The Summum Bonum of Life
If any one book from the entire Bible was to be selected as the best description of the condition of the American way of life, it is quite possible that Ecclesiastes would be such a book. Even the American dream, the promise of opportunity and success for those who are willing to work, is only an honorable way for a person to earn money in order to eat, drink and be merry. We are constantly in an obsessed race to earn more money, in order to acquire more material possession or to do more of the activities we dream of doing, so that, we hope, we can feel more satisfied with our lives. We measure our success by the size of our bank accounts, the extent of our learning or intellectual prowess, and even by the strength of our relationships to those in our lives. It is in these same ways that we seek to classify or value the worth of other humans, whether intentional or not. Yet when one comes to the book of Ecclesiastes, the meaning and worth of all of this is repeatedly called “vanity.” Some thirty or more times, “the Preacher” rails against the concept of the intrinsic value of our everyday activities and possessions.
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2) Under this category of “vanities” the Preacher will include the cycles of the earth and the toils of man, both the rich and the poor, the wise and foolish, and everyone in between. It seems that no person’s life is left unassailed by the apparent meaninglessness of life’s activities. Yet if this were the entire message of the book, it no doubt would have long been removed from our canon. For if the only meaning that could be found in this text is that every part of our life is utterly meaningless and futile, and that if the preachers is right in stating that all will end up in the same place after death, the ramifications of this would contradict the entire message of the Bible. Indeed, throughout Scripture the destinies of the righteous and the wicked are contrasted and they both end up in drastically different eternities. Not only are their destinies after this life distinct, but the manner in which they live their lives are significantly varied as well. One is planted firm as a tree, the other is as chaff in the wind (Psalm 1:3-4). It would do violence to the point of the book to say that the Preacher simply looks at life, declares its meaninglessness, and then calls it a day.
The author in fact does bring our attention to the ultimate meaning and reality of life. He does not drag us down into the gutters of despair just to leave us there to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. Nor does he expect us to stop working or to stop seeking wisdom in order that we can throw our lives into ragged living because all truly is vanity. The message of the book rather, as we shall see, is that any life, no matter how successful or wise, is as futile as the most wasted life, if it does not center and glorify the God who created us.
The Westminster Larger Catechism begins with a question addressing this very concept. It asks, “What is the chief and highest end of man?” The answer is not all that different from the conclusion that we arrive at in Ecclesiastes. “Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to fully enjoy him forever,” is the answer that is provided. It is not success, not wealth, not wisdom, and not even a loving family. The answer is that the chief good and highest end of man is to glorify the one true God and to enjoy a right relationship with him forever. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher frames it this way: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” While the two answers are framed differently, they actually say very much the same thing. For what brings God more glory in our lives than when we honor and obey Him? And what relationship can be enjoyed with God apart from this lifestyle of glorifying God? It seems that the opinion of the Preacher is that only a life lived for God will have any ultimate meaning. This is because meaning is only found in its eschatological importance, that is, only in what happens after we die since everything will pass away when we die.
The Preacher begins by showing several examples from nature that show us the cyclical and pointlessness of this life. He reminds us that one generation, no matter how great, is quickly forgotten by the subsequent generations. Every day the sun rises and then falls just to rise and fall the next day, and the streams flow to the ocean just to be renewed at the head of the stream to flow to the ocean once again. Nothing new is gained. This leads the Preacher to conclude that “there is nothing new under the sun.” We can look at this in our own technological advancements. We may feel like there are new innovations, but they are merely more convenient forms of old concepts. A cell phone is just a more advanced form of communications that accomplishes more quickly the old role of messengers and smoke signals. Cars simply fill the function of travel more adequately than horses. Microwaves merely cook food faster than fire. These too will all be replace by even better and faster methods and ultimately all of them will fail to affect our eternal destiny. For the Preacher, they are meaningless.
Next he goes on to show that even things that we may prize and highly valuable are simply more vanities of this life. He goes on to state that he had set his heart to find all wisdom of what occurs on the earth. He became wiser than all on the earth, a fact attested to even by the narrator of 1 Kings 3 which tells of the great wisdom Solomon attained as a gift from God. Yet even this wisdom, which was given by God, was “a striving after the wind” because “in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecc. 1:17, 18). For the Preacher, wisdom only showed him more and more what he was lacking. Later he would add, “all the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (Ecc. 6:7). He means by this that no matter how hard we work, we will always be hungry the next day.
From here he moves on to indulgence and reckless living. The Preacher built houses, he planted vineyards, made great pools and bought many slaves. He ate his fill and drank much wine, and gathered more gold and silver and treasures than any king ever had before or after him. He had not an earthly care in the world and yet all of this came to nothing. He knew the old adage was true; he could not take it with him. It added nothing to the meaningfulness of his life.
We then come to the first of several interludes throughout the book where we see our first glimpse at the highest good, the summum bonum of life. Here the Preacher tells us that the ultimate reason why wisdom, riches, and pleasure are meaningless is because “for the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecc. 2:16). For the Preacher, our life this side of death only finds its meaning based on what it will receive on the other side of death. We see this explicitly in 8:12-13 where he states, “yet I know that it will be will with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.” In the final judgment, it will be the eternal destinies of the righteous and the wicked that determine the value of the life that had been lived.
It does not appear that the Preacher is a defeatist or believes that we should give up all hope of living life because there can be no meaning. His point is simply that the only life that does have meaning, will not find this meaning in the pursuits of man. He will not find it in his work, in his education, in his pocketbook or in his relationships. The only life that will find meaning is the life that will remember its creator (Ecc. 12:1) and thus will “fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecc. 12:13).
This brings us back to the answer provided for us by the Westminster Divines in their response concerning the first question of the Catechism. They respond that the summum bonum of life is to glorify God and to fully enjoy him forever. This is indeed the very response that Scripture gives concerning how we are to live our lives, not only in Ecclesiastes, but also in various places throughout the New Testament. For example, we see in Romans 11:36 that “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” Here Paul upholds the Reformed concept of Soli Deo Gloria in which God receives the glory for all things.
Later in 1 Corinthians 10:31 we see an even more explicit example of what is spoken of in Ecclesiastes. Here Paul speaks of the mundane activities of life and shows that they find their purpose and their meaning only when we do them to the glory of God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” While in the context he is speaking to ceremonial eating and drinking, his universal application to “whatever you do” cannot be understated. Here Paul is clearly showing us that the only life that is worth living is the one that actively seeks to give glory to God with everything that it does; something he later hashes out in Colossians 3:17 when he says “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
We also see in the writing of the 73rd Psalm of Asaph, this idea of the life devoted to God being the only one that has meaning because of its culmination after death. Here Asaph writes,
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.
The theme of glorifying God and enjoying him is so tangible in this passage that it almost does not even need to be stated. We see clearly that Asaph does enjoy a right relationship with God because he continually gives God the glory and the honor. We can observe that he too states that both the righteous and the wicked will die, his heart will fail just as the wicked heart will perish, yet he knows that he will not be far from God and that God will be his refuge. His life has meaning because it is centered on God.
It is clear from the teaching of the whole of Scripture, that the ultimate good, the summum bonum of life, is to glorify God and to fully enjoy him forever. In fact, something that we should find striking is that there is an all or nothing aspect to this highest good. Our lives either find their meaning in God, or they find no meaning at all. There is no gradation of meaningfulness that can be found in earthly possessions or in our work or even in our wisdom if they do not lead us to glorify the one true God.
Yet here also lies the promise of the gospel. For who of us is able, by our own ability to live a life of full surrender to God? Which one of us is capable of fully glorifying God when we drink, when we eat, when we work, when we sleep? We are depraved to the core and incapable of living this life that fulfills its highest good. It is only by the perfect life lived for us, by the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us, that we are able to find this meaning of life. We may do it imperfectly, but Christ did it perfectly on our behalf.