Solomon keeps coming back to a familiar theme. Verse 19 – “Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?” Sometimes he changes the key words, while still asking the same question. In verse 20 he asks, “What GOOD is there in this life?” or “What is man’s GOOD?” If this wasn’t an important question, we might be inclined to skip it after hearing it for the sixth time.
But it is important because our neighbors sometimes wonder about it – especially during those moments when their lives are not going according to their projections. And it comes up from time to time even in Christian hearts – if not in its extreme – then in limited ways. “Why do I vacuum this living room, when in two days I’m going to have to do it again?” “Why am I trying to hard to reduce my debt load, when I know that my car is slowly dying.” Monday, with Bro. Berg’s power washer I cleaned the exterior of my house, including windows which I can’t reach from the ground. By Wednesday there was a new, huge deposit on the highest largest window, from a passing bird. There are practical aspects to this kind of question. But then there is the philosophical side – Solomon’s side. What exactly is the purpose of life? “Who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”
This is not an unnatural, unnecessary or illegitimate question.
When our 8-year-old asks a similar question, we rejoice in the opportunity to speak to him about God. So why is it when a 60y-year-old broken down sinner asks the same question we wonder if he is suicidal? It is an opportunity no matter who asks and what the circumstances are surrounding the questioner.
“Who knoweth what is good for man in this life.” Isn’t that a variation of “what should I do with myself for the next hour?” “What is the best way for me to spend this afternoon; how shall I spend my time after church?” ‘Should I take a nap, work in the garden, play with the kids or try replace the breaks on the car?”
There is are entire industries engineered to answer some of these questions. There are various doctors and counselors who expect to be paid to answer these questions. And there are billions of dollars in advertising designed to tell you what you should do with the rest of your life or for two weeks in the summer. You need a new ATV, or an ocean cruise, or at the very least you need to try the latest kind of beer. The purpose of television is not to entertain you, it is to show you the current version of the “good life.” Environmentalists want to give you their answer to the great question of life. And so do a hundred other groups within society from labor unions to politicians and to money lenders. But the answer to Solomon’s question is not obvious or the question wouldn’t be repeated so often.
The right answer doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come through experience.
This has been the conclusion of Solomon to this point. He has had all the time, expertise and resources to seek for the solutions to the question. But his wealth wasn’t generating any lasting good. As we saw last Wednesday, “There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches.” “Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished,” and wealth diminishing proves that it is vain. He tells us here that all the things his money could buy still left him feeling empty. “A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.”Is there joy in the increase of intellectual trophies? Does a PhD provide peace or supremacy over others? “What hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living?” There was nothing which the richest smartest man in the world possessed could look upon – as God did creation – and say, “This is good.”
What is more, he wasn’t sure that he could see anything in his earthly future. That is a mistake we sometimes make. Solomon, maybe you are too impatient. What about the blessings of old age – the golden years? “If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he.” The child says, “When I am 18 – that is when my life will really begin.” The middle aged man says, “When I retire I will begin to do the things I’ve always wanted to do.” Another man says, “When I’ve got that bank loan paid off, I will begin to relax and enjoy life.” How about, “When they cure arthritis, I will get to do the things which are impossible to me now.” Solomon was past 18, his bills were paid and there is no indication he suffered from arthritis. But he still said he was looking for something “good.”
Charley Brown was delighted because his parents had given him his own football. With a big smile on his face he looked at his new ball – but then he began thinking. After some reflection, he said, “For a moment I was happy. “Then I realized I would probably run up to kick the ball off the tee and miss. “Or the whistle would blow and I’d be penalized, or the wind would blow the ball off the tee. “I would fall flat on my back just like I have done a hundred times before.” Then as he looked at his new ball, he became his usual miserable self. A few days later he went to see Lucy the psychiatrist. Dr. Lucy opined, “Life is a deck chair on a beautiful cruise ship in the Caribbean.” Charley Brown became crestfallen. He said, “I can’t ever get those chairs unfolded.” When the present is unsatisfactory and the future is uncertain, where shall we look for good?
Only when we look in faith can there be any proper answer.
As long as we consider only the sensual we shall have little satisfaction in this world. This is the purpose of Christ’s words in Matthew 6:19-21. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This is the thought behind Paul’s words in Colossians 3. “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” Jesus said, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Then the Son of God added, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”
Solomon’s father had far more circumstantial reason to be depressed than Solomon himself. And at times, in the Psalms and elsewhere, we can hear Solomon’s sentiments, but they are usually hidden in faith and hope. In Psalm 63 David says, “O God… my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is.” “I look around me, seeking for something good, but all I see is desert.” David could have been saying, “O Lord, I am stuck out here in a desert land without friends, without comforts, without necessities, so I long for thee.”
But in reality Psalm 63 is entirely different. Dropping out a few clauses we read – “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary. Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me. But the king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by him shall glory.”
There are people in the Bible called “Epicureans.” The Epicurean says, “The chief good of man is to take like as it comes and enjoy it to its fullest.” In other words, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The miser says, “Get all you can and keep it as best you can.” The Ascetic says, “Ignore the world, retreat, retreat into yourself.” The sports fan says, “Well there is always next season.”
Where is the good life?
It begins with reconciliation to the Lord through salvation. Was the life of the prodigal son “good” while he was away in the far country? For a time it was exciting; for a time it was full, for a time it was wretched. Solomon was a cousin to that prodigal and he knew full well the period of hogs and husks. Enmity and the envy of others destroys all possible joy and the blessing of “good.” But in the presence of the Lord there is “good.” That is the word Peter used on the top of the Mount of Transfiguration. The good life is found in surrender to the Lord and His will.
Do you remember the joy you used to have on the seat of a bicycle with the wind whistling through your hair, the sun on your back and the feeling of speed? As a child, there was nothing faster than letting that bike run on its own down a relatively steep well-groomed trail or road. Life was “good” back then. But don’t forget that before the rapid descent, you had to get to the top of that hill. Such is the will of the Lord. In order to enjoy the “good.” we had to endure the more difficult. We had to surrender to the downs as well as the ups in life.
The good life involves a hope whose source is in the Lord. This seems to be something missing from Solomon’s perspective at this point. Can good and godliness triumph over evil? He speaks often of the wickedness of man and how that sucks joy out of the lives of others. This is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Perhaps so, Solomon, but it isn’t the end of the story. What about the coming of the King of Kings – the King of Glory, of whom your Father so often spoke? What about the Great White Judgment throne? What about the Bema judgment where the child of God will receive good for the good with which he served his Saviour? It is too bad Solomon that you haven’t heard Paul’s words, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” What did he say? “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Solomon asks, “Who knoweth was is good for man?” By nature we haven’t the foggiest idea – we are too nearsighted – myopic. Look at all the various ideas of the philosophers of the world. By nature we can’t discern or know the truth about the end. But in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ there is the answer. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Therefore it behooves us to draw closer to Him.