To be deeply disappointed with this world is perhaps strange and radical. After all, it sure seems—at least on the surface—that this world is all we get. As a child, I recall being totally charmed by the fantasy of Disney. With a courageous, brightly positive attitude and a little luck, life could be full of all things good and wonderful; in the now famous lyrics sung by Louis Armstrong, this could be “a wonderful world.” But life hasn’t turned out that way—and this is not my experience alone. The failed promise of deep, lasting fulfillment in this world is the experience of every thoughtful, semi-reflective person who ever traced steps in the dirt of this earth.
How does one make sense of life’s haunting disappointments? I recently reread the words of Solomon, the King of Israel at the pinnacle of its power and wealth, who asked God for great wisdom. God answered his prayer in a powerful and unusual way, for there is reason to believe that Solomon was the “wisest sinner” who ever walked the earth. Ecclesiastes is the collection of Solomon’s poetic reflections on the “landscape of human existence.” There I discovered some profoundly helpful observations, insights, and perspectives on this life.
Solomon’s opening remarks reflect the conclusions to his observations of reality and human experience: “‘Vanity of Vanity,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity (futility)!'” Solomon’s picture of life’s vistas is not uplifting. (Apparently he was not a positive thinker!) Why is his vision so dark?
Solomon makes clear from the beginning of his poetic commentary that he is setting out on an important “task.” The first part of his task will be to experience and to accomplish all things within his power to think, to feel, and to do “under the sun.” The second part of his task, he tells us, will be to ponder, to evaluate, and to assess the worth, substance, quality, and lasting value of all he experiences and accomplishes. Solomon says, “I will set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.” His task is to weigh in the balance of his insight and wisdom the ultimate worth of the things of this life.
Solomon commits himself to using his special gift of wisdom to plumb the depths of life’s promise of fulfillment. He says: “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.” Clearly, this task is the deepest, most vital undertaking Solomon could possibly assume, and he assumes it with all the resources, energy, and wisdom he can muster. He says he will: (1) test the fullness and pleasures that unlimited hedonism offers; (2) explore the benefits and promise of entrepreneurship and artful industry and all the wealth generated by those endeavors; and (3) test the limits and fullness of strenuous and elaborately successful labor on a scale by which only the richest man in the world could afford to challenge himself. And the evidence in Ecclesiastes clearly shows that Solomon committed himself to extracting from the widest range of human experience all the possible fulfillment this life could offer him—with the energy and commitment of a man attempting to wring blood from rocks.
SOLOMON’S PAINFUL CONCLUSION
Solomon tests each arena of human endeavor and pleasure, and with deliberate, sobering clarity he concludes that all is ultimately futile. He informs us that his human experience—an archetype for the experience all human creatures—fails to present him with truly substantive fulfillment. The futility Solomon feels does not negate the earthly wonders, pleasures, and temporary kinds of fulfillment that come from all his endeavors. Solomon sees, however, that what the world offers is inherently incapable of fulfilling the human heart as it was designed to be fulfilled. The futility of which Solomon speaks comes from assessing the good things of this worldly existence by another criterion.
What is Solomon’s criterion for determining fulfillment? He gives us a clue when he states that God has created us with “eternity in our hearts.” That is, we are constitutionally beings of and exist in matter and time, but God has placed the yearning for “timelessness” at the core of our living, breathing selves. Solomon admits that he can derive genuine pleasure—a temporal fulfillment—from his accomplishments, but he finds that his accomplishments fail to yield the quality of fulfillment for which he yearns. And, Solomon observes, even the good things in this world—friends, family, simple appreciation of hard work—and the world’s “flashier” offerings—power, wealth, pleasure—are all ultimately left under a pale of empty futility when seen in light of the inevitable “leveler” of all human greatness: death. Solomon rightly observes that death’s sting is fatal to visions of human greatness and fulfillment. He understands that an altogether different kind of fulfillment must be his if he is to possess true fulfillment.
Solomon’s conclusion makes sense in the biblical world view. If we were created for eternal things, we cannot ultimately be fulfilled by finite, albeit good, things in this temporal existence.
MAKING SENSE OF SOLOMON’S VISION
Solomon’s dark vision of life is disturbing. Some would argue that the picture of human existence Solomon paints is too pessimistic. They would argue that the redemptive promise and provision of God that the New Testament presents offers us much more than does Solomon’s picture; Solomon simply didn’t have the New Testament picture. Believers today need only “make the right choices and appropriate that new life in faith” because, as is commonly taught, God has made available to us all the resources for freedom and victory in this life, and these provisions and resources are guaranteed by the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, many would argue that to ignore these grace-filled resources is unbiblical and tantamount to listening to the enemy. I agree that Christ’s promise ultimately and gloriously overcomes Solomon’s incomplete and pessimistic picture. Clearly, however, the New Testament pictures struggle, pain, suffering, and only fleeting kinds of fulfillment this side of the resurrection. Believers today just have a clearer picture of God’s solution to futility than did Solomon.
How then should I view the facts of existence which Solomon portrays so poignantly? True, Solomon’s vision of life in Ecclesiastes is difficult to embrace; it cuts against the grain of our “just-think-positive” culture. I think Solomon is correct, however, in concluding that the deepest fulfillment, spiritual fulfillment, for God’s broken creatures is the gift we will experience in the next world—the new heavens and new earth—not in this one.
God does not withhold tragedy, failure, and complex dilemmas from the life of the church and believers today. God does not guarantee believers a kind of success in this world that can be compared to what awaits us in the new heavens and new earth. This world, the Bible makes clear from Genesis through the New Testament, is “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:18-25). And this futility—”wired into” a fallen, rebellious creation—results in an uncanny void of deep and lasting fulfillment in all human relationships, things, and accomplishments. Elements within this creation grant us fleeting tastes of good things, but the lasting things—things that stand the test of eternity—will not be ours in this world.
SOLOMON’S QUEST IS MINE, TOO
In our contemporary Christian culture—shot through with the pop-psychology of a positive, can-do, self-image view of life—the perspective I am advocating will be difficult for many to embrace. But I think God’s gracious irony is at work here. God intends futility in this life to be our friend and “tutor,” capable of leading us to wisdom and a deep desire for eternal things. God determined this world to be an arena of trial in which our salvation is “hammered” out. The way I see it, Solomon’s task is my task. I am in this world to become a “philosopher” in the sense that I am to make my life a quest like Solomon’s. I am to “test this life,” to search as Solomon did for what promises lasting human fulfillment. And when in my quest I find only the partial, the temporal, the fleeting kinds of fulfillments—though many are full of goodness and wonder—I conclude as Solomon did that life in this world does not offer me enough.
Futility, then, has become my friend and tutor. Futility’s pain and emptiness will force me to conclude that living in this world—even as a believer—offers only a pale fulfillment when compared to the kind awaiting me. This life is a staging area used by my Creator to transform me from a creature of death and futility to one filled with life. I should let my Solomonic “task” lead me to the lifeline from eternity: faith in the love and mercy of my Creator which tethers me to a Hope of deep, true, fulfillment in the coming Kingdom.