Have you been to the gym lately? Every time I work out, I’m astounded at the array of available exercise machinery — stationary bikes, recumbent bikes, treadmills, Stairmasters, and Lifecycles. All are designed to enhance fitness. You get on them and you go — nowhere. In fact, going nowhere is part of their design. The point is not to get somewhere — the point is to expend as much energy as possible for as long as possible while you’re going nowhere. Every time you step off the treadmill or the stationary bike, you are in the very same place you began.
We’re a society dedicated to getting nowhere fast, are we not? We want to know “how” to do things — how to get fit, lose weight, achieve financial success, find the love of a lifetime — and, naturally, we want to do them all in the quickest possible way. The most frequently asked questions in this life under the sun are “how” questions. How was the world made? How was the solar system put into place? How are addictions overcome? How is grief processed? How? How? How? How? But the real question about life isn’t “how?” — it’s “why?”
Why be successful? Why strive for power? Why spend your life searching for prestige? Any parent can avow that children are full of questions. If you have children, you’ve answered your share of puzzlers. And the questions that set parents’ hearts to racing are not the “how” questions. With a little research or a well-placed phone call (“Hi, mom. I was wondering …”), those questions can be easily handled. The tough ones are the “why” questions. Children don’t know they’re not supposed to ask them — and so they do, with great regularity. And quite often, mom and dad are stumped; they simply don’t know “why.”
A Limited Search
Solomon dared to ask the “big” questions: Is life really worth living? And if it is, why? But although he asked the right questions, Solomon arrived at the wrong answers because he limited his search to a single, flat dimension. First, he limited his search in terms of space. He only looked under the sun. He searched the observable world for his answers. And then he limited his search in terms of time. He examined his own experience from birth to death, but explored no further. Solomon had no concept of life after death since no one he knew had ever experienced death and lived to tell about it! He sought meaning in this life only. He eventually concluded: for the secular man, life is meaningless. If you and I were bound by time and space — by what we could observe and by how long we live — we would be forced to agree with him.
Life is pointless, Solomon argued, because it is always moving in circles and going nowhere. Then he supported his thesis by observing patterns in nature — and noting that they are all cyclical. Generations come and go. Men are born, they die, and another generation is born. The sun rises, sets, then rises again. The wind blows south, then turns to the north. Rivers flow to the sea, but never fill it — they just keep flowing seaward.
“A generation goes and a generation comes,” Solomon wrote, “but the earth remains forever.” I remember as a boy going to fairs in my hometown, where there was usually a fellow with gaming machines who would say something like this: “Around and around and around she goes — and where she stops, nobody knows.” I believe Solomon would have said, “that’s exactly the way it is with life lived strictly under the sun!” We’re born — we die. Others are born — they die. Have you noticed that the average person has his or her name in the paper twice: when they’re born, and when they die. One generation comes and goes, and another does the same, but the earth, Solomon says, remains. Man was created to rule and subdue the earth, but man disappears and the earth remains.
There is truth in his observation. We all die. And from one perspective, our lives are a lot like the musical round most of us learned as children: “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” As a child, I never stopped to think how depressing that sounded, did you? Life is but a dream lived out under the sun. It is absolutely void — and everyone dies.
As each new year begins, there are usually several books and magazines that publish a retrospective of the previous twelve months, including who was born during that time, and who died. And death is universal. It’s democratic; everybody dies. Tough people die — Sonny Liston is dead. Athletic people die — Roy Campanella and Don Drysdale are dead. Country and western singers die — Conway Twitty and Bob Wills are dead. Famous politicians die — John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman are dead. Funny people die — Jack Benny and Lucille Ball are dead. People from all walks of life die. Their lives are remembered by some, but forgotten by most; others take their places. Shakespeare said, we occupy our brief time on life’s stage and then we’re gone.
Solomon did not look at mankind only. He observed the heavens as well: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening in its pace it rises there again.” Each day, Solomon watched the sun come up, travel its path from horizon to horizon, then slip out of sight. Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset. For six years I lived in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. From my front door I viewed Maggie Valley, and it was beautiful — the seasons changed in explosions of magnificent color. But after the first or second year I didn’t seem to notice the splendor of the view anymore. I’ve seen some beautiful seashores, too — the Atlantic, Pacific, Mediterranean, even the Sea of Galilee — but, after a while, what was breathtaking at first became merely background. Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset.
Then Solomon became an amateur meteorologist, paying particular attention to the wind. It blows toward the south, he said, then it turns north, and continues whirling on its circular course. I was recently between two hurricanes. One was literally going by on one side while another one came up on the opposite side. As Jo Beth and I watched, the wind roared up, swerved off, then came roaring up again. I’ve never seen anything like it. A folk trio in the early ’60s described the phenomenon of the wind in a song you may remember. How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind — the answer is blowing in the wind. Life is a dream. Sunrise; sunset. The answer is blowing in the wind. Do you hear an echo of monotony? Of boredom?
Finally, Solomon observed a river flowing and saw yet another cycle. “All the rivers of the sea flow into the sea,” he said, “yet the sea is not full to the place where the rivers flow. There they will flow again.” Water is evaporated into the clouds, falls as rain, feeds the rivers that feed the oceans — then the whole process repeats itself. This is reported in song, too: Tote that barge, lift that bale, you get a little drunk and you land in jail. Heart gets weary, and sick of trying. I’m tired of living, but scared of dying — but Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along. That’s it, isn’t it? Row, row, row, your boat — sunrise, sunset — the answer is blowing in the wind — and Old Man River just keeps rolling along.
Are you depressed yet? Feeling defeated? Overwhelmed by the meaningless of life under the sun? Solomon was. He added that life is so meaningless there are no words to describe it. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing,” he wrote, “nor is the ear filled with hearing.” His assessment would be tough to debate. No matter what you and I see, we continue to look for things more pleasing to the eye.
I read recently that in the future there will be 500-plus cable television channels available in our homes. Five hundred channels! (Grab the remote control, men, and get ready!) Rocker Bruce Springsteen’s song “57 Channels and Nothin’ On” is a taste of what’s to come, I’m sure. But we’ll scan those channels, all the same, just to be sure we’re not missing anything — because the eye is not satisfied, no matter where it looks.
Certainly if ears were filled with hearing, teenagers would be full. I saw a teenager in a truck that had speakers in the back bigger than the truck’s tires! The audio volume was so loud that the whole truck was rocking back and forth. I thought his ears must be bleeding from the sound — mine almost were! But when we like what we’re hearing we can’t get enough of it, can we? There is not enough sound to fill us.
Solomon summarizes his argument with these words: “That which has been is that which will be. And that which has been done is that which will be done. So, there is nothing new under the sun.” Do you believe there is anything new in our world today? What about space travel? Penicillin? Microwave ovens? Actually the elements of these inventions have always been with us — we’ve just learned how to combine them into different forms. And how far have we really come? The seven deadly sins are as deadly as ever — every single one of them. Men are still at war with one another, and no less inclined to fight than before. There is no less greed, no less immorality, and no less dishonesty, as far as I can see. Is our world getting better?
Optimistic humanists say it is. They tell us that man is moving toward his ultimate potential, that it is just a matter of time before man makes right all that has been wrong. Solomon would disagree: “Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See, this is new?’ Already it has existed for ages,” he wrote. Man’s nature is the same, and even the events of history have a remarkable sameness about them.
Leon Uris, the author of Exodus and The Haj has written a book on the history of Ireland called The Trinity. At the conclusion of this book that chronicles 300-400 years of Gaelic history, Uris states, “There is no future for Ireland, only the past happening over and over again.”1 Even though history tends to repeat itself, we don’t remember it. Solomon observed this too, and said, “There is no remembrance of earlier things. Also of later things which will occur. There will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” How quickly we forget!
Weighing his evidence alone, most of us would have to agree with Solomon’s conclusion that life is empty, would we not? In fact, I believe that even the best life lived out under the sun, and the sun alone, is meaningless, boring and empty. Listen to the words of a modern-day Solomon if you’re not sure. Alexander Curry is a thirty-something Wall Street trader for a large brokerage house. His hefty six-figure income affords him a well-appointed Upper East Side apartment filled with high-tech toys. He planned to quit the Wall Street rat race at age thirty, but he’s still hanging on. In his more introspective moments, he wonders what it’s all about:
I’ve always felt that there was something that I could do and feel I was doing something of real tangible benefit. Trading, arbitraging futures markets, does not have any real tangible benefit, in my opinion. I mean, it serves a purpose for the economy, but I don’t think of myself as really doing a hell of a lot for society. I’m really doing more for myself. I would have to say that I feel that there is a lack of purpose in my being. I don’t understand why I’m here. I don’t really try to understand why I’m here because I think it would probably be futile. It does provide a real hole in my existence.2
But is there a way off the treadmill? Can we step off the stairmaster? Is there an alternative? Saint Augustine suggested there is when he said, “He who has God has everything. He who does not have God has nothing. He who has God and everything has no more than he who has God alone.” You see, God never meant for man to have a circular existence. From his very beginning in Genesis, man was built for linear living. He was created to go somewhere — with purpose. Solomon said life is pointless. God says life is full of purpose. We were meant for linear living, but sin has forced us into a circular pattern. We are meant to live in relationship, but our sin has forced us into isolation.
An Example of Treadmill Living
The Bible records in the pages of Genesis that God chose a people for Himself by initiating a relationship with one man, Abram. In His call to Abram, God offered fellowship and blessing, and even a purpose that future generations might fulfill:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (
Although Abram and his wife Sarai were old and had no children, God gave them further hope with these words:
“Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them,” and He said to him, “So shall your descendants be” (
Abram and Sarai obeyed God and believed Him, and He did as He had promised. They had a son Isaac, who married Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah were the parents of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph. Through Joseph, God’s people came to live in Egypt, and eventually became slaves there, as God had predicted to Abraham that they would:
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve: and afterward they will come out with many possessions” (
Again, God did for His people what He promised that He would, and raised up an unlikely general named Moses to lead them out of Egypt into the promised land of Canaan. In His faithfulness He restated His covenant with Israel to Moses, with all its magnificent promises:
“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the Lord” (
So God’s people embarked on a trip that should have taken just a few days — but forty years later Israel was still wandering in the wilderness of Sinai! Why? They were disobedient. They disobeyed God’s chief command to them to have no other gods by worshipping ones of their own invention. They lost their hearts to other things. Each time they sinned, Moses interceded for them, they renewed their covenant with God, and they went on. But they abandoned their original sense of calling, commitment and purpose as they drifted further and further into disobedience. Finally, they stood on the brink of the promised land, and a majority saw it and said, “No thanks.”
Instead of Canaan being their destination, Sinai became their home. They lived between two worlds: they were out of Egypt, but not yet in the promised land. An entire generation was lost during those wandering years, and many on the journey probably never knew why they were traveling at all. They were simply born nomads, and knew nothing else. They had a flatland perspective! Their relationship with God was a “borrowed” faith at best, and they never knew that Canaan was where they were headed. God was present, to be sure. He led them by a cloud and a pillar of fire. He provided manna each day for food, and He indwelt the tabernacle they built for Him — but He was no longer personal. They had moved away from His purpose and His plan.
What About Us?
“Well, that’s an old story,” you might say, “it doesn’t have much to do with me today.” Yes, it is an old story. And a true one. And if history does continue to repeat itself, it is a story that you and I can learn much from. It’s a wonderful thing to have the hand of God — His blessing, His mercy, His forgiveness — over our lives, but too often we don’t realize that until it’s gone. When we don’t experience those good things any longer, we cry out that God is judging us — and certainly there are times when He deals with His children in judgment. But more often, you and I have simply moved out from under His protective hand and begun to live our lives without Him.
You say you bought your house as an investment and paid for it for ten years, and now it’s worth less than when you bought it? You worked hard at your job and your slothful co-worker received the promotion you were in line for? Your ship not only didn’t come in, it sank at sea? Is it the judgment of God? Or have we simply moved away from the One who is the author of life and begun to write our own story? Usually we move. Consciously or unconsciously, we move. And when we do, we move out of His linear life of purpose, promise and significance into a cyclical “under the sun” existence. Our lives look very much like the lives of those who never knew Him at all, until our joy is at the mercy of the capriciousness of this world, and our lives are stripped of meaning.
A Paradigm Shift
What about you? Are you experiencing life or pedaling the Lifecycle? Are you on a track or a treadmill? Are you climbing a staircase or laboring away on the Stairmaster? If you’re on the fast track to nowhere, take heart; change is possible. It begins with what contemporary thinkers call a “paradigm shift.” Instead of viewing life as Solomon did — “under the sun” — try looking at it from God’s perspective — “above the sun.” Move from your flatland outpost to a higher lookout, and consider life from there. As the following story illustrates, the effects can be remarkable.
Two men were walking down the sidewalks of Manhattan — one a native American Indian, the other a born-and-bred New Yorker. The racket was incredible: cars, buses, horns, sirens. People were talking loudly as they moved down the street, jammed shoulder to shoulder in the chaos. Suddenly, the Indian said, “Listen. I hear a cricket. Do you hear it?”
The New Yorker was incredulous. “No way! You couldn’t possibly hear a cricket on a Manhattan sidewalk during rush hour.”
“I’m serious,” his friend countered. And to prove it, he bent down and retrieved a chirping cricket from between a crack in the sidewalk.
“How could you hear it?” the New Yorker asked.
“Easy,” said his friend. “I’ve lived outdoors all my life. I can hear a cricket over any other kind of noise. That’s not amazing. If you want to see amazing, watch this!” And with those words he reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and let them drop on the pavement.
As soon as he did, heads began to turn. It seemed as if every Manhattanite for blocks around had heard the coins hit the sidewalk. He had proved his point: you hear what you’re listening for. Your ears and mine pick up the sounds they’re tuned to. If it’s the sound of crickets a man is listening for, he hears them — no matter how much “background noise” exists. If it’s money his ears are tuned to, he hears the clinking of coins for miles.
What are you listening for? What am I listening for? Is it the din of the world or the voice of God? Does your life have meaning, or is it just “around and around and around she goes”? Too many of us get up in the morning, go to work, come home and go to bed, then repeat the cycle day in and day out. Get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Before we know it we’re trapped in cyclical living and we’ve left the linear existence we were created for.
That’s not what God intends and that’s not what truly satisfies our soul. We’re bigger than that. We must reach above the sun and above this life for meaning — and when we do, we’ll come to the conclusion that God has known from the beginning: man is too big for this world. He was never intended to camp here anymore than the Israelites were meant to live out a generation in the wilderness.
Solomon looked at nature within the limits of time and space, and he said, “it’s meaningless, repetitive, boring.” The apostle Paul looked at life through Heaven’s eyes and said, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (
Paul was asked to sum up everything he had achieved and he called it dung! He was a wealthy, Roman citizen, an aristocrat, a member of the privileged class. He was educated by the finest teachers and had the highest moral ethics. He had been everywhere, done everything, seen it all. He had covered every base in life. But, looking back, he described it all in one word: dung. It’s a waste, he said. Just a dream. Sunrise; sunset. Blowing in the wind.
Oh, but “above the sun” living — now that’s a different story! To know Him is real life. That’s living. Listen to Augustine again: “He who has God has everything. He who does not have God has nothing. He who has God and everything has no more than he who has God and nothing.”
I’m ready for a lot of “above-the-sun” living under the sun. Aren’t you?
1. Leon Uris, The Trinity.
2. Phillip L. Berman, The Search for Meaning, Americans Talk About What They Believe and Why (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), p. 27.
From Been There – Done That – Now What? by Ed Young. (c) 1994, Broadman & Holman. Used by permission.