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Meaning in life
Vanity Under the Sun
There was an old song from the 60's, made popular by singer Peggy Lee, that asked the question over and over again: "Is that all there is?" The song was about a woman disillusioned with life who could find absolutely no meaning in it. She remembers when her house burned down when she was a kid. She remembers the look on her father's face as he runs out of the house, carrying her in his arms and finally seeing the burning building from outside. Her whole world was going up in flames and all she could think of was: "Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is.?"
Later she recounts visiting the circus, the greatest show on earth, and seeing the elephants and the performers. During all of this, she couldn't help feeling that something was missing. And once again she asks: "Is that all there is?
Her life goes on and she falls in love and goes through all of the romantic things that all new couples experience such as long walks along a river and hours of staring into each others' eyes. Finally the young man leaves her and she thinks she will die. And, you guessed it, she asks: "Is that all there is?"
The final stanza of the song is her answering the anticipated question: "If life is that bad for you then why don't you just end it all?" Well, she says that she would but, when that final moment comes and she is breathing her last breath she knows that she will only say to herself: "Is that all there is?"
This depressing song only becomes more depressing with the chorus sung over and over: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze, and have a ball, if that's all there is,"
The sad thing is that this song made Peggy Lee and the writers a lot of money. Why? The reason is because it asked the questions that everyone asks at one point or another in their lives. Everyone wants life to have meaning. Everyone wants their life to count for something. And when you don't feel that it does count, you can enter into deep depression and despair.
I. Solomon's Search For Meaning Under the Sun
The writers of this song weren't the first to address this issue. The book of Ecclesiastes, in the Bible did this several centuries earlier. Attributed to King Solomon, who had everything that great wisdom, wealth and fame had to offer, it explored the subject of meaning in life. The book begins with a memorable and pessimistic introduction. After telling who he is, the author states: "Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity." The preacher sounds like someone you want to invite to your next party, doesn't he? Well, he did that to make a point. However, you really need to read the whole book to find out what that point really is.
Ecclesiastes examines the vanity of life lived without God. In examining the first chapter, it is helpful to know that the author was assuming the stance of a pagan wisdom writer. This is clearly indicated in his use of the phrase "under the sun." This is a phrase found nowhere else in the Old Testament, but used in pagan wisdom literature. It is used to refer to the realm of this world. By that I mean, what people can see from their finite perspective. By using this phrase, the author was saying to his readers. "Assume, for the moment, that this world is all there is. I will show you that, if you view life this way, you will never find the sense of purpose, progress or permanence that you long for."
The truth that nothing "under the sun" will satisfy human longing for meaning is first stated in the verse I quoted above, verse 2. It says that "All is vanity." The word vanity can be translated as utterly meaningless. This term literally means vapor or breath, and captures very vividly, how fleeting, unsubstantial and unreliable are all of the sources of meaning we think we see in this world.
Ecclesiastes clearly shows that if a person looks at life with a purely man-centered, earthbound perspective, he or she will never satisfy the longing for meaning. But the good news is that human vision does not have to be confined to what we can see through our senses and reason. God has reached out through His Son Jesus Christ and bridged the gap between heaven and earth. He has stooped to enter the world, to intervene in history, so we can know Him in his righteousness and mercy.
II. Meaning Comes From Fearing God
The lesson of Ecclesiastes can be summarized in this way: If we try to satisfy our hunger for meaning with anything less than faith in the God revealed in the Bible, we are bound to be frustrated. This theme comes out vividly at the end after Solomon has completely shown the futility of life lived purely "under the sun". He then exhorts those who are young to remember their creator in the days of their youth, because one day they will get old and die. Life as we know it will not continue. Man must ultimately face God's judgment. So life is to be enjoyed as a gift of the creator of that life.
The message of the book is summed up nicely at the end, in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. It states: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."
The bottom line is, man searches for meaning because he was created for eternity. He was created in the image of the eternal God. Saint Augustine said it best: "Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You." It is my hope that all who read this won't have to go through an entire lifetime and find out at the end that what they have chased after, whether money, fame or power have left them empty. Take the advice of Solomon, who had all of these. Remember your creator, and acknowledge Him. He will show you meaning and joy like you can never know on your own. And that meaning will not end at death.