Most people could quickly answer this question with something like, “To make money” or “To be a great father” or even “To have fun”. When pushed, many of them would dig a bit deeper and respond with “To be a good person” or “To help other people” … or respond according to their religious beliefs. Some people will even say “I don’t know”. Even Wikipedia has a page to help answer this question!
Being a Christian, my answer is “To be God’s servant”. While this is definitely appropriate, it’s sometimes hard to bring this abstract concept down to real life. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon (referred to as “The Preacher” throughout the book) takes a look at the question from a different perspective: he takes a look at real life and tries to determine the purpose for our lives based on what he sees. At first glance, it does not look good:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 ESV)
Solomon spends quite a bit of the 12 chapters in this book describing most of the things that mankind does as being “vanity” — sometimes translated as “breath” or “vapor”. Is Solomon trying to tell us that our lives are totally without merit? That nothing we do is worth anything? Fortunately, this is not the case, or this post would be seriously depressing! Interspersed within this book are more positive statements:
For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy – Ecclesiastes 2:26 (ESV)
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 (ESV)
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love – Ecclesiastes 9:9 (ESV)
Wrapping up his analysis of the value of everyday life, Solomon puts in the very end:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 (ESV)
It isn’t what we do that makes a difference. Anything (and everything) we do is fleeting unless it is what God wants us to do. Solomon’s conclusion is the same as mine, (although it’s actually the other way around): The reason we are here is to be God’s servant, to do His work — and enjoy the results of that work.