I recently read an interview conducted with the few common citizens who were able to obtain seats for the Academy Awards in Hollywood. “It's American royalty,” said Barbara Doyle, 57. “We don't have the queen. We have actors and actresses.” “I've always wanted to do this,” said 48 year-old Pam Ford, who won front-row seats from a TV station. “To win and sit in the front row, it's beyond comprehension, anything I ever dreamed of. I could die tomorrow.”
Really? That’s the greatest dream she could envision? Surely there has to be more to life than this! Indeed, there have been those (including movie stars themselves) who have set much higher goals and pursued much greater pleasures, yet have still found they over-estimated the fulfillment even the grandest physical and mental achievements can provide.
A CONNOISSEUR CONFESSES
The dictionary defines a connoisseur as “a person with expert knowledge or training; a person of informed and discriminating taste.” Given that description, we might well say that the entire book of Ecclesiastes is the confession of a connoisseur, not just in one area or discipline, but every aspect of life and living.
Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, was one of the wealthiest and most intelligent men who has ever lived. He had everything—and tried everything—in order to find happiness. He makes the startling claim, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:14), and goes on to challenge the reader to find a more experienced connoisseur: “What can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done” (Ecclesiastes 2:12).
This book, then, is the remarkable journal of a connoisseur who tried it all and has passed his findings on to us. It is important to realize that Solomon was not merely a whining failure who couldn’t reach the top and so despised and disparaged it. No, Solomon was a success in every area of life and is speaking to us from under the sun, but also from on top of the world!
I TURNED MY HEART TO KNOW
Solomon gave himself wholly to the pursuit of personal pleasure and knowledge: “I turned my heart to know…” (Ecclesiastes 7:25). And because Solomon was a man of tremendous power, influence, intellect, and resources, he was successful to the extent that he experienced everything the world has to offer. He became “a person of expert knowledge” in every area of life. He tried it all, with all his might.
In order to appreciate the extent of Solomon’s existential research, we could summarize his experiences in six categories.
Knowledge and Education
Solomon says, “I applied my heart to know wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 1:17). Solomon was the scholar’s scholar, the academic’s academic. He excelled in science, architecture, philosophy, religion, literature—you name it, he had mastered it. In fact, the queen of Sheba tested him in exactly this manner, pressing him with every hard question she could think of and observing first-hand all his accomplishments. Even this wealthy, intelligent, and powerful woman finally admitted that “the half was not told” her in relation to Solomon’s wealth of wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-7).
The Arts and Entertainment
Solomon frankly states, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He said he listened to a variety of singers, musical instruments, etc. (Ecclesiastes 2:8). There was no end to Solomon’s resources, and he dedicated his bottomless assets to the pursuit of every escape and amusement money could buy.
As is common, Solomon combined his pursuit of entertainment with other opportunities for temporary excitement. He says, “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine” (Ecclesiastes 2:3). It appears Solomon was not half-hearted about anything he did, including partying and drunkenness.
Accomplishments and Luxuries
“I made great works,” Solomon boasts, including houses, gardens, and water features he designed himself (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). Even though he was a king, he was also what we call a “renaissance man.” He was not idle but used his massive talents and creativity to push the boundaries of accomplishment in every direction.
Power and Wealth
Solomon was king of Israel during the zenith of its influence and prosperity. “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces” (Ecclesiastes 2:8), he says. In fact, we are told that in Solomon’s time silver was not even highly regarded because gold was in such abundance! Take a trip to Tiffany’s today and you’ll see that even in the U.S. we have not approached this level of wealth.
Companionship and Sex
The most infamous lady’s man in modern history could not hold a candle to the exploits of Solomon. He furnished himself with 1,000 women of his choice, who were always at his beck and call (1 Kings 11:3).
We can sum up Solomon’s endeavors with this simple observation: in Ecclesiastes 2:4-10, Solomon uses the words “me,” “myself,” “I,” or “mine” over thirty times. Solomon gave himself to himself in order to pursue the greatest pleasure and fulfillment he could find for himself!
ALL IS VANITY
It’s easy to identify other people’s idolatry. But our own idols often have a way of hiding from our soul-searching gaze. Tim Keller provides some insight to help identify our personal idols. Keller observes, “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’”
What has been occupying your thoughts, your ambitions, your affections lately?
Millions of people were waiting with great anticipation for the next iteration of the iPhone, although a new version is sure to come out next year and make this year’s obsolete. Others may not care a thing about the latest tech, but feel their life will surely be fulfilled if only they can get into the right school, win the state championship, get that next promotion, find the right person to marry, or . . .
From the man who had it all, tasted it all, and tried it all, comes this intensely disappointed testimony: “all is vanity.”
His experiences “under the sun,” or without God, are summed up with the single word vanity—emptiness. Solomon uses this word over thirty times in this single sermon. Vexation is used 4 times; folly 7 times. Solomon found life empty, frustrating, and foolish without the purpose and power of God.
After giving himself, with all his unparalleled skill and resources, to find happiness under the sun, Solomon comes to this tragic conclusion: “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
His gaping void reminds me of an interview I came across several years ago with Halle Berry, an Academy Award-winning actress. When asked what if felt like to have so much success and beauty, Berry responded with indignation: “Beauty? Let me tell you something—being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life,” she said. “No heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless and it is always transitory.”
THE HAPPY LIFE
Ecclesiastes has been called a lesson from “the discipline of a divine education.” Solomon learned through bitter experience the same reality that Augustine came to also: “There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love Thee for Thine own sake, whose joy Thou Thyself art. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to Thee, of Thee, for Thee; this it is, and there is no other.”
Your house doesn’t really protect you. The food in your fridge won’t ultimately sustain your life. Your smartphone can’t make you truly wiser. In fact, no amount of family, friends, promotions, luxury cars, or philanthropic efforts will be able to fill the void in your eternal soul.
God, however, is everything your soul has been longing for, and more.
We often quote the human maxim, “Experience is the best teacher,” but Solomon reminds us this is emphatically not the case! The best teacher is the divine instruction of God’s Word, and it tells us of One who has come and who is even greater than Solomon.
Rather than giving himself to himself, Jesus Christ gave himself to death for sinners! And those, like Augustine, who love him for his own sake, find in him the joy never found by the ungodly.
Life with Christ, life in Christ—this is not life under the sun, but with the Son. This is the happy life . . . and there is no other (John 14:6)!
Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the “Daily Devotion” app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the Church, Servants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.