"A Long Obedience in the Same Direction": The Meaning of Life from Friedrich Nietzsche and King Solomon

We all want to feel that our lives are meaningful, which is why we give, we defer to others, and we exhibit virtues. Those virtues are what make us feel meaningful, because they connect us to a higher cause, a higher power. This is why Karl Marx referred to religion as “the opium of the masses.”[1] Religion is the only place where meaning can be found, because it is where we connect with the divine. But for the arrogant scientist, religion is a crutch for the weak-willed among us who need something mystical (something like fairy-tales) to make them feel valued, or so says the scientist.

The rift between science (the rational mind) and religion (the mystical) has always existed, but it developed exponentially during the Enlightenment, continuing on into the industrial and modern ages. But this rift is a false dichotomy of what God and His Word completely integrates. My favorite quote on this point is from Jonathan Sacks: “Science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts them back together to see what they mean.”[2]

One such dichotomist-scientist was Friedrich Nietzsche, a german philosopher in the 19th century who wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, and science. Early in his life he abandoned faith altogether, saying, “Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…”[3]

But recently I saw this tweet from Justin Taylor (editor in chief of Crossway books) which shocked me:

This is from section five of Nietzsche’s book Beyond Good and Evil (Gutenberg). Nietzsche’s point is that the only meaning in life is to find a standard and stick to it–a wildly unpopular idea in our culture of moral relativism which does away with standards altogether. But Nietzsche is onto something, the same something that Solomon, the OT King of Israel, discovered. Solomon said that a long obedience is the ultimate calling of our lives.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Eccl 12:13–14).

After all the money, power, women, fame, and opulence of his Kingdom, Solomon ends his autobiography with a curiously simple message. Simple fearing God and keeping his commandments–this is the meaningful life. Sounds very much like Nietzsche’s “long obedience in the same direction.” Jesus affirms this worldview with both the fear of God and the two commandments from which God’s entire moral law flows:

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29–31)

  1. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (wikipedia) (1844).  ↩

  2. Sacks, The Great Partnership (amazon), pg. 55.  ↩

  3. Nietzsche, Letter to His Sister (1865).  ↩