It is one of life’s greatest quests. Greater than reaching the North Pole, finding the Holy Grail, or discovering Atlantis – that would be the lost city, not the resort. Since humanity discovered the word bored, they have search for its antidote.
In Ecclesiastes we have the journal of a man who logged his journey to discover what seemed to have been an allusive dream. The dream? A life that is full, satisfying, that delivers lasting contentment. The man was King Solomon, and Ecclesiastes is the story of his quest for satisfaction.
After being introduced to his thoughts on life, mainly that everything man does under the sun is meaningless, the king begins to share his adventure. He opens with, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’” (2:1) So starts his epic journey. He doesn’t know what he will find or what will work, but his desire is to discover what is good in life. The Hebrew word translated “good” describes something that is exactly the way it ought to be; nothing can be done to make it better. Solomon wants a life that satisfies like that.
Where did his expedition take him? He gives the reader a detailed map of his excursion in the verses that follow his opening statement. In summary: Solomon tried everything.
The long version would read like this. Frist he tried silly things that made him laugh (vv.1b-2) finding that it only worked while he was laughing. A comedian once noted that his profession was nothing more than a few moments trying to get people to laugh and long nights in lonely hotel rooms wondering why they didn’t. Laughter is fleeting and must be constantly fed.
The king also tried wine. “I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.” (v.3) He didn’t allow himself to get out of control or be controlled by the alcohol. This is seen in his statement, “my mind still guiding me with wisdom.” But oddly, he never says that this pursuit was worthwhile. I suspect he knew, as we should, that it is not.
So Solomon moved on to creative accomplishments. “I undertook great projects,” he wrote (v.4). He built houses, planted magnificent gardens, constructed parks with ponds and groves of trees – impressive concerning he lived in a semi-arid area of Israel – all to no avail.
As well, Solomon populated his properties with flocks and herds, servants, singers, silver and gold, and plenty of willing women (vv.8-9). By his own admission, he over-indulged in these, writing, “I became far greater than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.” (v.9b) Again, his wisdom with him meant that he was analyzing all he did to see if it was good; remember finding what is good in life was the goal of his quest.
At this point of Solomon’s journals, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. 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.” (vv.10-11)
In other words, after all he did the only satisfaction (good) that he experienced came while he was doing what he was doing. But when all was said and done, it was meaningless and as productive as chasing after the wind. The word translated “chasing” describes an activity resulting in catching what is being chased. Solomon found that you cannot catch the wind.
So looking for a meaningful life through accomplishments completed “under the sun” ended in meaninglessness. Remember that “under the sun” describes actions done in our own ability.
King Solomon would not be detoured on his pursuit though it seemed he had a major setback. Instead, he added to his list of endeavors seeking wisdom and understanding. He found that being wise was better than being foolish (v.13). He liked seeing things clearly, more than walking around in a daze (v.14). However, this discovery led him to acknowledge that it really doesn’t matter in the end.
He writes, “‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’ I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless.’ For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” (vv.15-16) You know this guy would be no fun at a party.
Finally, he tried just plain, old fashion work. His thoughts on that: “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. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.” (vv.17-20).
So can we find anything in this life that will satisfy us? Solomon says yes as he writes, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (vv.24-25). The answer to a full life is a life filled and guided by God.