The elusive meaning of life

What is the purpose of life? Solomon figured it out in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – too late for his own good, but hopefully not for ours:

Life never stops

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:7)

If we focus our attention only on the world’s issues, we will see no redemption, no solutions, no ending point – except our own death, which we don’t want to face.

The struggles of life never end. Our friends and relatives get sick or injured. People we know die too soon. We marry and divorce, have children and raise them, work and go out on Friday nights. We give thanks and buy Christmas presents – then do it again next year.

Nothing is permanent.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s a mad, mad world

I applied my mind to know wisdom AND to know madness and folly … (1:17, emphasis mine)

How can we know wisdom AND folly? Doesn’t wisdom avoid folly? What is wisdom, if it’s not to seek the best this life (and the next) has to offer? Are madness and folly worthy pursuits? Seriously?

Madness and folly are destructive. Perhaps meaningless, perhaps worse than that. If I’m mad in this sense, I’m acting without thinking. I don’t consider consequences. Anger is the same, but I think madness in this context refers to being crazy. Bad crazy.

Folly means lack of good sense, or foolishness. How can that parallel wisdom? How can one pursue both?

This is why Solomon failed at life. He wanted to have it all. But even Adam and Eve knew better than that. When they sinned, they hid from God. Solomon flaunted his madness and folly. How can that possibly be a wise thing to do?

Gone in a moment

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

He wanted girls, he had girls. He wanted business success, he built cities. He wanted wealth, he taxed his subjects – heavily. Because he was the king, he received everything he asked for.

henry ford 9

Business success and wealth are not bad pursuits in themselves, but they aren’t the end – only the means to a different end.

Solomon never understood this. What’s the big-picture purpose of life? Money, sex, wealth … once the act is done, the pleasure ends.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why Solomon was never satisfied. He pursued things that can never satisfy. They give pleasure for a moment, and then it’s gone.

Priorities …

For everything there is a season …

A time to kill, and a time to heal …

A time to seek, and a time to lose …

A time to tear, and a time to sew …

A time for war, and a time for peace. (3:1, 3, 6, 7, 8)

What are we pursuing, anyway? Life is a series of contrasts. There is a time to kill, and a different time to heal. That takes wisdom, to know when to do which. Perhaps we need to kill our madness and folly. Perhaps wisdom provides healing from that.

memorial 28

What are we to lose or tear? When are we to pursue war? When wisdom opposes folly, does that cause a fight? Do we have to choose one or the other? Do we tear ourselves away from madness, and sew our hearts into wisdom’s coat of many colors? I have friends who pursue peace at all costs. Is there a time to say, wait a minute, we need to stand up for what we believe in, even if we will suffer for it?

Madness and folly cannot produce healing or peace. We must fight madness and folly. We must kill them.

This is wisdom, too.

God creates, we discover

… (God) has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. … then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (3:11, 8:17)

Oh, here is madness defined. We play God. We think we can understand everything. We understand plenty and we discover new truths all the time, but that’s all we can do. We cannot create anything. We can only discover what already is.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Computers didn’t exist in Biblical times, you say, so mankind does create things. The technology is new, that is true; but the scientific principles on which the technology is based are not new. They’ve always been there. We invent the technology, but we do not create the science.

God created the science back in the day. All we can do is discover it.

I dream of …

Dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (5:3, 7)

What do we dream of? A nice family, a house on the lake, a fulfilling job that pays all the bills, athletic, musical or acting ability that gives us fame … To what end? We can’t take any of those things, wonderful as they are, with us into the next life.

What are we willing to sacrifice for these dreams? Are the sacrifices worth it?

Intoxication

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. … All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. (5:10, 6:7)

Appetites are for the moment. We are satisfied, but we get hungry again very quickly. If our bank account is heavy, the intoxication of wealth urges us to continue on. When we reach our goal, then what? We need a new goal. We need more.

We understand this. We know it’s true, yet we do it anyway. This is madness and folly.

True friends

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (7:5)

Will we accept rebuke from anyone? My ways are set: Don’t tell me what to do, how to think, how to live.

Go ahead, live Frank Sinatra-style: I Did It My Way. See how that goes. (Wise people have your best interests at heart, fools do not. Wise people see things you are blind to. Fools don’t care.)

Deception

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. (7:29)

Wisdom is God’s design. Madness and folly are our fault.

Nothing new

The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (12:13-14)

This is Solomon’s conclusion, but I’m not sure he believed it. He wrote it, but he didn’t live it.

The fact that he wrote Ecclesiastes is wisdom. The fact that we ignore it and are doing the same things Solomon warned us about is madness and folly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Perfect justice will come

Justice and wisdom. They go together.

I found the best explanation of justice in a book on hope by Max Lucado. The best description of wisdom resides in another book, this one a novel.

Let me set the stage with this:

 

For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

2 Corinthians 5:10

 

Justice

Lucado published a book last year (2018) called “Unshakable Hope: building our lives on the promises of God”. One of those promises is titled, “Justice Will Prevail.”

Lucado explains how that 2 Corinthians judgment will work. It makes a whole lot of sense.

You and I, along with each person who ever lived, is living or will live, one day will stand before God’s judgment seat.

Heaven requires that sins be paid. All of them. There will be no sin in heaven.

hope

How will God remove all sin from Heaven? One at a time. As long as it takes.

Here’s the picture Lucado paints of what judgment will look like.

Each of us individually will stand in a courtroom, God’s courtroom, and face our Maker. “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)

In those books are all of our works, good and evil. Every single one.

In an American courtroom, every defendant is allowed an advocate, someone to defend him or her. It’s not mandatory; we can reject assistance and stand before the judge on our own if we so desire.

On God’s judgment day, those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior will have an advocate as God reads off our sins. For example:

  • Bill made a comment behind someone’s back. Jesus: I died for that.
  • Bill ignored a person he could have helped. Jesus: I know. I have forgiven him.
  • Bill cussed under his breath, but a few people heard him. Jesus: I took care of that.

And on and on. Every single sin I have ever committed, and will commit, in my entire life. God will read them off.

Jesus will accept the punishment for each one of them.

There will be no secrets in Heaven, no wondering, “What did he/she do down there on Earth?” We will be free, completely free, from all sin – and able to worship God and live for Him with our whole hearts.

When the list is ended, anything good I’ve done will also get read aloud by the living God, according to the verse I quoted in 2 Corinthians. God will celebrate all the good that happened (and is happening and will happen) down here on Earth.

This is the judgment of each one whom Jesus knows intimately.

But some people on Earth reject God.

God will honor that. And He will judge accordingly.

These folks will face the same judgment. They will stand before God, and He will read off their sins, one by one, just as He did mine.

But they will have no advocate standing next to them, offering to pay for their sins.

God, therefore, will declare them guilty – the only sentence He can pronounce.

Justice will prevail. For each and every one of us.

Wisdom

Justice plays out in a similar fashion in one of my favorite novels – “The Shack,” by William Paul Young. In a chapter titled “Here Come Da Judge,” we see two main characters: Mack, who is bitter over the kidnapping and death of his young daughter, and the judge, later identified as Sophia, the personification of God’s wisdom.

shack

Mack also has a wife and four living children. In this chapter, we learn that Mack, like many of us, is quick to judge just about everyone he meets – and he blames God for allowing his daughter to die.

How accurate are our judgments? God writes down all of our deeds, good and evil, in books that will be opened one day. But how much do you and I truly know about each other?

Since Mack was quick to condemn the killer of his daughter and God for allowing that scenario to play out, Sophia did something unusual. She got up from her judge’s chair and invited Mack to sit there. Judgment Day had arrived, and he was the judge.

Mack was unnerved. He felt unqualified.

But he judged people all the time, so he had lots of experience at it. He was qualified then, right?

Judge Sophia gave him a challenge: Only two of your five children can go to heaven. You must send the other three to hell. Which of your children would you sentence to hell?

When you put it that way, Judge …

But that’s what we do every day, don’t we?

Mack said he couldn’t do it. No way. Sophia said you must. You want to judge, you think God judges like this, then render your verdict.

Mack pleaded for his children, all of them. He said he’d take the punishment for their sins – send him to hell, let all of his children go to heaven.

Mack finally understood wisdom. Because that’s exactly what Jesus Christ did for His children.

There’s so much more to “The Shack” than this one scene. It’s a great book, and it came out as a movie two years ago.

The advocate

I’m glad I’m not the ultimate judge of anyone, even though I try sometimes. I don’t know your motives, why you do what you do. You don’t know my motives. Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage, and he was right. We’re all actors, and when we play a role, we can hide our true selves.

But we can’t hide from the living God.

That’s why His justice is perfect.

Each of us will get what we deserve.

The question is: Will you have an advocate with you on the Judgment Day? Only one advocate will be allowed in that courtroom, and he paid a very heavy price to claim that role.

A price that no one else can come close to paying.

That day will come. It’s been promised.

Will you be ready?

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

So says the wisest person who ever lived, king Solomon. He tried everything: wine, women and song; working hard; seeking pleasure and riches. Nothing satisfied him.

At the end of his days, after he experienced all that life has to offer, he drew the conclusion in this quote.

We still don’t get it, do we?

Solomon doesn’t say that fearing God is the whole duty of the religious, or of a certain nationality or group. No. Every one of us, no matter who we are, must fear God and keep his commandments.

We will be judged. Not by the U.S. Supreme Court, by a fractured Congress or by the court of public opinion. We can argue with our political opponents until we’re all blue in the face, and it means nothing.

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

Of course, fleshing that out isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So, how do we do that?

Only one person, in fact, has figured that out.

Since Solomon didn’t get it until it was (almost) too late, let’s look at the life of the one person who understood it right from the start.

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

His life is explained in the four “gospels” at the beginning of the New Testament. Here’s an overview of Jesus’ adult life as recorded by Matthew, one of his original 12 disciples.

Jesus’ first act was to begin calling future disciples to follow him. He preached to the masses, yes, but he specifically trained a group of only 12 people. Those dozen later changed the world.

As his disciples watched, Jesus preached his most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, to a big crowd. For example:

 

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”
  • “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
  • “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
  • “For with the judgment you make you will be judged …”
  • “Beware of false prophets … you will know them by their fruits.”

 

Jesus stepped up our game. Murder is wrong, of course, but so is anger. Adultery is wrong, but so is lust. Stuff like that. Jesus knows our motives, what we think about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Next, Jesus proved his authenticity by healing people – a man with leprosy, two demon-possessed men, a paralyzed man, and others.

He spent time with Matthew and his friends. This was a big deal, because Matthew was a hated tax collector. Imagine inviting over your favorite IRS agent who not only collected your taxes but bribed you, taking more than you owe.

Jesus spent more time training his 12 disciples, then sent them out to do cool stuff themselves. He also warned them that they will face persecution because some powerful, influential people will not appreciate them elevating the poor and sick.

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he’d give us a similar message, would he not?

A new command I give you …

Then, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, rest for the soul and the meaning of Sunday (the Sabbath, actually).

Now, Jesus had crossed a line. When he taught that Sabbath is not about following a host of man-made rules, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Mat. 12:14).

Next come a few parables, stories that Jesus told with a moral. He talked about different types of soil, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. He used these illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven and its value.

Then Jesus did a series of miracles – he fed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, then walked on water, then healed many people of their illnesses.

Soon after that, three disciples – Peter, James and John – saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountain, with his glowing heavenly body next to the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was a man, yes, but we can’t forget his divinity as well.

In keeping with his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus then taught about several other subjects:

 

  • Marrying a divorced woman is adultery, except for unchastity. (The point: No one is perfect, including a spouse. Understand what that means.)
  • “Let the little children come to me …”
  • “If you are rich, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” (The riches themselves aren’t sin, unless they supersede God, which they did in this particular exchange.)
  • “… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

The world doesn’t think like this, much less live like this. Christians are to live differently than the world does.

Why follow Jesus?

Next came Palm Sunday, when Jesus orchestrated his own parade and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He taught lessons for a few more days, then was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected.

Why death and resurrection?

Because Jesus knew we couldn’t keep his commandments, as Solomon discovered. Jesus said so in his Sermon on the Mount, too: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Only when we follow Jesus can our hearts be changed to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

This is a daily struggle, as those of us who follow Jesus know.

That’s what forgiveness is all about. As God forgives us each day, we learn how to forgive each other.

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

But let’s not wait until the end of our lives to figure this out. A changed life equals a changed heart equals a changed society. We need that, certainly.

We need that today.

 

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

Still learning a 2,600-year-old lesson

Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

(Jeremiah 9:23-24, emphasis added)

 

Wisdom, might, wealth.

Love, justice, righteousness.

Two lists, separated by God.

Wisdom, might and wealth are human gains.

Love, justice and righteousness belong to God.

That explains a lot about our country right there.

What do we pursue the most? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We search for those things in our wisdom, might and wealth.

Wisdom

Wisdom, according to Merriam-Webster, is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; good sense; generally accepted belief; and accumulated philosophical or scientific learning.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wisdom

We gain wisdom as we learn things. Wisdom is never complete; we never see the entire picture.

For centuries, “generally accepted belief” and “scientific learning” told us that Earth was flat. As we gained more wisdom, we learned otherwise.

That’s why trusting entirely in science is not enough. There’s so much we don’t know yet. All the tiny details of how atoms work, how to cure cancer, what’s on the far reaches of outer space. We know a lot, certainly, but wisdom comes in bits and pieces, sometimes by excellent research, sometimes by good luck, sometimes by trial and error.

Wisdom is what we’ve learned. And since some of my experiences differ from yours, my “good sense” and “generally accepted belief” might be different than yours. My wisdom is not your wisdom, necessarily.

Wisdom is good, but only to a point. It’s not conclusive.

Might

Why do we glorify physical strength? The reason so many NFL players get hurt these days – ie, nearly all of them – is specifically because they all are so big and strong. (And when they retire, what happens to their bodies without the exercise? We never hear about that.)

I weigh 140 pounds. I’m on the low end or off the scale of every height-weight chart I’ve seen. I’ll never win a weight-lifting competition. If might is the goal, I have no chance.

The Winter Olympics is coming up, when athletes will show tremendous feats of strength and agility. Once the Olympics is over, we won’t hear from most of those athletes again. How fleeting life is in the public eye.

We glorify might, but it doesn’t last. Our bodies wear out eventually.

Wealth

Wealth is power. You have to be rich (and either a Republican or a Democrat) to run for political office. Money talks in the business world. Entertainers and athletes make big money. (Teachers don’t, comparatively.) The largest public employee salary in many states belongs not to the governor, but to a college football or basketball coach.

As with might, money doesn’t last. When we spend it, it’s gone. And when we die, we can’t take it with us.

Most people across the world don’t have near the wealth that the average American has. Even our poor are wealthy by the world’s standards.

It’s easy to get greedy and envious. There’s always someone who has more than I do. (There’s always someone who has less as well, but most of us aren’t looking in that direction.)

Wealth is either inherited or earned.

And it can disappear overnight. Those of us invested in the stock market in 2008 can attest to that.

Are wisdom, might and wealth the highest goals we can attain?

Love

Love has many definitions, of course. The purest love wants the best for the other person.

It’s not about me. It’s about you. Me serving you. God serving us both.

This kind of love does not come from us. We are selfish by nature, every one of us. True love originates with God.

This is not debatable.

Again, there are many types of love. Husband-wife, parent-child, friends. All of them are (or should be) other-person-centered.

Others-centered love does not come naturally. If it did, our divorce rate would not be between 40 percent and 50 percent (higher for subsequent marriages – we aren’t learning the lesson the first time around). Our violent crime rates wouldn’t be so high. We wouldn’t be searching for love in all the wrong places – illegal drugs, prostitution and pornography, fancy clothes or cars or houses or (fill in the blank), climbing the corporate ladder, a bigger salary … and on and on.

God shows us the love we need. All we have to do is accept it, then give it away.

It really is that simple.

In theory, at least.

Justice

Justice, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims,” the administration of law, and the quality of being just, impartial and fair.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice

How well is all of that working out in our nation?

When we impart justice on human terms, it changes all the time. Jim Crow laws. Same-sex marriage. Legalization of marijuana (which is coming eventually nationwide).

What is murder, anyway? Self-defense? Insanity plea?

So many gray areas in our laws. Loopholes and exceptions. How do we know which of these are just?

Depends who you ask.

Do impartiality and fairness even exist?

We need to try, certainly.

But ultimately, justice belongs to God alone. He sees the big picture. He understands the human heart, because He created it, so He understands motive. We try to figure it out, and we don’t always get it right, do we?

The Ten Commandments were given to us for a reason. For our own benefit. No human court of law or body of legislators has ever improved upon it.

Righteousness

Righteousness, again quoting Merriam-Webster, is acting in accord with divine or moral law; morally right or justifiable.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/righteousness

We don’t hear much about righteousness in the news, because it’s about “divine law.” We’ll stick with our own “morally right or justifiable” laws, thank you.

Even though those laws change depending on who has the wisdom, might and wealth at the moment.

Is there a “moral law” greater than the human mind can come up with?

We’re doomed if there isn’t.

As we enter 2018, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other – love in its most basic form – we won’t have much of a future as a nation.

The prophet Jeremiah warned us about this 2,600 years ago. We still haven’t learned the lesson.

Will we ever?