…from The Times of India’s Speaking Tree column dated 07/27/2008:
What should you do with rest of your life? About three thousand years ago, a Jewish king named Solomon aired his opinion on the subject. As he put it, he “wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives”.
Solomon was an interesting character, and he had a lot going for him. He was intelligent. Indeed, this sage king still has the reputation of being the “wisest man who ever lived”.
He also had the means to do practically anything he wanted to do. In his old age, Solomon found time to reflect on his lifelong experiences. And he passed his thoughts down in writing. He starts off by telling us that everything in life is meaningless.
“I know, because I have seen it all. You name it, I’ve done it. I not only did it, but I did it in a big time, kingly fashion. I denied myself nothing, nothing at all. But looking back on it now, I can tell you none of it amounted to a hill of beans.”
“What do you think is worthwhile in life? The pursuit of pleasure? I had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines. I had music from men and women singers; all the wine I could drink; and a palace full of people falling all over themselves doing everything they could think of to get in my good graces.
“Sure, it is enjoyable up to a point. But when you get everything you want whenever you want it, you quickly discover how meaningless pleasure really is.
“Here is what I’ve learned: Whenever you seek pleasure, pleasure eludes you. The only way you may find pleasure is by seeking something else first. It could be nothing more than paying someone a sincere compliment , or giving someone a hand with an unpleasant task.
“The idea is that when you least expect it, happiness suddenly bubbles up like a well inside of you. You don’t find pleasure; pleasure finds you. Pursuing pleasure is like chasing after the wind.
“If not pleasure, then what? Wealth? Do you think you should dedicate your life to the pursuit of wealth? I had houses, vineyards, gardens , parks, fruit trees, reservoirs watering groves of trees, slaves, more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem, horses and chariots, and more silver and gold than anyone can imagine. I had it all. But if money and things could buy happiness, then I would have been the happiest man that ever lived.
“But what did I discover? Just this: Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. A rich man doesn’t even sleep well at night. He’s too worried about his money.
“Money has its uses, but don’t lose perspective. We were born naked, and when we die, we’re going to take with us just what we brought into this world. Whatever we acquire will be left to someone who had not worked for it.”
If neither pleasure nor wealth are worthwhile pursuits, how about the scholarly pursuit of knowledge?
“Oh yes, I spent a great deal of time in study. I learned everything I could about every subject under the sun. That’s how I got my reputation for wisdom. It didn’t fall out of a tree, you know. What did I find out? Only this: The more you learn, the more you discover there is to know. Even the brightest of us are ignorant of many things. Certainly, wisdom is better than foolishness, but remember , in a few years, both the wise man and the fool wind up in the grave. Before long both are forgotten.”
So, pleasure, wealth, and knowledge all have limited value. What’s left? Work? “Yes, I worked. I built houses, planted vineyards, gardens, parks, fruit trees, and groves of trees. I delighted in my work. That was my reward.
“Of course, it was merely a temporary ‘feel-good-about-it’ sort of thing. In the long run, all of our toil is useless. Whatever you make, you can’t take with you. And in due course, whatever we create will be torn down or destroyed and soon forgotten.”
So, the wise man threw a wet blanket over most of the things people devote themselves to today. Then what should we do? How should we spend our brief time on earth?
The answer is simple: “A man can do nothing better than to eat, drink and find satisfaction in work. Enjoy life with the one you love. Be happy and do good as long as you live. Whatever you do, do it with all the might because you never know when life might end.
“While we are young, enjoy life as much as possible. But don’t forget, God will judge everything we do. The years slip by quickly. Infants turn into youths, youths into adults, adults into middle age, and middle age into old age. It doesn’t take long at all.
“All too soon, the troubles and afflictions of age sap the strength and weaken the mind. Then death calls your number and body returns to the ground from where it came, and soul returns to God who gave it.”
Solomon concludes his advice with this warning: “God will bring every deed into judgment including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked.”
Has Solomon’s 3,000-year-old advice stood the test of time?
Some things have changed. Primarily, we have more gadgets these days than they had back in his time. But our basic choices remain the same. We can dedicate our lives to pleasure, money or possessions, or knowledge, or work. Then again when we reflect on the brevity of life, the certainty of death, and the promise of judgment, we might decide Solomon knew what he was talking about.
But what about God judging the good and wicked? The moral law certainly implies that God cares about us, what we do with our lives, and the choices we make. Also our longing for justice, often frustrated in this life, leads us to believe, we will get whatever we are due in the world to come.
By the end of the book, Solomon reaches a different conclusion: Life has a point after all. Our sojourn can best be described as a sort of boot camp or school of hard knocks. We are here to learn. Learn what? Learn that pleasures, money, possessions, knowledge, and work all have only limited value. None of these pursuits should be the focal point of our lives.
Our primary task is to develop character, that is, a certain type of character. Earth, we discover, is nothing more than a large training centre for character. Those who graduate have learned their lessons on: fair play, unselfishness, humility, courage, faithfulness , honesty, truthfulness, and treating others with respect.