“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’” (Eccl. 2:1). The Preacher, much like the rest of mankind, is on a search for meaning and happiness. He’s already shown us the end from the beginning, namely, “all is vanity.” His search for meaning and satisfaction in the things of earth leaves him empty. The Preacher positions himself as an old sage with a lifetime of experience. This wise man passes his wisdom on to his readers by bearing forth his failures and confessing his emptiness. Ecclesiastes 2 is all about a failure to find. The Preacher says, “I looked for meaning here, but I didn’t find it.” “I looked for happiness there, but came up empty.” He looked and he looked and he looked. But he never found what he was looking for.
In order to properly understand Ecclesiastes, we need to remember the error of the Preacher is rooted not in his quest, but in his sources. His quest for meaning and happiness is both natural and good. God has put eternity into man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11). Augustine has said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We were made to pursue meaning and happiness. Humanity was originally created for these two ends. God’s blessing rested on Adam and Eve, and they were created to reign over creation as image-bearers. Adam and Eve never had to search for meaning and happiness, because they were created with it. The root of their sin was thinking God couldn’t provide what he had already given them. They started seeking happiness in sources outside of God. They failed and the rest is history.
The Preacher is taking the wrong paths on his journey, but he doesn’t realize it until he hits a dead end. He travels down paths of pleasure and power. He indulged in everything his money and influence could buy. He had great possessions, great wealth, an army of workers, and a harem of women. He searched in the bottle (Eccl. 2:3) and the backhoe (Eccl. 2:4-6). But neither fine wine nor impressive buildings and gardens could quench his heart’s thirst. He tried everything. “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). No pleasure evaded him. And each pleasure was real. His heart actually “found pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). But the pleasure he found was never enough.
The Preacher concluded at the end of his search, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11). Have you ever felt such emptiness? Maybe you put all your time, energy, and resources into a work project and it turns out even better than you hoped. There is real satisfaction in such work and success. But that feeling fades and another project looms. There is no natural rest from our work. There is no natural rest in our parenting, marriages, or ministries. If you ever finally “have it all” you realize it’s not enough.
Our hearts are searching for meaning and happiness. The quest is good. But heed the Preacher’s wisdom. He says, “I’ve tried it all. I’ve done it all. I’ve had it all. All sources for happiness under the sun are deficient.” There is a path, however, that doesn’t have a dead end. In fact, it’s end is a beginning. The path of wisdom, the path of godly fear, leads to a cross where One outside of the created order entered it to fix it. Jesus returns God’s people to God’s presence, the essence of meaning and happiness. Keep your quest. Change your source. Journey down the path of the cross. Find what your heart desires.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their three boys, Jude, Jack, and John.