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.
Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV)
The author of Ecclesiastes has always been a friend to me. We think alike sometimes, and I get decent advice when I read what he wrote. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t strive to be dour and sour. I enjoy life much too much for a continual dose of pessimism. But Ecclesiastes is not a pessimist, as many Christians think. He’s a realist, and this is my connection with him.
We all need a friend who will do whatever it takes to get our attention and knock some sense into us. Someone needs to call us to faithful living in the real world. Otherwise, we become inordinate optimists. Our successes carry us into flights over Neverland. We dream of ultimate triumph in the face of all odds, or we think we can conquer and achieve whatever we set our mind to do. Ecclesiastes bursts my bubble again and again, and that’s healthy.
He tried an experiment. He denied himself no pleasure. Whatever he thought of doing, he did. He built houses. He planted vineyards. He set out gardens with wonderful irrigation and made a pleasant oasis for himself. He acquired slaves, herds, and wealth. He denied himself nothing and came away empty. The delightful acquisitions of life, the freedom from labor, the property and people he controlled—all came to mean nothing. He was chasing after wind! For all his building, nothing was gained.
This isn’t the moaning of a fatalist. Nor is it a surrender to the inevitable lot of the human race. It’s a recognition of the place of wealth and power in human behavior. Run after these worldly goods and goals, and you’ll achieve what you set out to do. But you won’t be happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. A missing piece will be gone from the puzzle table. Your life’s picture won’t be complete.
This is the basis of my friendship with Ecclesiastes. He returns me to sober remembrance. He teaches me to see the deceitfulness of wealth and position. He reminds me of what I should do most earnestly in my life.
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? (Eccl. 2:24-25, NIV).
Ecclesiastes reminds me to find life’s value in God, not the pleasures and the profits of this world, or even in my own achievements.