The Meaning of Life

Biblical wisdom can be practical: How to live life, which deals with the means to successful living. We have seen that Proverbs addresses practical wisdom in general while Song of Songs addresses practical wisdom in one delicate aspect of life—sexuality. Biblical wisdom can also be philosophical: How to live with life, which deals with the meaning of life. We will see that the Book of Ecclesiastes addresses the meaning of life in general, while the Book of Job addresses the meaning of life in one intricate aspect of life—suffering.

Ecclesiastes is a persuasive speech. The implied, even if not actual, speaker is Solomon (1:1,12), who has the “credentials” to say with authority all that is said in the speech. The expressed purpose of the speech is to persuade its audience to “fear God and keep His commandments” (12:13a). Hence it aims at instilling the fear of God and thus promoting a God-fearing way of life as taught not only in Proverbs and Song of Songs, but also in the rest of the Bible.

We will begin with an exposition of the basic argument of this profound speech before looking at how it addresses the question of the meaning of life.

Encountering the Realities of Life

The speech proper, which takes up most of the twelve chapters of the book, begins and ends with the somber declaration, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” (1:2; 12:8). This is undoubtedly the theme of the speech. The speech argues that in light of the theme, “The end [conclusion] of the matter, (when) all has been heard, is fear God and keep His commandments, for this is (the essence of) every human being” (12:13).

Why is it that because “all is vanity” (theme) we are to “fear God and keep His commandments” (conclusion)? Ecclesiastes is a speech, not a treatise; the logical flow of the argument is thus not necessarily presented linearly. When this is recognized, the logical connections between “All is vanity” and “Fear God” can be readily discerned.

The Hebrew word translated “vanity” literally means “breath” (Isaiah 57:13 ) or “vapor,” that is, condensed breath (Proverbs 21:6). Just as condensed breath is transitory the word is often used figuratively to refer to something fleeting, which is the case in a number of contexts in Ecclesiastes (3:19; 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; 11:10).

However in the context of the theme of the speech, the figurative meaning takes on the further nuance of “vanity.” For the theme is also expressed as, “What profit is there?” (1:3; 3:9; 5:16; 6:11). In fact the opening declaration—literally, “Vapor of vapors, all is vapor!” (1:2)—is the expected answer to the rhetorical question, “What profit is there? [No profit!]” (1:3). Hence “All is vapor (transitory)” in this context means “All is vanity (profitless or worthless).” As James Crenshaw (1987: 35) puts it, “This unforgettable refrain unifies the entire book: from first to last nothing profits those who walk under the sun.”

The certainty of death

This is because the theme is about the worth of temporal things in light of the certainty of death. For the opening declaration, “All is vapor” (1:2), is followed by a poem which vivifies the idea that though “one generation goes [death] and one generation comes [birth] … there is nothing new [no net gain or profit] under the sun” (1:4-9). And the closing declaration (12:8) that “All is vapor” follows a poem that vivifies the reality of old age leading to death (12:2-7). So since we can take nothing with us when we die, everything we work for in this world is transitory like vapor, and thus ultimately profitless or worthless (5:15-16; cf. 2:13-16). In fact life itself is transitory like vapor to begin with (6:12; cf. Psalm 144:4). In other words, in view of death, “all is vanity and a pursuit of wind, and there is no profit under the sun” (2:11; cf. 1:3).

The phrase “under the sun,” used twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Bible, refers to this temporal world as opposed to the netherworld (see especially 4:15, where “the living” are described as “those who walk under the sun”; and 9:5-6, where “the dead” are said to “have no longer a lot in all that is done under the sun”; cf. Seow 1997: 104-106). Hence there is no (ultimate) profit in this (temporal) world. It is thus futile for people to pursue temporal things as though the reality were otherwise.

Therefore in view of the reality that “All is vanity” it does not make sense (is meaningless) to pursue the things of this world and in the process fail to enjoy what we already have (4:4-8). Hence the most sensible (meaningful) thing to do is to enjoy our life (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 4:8; 5:18-20; 6:6; 7:14; 8:15; 9:9; 11:7-10). But to truly enjoy our life, we must avoid not only physical pain but also emotional anguish (11:10), so as to have a relatively care-free disposition (5:20). For how can we enjoy our life when we are full of cares?

Now even covetousness—violation of the Tenth Commandment—in and by itself already robs us of the carefreeness needed to enjoy our life (5:10; 6:7,9). How much more when it also leads to cheating, stealing, adultery or even murder? In other words, because “All is vanity,” the most meaningful thing to do in life is to fear God and keep His commandments.

The uncertainties of life

When the theme expressed as “What profit is there?” is repeated for the first time (3:9), it sums up a poem with fourteen pairs of opposites which highlights not only the certainty of death but also the uncertainties of life: “There is … a time to be born, and a time to die … a time to weep, and a time to laugh ... a time for war, and a time for peace” (3:1-8). The pairs of opposites show that what we gain in a positive experience (“a time for peace”) may be lost in a negative experience (“a time for war”). And life is so uncertain that we may even lose everything we have before we die, and we may even die before we grow old. Thus “All is vanity” is to be viewed not only in light of the certainty of death but also the uncertainties of life. So this somber reality is relevant to even a young person in good health.

Since death and uncertainties are appointed by God (3:1,11), there is another logical connection between “All is vanity” and “Fear God,” and it also involves carefreeness and thus enjoyment of life. For “God so works that men should fear Him” (3:14b). This means, the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, which result in “All is vanity,” are designed by God to goad us (12:11) to fear Him and keep His commandments.

We can imagine why the certainty of death and especially the uncertainties of life have this goading effect. For uncertainties of life burden us with cares that can only be truly relieved by trusting in a God who is not only watching over us but is also in control of everything that happens (3:1, 11) and who is just and fair (3:17). For in so doing we have the assurance that no bad things can happen to us unless God allows it. And even when He allows it, we have the assurance that it is for a just (and thus meaningful) purpose. The New Testament goes so far as to assure believers that “all things work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), and that in all circumstances His grace is sufficient for them (2 Corinthians 12:9).

However to be able to trust in such a God, we must first wholeheartedly recognize the existence of this God. And in so doing we would fear Him and keep His commandments precisely because He is not only watching (over) us but is also all-powerful and will never pervert justice (Job 37:23-24). For otherwise we are denying even His existence through our intention and action; how then can we trust in Him? Thus uncertainties goad us to trust in God as well as to fear Him. But why has God designed the world in this manner? Why is it necessary that we “fear God and keep His commandments”?

The certainty of judgment

Two reasons are given in the speech. Firstly, “this is every man” (literal translation of 12:13b). The “this” refers to “fear God and keep His commandments” (12:13a). But “this is every man” makes no sense in English. The construction of this expression is similar to that of “I am prayer” (Psalm 109:4). According to Michael Fox (1999: 362), “The effect of this construction seems to be an intensification of the equation: Not only am I prayerful, I am prayer itself” (cf. Goldingay 2008: 279). Similarly, “this is every man” means that “this—the fear of God and obedience to his commandments—is the substance ... of every person” (Fox 1999: 362; cf. Enns 2004: 136-37).

So “this”—fear God and keep His commandments—is the essence of humanity, the reason for human existence and thus the purpose of human life. This leads to the second reason why we need to fear God and keep His commandments: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (12:14). The judgment covers “every deed” ever done, includes even “every hidden thing” (cf. Romans 2:16) that is “good” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10), and is declared after a poem on impending death (12:2-7). It has to refer at least partly, if not solely, to a judgment after death.

Hence it will involve the final judgment revealed in the Book of Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some [the wise and righteous] to everlasting life, while others to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2; cf. Isaiah 66:22-24; Revelation 20:11-21:8). This means the end of life in this world is not the end of the story. Since “there is not a [wise and] righteous man on earth who (continually) does good and never sins” (7:20), this judgment evidently takes into account God’s forgiveness of sins for repentant believers under the Mosaic Covenant then and now the New Covenant. Otherwise no one “shall awake … to everlasting life.”

Experiencing the Meaning of Life

Turning now to the question of the meaning of life, note that the speech is the product of an investigation into human life based on personal experiences (2:1-23) and general observations (for instance, 4:1-16). And since Ecclesiastes is Scripture, like Biblical proverbial wisdom, monotheistic revelation would have informed and shaped the interpretation of the experiences and observations as well as supplemented the composition of the speech. This assumption is corroborated when we see how the profound insights of this speech uncannily address the question of not only the meaning of life but also the meaning of history in the most satisfying way. In fact 12:9-11 claims that wisdom teaching like this speech is “given by one Shepherd,” which for this reason all the more can only refer to the God of Israel (cf. DeRouchie 2011: 12-15; Whybray 1989: 172).

The investigation itself is “to inquire and to explore by wisdom everything that has been done under the heavens” (1:12). It is thus a comprehensive philosophical investigation to understand what human life everywhere in this world is all about. And this is “a grievous preoccupation that God has given to the children of man with which to be preoccupied” (1:13; cf. 3:10). Since not all “children of man,” but only some philosophers, would be preoccupied with such an investigation, it is actually an expression of a more basic God-given preoccupation that affects all humanity: the “relentless quest for meaning” propelled by the innate drive to “make sense of the world” (McGrath 2002: 11, 13).

In his book, The Unheard Cry for Meaning, renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1978: 31) attests, “Man is always reaching out for meaning, always setting out on his search for meaning.” His idea that, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (Frankl 1984: 121), has developed into a flourishing meaning-oriented approach to psychology that involves “empirical research on [the] meaning of life and its vital role in well-being, resilience, and psychotherapy” (Wong 2012: xxvii).

The quest for the meaning of life is “a grievous preoccupation” because people are looking for it in the wrong places. A comprehensive philosophical investigation to find it will only end in “much grief” and “increasing pain” (1:12-18). The most common means people use, usually unconsciously, to express the grievous preoccupation is through the pursuit of pleasure and leisure (2:1-11), or of wealth and success (2:12-23), which may include power and popularity (4:13-16), or a combination of these. All these laborious pursuits are found to be futile in terms of finding the meaning of life. No matter how one expresses the preoccupation, sooner or later one realizes the grievous reality about human existence and earthly experience. And one will then have to come to terms with the inevitability of vanity in this world.

What then is the meaning of life and how does one experience it? We will begin with answering the second part of the question. For the thrust of Ecclesiastes is to teach us how to meet the two key conditions for experiencing the meaning of life.

Fulfilling the purpose of life

When the question “What is the meaning of life?” is asked, it usually means, “What is the purpose of life?” It is a common human experience that our temporal life makes sense (has meaning) only if and when there is a worthwhile purpose to live for. This key condition is affirmed by even atheist philosopher Paul Edwards (2005) in his classic essay on the meaning and value of human life.

Ecclesiastes teaches the, not just any, worthwhile purpose to live for—fear God and keep His commandments. It is the purpose of life because we have seen that it is God’s purpose for humanity, and that one day God will judge humanity on that basis. It is the most worthwhile because of the eternal consequences of that judgment. It is not difficult to see that fearing God and keeping His commandments is actually the essence to fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity expressed in terms of the Creation Mandate: to build a global civilization that is in fellowship with God and thus consistent with His will. People living according to any “worthwhile” purpose that is short of the worthwhile purpose may experience some measure of meaning in life, but it is not as meaningful as the meaning of life (Tan 2016: 271).

We have seen that even in temporal terms, fearing God and keeping His commandments enables us to navigate the created order so that we can even come to terms with “All is vanity” through enjoying our life. Consider what happens when we fail to come to terms with the reality that “All is vanity.” Michael Fox (1989: 31) translates the theme of Ecclesiastes as, “Everything is absurd,” and explains why: “In other words, ‘toil’ may be futile, but the fact that toil is futile is absurd” (his own emphasis). So he recognizes that the Hebrew word he translates as “absurd” (when applied to toil) in and of itself does not mean “absurd,” but rather “futile” or profitless. However the fact that toil is profitless evokes the response that it is absurd.

Why is there such a response? Because the reality that (in view of death) toil is profitless is not acceptable to people who put their hopes in this world, which means most people living in modernity. They thus have a pessimistic response to the reality that “All is vanity” because they are unable to come to terms with it. People living in modernity, especially in somber moments, do find life meaningless, if not absurd. In fact, translating the theme as “Everything is meaningless” strikes a responsive chord in the heart of most people.

Ecclesiastes however teaches us to have a realistic response to the somber reality—enjoy our life through fearing God and keeping His commandments. This is as far as an Old Testament book can take us. The New Testament teaches that there is such a thing as “laying up treasures in heaven” by living for Christ (Matthew 6:19-21). To live for Christ requires one to overcome the pressure to “lay up treasures on earth” (pursue temporal things), which in modernity is particularly difficult to resist. It requires a radical conviction concerning the vanity of temporal things that will set one free to “lay up treasures in heaven.”

Henry Martyn, a nineteenth century missionary known for “forsaking all for Christ” (Henry 2003), once prayed: “May I have Christ with me in the world, not substituting imagination in the place of faith, but seeing outward things as they really are, and thus obtaining a radical conviction of their vanity” (cited in Bridges 1960: 7). Ecclesiastes is God’s answer to this prayer. Hence to people like Henry Martyn, the reality that “All is vanity” is most meaningful! Therefore an optimistic response to this somber reality, in addition to the realistic one, is possible. Translating the theme as “Everything is meaningless (or absurd),” though it speaks to most people in modernity, preempts these meaningful responses.

Perceiving coherence in life

Besides a worthwhile purpose, there is another key condition for experiencing the meaning of life. As philosopher of religion Keith Ward (2000: 22) puts it, “When people complain that life is meaningless, they often mean they cannot see how the events that happen to them fit into any overall pattern. To see the meaning of a human life would be to see how its various elements fit into a unique, complex, and integrated pattern.” Ecclesiastes confirms that even a comprehensive philosophical investigation in and by itself will not find “the key that will unify the whole of life” (Wright 1972: 149).

In other words, to experience the meaning of life we must not only have a truly worthwhile purpose to live for, but we must also be able to perceive how the different aspects of life, including the painful ones, cohere with one another and with that overall purpose. And Ecclesiastes (together with Job)—informed, shaped and supplemented by monotheistic revelation “given by one Shepherd”—provides the most satisfying teaching on how to meet this condition of perceiving coherence in life.

Every experience in temporal life, whether positive or negative, is represented in the poem that highlights the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life (3:1-8). For what is named in each of the fourteen pairs of opposites represents a range of events. For example, “a time to weep” refers not only to weeping itself, but also the different painful events that make us weep. And “a time to laugh” does not mean just laughing, but also all sorts of events that cause us to rejoice. And as already noted, the poem shows that what is gained in a positive experience can be lost in a corresponding negative experience. Even if not, everything gained since birth will be eventually lost in death. Hence everything is ultimately profitless (3:9)

Thus every aspect of life coheres with one another resulting in “All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes teaches that the most sensible (consistent and thus coherent) response to “All is vanity” (theme of the speech) is to enjoy our life through cultivating a carefree disposition by fearing God and keeping His commandments (conclusion of the speech). Therefore (contra Wright 1972: 140) God has provided the key to perceive how every aspect of life coheres with one another as well as with the worthwhile purpose of life: fear God and keep His commandments.

Furthermore Ecclesiastes also addresses head-on the thorny issue of undeserved suffering, which we saw was already recognized in Proverbs. Life is so uncertain that often “You reap what you sow” may seem to have failed; for even the righteous may suffer the consequences of the wicked (7:15; 8:14; cf. Job 1-2). And it is difficult to perceive how undeserved suffering, especially tragedies, coheres with any worthwhile purpose of life. This requires special attention.

The teaching that “God so works that men should fear Him” (3:14b) does apply specifically to undeserved suffering. This means God allows undeserved suffering so that humanity would (truly) fear Him. Thus undeserved suffering does cohere with God’s purpose for humanity. But Ecclesiastes by itself does not enable us to explain why the reality of undeserved suffering is needed to cause people to truly fear God. For that we need to wait till we come to Job. So a complete teaching on perceiving coherence is still pending.

Ecclesiastes does however teach how to respond sensibly to the uncertainties of life, including the thorny issue of undeserved suffering. Mid-way through the speech, after summarizing the theme and sub-themes (6:10-12), the speaker begins the next half on how to respond to uncertainties of life with an anthology of proverbs relevant to the matter (7:1-14). He is indirectly saying that in view of inevitable uncertainties we need to live by proverbial wisdom, which we saw describes the likely consequences to our chosen way of life. This is the most sensible or consistent response. For if bad things can already happen to us no matter how we live, we will increase the likelihood of painful experiences if our chosen way of life by itself will likely bring painful consequences. The speech then moves on to focus on undeserved suffering (7:15-8:17), which is most often the consequence of human wickedness inherent in fallen humanity (7:29), before addressing how to thus live prudently in the social, political as well as economic contexts (9:1-11:6).

The first half of the speech focuses on being carefree by recognizing divine sovereignty. But being carefree does not mean being careless, for bad things can even happen to good people. So the second half focuses on being careful (but not full of cares) by exercising human prudence (7:11-12; 8:5-6; 9:10-11:6). Hence Ecclesiastes teaches how to live with the Biblical paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Biblical wisdom thus has no rival when it comes to helping us perceive coherence in life.

Coming back to undeserved suffering, since “You reap what you sow” is not an ironclad formula it is not wise to go to the extreme of strenuously trying to be righteous to attain prosperity and avoid adversity (7:14-16) and in the process fail to enjoy our life (8:14-15). On the other hand, it is also not wise to go to the other extreme of allowing our inherent wickedness to go unchecked (7:20) and thus increase the likelihood of disaster (7:17). Living by proverbial wisdom out of a genuine fear of God will help to avoid either extreme (7:18). Thus the teaching on how to respond to the uncertainties of life in general applies to undeserved suffering as well.

Hence Ecclesiastes teaches us how to live sensibly and consistently, and thus coherently, in (realistic) response to “All is vanity,” and so experience the meaning of life.

Experiencing the Meaning of History

We have so far only considered the two key conditions—worthwhile purpose and perceiving coherence—for experiencing the meaning of life and how both are met: “fear God and keep His commandments.” But we have not actually answered the question, “What is the meaning of life?” That is, What is life really all about? And this involves making sense of our life taken as a whole, from birth to death, not just making sense of it in terms of the different aspects of it (which is what we have done so far). Is fearing God and keeping His commandments still relevant?

Our life taken as a whole is one extended story-shaped event that is part of a very much larger story we call history: “A generation goes and a generation comes, yet the world remains as ever” (1:4). To answer the above questions we need to consider the meaning or significance of our individual live-story (from birth to death) as an event. And “To ask about the meaning or significance of an event is to ask how it contributed to the conclusion of the episode [or story, of which the event is a part]” (Polkinghorne 1988: 6). This is why the meaning or significance (if any) of a scene in a movie depends on how the movie ends. In fact the focus of Ecclesiastes is on the meaning or significance of events in life in view of how life ends in this world; the answer turns out to be, “All is vanity.” But since death in this world is not the end of the whole story, “All is vanity” is not the final verdict on the meaning of one's life, for which we need to wait till the end of history.

Contributing to purpose and goal of history

In other words, the meaning of life is how our individual life-story contributes to the purpose as well as to the goal of human history. And needless to add, as far as Ecclesiastes is concerned, “human history” is the history of the world as presented in the Bible—from the creation of the present universe (Genesis 1-2) to the (re)creation of the New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21-22). In fact the speaker assumes this history as a backdrop to his speech. For he alludes to the beginning of the world and the Fall of humanity as taught in Genesis 1-3: “God made (hu)man(ity) upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (7:29b). And we saw that he also alludes to God’s final judgment of humanity at the end of history as revealed in Daniel 12. In fact he uses this judgment as a basis for exhorting his audience to “fear God and keep His commandments” (12:13b-14).

Since Ecclesiastes teaches that “God so works [in history] that men should fear Him” (3:14b), the purpose of history is so that people of all nations would fear Him and keep His commandments (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). And we have seen how this purpose has been and will be worked out in history through God’s fulfilling the Creation Mandate and the various covenants (see further the exposition on the New Covenant and the Postscript). So by fearing God and keeping His commandments, our life-story coheres with and thus contributes passively to the purpose of history. And if we seek to help others to fear God and keep His commandments, our life-story contributes actively to the purpose of history.

We have also seen that the goal of history is the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth, “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13; cf. Revelation 21:27). This means, when the goal of history is reached, God’s purpose for humanity to fear Him and thus become righteous through keeping His commandments will be perfectly accomplished. Hence by fearing God and keeping His commandments, our life-story also contributes passively to the goal of history. And our life-story likewise contributes actively to the goal of history if we seek to help others to fear God and keep His commandments.

Therefore, the admonition “fear God and keep His commandments” is the key to how our life-story contributes, whether actively or passively, to both the purpose as well as the goal of history. Obviously a life-story that contributes not only passively but also actively to the purpose and goal of history is more meaningful than one that contributes only passively. And one that does not even contribute passively is out-of-sync with both the created order (and so suffer temporal consequences) as well as the flow of history (and so suffer eternal consequences). Thus it does not make sense (is meaningless) for a life-story to disregard this admonition. Hence the admonition is not just about how we experience the meaning of life, it also expresses the meaning of life. No wonder, to “fear God and keep His commandments” is the essence of every human being. It is what humanity is really all about.

Now the purpose and goal of history together answer the question, What is history all about? Thus they constitute the meaning of history (cf. Löwith 1949: 5-6). In other words, the meaning of life is intertwined with the meaning of history. And “fear God and keep His commandments” is indispensable to experiencing not only the meaning of life but also the meaning of history.

Experiencing a sense of closure to history

The meaning of history and thus of life taught in the Old Testament is the most satisfying to the human heart. For like human life, human history is a story-shaped narrative. And “the ending of a narrative, or the presence of closure, is especially important to broadly normative appraisals of the narrative as a whole…. Ending and closure of course are conceptually distinct ideas. A narrative can end without closure. Perhaps it ends in a way that is unsatisfying, and thus the sense of closure we seek fails to obtain” (Seachris 2009: 11, 22). This means, to be meaningful, history must not only have an ending, but the ending must bring a satisfying or meaningful closure to human life in this world.

Now the reality in this world is such “that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous” (8:14; cf. 7:15). And even blatant injustice perpetrated by the wicked may not seem to be corrected at the ending of their life in this world: “Thereupon I saw the wicked brought to the grave, and they proceeded from a holy place; and they were praised in the city where they had done such [unjust] things” (8:10; first half of verse follows Seow 1997: 284). If death is the end of the story, human life in this world lacks closure.

Thus the human heart cries out for a final accounting beyond this world for all that is done in this world. Then what kind of ending to history will bring the most satisfying closure to how human beings treat or mistreat one another, other than that taught in the Bible? Unless, in the end, righteousness is vindicated and wickedness incriminated, our God-given sense of justice is violated. If history is like a movie that ends with the villain vanquishing the hero, or even with the hero perishing together with the villain, life does not make sense. Only with an assurance of a final and just accounting as taught in the Bible can we have the assurance that every individual life-story will eventually find a closure after death that is the most satisfying and thus most meaningful. Only then do we know the true significance or meaning of what we do, or fail to do, in this temporal world.

However since no one can perfectly fear God and keep His commandments, as “there is not a righteous man on earth who (continually) does good and never sins” (7:20), no “righteous person” can have the hope that he “shall awake” at the end of history “to everlasting life” in the New Heavens and New Earth, unless he has the assurance of God’s forgiveness of his sins (now provided for through Christ under the New Covenant). Without this hope he has no assurance that even his own individual life-story will eventually find a closure after death that is the most satisfying and meaningful. So no matter how much he seeks to fear God and keep His commandments and help others do the same, his experience of the meaning of life will not be complete and thus is still not as satisfying as it should be.