In a recent film, a self-proclaimed “genius” rants to the camera about the world’s “horror, corruption, ignorance, and poverty,” declaring life to be godless and absurd. While such thinking isn’t unusual in many modern film scripts, what’s interesting is where it leads. In the end, the lead character turns to the audience and implores us to do whatever it takes to find a little happiness. For him, this includes leaving traditional morality behind.
But will “do whatever” work? Facing his own despair at life’s horrors, the Old Testament writer of Ecclesiastes gave it a try long ago, searching for happiness through pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10), grand work projects (vv. 4–6), riches (vv. 7–9), and philosophical inquiry (vv. 12–16). And his assessment? “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (v. 17). None of these things is immune to death, disaster, or injustice (5:13–17).
Only one thing brings the writer of Ecclesiastes back from despair. Despite life’s trials, we can find fulfillment when God is part of our living and working: “for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (2:25). Life will at times feel meaningless, but “remember your Creator” (12:1). Don’t exhaust yourself trying to figure life out, but “fear God and keep his commandments” (v. 13).
Without God as our center, life’s pleasures and sorrows lead only to disillusionment.
Ecclesiastes 2:17–25 is a good example of why the book of Ecclesiastes is sometimes viewed as depressing. The author bemoans the futility of work because in the end we leave what we’ve worked for to someone else who hasn’t worked for it. In addition, we don’t know how the inheritor will use it—wisely or foolishly.
It’s fascinating to read the author’s conclusion after his realization of the futility of working. He says to eat and drink and find satisfaction in our own toil (v. 24). The focus is on finding satisfaction in the work itself, not in the results or the benefits gained from it. But the culmination of this passage brings us back to God. Without Him, there can be no enjoyment in anything (v. 25).