This man had it all. Often we imagine that everything would be fine in our lives if we only had just a little bit more of some special ingredient in the mix. More money, more connections, more work, more sleep, more ability, intelligence, beauty, poise… The list goes on and on. The Preacher gives his testimony here, but it is not so much a testimony of faith as it is a testimony of reality.
As someone who has wealth and time, he remembers his efforts to fight the challenge of futility in his life by diving into pleasure. What did he find at the bottom of that pool? Nothing that would last. Would laughter be the answer? Laughter is certainly a great thing, better than most medicine. But it does not solve the problem of life. What if you try to increase the pleasure and laughter with wine? Many people decide to medicate their way out of troubles, putting all kinds of good and bad things into their bodies in the hope that somehow they will find the good life that way. Those who are most fortunate discover the futility, not to mention the danger, of this strategy before it is too late. While some substances may even seem to enhance wisdom and pleasure, and though wine is a good gift of God that can be used responsibly, the answer for humanity does not lie in universal self-medication.
We have only a few days in our lives. Our ninety years can be expected to include about 30 years of preparation, 30 years of maximum usefulness, and 30 years of decline. Take that 30 years of greatest productivity; how many days do you have? 10,950, including weekends and vacations! One year goes by very quickly, and it comprises three percent of your prime time. A decade is 30%. Most of us go through our lives without much awareness of how late in the day we are, until suddenly we are sixty years old, realizing that we are unlikely to make that comeback we were secretly counting on.
Listen to the Preacher! He filled his years with great projects: houses, vineyards, gardens, streams, fruit trees… He had an enormous staff of dedicated servants and all kinds of animals. He had entertainers to make him happy, not to mention more wives and concubines than days of the year; all of it legal, all openly known to his subjects, all without any particularly significant sense of public shame. On the contrary, his wealth was not an embarrassment to the people around him. It was his glory and the glory of those who were happy in his kingdom! But none of it solved the deep problem of the human condition.
Each chapter of our lives starts to vaporize almost as soon as the ink is on the page. There wells up within an ambitious man the desire to put something else on the paper that will actually last. If a monument to oneself will not satisfy, what about a great contribution to the world of ideas, something that will be noticed and appreciated by those who want to know how to live well? The Preacher searched for it. He looked at the world of thought as a collector might diligently search through a great palace he just inherited. He went into every room, even if “folly” was written on the door. He found that the rooms marked “wisdom” were much more useful than the others, but even in the best meditations, he still encountered an ever-present enemy: death. And he knew that he would die. So what would be the point of all his wisdom when everything about him was forgotten?
All this searching did not make his life better, but worse. He hated life, he hated work, he hated his own insights, and he hated himself because he hated the fact of his death. He gave his heart up to despair, not just about humanity in general, but more personally about his own labors and his great efforts, all of which would seem to come to nothing eventually. He had no peace.
This is the Preacher’s testimony of reality. If it is too negative for you, listen carefully to what he says in the last few verses of this chapter. He says eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your work, whatever it is. He claims that the life that we have been granted is a gift from God, and that we can live it with a sense of happy pleasure. This is apparently not only possible but is heartily recommended. God has given us the capacity to live in the moment that He grants to us, and to enjoy that moment under the sun. And God has given us not only food and shelter, He has also somehow given us a measure of wisdom, knowledge, and even joy in this vain world.
The Preacher’s testimony is a testimony of reality, and faith in God is a part of that reality. The answer to happiness is not just a little bit more of something that we feel is lacking in our lives, something that we can try to grab through our own power or luck. The God who provides us, even now, with so many good gifts that we can enjoy today, has a wise and loving plan centered in the death and resurrection of another Son of David. When He came to die for us, He, like Solomon, testified to the reality of misery. But He also assured us that each day had enough trouble of its own, that somehow those who mourn would be comforted, and that the meek would even inherit the earth. Misery is real, but so is a simple faith in the One who gives us good gifts.
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Father God, even a Solomon cannot be finally satisfied with wine and laughter, with gardens and buildings, with treasures and servants. Whatever pleasure we have, it is yet fleeting. Even if we were the wisest people on earth, our wisdom could not satisfy the longings of our hearts. The stubborn fact of death is always there to consider. Is there an answer to this great problem? Is there a way out of despair as we consider the fleeting pleasures of life under the sun? We thank You for all the gifts that You give us, though they come and go. We genuinely enjoy all these wonderful things. Nonetheless, our peace of heart is restrained, for we long for something more. Thank You for revealing the answer to us through Your Son. He came from heaven into this world of loss and trouble. We thank You for the redemption that He has secured for us by His blood, and for the truth of resurrection life that is Your wonderful answer to our deepest longings.