Solomon decides to put this life to the test. He goes all out, as only a king in that day could, to find satisfaction in accomplishment. He says, “I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” Here was his goal:
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
This wasn’t hedonism, although that was part of it, but he uses his wealth to build and acquire, and build and acquire some more, “great projects” as he says. There is some ambivalence in his assessment:
10 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.
11 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.
There is delight in accomplishment and pleasure. It is its own reward, but ultimately it comes up empty. Pascal nails it when speaking of the human desire for diversion:
That is why gambling and female society (that’s one way to put it), war and high position, are all so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, or that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from money to be won at the tables or the hare that is hunted. No one would accept such a present. What people want is not a soft and easy life, which leaves us with time on our hands to brood over our unhappy lot, or to worry about the dangers of war, or the burdens of high office. In busyness we have a narcotic to keep us from brooding and to take our minds off these things. That is why we prefer the hunt to the kill (page 96).
As soon as we get “the kill,” we almost immediately know it is “meaningless.” There is no ultimate satisfaction, what he calls “happiness.” So we almost immediately after “the kills” set up another hunt lest we see our true fate.
Next Solomon decides that if all this activity and acquiring gets us only wind, what about the life of the mind, acquiring knowledge and wisdom, seeking to live the virtuous life (not like the way of the fool). All of it, “meaningless.” Of course in using the term meaningless, Solomon doesn’t mean meaning-less, that these things have no meaning whatsoever. He says that “nothing is gained under the sun,” but clearly there is some value in all these things he is doing, or that we do. But that is not the issue. What is, is the ultimate fate of every human:
Like the fool, the wise too must die!
This is our dilemma, the ultimate question mark on human existence: death! This weighs so heavily on Solomon that he says:
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
He even moans that his “heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.” That all his days are “pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.” All of it, meaningless! Yet he gives some perspective too:
24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
Yet even this is meaningless and a chasing after the wind. The most important issue in life is our mortality. Death relativizes everything. That is, relative to death, everything is absolutely meaningless. Only God in Christ, who conquered death, cab imbue everything with meaning because the question death raises over our existence has been answered. It’s called the resurrection.