By Terry W. Benton
All men would like to be happy. The problem is that we are not quite sure what happiness is. At times we feel better than at other times. There are times when we feel great. But, even then we are not quite sure if this is all there is to happiness. It seems to be an elusive dream of total satisfaction, but it often stays just out of reach, leaving us feeling empty and dissatisfied. We want to find some significant reason to live and it seems to boil down to a few things. We imagine that these things must surely deliver on the promise for happiness, else so many people would not keep on seeking happiness in these things. To have a dream and then to pursue that dream seems to be the main reason for our existence. The dream is for riches, popularity, or prestige. To have other people acknowledging our importance is what life is all about, because we often have a hard time convincing ourselves that we are as important as we want other people to think. We want to think that we fit in and are considered meaningful to others. We entertain the thoughts of the ages on how to get people to acknowledge our significant contribution to meaningful existence. The odd thing about our chosen pursuits is that even in these things there seems to be an underlying futility. The very things we hope to give us meaning and satisfaction bring a crop of problems we had not anticipated or dreamed. So, the dream of life is always just out of reach. It is like striving after the wind. It is vexing to the soul. Right when we think we have captured the things that will give us a sense of total meaning and satisfaction, we are presented with a whole new set of problems that tend to take away at least a little of the total satisfaction. Is this elusive dream for total happiness unreasonable? Why does life seem so futile?
The futility of life under the sun is stated in Ecclesiastes as a feeling that is common to the human experience. The various avenues through which man tries vainly to realize total happiness are dead-end streets. The alluring mirage pulling millions down each avenue will disappear. Each adventure will end in futility.
1. Life is futile if spent trying to find happiness through worldly wisdom. The wisdom of Solomon had a new way of adding adventure to his life, but there were also new ways of experiencing much grief and sorrow (Eccl. 1:16-18). The hopeful dream that scholarship or vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom will cause others to acknowledge our significant contribution to life here and thus leave us with a feeling of total satisfaction, is only a mirage. The completely remarkable scholar does not feel that he has learned everything he needs or wants to know. The perfect amount of knowledge is elusive. It is never quite fulfilling. Some of his knowledge is even depressing. Some people are ever learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7).
There are times when the newspaper leaves us feeling depressed, and we wonder if it wouldn’t be better not to know anything. But, ignorance isn’t bliss either. It has its own set of problems. Great amounts of wisdom and knowledge have landed great achievements among the human race. Even in the technology of the most elaborate computer is no ability to fill that void in the soul of man. Even the genius whose knowledge engineers that computer must ask himself, “Is my life only to build computers?” The great accomplishments of knowledge still do not fill the real need of the soul and spirit of man.
2. Life is futile if spent seeking worldly pleasures and riches. Solomon said, “I said in my heart, Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure; but surely, this also was vanity” (Eccl. 2:1). To some, alcohol and drugs are a way of showing off among peers. Showing off is an act from an insecure person who seeks to be acknowledged by others. It is important to be liked by others, because this gives us a sense of importance. This person does not like his sober self, and is afraid that others will not like the real “me” either. Drunkenness and getting high on drugs is a pleasure that does two things for this person. It releases the inhibitions and gets a few laughs from the peers. In all of this there is still the emptiness of knowing these people do not love the real “me.” To others, alcohol and drugs are used to escape having to deal with reality. Either way, the pleasure is temporary, and the pain and futility is still there to haunt them. As Solomon, we may pursue every kind of pleasure imaginable, but we will still come up with the same expression of emptiness, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.”
Even the accumulation of nice possessions brings with it extra work, concern, and care. Along with these we view the futile prospects of what will happen to it all when we die. The wealthy man must consider and be suspicious that others are envious and feign friendship, hoping to get in on his wealth. He knows emptiness with his wealth. He wonders if these same “friends” would be there if it were not for his money. He feels empty because the wealth brought pleasurable externals, but did not bring meaning and satisfaction to the soul.
3. Life is futile if spent working hard only for more things. The hard worker is better than the sluggard, but total fulfillment is still elusive. Like Solomon, this man must ask himself why he works so long and hard. How long will he be able to enjoy the results of his work? What will happen to it after he leaves? Will it be left to a person who surely didn’t appreciate the hard work that went into that inheritance? Solomon said, after thinking this over, “Then I hated all my labor in which I toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?” (Eccl. 2:18-19) All the hard work brings a little temporary pleasure, but still does not fill the emptiness of the soul.
4. Life is futile if viewed as an end to itself When we view the multitudes of oppressed people in the world, a certain grievance toward mankind in general arises within us. Why must the oppressors live on in their vain existence, and what do the oppressed hope to live for? Why must their tears continually fall? Why do they still want to live? They have no one to comfort them. Not even their rich, oppressive governments enjoy their vain existence. Solomon moaned, “Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 4:3). If our existence were confined to this place, it would be better if we had never been born. Surely, if we were to view this world as an end to itself, we would rather not have entered into this vain and sorrowful existence. Our soul yearns to know the meaning of this vain life under the sun.
5. Life is futile if we become deceived into thinking that money can buy happiness. As with our second point, that riches cannot completely satisfy, so money cannot buy whatever else we want to fill the void in our spirit. What the soul needs is not material, but spiritual. The soul needs to know where it is going. Money cannot buy its destiny. The soul needs real purpose. Money cannot buy the real purpose for which we have been created. The soul was not designed to take with it an accumulation of material wealth. The soul will not be happy until it can latch on to its real purpose. Solomon said, “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10). As we plow our way through the various promising avenues to a vanishing mirage, we reach Solomon’s wisest of all conclusions about the whole purpose or duty of man under the sun. “Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Somewhere in this summary about our whole duty, God designed the answer to our searching needs of the heart, mind, and soul.
It becomes clear that the only thing that we can truly enjoy now and take with us when we die is the righteousness of faith that locks us into the reverent fear of God. Only through such hunger and thirst for righteousness can man really be filled. Such a hunger will ultimately bring us to Jesus who gives us the thirst quenching rivers of living waters. Only through such a respectful acquaintance with the one who loved us and gave himself for us can we feel that sense of importance and that sense of belonging that we need but knew not where to find. Life under the sun is futile and vain until we seek God and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. If we must seek for the reason for our existence, why not look in the most obvious places? An inward emptiness is a spiritual problem. Look for the spiritual answer. This road points to Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 5, pp. 147-148
March 1, 1990