When I was in high school, my friends and I would do something almost every night during the summer. It wasn’t necessarily anything big or exciting. A lot of the time we would end up sitting on the tailgates of our trucks in our school’s parking lot. Even though we just sat in the Calvary parking lot, I rarely missed a night out with my friends.
Now, of course, I didn’t know this then, but I was there every night because I wanted to be a part of it all. I was seeking meaning in the moments, in being a part of the crowd, in being in on every inside joke.
If we’re honest, we all seek meaning in something. Whether it be in the little moments of life, knowing we are in the “in crowd,” or something else, we all seek meaning in something. Maybe you are pursuing something right now that you believe will finally provide the meaning for which you long. Or maybe that which you have pursued so long has just let you down, and that’s left you wondering: How can I find meaning in life?
How can we find meaning in life?
Life Under the Sun
In order to answer that question, the first thing we need to understand is that life under the sun is meaningless. That phrase — “Life under the Sun” is used all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, which, by the way, is going to be what this post is based on. Yes, we are going to look at the entire book. The phrase itself refers to the things of this world. Whatever those may be — material or immaterial things. We will get into some specifics in a bit, but know that’s what this phrase is referring to — the things in this world.
Right off the bat, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that everything under the sun is “vanity” or “meaningless” depending on the translation you have. Starting in verse 1 he says,
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:1–3)
The Preacher tells us that everything under the sun is vanity or meaningless. The Hebrew word for vanity is Hevel.
Hevel is an interesting word. It literally means smoke, vapor, or mist. To add to that list, one author I read recently used the word hologram. I think that’s an appropriate modern-day addition to the list. If you think about it, a hologram, just like smoke, is something that looks real but when you reach out to grab it, you can’t. Your hand literally goes right through it. It’s not solid. It’s not something that can be held on to. That’s the image the Preacher is trying to drive home. He wants us to see that trying to attach ultimate meaning to things under the sun is vanity. That’s because those things, those moments can’t be grasped, they can’t be bottled up. They are here but they are temporary just like smoke, vapor, and mist.
I experienced a good example of this when I was in college. Midway through my college career, I transferred to the University of Georgia. The first semester I transferred there, I had a group of friends that I hung out with all the time. We had a lot of fun together. There was a lot of camaraderie in that group. But that fun, that camaraderie only lasted for a short time. By the fall things had changed. People graduated, relationships ended, we lived in different places. And because of that, the dynamic of the group wasn’t the same. The rest of my time at UGA I chased that same feeling, those same experiences I had that first semester because I thought they would provide me with meaning. You know what? I was never able to get them back. It was like smoke that had slipped through my hands. It was there for a time, but it couldn’t be grasped, it couldn’t be bottled up. That’s hevel. That’s vanity. That’s a chasing after the wind.
Along with hevel being something that is fleeting, that can’t be grasped, it also carries the idea of an enigma or an absurdity. In chapter 6, the Preacher tells us that God has given a man wealth, possession, and honor. He has given him everything he could desire so that he lacks nothing. But even though he has everything he has ever wanted, he doesn’t have the ability to enjoy it. Instead, someone else, a stranger, gets to enjoy it in his place. The Preacher tells us that’s vanity. That absurd, that’s an enigma. That’s something that just can’t be explained, it doesn’t make any sense.
Not only does the Preacher tell us life is vanity because that which we are seeking meaning can’t be grasped, he also tells us that life is vanity because there are some things that just don’t operate how we think they should. There are some things that just don’t make any sense. That, then, leads the Preacher to conclude that everything under the sun is meaningless, it’s all vanity, it’s all hevel.
Just the Beginning
That’s just the beginning of the book. Those three verses really set the tone for the rest of the book. It tells you that this is a book that’s going to smack you in the face with reality. It’s not a book that’s going to coddle you. There are no “safe spaces” here. Just the cold hard truth of the reality in which we live.
We know it’s the cold hard truth of the reality in which we live because the Preacher is speaking from personal experience. In other words, he’s lived it, he’s experienced it. And he’s experienced it through tests that he has employed.
He is able to say this because he’s the wisest and richest king to ever live. It’s widely thought that the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon. If you know anything about Solomon, you know he had riches beyond measure. I mean, the gold was just pouring in like water. On top of being rich, he was a king. As King, he had the ability to do whatever he wanted. So, when he tells us that he didn’t hold anything back, he means it. He literally gave himself wholly and completely to these tests with no limitations at all. That’s important to know because it means that there are no if’s, and’s, or but’s. There are no, “If only he would have or could have…” There was none of that. He experienced it all to the max. The conclusions he provides can and should be trusted.
What Tests Did the Preacher Run?
The preacher ran several tests and made a ton of observations that are grouped throughout the book. We are going to look at some of those. Some of the big ones. Some of the things we are prone to seek meaning in ourselves. The first test that we encounter is:
A. The Test of Pleasure (2:1)
“I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.' But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, 'It is mad,' and of pleasure, 'What use is it?'” (Ec 2:1–2)
The Preacher begins his series of tests with pleasure. The things he seeks pleasure in are wine, great works, art, and even sex. His actions represent intense consumerism, which is our society today. We are a people who just can’t seem to get enough.
While the things this world offers do provide pleasure, the pleasures they provide aren’t something that can provide ultimate satisfaction. They always leave us longing for more. That’s what I have experienced. I’m sure you have experienced the same. And Solomon, who experienced it to the max, tells us without a doubt that is the truth. Pleasure is vanity. It is a chasing after the wind. It’s not something that’s going to provide the meaning for which we long.
B. The Test of Wisdom (2:12; 9:2)
He says starting in verse 12,
“So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.” (Ec 2:12–13)
He begins to test wisdom. In his test, he finds that wisdom is indeed better than folly. In other words, it’s better to live as a wise man than a fool. But look at the second half of verse 14,
“And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them.” (Ec 2:14)
What is this event? Look at verse 16,
“For of the wise as of the fool, there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ec 2:16)
What happens to both the wise and the fool is that they die, and are eventually forgotten. People may remember them for a time, but unless you are someone who has made the history books, you will eventually be forgotten. And even those who have made the history books are forgotten. It just takes a little bit longer. While it’s good to be wise, to be skillful, to be good at what you do, we shouldn’t seek ultimate meaning in wisdom. It again fails us because death comes to us all. And time erases people’s memory of us.
C. The Test of Career (2:18)
Many people pour themselves into their career. They make it their life. They sacrifice everything for it. Sometimes people do that because they just need an escape and work provides it because it keeps them busy. Other times people do it because they think it is going to provide them with meaning, that it’s going to fulfill them. And to some degree work can be fulfilling. I’m not saying you shouldn’t find some sort of fulfillment in your work. You just shouldn’t seek ultimate meaning in it. It shouldn’t be your everything. It shouldn’t be that which you have directed your entire life towards. Solomon tried that and starting in verse 18 he says,
“I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ec 2:18–23)
Solomon finds himself in a state of despair because he realizes that he can’t control who gets what he worked hard for and built. Nor does his work provide him any rest or enjoyment. Even at night, when he is supposed to be resting, he can’t because all he can do is think about work. So work is hevel; it’s vanity; it’s chasing after the wind.
D. The Test of Wealth (5:10)
Look at what he tells us starting in verse 10,
“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (Ec 5:10)
So right off the bat, he tells us that chasing wealth is vanity. It doesn’t satisfy. Then he tells us why starting in verse 11,
“When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” (Ec 5:11–12)
In other words, there’s always going to be people who want your money. That’s either friends, family, or strangers asking for it. Or thieves trying to steal it. Either way, riches can bring more trouble than they are really worth. Wealth, then, doesn’t bring the satisfaction we think it will. It doesn’t provide that which we are seeking. So, we shouldn’t place ultimate meaning in wealth.
Those are some of the tests Solomon employees. All of them turn out to be hevel, vanity, a chasing after the wind. Now, I don’t know about you, but to know that everything is vanity can be depressing. And in some sense, I believe that’s the idea of the book. To bring you to a state of despair. And once you are there, it provides you the solution — that which you should place your hope in. That which you can find ultimate meaning in life.
In What Do We Find Meaning?
At the very end of the book, in verse 13, the author speaks and says,
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ec 12:13–14)
In what should we find meaning? Well, we should find meaning in our relationship with God. It’s the one thing that is not going to let us down. It’s not going to fail us. It will provide fulfillment. And that fulfillment will be an eternal fulfillment.
We should find meaning in our relationship with God because we were made for a relationship with God. We were made to live according to His will, which brings Him glory. When we live in the way in which we have been made to live, we will find satisfaction, meaning, and joy. We will find fulfillment.
To try to live in any other way, then, will ultimately result in dissatisfaction, meaninglessness, and despair. Sure, those things may not come for a while. I’m certain the preacher in Ecclesiastes’ experience wasn’t all doom and gloom as he was indulging in the pleasures of the world, creating great works, and building and sharing his wisdom. Ultimately, he found those things left him wanting. They left him dissatisfied, joyless, and in a state of despair. That’s because these things and the others I discussed above can’t hold up that kind of weight. They are like a person who walks into the gym for the first time and thinks they can bench 300 lbs. They are pumped up. Talking their strength up to their friend. They slap the weights on the bar, lay down, yell a few times to pump themselves up, then struggle to even get the weight off the rack. If they are to get it up and over their chest to press it, they soon find that their muscles are weak. Too weak to hold that kind of weight. Soon their arms have given way, the weight comes crashing down crushing their chest. That is what it’s like to ask these things to provide us with meaning in life. They seem like they can. They talk like they can. They yell at us like they can. But when it comes time, they ultimately fail us.
But God will not fail us. He will provide us with everlasting meaning because He is strong enough to hold that kind of weight.
The great thing is we can have a relationship with God because God Himself made a way. Jesus came and died for us. For our sins, so we, an unholy, sinful people can have a relationship with a holy God. If we believe and repent of our sins, we can experience that. We can experience a relationship that will provide meaning.
So, the secret to meaning in life isn’t found under the sun, instead, it’s found in God. The One who stands outside of the material world. The One who created us. The One who we should worship. Quit trying to find meaning in the things under the sun and look to the Son — Jesus Christ. He’s the One who can and will ultimately satisfy.