3,000 years ago, there was an ancient king living in the lap of luxury, with immeasurable wealth and countless women. But his wisdom was far more legendary than his affluence. So the wise king searched for something more—true meaning that could ultimately satisfy the soul.
No, his name was not Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha. His name was Solomon—king of Israel and ancient ancestor of Jesus Christ.
Buddha, who lived some 500 years after Solomon, made similar observations about human nature and the kind of world we live in. Both men knew life was fleeting and full of suffering, so trying to find ultimate value in this life is like grasping the wind. Yet both knew that our nature is to desire more than temporal life can offer. And since Solomon’s wisdom spread the world over, it’s possible that Solomon’s teachings in the book of Ecclesiastes were what influenced Buddha.
But while Solomon and Buddha cross paths on some key issues, Solomon’s path leads elsewhere. Buddha’s conclusion—that we must cut off all cravings and extinguish the “self”—is quite different from Solomon’s. What were Solomon’s noble truths, and where does his path lead?
1. This Life is Full of Suffering
Like Siddhartha Gautama, Solomon didn’t let his royalty blind him to the harsh realities of life. Writing under the name “the Teacher,” Solomon began the book of Ecclesiastes on a sour note: “Vanity of vanities… all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
His quest was to find true, permanent value in life—yitron, the Hebrew word for profit. Instead, he discovered that life was basically hevel, meaning “vapor,” which he used to signify the fleetingness, futility, and vanity of temporal life.
Solomon’s hevel is similar to Buddha’s understanding of dukkha, which means that life is chiefly characterized by suffering. Hard work and wisdom are good, but they can’t guarantee you’ll do better in life than a lazy fool. You can’t avoid the risk of losing your possessions. Your stomach never stops getting hungry each day. Your labor yields no final gain. And even the pleasures of life—food, money, sex, cars, friends, family—are unsatisfying in the end because death happens to us all.
But where Buddha took a snapshot of the present human experience, Solomon saw looking a timeline. Solomon knew that earth was not as it should be. He saw a paradise lost.
Solomon knew the history of the original universe described in Genesis 1-3. Earth was a place without suffering, death, or futility. The first man and woman had no impure desires or cravings, because they were completely satisfied in joyful harmony with the ultimate, unchanging being—God.
In other words, everything was right in the world because man had God! The man and woman, Adam and Eve, enjoyed many the benefits of the Garden of Eden—no pain, no conflict, no backbreaking labor, no killing animals to get food, no struggling to feel content—but it had nothing to do with the garden itself. It was because of who God was to them. God didn’t hide himself from them; there was no reason to. Genesis 3:8 seems to imply that God was in the habit of walking on the earth. Adam, Eve, and the rest of the environment were in perfect relationship with God, in whom we find the “path of life,” “fullness of joy,” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Humanity didn’t need anything else (Psalm 23:1). Everything was good (Genesis 1:31).
Yet a few thousand years later, Solomon wrote about how “all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). What changed?
2. Life’s Suffering Stems From Our Desires
Solomon and Buddha agreed on another point: our desires are at the root of the problem. Buddha called this tanha. Unsatisfied yearnings keep us on the hamster-wheel of suffering, even amid the comforts of modern life. But desire itself isn’t our only problem; it’s about what we desire.
We were made to desire eternal meaning, ultimate value. God has “put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). But all that changed when humans selfishly gave in to wrong desires for something God didn’t want for them.
The first humans were warned not to eat the fruit from a forbidden tree. If they acted on selfish desire, they would suffer futility in life, then die and remain separated from God forever—not liberated or reincarnated (Genesis 2:17). But in spite of the warning, they “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6, emphasis added). They wanted to indulge the fleeting pleasure of sin more than they wanted to keep enjoying God and his incredible blessings. It was called sin.
So when Adam and Eve sinned, they brought suffering to the world and to us. We inherited their sinful nature, giving us an inescapable tendency to desire sin more than God. We live under “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4). Though we were originally meant to find satisfaction in the goodness of an infinite, unchanging God, we are now “dead” in a state of sin, pursuing our own desires and earning God’s punishment as a result (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Suffering in the world comes from that sinful desire. We need God-sized satisfaction, but we are cut off from him, and instead seek selfish pleasures. We tend to live for ourselves. Relationship conflict, environmental hostility, human death, animal death, futile labor, and pain are God’s penalty for our sinful desire (see Genesis 3).
But the story of God’s plan, of which Solomon tells a part, does not end there. There is hope for us to escape suffering. Not only that, but there is reason for us to endure it—not because of our own self-discipline, but because of God’s action for us.
3. We Can Be Redeemed, Even Through Suffering
Imagine you’ve lived in warm, sunny Florida your whole life—enjoying beaches, orange juice, and Disney World. Then, you venture to snowy New England for the first time in your life on a business trip. On the return drive, you hit a sheet of black ice on an offbeat wilderness road, careen into the guardrail, and hit your head. Amnesia.
You wander along the road in the dark until a semi-truck driver offers you a ride. Your fingers are numb from the cold and your head is killing you. But because of the memory loss, you aren’t dreaming of Floridian weather; you can’t. Instead, your best hope is to stumble into the nearest greasy spoon diner and warm up over some burnt coffee. But it’s a poor replacement.
If you forget the past, the present will lose its meaning and the future will lose its hope. Solomon knew how the world originally was and why man thirsted for more. Buddha, however, had no concept of God and the world he originally made. Buddha saw only our current condition: suffering, mortal, and never satisfied. So the only solution he could conceive was nonexistence.
But Solomon’s path leads us beyond mere escape. It leads us to true, lasting joy.
Suffering and futility are partly God’s way of reminding us of the true meaning in life found in him. Regarding our fallen world, Solomon wrote, “God is testing them (humanity) that they may see that they themselves are but beasts… as one dies, so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:17-19a). A different part of the Bible puts it this way: “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Our fallen world is awaiting a solution from above.
Now, consider God. He is fulfilled in himself with no impure desires or insatiable cravings; he is everything he needs. He is one being in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Son perfectly reflects the Father, the Father perfectly delights in the Son, and the Spirit personifies their perfect love (Matthew 3:16-17, Hebrews 1:3). In perfect unity, these three are the one great “I am” of the universe, totally set apart from us as holy. God does not need us.
But 1,000 years after Solomon—500 years after Buddha—God did something scandalous for us. As the ultimate example of self-denial, the divine Son was born on earth into a human body as Jesus Christ. He gave up the pleasures of heaven and was violently murdered on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:3-11). He neither desired anything wrongfully, nor deserved any cosmic punishment, yet he suffered worse than any of us ever could.
Why? He endured this to redeem us, taking our place to suffer what we deserve. The totality of the Father’s cosmic justice fell upon him when he cried in a moment of humanity, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus was “made perfect through suffering” so that he could mercifully plead our case before God (Hebrews 2:10-18). The perfect, self-fulfilled God willingly took on our suffering, pain, futility, and death.
Yet God, being the perfect judge, rewarded Jesus by raising him from the dead as he deserved. Jesus will never die again, now reigning from above in full power and glory as Lord of the universe. Jesus will soon return to judge the world and destroy evil forever, remaking the world in harmony with God once more. Yet since he identified himself with us when he died, we can be identified with his resurrection too. If we fully trust him, we will be raised from death to be like him in harmony with God (1 Corinthians 15).
Though we still suffer in this life, because he now lives, we can live too (John 14:19), quenching each sinful craving with a desperate desire for God that Jesus satisfies. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
Life in Jesus is no longer futile. It starts the moment we believe in him, when he changes our hearts through his Spirit inside us. It continues when we die and immediately go to be with him, freed from the sinful body and all its cravings (2 Corinthians 5:8). It is finally consummated when God recreates the earth and raises us to live on it with him, enjoying an eternity with no suffering, pain, sadness, backbreaking effort, self-denial, death, or unruly cravings.
4. Following the Path of Jesus Leads to Eternal Joy
But what about the here and now? Buddha taught that the key to freedom from suffering was to deny all desires and attain to nothingness—extinguishment of the self in a state of nirvana. The path of Jesus also involves self-denial; Jesus himself said, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
But it’s a completely different type of self-denial. It’s self-denial with the guarantee of ultimate gain. Jesus also said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus also told a story to explain it: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The eternal joy of being reconciled with God is worth any price.
The reality of Jesus redeems even the most unbearable pain. When we suffer, we identify ourselves with Jesus’s sufferings and come closer to attaining his reward. “We suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17, emphasis). By trusting Jesus, not only do we escape suffering someday; we can be redeemed even during it, today.
Here and now, following Jesus is hard work. But it’s a labor of love. That’s because Jesus’s death for us effectively extinguishes our old self. Then, his resurrection makes us “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17), giving us righteous desires for God to follow rather than a mere moral path to obey.
Our noble path is to simply follow Jesus—to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Choosing the Right Path
Life is full of suffering, but we can respond two ways. Either we will turn to sinful desire and pleasure, or we can brokenheartedly rejoice in God because “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
If we follow Jesus’s path—trusting his death and resurrection for us—then even though we may suffer now, God will be our chief delight and will satisfy us with joy forever. But if we seek to escape into nonexistence, we will remain under God’s punishment because of our sinful desires.
There is freedom. That’s why Solomon’s father penned these words in Psalm 37: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” With God as your chief desire and Jesus as your treasure, and you will find all you need in him. Choose the right path.
Image credit: Christian thanka painter Binod