Can anything make me happy?
Alexander Nisbet (1623-69) was a Covenanting minister and Bible expositor in and around Irvine in Ayrshire. He was ordained in 1646 and was removed from his church in 1662 for refusing to comply with the re-establishment of Episcopacy.
28 Jul, 2022

According to a recent study, one of the questions that plays most on the minds of younger adults is, “What will make me happy?” Happiness for many people is very fleeting and usually just out of reach. Whether we seek it in impressive achievements, extravagant experiences, or just the simple things of life, lasting and life-impacting happiness eludes the majority. So maybe happiness is being sought in the wrong places? In this updated extract, Alexander Nisbet draws on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to turn conventional thinking on its head. Real happiness is possible, but possibly where you least expect it.

The purpose of the Spirit of God by Solomon the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is to point out to miserable fallen sinners the way to recover our lost happiness. He first aims to convince us where it cannot be found, and so he sets out the proposition, “All is vanity.” By this is meant that all created things, and all human endeavours about them, are insufficient for yielding any true contentment. As the word signifies, it is all “nothing,” or “empty” as far as any virtue towards making us happy.

The good things in life cannot make us happy

This expression, “All is vanity,” is not to be understood of any thing that God has made in respect of its existence as such, since all things considered in that way are “very good” (Gen. 1:13). Nor is it to be understood of the right use and enjoyment of created things, i.e., using them in such a way that we are led by them to our Maker, and engaged to fear and obey him, for in this way all things are holy and good to those who use them (Titus 1:15; 1 Timothy 4:4). Neither yet does it refer to anyone’s lawful diligence and efforts in their lawful calling and employment, as if that was vain (1 Timothy 5:8).

Instead, “all is vanity” is to be understood firstly of all created delights, such as riches, honours, worldly pleasures, and particularly as they are abused and subjected to vanity when we seek our chief good from them, and place our happiness in them, while at the same time neglecting the question of reconciliation with God, and of living in his fear and in obedience to him. This is what Solomon recommends to us as the only way to true happiness (Ecclesiastes 12:23).

And “all is vanity” is to be understood of all the efforts a person can make by virtue of any human power or skill to make themselves happy, or contented, whether in the contemplation of created things or the enjoyment of them. All things of this nature Solomon proclaims to be “vain” in this sense, unable to give us anything but disappointment, and that in the most extreme degree (for this Hebrew form of speech, “vanity of vanities,” expresses the superlative degree).

It takes a lot to convince us of this

And to help this truth make the deeper impression, Solomon propounds it by way of exclamation. “All is vanity!” It is as if he is wondering at – and pitying – the madness of poor humanity, so ravished with glimpses of happiness in what is really only a vapour (as the word translated vanity can also mean).

This same truth he repeats frequently, to show not only the certainty of it (Gen. 40:32) but also people’s unwillingness to consider it (Jer. 22:29), and the difficulty of believing it John 5:2, 4; 6:37). It shows also how deeply he himself is affected with the folly and vanity of his former sinful ways, now that he is penitent, and how extremely he now detests them (Gal. 1:8-9). And because when people hear such teaching, they often treat it as only another human opinion, and so esteem it as only vain words.

This language of the Old Testament is the same in substance with that of the New. For example, “Doubtless I count all things loss and dung, for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:8). So transported are all of us naturally with the thought of happiness in earthly things (Jer. 2:24), and therefore so unwilling to hear of anything to the contrary (Zech. 7:11), that someone like Solomon who wants to convince people of the vanity of these things and of the folly of their way in seeking happiness in them, has to go to the effort of finding the most attractively persuasive way of appealing to their hearers. They have to be very instant and frequent in inculcating on their hearers the baseness and vanity of their idols and their sinful ways, and to lead up their minds to God, the one who is higher than themselves, in whose name they speak.

These words flow from the sense of penitent Solomon’s heart, marvelling his own madness in seeking happiness in such vain things as he had done during the time of his estrangement from God, weighted with grief for his so doing, and earnestly desirous to reclaim other perishing sinners from such vain ways. He longs to allure them to come and taste of the sweetness in fellowship with God which he now enjoys.

Counter-intuitively, religion will make us happy

Throughout Ecclesiastes 2 and 3, Solomon is working towards the point that the highest happiness attainable in this life is a cheerful and ready following of the duties of religion toward God, and righteousness towards others, even in all the vicissitudes of our lives.

This is the best we are capable of enjoying in time. And seeing we must once leave, and not return again (after death) to see or to enjoy these outward things, it is therefore our wisdom to use all our outward comforts as encouragements to give willing and cheerful obedience to God (Eccles 3:22).

From all this it is evident that we are not to seek or expect true happiness in any outward enjoyments, but in the favour of God through Christ Jesus, and following our duty in obedience to the command of God. Subservient to this, we are obliged to pursue a silent and conscientious submission to and contentment with all the various providences that pass over us in the world.

The way to achieve happiness

At the end of Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon urges us to take heed of the truth of God’s words. In studying the Scriptures we should not aim only to get comfort, but mainly to receive clear information and warning of our sin and danger, the true remedy for our sin, and the way to attain to this remedy. This is the main use to be made of the book of Ecclesiastes, and consequently of the rest of Scripture.

By nature people are so transported with a desire of vain glory, especially what they imagine they get by their own wisdom (John 11:12) that while they have time or strength, they will never make an end of seeking out many inventions by which they think to attain to their imaginary happiness. After they have written one book to show how wise they are in discovering the way to happiness, they will begin another. Yet so empty are all created things, and so futile are all the ways that people interact with them, that till people betake themselves to the new and living way to happiness which the Scripture reveals, they will meet with nothing but endless labour and continual disappointment, without any true settling or quietness to their minds.

The pursuit of saving knowledge may prove wearisome to the flesh, partly by reason of our slowness to learn, and unacquaintance with the grounds of consolation and confidence of success, and partly because the Lord intends that the wearying of the flesh in this way should be a means of promoting mortification and of diverting the heart away from sinful delights. Nevertheless the pursuit of saving knowledge is sweet in itself, and it is the very rest and refreshment of the soul. Indeed, it is health to the spirit, and marrow to the bones. In comparison with it all other studies are exhausting and wearisome even to the flesh.

Happiness springs from having the right attitude to God

Solomon concludes, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This is our main task, a compendium of all that God requires and works in His own people, and what they should be wholly taken up with all their life-time, as they desire to be truly happy here and hereafter.

Anyone who wants to see good days and live in the light of the Lord’s countenance must learn to be in the fear of God all the day long, entertaining the faith of His greatness and goodness, so that they may be kept from these things which impede their fellowship with Him, which is what their happiness consists in. For, when Solomon sums up his directions for attaining to true happiness, after proving that it is impossible to be found in earthly things, and only to be had in fellowship with God reconciled in Christ, he gives this as one of the two principal parts of that summary, “Fear God.”

And our true happiness is only to be found in keeping of the commands of God. We cannot expect a sweet meeting with God (Isa. 64:5) nor the comforting manifestations of His love (John 14.21:23), except in that way. This is the other part of the summary of Solomon’s directions for attaining to the true happiness which consists in communion with God: “Keep his commandments.”

The fear of the Lord is the root and principle of all right obedience to him, without which we cannot act acceptably in any commanded duty. This is why Solomon presses us to the fear of God in order to have acceptable obedience. And where the fear of God is in the heart, care to keep His commands will also be manifested in the practice. That fear will evidence itself by some endeavour after a suitable walking according to His commands. Keeping the commandments as urged on us here may be looked on as the evidence and fruit of the fear of God.

Contrasting views of the way to happiness

Those who seek their happiness in this earth look on the study of the fear of the Lord and obedience to the Lord as no part of their business in order to attain what they imagine is happiness, but rather an impediment in the way to it (Mal. 3:14). Yet this same blessed study is the great end for which man was made, and the only study that is worthy of having anyone’s spirit wholly exercised about it, so as all their other studies are subordinate to it.



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