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Everything else was rubbish compared to a relationship with Christ, because when you have a relationship with Christ then after this life you will stand before God with Christ’s righteousness, you will stand before God as though you lived the perfect life that Christ lived, as though you are as worthy as Christ. And you will be raised and you will have everlasting life with God.
One more passage from Paul. I Corinthians 15:50-58, “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” Every time you encourage someone, every time you give to meet a need, every time you send a card or make a call to check on someone or do a good deed, every time you teach someone about God, every time you do things that help people to come to know Christ or to stay faithful to Christ, it has significance and meaning and lasting value. It’s like storing up treasure in heaven that you will never lose. And in eternity when you see those people that you helped to be there with you there will be joy over the things you did on earth to help them.
And that is the only not vain thing you can do in this world. As a great poet put it, “Only one life to live, it will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last. And when I am dying how glad I shall be, if the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee.”
May we learn from Solomon and Paul to not waste our lives seeking fulfillment from this world, but rather just serve our Maker and our Savior and enjoy the simple blessings that He gives us here as we serve Him and look forward to what He has in store for us.
– James Williams