Solomon and the secret of happiness – wisdom from Ecclesiastes

Happy New Year. What does it mean? We know the New Year bit, but what exactly is a Happy New Year?

Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' is the best-selling single of all time.

(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do

Pharrell's Happiness probably won't win the Nobel Prize for literature but it does express what most people in today's society seem to want. We just want to be happy – to enjoy happy days.

The American Declaration of Independence says: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

But how are we to pursue happiness? That is the great quest for Solomon, who so far has tried, wine, women and song (plus money, education, work and art) and yet found that the burden of eternity outweighs them all.

In this week's Ecclesiastes passage (3: 12-15) Solomon summarises what he has learned so far. It has a surprisingly contemporary ring. 'I know there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.' To eat and drink – the tokens of a contented and a happy life. Think about how often you not only eat and drink, but think about eating and drinking! Solomon adds to this the joy of satisfying work. Given that he had earlier stated that the pursuit of food and drink was meaningless and work futile, this is a significant change in attitude.
So what makes the difference? Because he sees it as the gift of God. When secularism is replaced by theism, pessimism turns to optimism and human autonomy to human faith. His life motto becomes 'Carpe Diem' – seize the day and enjoy life. Is that not a great motto for us as we enter the New Year?

But then Solomon seems to spoil it by telling us that nobody can add to or take away from the things that God does. 'Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.' It seems that even in the New Year there is nothing new under the sun.
But this is not despair. It is saying that while earth is passing and futile, true security (on which happiness depends) can be found in God's sovereignty and grace. God's action is permanent, it is effective and it is complete. His actions are totally secure and sure. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ (see Romans 8). Our happiness is to be built on the solid rock of Christ and his Word, not the shifting sands of contemporary culture. This happiness includes the fear of God but it is not the craven fear of the despot. It is reverence, respect and awe for God. That is where our sense of beauty and the eternal is satisfied – because ultimately it is a sense of and for God.

One final thing – at New Year we often think of the passing of time and the circle of life. In verse 15 Solomon addresses this by reminding us that it is God who keeps the cycles of history going. Things are going on a pre-determined course. However, it is not Marxist fatalism, or human greed, or some mysterious force, but God who holds our times in his hands.

This is where true happiness (or as Jesus would put it 'blessedness' – see the Beatitudes in Matthew 5: 1-10) is found. In Him. You are not an insignificant insect, crawling from one sad annihilation to another. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you are a child of God being prepared for an eternal home (John 14: 1–6; 2 Corinthians 4).

The Puritan pastor Thomas Watson wrote: 'Eternity to the godly is a day that has no sunset; eternity to the wicked is a night that has no sunrise.' Instead of eternity being a burden which prevents our enjoyment of life, it becomes in Christ an opportunity to enjoy life. Real Christianity is not 'pie in the sky when you die' but 'steak on your plate while you wait'.

May you know a happy and blessed New Year.

David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea.