Recently, the pastor at my church began a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes entitled “Our Search for Satisfaction, Meaning, and Significance.” I have always had trouble understanding Ecclesiastes; quite honestly, I found the book to be pessimistic and avoided it in my daily Bible readings. However, after beginning to study it in church, I learned that when read in proper context, it is not negative. Instead, the book sheds light on our significance in this life. In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, Solomon details his search for lasting significance through work:
“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. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.” (17-23)
King Solomon worked tirelessly in search for personal satisfaction and meaning. The verses prior to 17-23 evidence the great projects he took on, in which he saturated himself in work in his investigation for meaning. So many people in our world today, including Christians, pursue personal significance through their work. Achievements, wealth, and successful projects are prizes to be won in our world, ones that society claims will finally bring us lasting pleasure. Yet Solomon finds that “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun” (v.18) and that his work under the sun brought him despair. Why?
The key phrase here is “under the sun.” “Under the sun” refers to living with an earthbound perspective, with a frame of mind that is not conscious of that which is above the sun. The lifestyle he describes, immersing oneself in his or her work to remain busy and feel productive, to feel significant, is found to be unfruitful. Solomon despairs over it; he finds that it is “a chasing after the wind” because that which is on earth eventually fades. He is grieved over the fact that all of his labor will eventually fall into the hands of another, and that all these projects he pursued on earth will not last.
Throughout the book, King Solomon contrasts this “under the sun” thinking with an “above the sun” perspective. He infers that if we look above the sun to that which is infinite, we see that there is meaning in us through God. We will never find lasting satisfaction from anything of earth. This means that our earthly work will never fully satisfy, no matter how greatly we invest in it or how incredibly we succeed. Only that which eternally lasts will grant us eternally lasting meaning. Ultimately, if we tie our worth and meaning to that which lasts instead of to that which is fleeting, we will find true significance.