Your Life—What Is Its Purpose?
“I was leading my heart with wisdom . . . until I could see what good there was to the sons of mankind . . . for the number of the days of their life.”—ECCLESIASTES 2:3.
1, 2. Why is it not wrong to have a reasonable interest in oneself?
YOU are interested in yourself, are you not? That is normal. Thus we eat each day, we sleep when we are tired, and we like to be with friends and loved ones. At times we play games, swim, or do other things that we enjoy, reflecting a balanced interest in ourselves.
2 Such self-interest harmonizes with what God moved Solomon to write: “With a man there is nothing better than that he should eat and indeed drink and cause his soul to see good because of his hard work.” Based on experience, Solomon added: “This too I have seen, even I, that this is from the hand of the true God. For who eats and who drinks better than I do?”—Ecclesiastes 2:24, 25.
3. What puzzling questions do most find unanswerable?
3 Yet you know that life is more than eating, drinking, sleeping, and doing some good. We have pains, disappointments, and worries. And we seem too busy to reflect on the meaning of our life. Is that not the case with you? Vermont Royster, former editor of The Wall Street Journal, after noting our expanded knowledge and skills, wrote: “Here is a curious thing. In the contemplation of man himself, of his dilemmas, of his place in this universe, we are little further along than when time began. We are still left with questions of who we are and why we are and where we are going.”
4. Why should each of us want to be able to answer questions that involve us?
4 How would you answer the questions: Who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going? Last July, Mr. Royster died. Do you suppose that he had by then found satisfying answers? More to the point, Is there a way that you can do so? And how can this help you to enjoy a happier, more meaningful life? Let us see.
A Prime Source of Insight
5. Why ought we look to God when we are seeking insight into questions about the meaning of life?
5 If we were on our own looking for the purpose of our life, we might have little or no success, as has been true of most men and women, even those with vast learning and experience. But we are not left on our own. Our Creator has provided help. When you think about it, is he not the ultimate Source of insight and wisdom, being “from time indefinite to time indefinite” and having complete knowledge of the universe and history? (Psalm 90:1, 2) He created humans and has observed the whole human experience, so he is the One to whom we should look for insight, not to imperfect humans, with their limited knowledge and perceptions.—Psalm 14:1-3; Romans 3:10-12.
6. (a) How has the Creator provided needed insight? (b) How is Solomon involved?
6 While we cannot expect the Creator to whisper into our ear a revelation on the meaning of life, he has provided a source of insight—his inspired Word. (Psalm 32:8; 111:10) The book of Ecclesiastes is particularly valuable in this regard. God inspired its writer, so that “Solomon’s wisdom was vaster than the wisdom of all the Orientals.” (1 Kings 3:6-12; 4:30-34) “The wisdom of Solomon” so impressed a visiting monarch that she said that the half had not been told and that those listening to his wisdom would be happy indeed.* (1 Kings 10:4-8) We too can gain insight and happiness from the divine wisdom our Creator provided by means of Solomon.
7. (a) What did Solomon conclude about most activities under the heavens? (b) What illustrates Solomon’s realistic evaluations?
7 Ecclesiastes reflects God-given wisdom, which affected Solomon’s heart and brain. Having the time, resources, and insight to do so, Solomon examined “everything that [had] been done under the heavens.” He saw that most of it “was vanity and a striving after wind,” which is an inspired assessment that we should bear in mind when thinking about our purpose in life. (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 14, 16) Solomon was being frank, realistic. For example, reflect on his words found at Ecclesiastes 1:15, 18. You know that over the centuries men have tried various forms of government, sometimes sincerely attempting to solve problems and to better people’s lot. Have any, though, really straightened out all the “crooked” things of this imperfect system? And you may have seen that the greater a person’s knowledge, the more keenly he realizes that in a short life span, it is impossible to correct things fully. Such awareness brings frustration to many, but not necessarily to us.
8. What cycles have long existed?
8 Another point to consider is the repetitious cycles affecting us, such as the rising and setting of the sun or the movements of wind and water. They existed in the days of Moses, Solomon, Napoléon, and our great-grandfathers. And they continue. Similarly, “a generation is going, and a generation is coming.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7) From a human viewpoint, little has changed. People ancient and modern have had comparable activities, hopes, ambitions, and accomplishments. Even if in a human way, some individual made a notable name or was outstanding in beauty or ability, where is that person now? Gone and probably forgotten. That is not being morbid. Most people cannot even name their great-grandparents or tell where they were born and buried. You can see why Solomon realistically saw vanity in human undertakings and efforts.—Ecclesiastes 1:9-11.
9. How may we be helped by gaining realistic insight into mankind’s situation?
9 Rather than making us frustrated, this divine insight into mankind’s basic situation can have a positive effect, moving us to avoid attaching unwarranted values to goals or pursuits that will soon be gone and forgotten. It ought to help us evaluate what we are getting out of life and what we are trying to accomplish. To illustrate, rather than being ascetics, we can find joy in balanced eating and drinking. (Ecclesiastes 2:24) And, as we shall see, Solomon reaches a very positive and optimistic conclusion. Briefly, it is that we should deeply appreciate our relationship with our Creator, who can help us have an eternally happy, purposeful future. Solomon stressed: “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man.”—Ecclesiastes 12:13.
Purpose in View of Life’s Cycles
10. In what way did Solomon compare animals and humans?
10 The divine wisdom reflected in Ecclesiastes can further help us in considering our purpose in life. How so? In that Solomon focused realistically on other truths that we may seldom think about. One involves similarities between humans and animals. Jesus likened his followers to sheep, yet people generally do not enjoy being compared to animals. (John 10:11-16) Still Solomon brought up certain undeniable facts: “The true God is going to select [the sons of mankind], that they may see that they themselves are beasts. For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; . . . so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast, for everything is vanity. . . . They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.”—Ecclesiastes 3:18-20.
11. (a) How may the typical life cycle of an animal be described? (b) How do you feel about such an analysis?
11 Think of an animal that you enjoy watching, maybe a rock badger or a rabbit. (Deuteronomy 14:7; Psalm 104:18; Proverbs 30:26) Or you may picture a squirrel; there are over 300 kinds around the world. What is its life cycle? After it is born, its mother nurses it for some weeks. Soon it has fur and can venture outside. You may see it scampering about learning to find food. But often it seems just to be playing, enjoying its youthfulness. After growing for a year or so, it locates a mate. Then it must build a nest or den and care for offspring. If it finds enough berries, nuts, and seeds, the squirrel family may grow plump and have time to enlarge their home. But in just a few years, the animal becomes old and more prone to accident and disease. About age ten it dies. With slight differences between squirrel types, that is its life cycle.
12. (a) Realistically, why is the life cycle of many humans like that of the average animal? (b) What might we think about the next time we see the animal that we had in mind?
12 Most people would not object to that cycle for an animal, and they hardly expect a squirrel to have a thought-out purpose in life. However, the life of many humans does not differ very much from that, does it? They are born and cared for as babies. They eat, grow, and play as youths. Before long they are adults, find a mate, and seek a place to live and a means to provide food. If they succeed, they may grow plump and expand their home (nest) in which to raise offspring. But the decades quickly pass, and they grow older. If not before, they may die after 70 or 80 years filled with “trouble and hurtful things.” (Psalm 90:9, 10, 12) You might think about these sobering facts the next time you see a squirrel (or other animal you had in mind).
13. What outcome proves true for both animals and humans?
13 You can see why Solomon compared the lives of people to animals. He wrote: “For everything there is an appointed time, . . . a time for birth and a time to die.” That latter eventuality, death, is similar for man and beast, “as the one dies, so the other dies.” He added: “They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.”—Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, 19, 20.
14. How do some humans try to alter the common life cycle, but to what effect?
14 We need not find this realistic evaluation to be negative thinking. Granted, some try to change the situation, such as by working extra to improve their material situation beyond what their parents had. They may pursue more years of education to provide for a higher standard of living, while trying to broaden their understanding of life. Or they may concentrate on exercise or diet regimens to gain better health and a slightly longer life. And these efforts may bring certain benefits. But who can be sure that such efforts will prove successful? Even if they do, for how long?
15. What frank assessment of the lives of most people is valid?
15 Solomon asked: “Because there exist many things that are causing much vanity, what advantage does a man have? For who is there knowing what good a man has in life for the number of the days of his vain life, when he spends them like a shadow? For who can tell man what will happen after him?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11, 12) Since death rather quickly ends a person’s efforts, is there really much advantage in struggling to gain more material things or in pursuing long years of schooling primarily to get more possessions? And since life is so brief, passing like a shadow, many grasp that there is no time to redirect efforts toward another human goal when they sense failure; nor can a man be certain what will happen to his children “after him.”
Time to Make a Good Name
16. (a) What should we do that animals cannot? (b) What other truth should have a bearing on our thinking?
16 Unlike animals, we humans have the capacity to ponder, ‘What is the meaning of my existence? Is it just a fixed cycle, with a time to be born and a time to die?’ In that regard, recall the truth in Solomon’s words about man and beast: “They are all returning to the dust.” Does that mean that death absolutely ends one’s existence? Well, the Bible shows that humans do not possess an immortal soul that survives the body. Humans are souls, and the soul that sins dies. (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) Solomon elaborated: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10.
17. What should Ecclesiastes 7:1, 2 cause us to ponder?
17 In view of that unavoidable fact, consider this statement: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better is it to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1, 2) We must agree that death has been “the end of all mankind.” No human has been able to drink any elixir, eat any vitamin mix, follow any diet, or engage in any exercise resulting in eternal life. And usually “the remembrance of them has been forgotten” not long after their death. So why is a name “better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born”?
18. Why can we be sure that Solomon believed in the resurrection?
18 As noted, Solomon was realistic. He knew of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who certainly had made a good name with our Creator. Being well acquainted with Abraham, Jehovah God promised to bless him and his seed. (Genesis 18:18, 19; 22:17) Yes, Abraham had a good name with God, becoming his friend. (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) Abraham knew that his life and the life of his son were not simply part of a never-ending cycle of birth and death. There positively was more to it than that. They had the assured prospect of living again, not because they possessed an immortal soul, but because they would be resurrected. Abraham was convinced that “God was able to raise [Isaac] up even from the dead.”—Hebrews 11:17-19.
19. What insight can we gain from Job as to the meaning of Ecclesiastes 7:1?
19 That is a key to understanding how “a name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born.” As Job before him, Solomon was convinced that the One who created human life can restore it. He can bring back to life humans who have died. (Job 14:7-14) Faithful Job said: “You [Jehovah] will call, and I myself shall answer you. For the work of your hands you will have a yearning.” (Job 14:15) Think of that! For his loyal servants who have died, our Creator has “a yearning.” (“You would want to see the work of your hands once more.”—The Jerusalem Bible.) Applying the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Creator can resurrect humans. (John 3:16; Acts 24:15) Clearly, humans can differ from mere animals that die.
20. (a) When is it that the day of death is better than the day of birth? (b) How must Lazarus’ resurrection have affected many?
20 This means that the day of death can be better than the day of one’s being born, if one has by then built up a good name with Jehovah, who can resurrect faithful ones who die. The Greater Solomon, Jesus Christ, proved that. For instance, he raised back to life the faithful man Lazarus. (Luke 11:31; John 11:1-44) As you can imagine, many of those who witnessed Lazarus’ coming back to life were greatly affected, putting faith in God’s Son. (John 11:45) Do you think that they felt without purpose in life, having no idea who they were and where they were going? On the contrary, they could see that they need not be mere animals that are born, live for a time, and then die. Their purpose in life was directly and intimately tied up with knowing Jesus’ Father and doing His will. What about you? Has this discussion helped you to see, or to see more clearly, how your life can and should have real purpose?
21. What aspect of finding meaning in our life do we yet want to examine?
21 Yet, having genuine and meaningful purpose in living means far more than thinking about death and living again thereafter. It involves what we are doing with our lives on a day-to-day basis. Solomon also made that clear in Ecclesiastes, as we will see in the following article.
“The narrative about the Queen of Sheba emphasizes Solomon’s wisdom, and the story has often been called a legend (1 Ki. 10:1-13). But the context indicates that her visit to Solomon was really connected with trade and as such is intelligible; its historicity need not be doubted.”—The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1988), Volume IV, page 567.
Do You Recall?
□ In what ways are animals and humans comparable?
□ Why does death emphasize that much of human effort and activity is vanity?
□ How can the day of death be better than the day of birth?
□ Our having a meaningful purpose in life depends on what relationship?
[Pictures on page 10]
How does your life differ significantly from those of animals?