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Who Gives Your Life Meaning?


As published in the Antrim Review

Alexander the Great was about 20 when he came to power. He enjoyed phenomenal success at the head of his armies. He was barely in his 30s when he had thoroughly subdued all territory from Greece and Macedonia (his homeland) in the west, to the edge of India in the east. But he was dead within 4 years of his 30th birthday.

He died in Babylon. The Greek biographer, Plutarch, in the first century A.D. wrote that Alexander wept when he saw there were no more worlds to conquer, a fanciful statement to be sure; yet he may well have died sooner than otherwise as he turned from combat to luxury. Perhaps he was attempting to stifle a gnawing purposelessness, once his Persian conquests had run their course.

Not being a student of Scripture, he might not have known of another king, renown not only for splendor, but also for wisdom, whose treatise on Vanity (which we know as Ecclesiastes) could have warned Alexander of the futility of trying to create his own lasting meaning. Having tried it all himself, Solomon's conclusion is most revealing: "The end of the matter; all has been heard; fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man; for God will bring every deed into judgment" (Ecc.12:13f). In order to find real meaning, he preached, it was necessary to acknowledge the ultimate Judge.

That attitude contrasts sharply with Alexander's, who shortly before his death commanded the Greek cities to worship him as god. He left his holdings, in his own cynical words, "to the strongest." The vast empire was split immediately, and factions warred over it for a couple centuries, until the Romans came and took it away from everyone.

Now consider how several centuries prior to Alexander, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonian conqueror of Egypt (Jer.46.13), may have contemplated the massive pyramids on the Nile, and simply asked, "Why?" Once, their builders had sought to preserve the meaning of their lives, even in death. Now, those gigantic mausoleums were pointless relics of a discredited power. The efforts and expenditures lavished on these meticulously laid piles of stone (while the results still have power to astonish us even today) have ever since appeared inexplicable at best, wasteful at worst.

Dreams are a place where the fears we suppress during the day often bubble up against our will. But what does the most powerful king in all the world have to fear? Something caused him to consider the meaning of his life and legacy, and "what would come to pass after this" (Dan.2:29). How long before some future ruler contemplated his new acquisition of "Babylon," its greatness forgotten, its builder a footnote?

What caused Nebuchadnezzar to fall down on his face in awe (Dan.2:46) was less the interpretation of his dream, but that he was confronted by God who made him understand God had his own decree that he put into effect. Nebuchadnezzar was but an element in that plan. His anxiety was dispelled by the realization that a far higher power and intelligence had already imputed eternal significance to his reign.

Compare God's gift of purpose to Nebuchadnezzar with Alexander's attempt at self-deification. Death extinguished every one of his designs. How did God judge his short life? Who gives your life meaning?