These are the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Ultimately meaningless,” says the Preacher, “Everything is ultimately meaningless!”
What good comes of all of the work that a man does in his life? One generation after another, people come and people go – only the earth itself remains constant. The sun rises in the morning, then sets in the evening – only to return and do it all over the next day. The wind blows to the south, then again to the north, swirling around back to where it started from. All of the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up. The waters return to their source to flow again. It makes me weary just to think about it!
The eye is never satisfied that it has seen enough, nor is the ear satisfied that it has heard enough. Everything repeats itself – if it existed before it will exist again and if it happened before it will happen again. There really isn’t anything new under the sun. What significant things in life can you look at and really say “This is new”? Whatever it is has actually been around for ages – since before you and I existed. We don’t remember things past very well, and future generations won’t remember the things of our generation.
I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I determined in my mind that I was going to use my wisdom to seek and explore everything that happens in life. This is perhaps the most difficult task God has given man to wrestle with. I have looked at every thing man does and decided that, when it comes right down to it, everything is ultimately meaningless – about as useless as trying to catch the wind. You can spend your whole life righting wrongs, but there will always be more wrongs to be righted. Recognize that your comprehension is limited, so don’t be discouraged by not being able to make everything fit into nice, neat little boxes. In my moments of honest self-evaluation I recognize that I have more wisdom than any of my predecessors. I have stored up a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. I decided to identify what constitutes wisdom and what just leads to foolishness – then I realized that even this was an ultimately meaningless endeavor. Even wisdom doesn’t keep us from grief and knowledge just leads to more intelligent heartaches.
First, I decided to test myself with pleasure. So I said to myself, “Enjoy yourself!” and lived accordingly. But this was clearly a futile pursuit. Laughter is madness, and pleasure is pointless, it accomplishes nothing.
So I started thinking of ways to stimulate myself with alcohol – being careful not to lose my objectivity, of course. I wanted to see if perhaps there was any good in foolishness. Our lives are but a few years, and I wanted to explore every possible avenue to see what good a man can do with those years.
I sought material things: I built houses for myself, planted fields, made beautiful gardens and parks with all kinds of fruit trees. I dug ponds to irrigate the growing trees. I had maids, butlers, and chauffeurs – even my servants had servants! I had flocks and herds bigger than any king in Jerusalem ever had before. I also collected silver and gold, and treasures from other kings and countries. I always had plenty of entertainment – male and female singers and many mistresses. Then I became famous and attained greater stature than anyone in the history of Jerusalem. And all this time my wisdom was not compromised. If I saw something that looked good I bought it. I didn’t deny myself any pleasure. “After all”, I told myself, “I’ve worked hard and been successful. I deserve all of this.” But as I reflected on all of my activities and hard work, I concluded that it was all ultimately meaningless – chasing the wind again – and there was really no value in any of it.
So then I decided to consider the value of wisdom itself, wisdom versus foolishness. Whether we are wise or foolish, the next generation will just repeat history all over again anyway. But I did determine that, even as light is better than darkness, wisdom is better than foolishness. The wise man’s mind sees things clearly, but the fool even lacks common sense. And yet they are both destined to die and be judged. So I asked myself, “If I’m going to wind up the same as a fool, what good does my wisdom do me?” This too makes no sense – even wisdom is ultimately meaningless. Future generations will forget the wise man and his accomplishments as well as the fool. And both the wise man and fool wind up dead! All of this analysis caused me to become bitter about life, for it seemed that nothing I could do amounted to anything good; there was nothing more beneficial than chasing after the wind.
So I became frustrated over all the wealth which I had worked so hard to acquire, since in the end I would have to leave it to someone else. I have no way of knowing whether he will be wise or foolish, and yet he will have complete control over everything that I, through my hard labors and wisdom, have accomplished. This is senseless! My sense of despair over all of my hard work was overwhelming. To work so hard and then pass it on to someone who hasn’t lifted a finger for it – what injustice! How can you find satisfaction in your hard work when in the end it is all meaningless? Sacrificing your days to hard work, and even at night your mind never stops thinking about your work. What’s the point of it all?
The best thing a man can do is to enjoy the food and drink God provides, and tell himself that his work is fulfilling. After all, it is from the hand of God. Who can eat or enjoy life without Him? To the person who lives for God, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy. To those who don’t know Him, He gives the job of working hard so that the fruit of his labor can eventually wind up in the hands of someone God chooses to bless. What a meaningless way to live, chasing after things you can’t catch!
There is an appropriate time for everything-
A time for birth, and a time for death;
A time to plant, and a time to pull up.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to tear down, and a time to build up.
A time to cry, and a time to laugh;
A time for sorrow, and a time for dancing.
A time to throw stones, and a time to pick up stones;
A time to hug, and a time when hugging is inappropriate.
A time to search, and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
How does a man benefit from all of his hard work? Listen as I try to explain the point of the things that God has given us to do.
God is the designer of life, and he determines the timing of all of the events of life. He has also designed man in such a way that it takes more than the temporal things of this life to fulfill him. It is by His design that man cannot possibly know God’s complete plan from beginning to end.
There is no better way for man to spend his life than to rejoice in God’s provision -the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we accomplish – and to do good things for one another. After all, God’s work is complete in its own right, there is nothing we can do to add to it or take away from it. We should be in awe before God and not so impressed with our own accomplishments. We tend to think that our experiences are all new, but while the details may vary, the major themes of life have never changed and never will, because God is consistent in His dealings with man. I observe what I believe to be injustice, with good things happening to bad people and vice versa, but I recognize that God will judge the righteous and the wicked. He is a just God, so I know that somewhere in His plan every wrong will be righted. I concluded that God lets man experience this futility so that he will realize that he is no more powerful than an animal. Both man and animal share the same fate – we share the same breath and share the same death. From the world’s perspective there is no advantage in being human. Both man and animal die and return to dust. Who really knows whether eternity for man is any different than eternity for animals? Once again I conclude that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy the activities of life. If you are looking for fulfillment in the legacy you leave behind when you die, you will never really know if you succeeded.
Then I observed all of the oppression being committed in the world. I saw the tears of those that are oppressed and have no one to comfort them. On the other side I saw the power of the oppressors, but realized that they were also unhappy and had no one to comfort them. So it seemed that the dead were probably the happiest of the lot. Actually, I concluded that those that had never been born were probably the luckiest of all, since they never had to see the evil in the world.
I also saw the vanity of competition. Man pours his whole life into acquiring things just to “keep up with the Jones’s”. Of course, Jones is busy trying to keep up with him at the same time. Talk about chasing the wind! On the other side, you have the uselessness of the lazy man that won’t lift a finger to save his own life. But I guess if everything is useless anyway, it is better to have a little rest while doing it than burn yourself out for nothing.
Then I saw another meaningless situation. There was a man without any family that was a workaholic. He continually strived for a higher level wealth and success. He worked hard and deprived himself of pleasure to get ahead. But he never stopped to ask himself who was going to benefit from his sacrifices. This is a sad and meaningless circumstance in which to find oneself.
Two people working together can accomplish more than two people working independently. If one of them gets into a jam, the other one can help him out of it. But pity the person who has no one to depend on when he needs help. Furthermore, two people can keep each other warm, but who warms a person who is alone? And two people can defend against an attacker better than one. Ropes are often made of three strands twisted together to provide strength.
It is better to be a poor, but wise boy than a old, foolish king who won’t listen to anybody. The king may have been poor as a boy, and even spent time in prison before rising to be king. If he gets all puffed up and becomes corrupted by his power, everyone will quickly side with the first guy that comes along and wants to replace him. History has always shown that people don’t stay loyal for long if their leader loses touch with them. Even the memories of all of the good he has done will fade quickly. So even the fulfillment of being king is a fleeting thing, another meaningless endeavor.
Consider your attitude carefully as you prepare to worship God. Approach as a humble student ready to learn – it would be very wrong to be arrogant before God. In God’s presence you shouldn’t be flippant or careless in what you choose to say or even think. Remember who God is and who you are – it’s not like you know anything that He doesn’t. Being involved in too many activities will keep you awake at night, and too many words will keep you from hearing God’s voice. Don’t make a commitment to God unless you know you can keep it, He takes no pleasure in your careless words. Follow through with your promises! It is better not to promise than to make a promise and not live up to it. Don’t let your mouth get you into trouble and then try to get out of it by saying “it was all a mistake”. Do you want God’s anger at your words to cause Him to take His blessing away from the things that you do? Don’t be caught up in the emptiness of your own dreams and endless rambling. Better to show God respect and seek to know His heart.
Don’t be surprised when you see the poor being oppressed, justice being denied, and blatant unrighteousness in the land. Governments are made up of many layers of officials, and some corruption is likely to be found in such bureaucracies. A government leader who serves well will bring blessing to the nation.
Anyone who loves money will never be satisfied with it, and anyone seeking wealth will never be happy with whatever they acquire. What a useless waste of life! Needs always increase to consume anything extra, so all we can do is stand by and watch the flow – in one hand and out the other. Of course a man who works hard, sleeps well; while the rich man’s full stomach keeps him awake at night.
And here’s another detestable situation: When a rich man hoards his wealth to his own detriment. He eventually loses his wealth to a bad investment and then can’t feed his own children. He was born with nothing and he’ll die with nothing. He has nothing left to show for all the wealth he once had. This is futile also, that a man will take to the grave exactly what he brought from the womb. So, what do you get as a result of constantly striving for “success”? A life of depression, frustration, stress, and despair.
So here’s what I’ve found to be worthwhile: to eat, drink, and enjoy your work during the few years God gives you, for the ability to enjoy life is your reward. If God grants you riches and wealth, recognize the gift God has given you in the ability to provide for your own needs and enjoy your work. Keep this perspective and the joy God provides will keep you from wallowing in the memories of the difficult times.
Here’s another contemptible circumstance – and it is very common among men: God gives a man riches, wealth, and honor – everything you would think he needs to be satisfied – but he lacks the gift of God that would enable him to enjoy it. All of his wealth is passed on to someone else to enjoy. This is a frustrating and painful situation. A man may have a hundred children and live a long life, but if deep inside he finds no satisfaction, and even when he dies no one really cares, then I say “He would have been better off if he had been a miscarriage. He would be remembered about as much but he wouldn’t have had to suffer through life. The miscarriage would be better off than he. Even if the man were to live two thousand years, what’s the point if he doesn’t enjoy it. He and the miscarriage still have the same ultimate destiny.”
A man works and works to feed himself, but his appetite is never satisfied. Isn’t this equally true of the wise man and the fool? The poor man is better off if he knows how to conduct himself with decency. It is better to be content with what you have than to always long for something more. Always striving for more is another useless exercise.
God has laid out the design of life – man has no grounds to argue with Him about it. It would be a useless waste of words. So what can man accomplish with his life? How can one tell what is the best thing to do with our short lives? Our lives are like an empty shadow – we have no way to know what will become of our efforts after we’re gone.
A respected name is better than a pleasant perfume, so if you’ve earned a respected name, you will be more highly honored at your death than at your birth. There is more value in going to a funeral than in attending a feast, since someday it will be your funeral that people are attending. You will be remembered more for the comfort you gave others than for the parties you attended. Expressing your sorrow and sadness is healthier than bottling it up inside. The wise man knows the appropriate time to mourn, while the foolish man tries to drown his sorrows with pleasure. Better to learn from the wise than to be caught up in following fools. For the laughter of fools is just like the crackling and popping of dried branches in a fire – both are quickly consumed. What a waste!
The mere sight of oppression drives a righteous man crazy, and seeing a bribe breaks his heart. But anything can be endured for a season if you keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel. Better to be patient than to be caught up in righteous indignation. Don’t get angry too quickly – learn self control and keep from being foolish. Always longing for “the good old days” is not the mark of a wise man. You have an advantage in life if you have both wisdom and an inheritance. Both of them provide a form of shelter, although if I could only have one I’d choose wisdom – it offers greater protection from the things that can ruin your life.
Remember that God’s decisions are final – you can’t undo what He does. So don’t fight him – rejoice when He grants you good times, but also when He allows you to go through tough times. After all, God is the author of both. He sees the whole picture, beginning to end, and you don’t.
In this meaningless life I have seen that neither righteousness nor wickedness will guarantee you a long life. Some righteous men die young and some wicked men live long lives. Be careful, you can ruin yourself by getting overly caught up in your own self-righteousness and wisdom. Of course, you can also kill yourself with your own foolishness and wickedness. You need to see that the person who understands his relationship to God will avoid the extremes and keep his life in proper balance.
A city may have ten generals to defend it, but its strength will not be equal to that which a wise man finds in his wisdom. Even the most righteous man on earth sins occasionally – no one does good all the time. And don’t take everything you hear seriously. If you overhear someone saying something about you that you don’t like, just remember all the times that you’ve said things you wouldn’t have wanted someone else to hear.
I applied myself to understanding all of these things, for I was determined to be wise. But I found that this was a goal I couldn’t really even define, let alone achieve. Whatever wisdom is, it always seems to be out of reach and mysterious – who can grasp it? But I was determined, and I sought to understand it all. I analyzed and explored the meaning and purpose of things. I tried to understand wisdom by understanding the things that wisdom is not – wickedness and foolishness. Among the foolish traps that man falls into – and this is a fate worse than death – is the woman who ensnares a man’s heart, and binds him from doing right. The man who pleases God will run from her, but she will trap the man who depends on his own willpower.
Here’s what I have discovered as I attempted – without a lot of success – to put all of these pieces together: I examined a thousand people and amongst them I found one righteous man, and no righteous women. I have found that God made mankind to live upright, but we always insist on going our own way.
How satisfying it is to be wise, to be able to understand and explain the reasons behind things. Such wisdom relieves a lot of fear and tensions, relaxing a man’s appearance.
Obey those that lead you – remember that God has established them. Don’t be too hasty to withdraw your support from them, work through your differences, remembering the position God has put them in. If you’re going to make a strong stand, be sure that it is for a good cause. You don’t want to lose your credibility over unimportant issues. God holds leaders accountable for their decisions, it is not our role to disrespectfully challenge them. By obeying the leaders God has placed over you, you will avoid a lot of trouble in your life. There is a proper time and a proper way to disagree, but be wise about this. Be especially careful what you say and do when you are emotionally upset. You don’t know what the future holds, let alone when anything will happen. Some things are just beyond anyone’s control. You can’t stop the wind from blowing, or control the timing of your own death – there’s no way to get out of that battle. And your own wickedness isn’t about to help you at all. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn from looking at every circumstance in life where one man has authority over another and uses it to hurt him.
I’ve seen that unrighteous people – even those regularly found sitting in church pews – are soon forgotten after they die. Their efforts to appear righteous were futile. But people continue to let their hearts become corrupt and do evil, partly because we are slow to bring evildoers to justice. Of course, even if a sinner seems to lengthen his life through his hundreds of evil deeds, I still know that, in the presence of God, the man that openly respects God will be better off. That sinner will find that his days weren’t really lengthened after all, because God will deal justly with him. Don’t lose heart because it all seems pointless from our earthly perspective, that righteous men fall into circumstances that seem more appropriate for the unrighteous, while the sinner appears to be blessed.
So I concluded that it is good to enjoy life, because the memories of the times of enjoyment will give you strength in the times of trouble. As hard as I sought to discover all of God’s plan, I couldn’t do it, even if I never slept or did anything else. A person who says “I know” is deceiving himself.
I’ve come to accept that righteous men and what they do are directed by God. We don’t know what love or hatred may be in our future, but He does. Everyone shares the same fate: The righteous and the unrighteous, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, the selfish and the unselfish. The pure and the sinner, those that make promises and those that don’t, all share the same circumstances of life. This doesn’t seem just, but it is the way of life. Men live with evil and madness in their hearts, and then they die. But, I guess it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion. At least while we live, we have hope. The living at least know they will die – the dead are beyond knowing anything, and even their memory is soon forgotten. Their capacity to love or hate are gone, along with all of their zeal and passions. They no longer have a part in anything that happens in the world.
So enjoy the food you eat, be glad while you drink. Don’t neglect the good things God brings your way – enjoy them while you can. Wear your finest clothes and best cologne if that’s what God has given you. Be sure to enjoy the woman you love even if the rest of life is meaningless. She is the finest gift God will give you. Work hard that you might enjoy life together. Whatever you find to do, do it wholeheartedly and to the best of your abilities while you can, for once you die there will be no more working, nor planning, nor knowledge, nor wisdom.
Here’s another observation: The race is not necessarily won by the fastest runner, nor the battle by the strongest fighter. The wisest people don’t always eat the best, the smartest people aren’t always the richest, and the most educated people aren’t always the most popular. Time and chance happen to everyone. No one knows when he will die, any more than a fish caught by surprise in a net, or a bird in a trap. Likewise, men trapped by the evil of their day fall unexpectedly.
Now here’s an impressive example of wisdom: There once was a small town with only a few people in it. A powerful army surrounded it and tried to conquer it. There was a man in that town that was very wise, but very poor. He saved the town by his wisdom, but even so, no one remembered that poor man. So even though wisdom is better than strength, a poor man’s wisdom is not respected and usually ignored.
Better to listen to the soft spoken words of a wise man than the shouts of a foolish leader. Wisdom is better than weapons, but one person intent on unrighteousness can frustrate the success of a good plan.
Even a pleasant perfume will stink if contaminated by dead flies. In the same way, just a little indiscretion will ruin an otherwise honorable reputation. The heart of the wise will lead him to do the right thing, but a foolish man’s heart will lead him into error. A fool’s ways are obvious to all – even as he walks down the street he demonstrates his foolishness. Don’t get mad and storm out when your boss confronts you in anger. By staying calm you will help him calm down so you can work together to correct whatever problem you face.
Here’s another one that doesn’t make sense – and it’s the fault of those that put leaders into place: Incompetent people are put into positions of high authority while those that have managed their own resources well are given low positions. I’ve seen servants riding on horseback while princes walk alongside like servants.
Life involves risks. If you dig a hole, you risk falling into it; if you tear down an old wall, you might be bitten by a snake that has been living in it; if you work in a stone quarry, the stones might fall on you; you might get hit by your own axe while chopping wood.
Chopping wood is difficult with a dull axe – it takes more strength. But if you work skillfully you can still succeed. Think before you speak or act – trying to “take it back” is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. People enjoy listening to a wise man, but the rantings of a fool will lead to his own destruction; he starts with wrong presuppositions that lead him to false conclusions. He chatters on about the future which, of course, he knows nothing about. Even if he works hard (an unlikely event) his labors accomplish nothing because he is blind to even the most obvious things around him.
Pity the nation whose childish leaders seek only to satisfy their own appetites. Blessed is the nation whose leaders are of noble stature; they are disciplined to eat for strength – not for desire. The rafters sag because of laziness, and the roof leaks due to neglect. Parties bring pleasure but money satisfies many needs.
Don’t speak against your leaders or influential people, even in the quiet of your own bedroom. Somehow these things have a way of becoming known – it’s like a little bird overhears you and tells your secrets.
Give to others at every opportunity, and you will find others will be willing to give back when you need it. The more widespread your giving, the better your chances that one of those you’ve given to, or someone they know, will be able to help in your time of need. The clouds rain when they get full of moisture; trees fall in the wilderness and lie whichever way they fall; you have no control over any of this. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by waiting for perfect conditions or you’ll never accomplish anything. You don’t know where the wind will blow or how bones are formed in the womb, or any of God’s other mysterious ways. So don’t be lazy, but invest your energies in several things – you don’t know which ones will pay off and which ones won’t.
Being alive is an experience we should savor. Even if you live a long life, enjoy each day, and appreciate even the hard times – you will experience many of them. Don’t get too wrapped up in your circumstances, they are insignificant in the long run. Don’t try to grow up too quick – enjoy your youth and stay light-hearted about life as long as you can. Don’t be afraid to be impulsive and pursue the things you desire, but remember that God is watching and will hold you accountable for your actions. So don’t let yourself be buried in sorrow and pain. Childhood quickly turns to manhood, and even manhood is a fleeting thing.
Make God a vital part of your life while you are young, before you become burdened with the challenges of old age – before just finding pleasure in life becomes difficult. The day will come when even the good times won’t seem so exciting any more, and you’ll just barely get over one ailment when another will strike. Your hands will tremble and your back will no longer be straight. You’ll have few teeth left and your eyesight will fade. Even your lips won’t open as readily as they used to, but then you won’t have enough teeth to chew anything anyway. You’ll rise as the first birds begin to sing in the morning, but you’ll have a hard time hearing them. Falling will become a major fear and you’ll think twice before even risking going out of your house. Your hair will turn gray, and nothing will excite your passions any more. You’ll know that your own death is approaching as you watch others mourning for your friends.
So get to know God now – before your senses are dull and your mind is weak; before your organs give out and your heart becomes unreliable; before you return to the dust from which we all came and your spirit returns to God who gave it to you. Life, in itself, is futile – absolutely meaningless!
The Preacher, who wrote these words, was a wise man. Even though life is meaningless, he still taught his knowledge to the people. He contemplated and studied the difficult issues of life and explained them. The Preacher worked at finding the right words to convey the truth of these lessons to people. The words of the wise are like cattle prods, and the lessons of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by God to motivate us and hold us accountable. Pay attention to these things, but know that even the endless pursuit of knowledge is meaningless and there is more to life than wearing yourself out with endless studying.
Here’s the bottom line: Respect God and be obedient to his commands, for this is the only thing that will really bring any value and meaning to your life. For God will ultimately be your judge – you will answer to Him for everything you do and even for the secrets of your heart.