1The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem: 2"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."You will agree, this is a strange way to begin a book of the Bible: "Meaningless! Meaningless!... Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." Wait a minute. Isn't one of the chief purposes of the Bible to explain to us what the meaning of life is? Yet, here it says in black and white: "Everything is meaningless." Hmmm.
To reconcile these things, we must learn the most important principle in Biblical interpretation: The writings of the Bible must be understood in the context in which they were intended. Whenever you face a difficulty or apparent contradiction in the Bible, you must search out, investigate, and understand the context in which the troubling passages are set. The context for the Book of Ecclesiastes is explicitly stated in verse 13 of chapter 1: "I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven" (emphasis mine). The Book of Ecclesiastes is the result of the author's studies, as he explored "by wisdom" (that is, by human wisdom), all that is done "under heaven" (that is, in the world, on earth). Ecclesiastes is a very comprehensive statement of human wisdom from the point of view of a man on earth.
In his investigations and explorations, Solomon (the author of Ecclesiastes) runs into much that is "meaningless", as we shall see as we study this book. This may seem depressing at first, for it seems that every path the author takes ends with meaninglessness. But, in the end, Solomon does reach a path that leads to meaningfulness: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Eccles. 12:13-14). In the New Testament (in I John 3:23), we are given a summary of the commandments of God, the keeping of which (as Solomon concludes) leads to meaningfulness: "And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ" (which ensures a right relationship with God), "and to love one another as He commanded us" (which ensures a right relationship with fellow men).
Others have summarized the Book of Ecclesiastes well: "The scope of Ecclesiastes is to contrast the vanity of all mere human pursuits, when made the chief end, as contrasted with the real blessedness of true wisdom." The purpose of Ecclesiastes "is to bring out into clear view the chief good--the true happiness of man, in what it does not consist--not in the wisdom, pleasures, honours, and riches of this world--in what it does consist--the enjoyment and service of God... Solomon's is not to allure men to the pleasures of the world, but rather to deter them from such pleasures, and exhort them with a Divine eloquence to despise the world. After having disputed through the whole book against those who desire to satisfy themselves with such good, he at the close teaches them that happiness consisteth not in things of this kind, but in true piety--and thus concludes, Fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole of man."
To understand that the Book of Ecclesiastes is written from a human point of view is crucial to the understanding of the book. If this is not understood properly, there are many passages in the book which truly sound strange and out of place for inclusion in an inspired book of the Bible. For example, the author writes: "Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise--why destroy yourself?" (Eccl. 7:16). And also: "A feast is made for laughter and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything" (Eccl. 10:19). These are strange verses to find in the Bible--until we realize that they are told from the viewpoint of worldly wisdom. From a worldly point of view, it is proper advice to not be "overrighteous". And from a worldly point of view, yes, "money is the answer for everything".
You see, for the most part, Solomon is not so much telling us how things should be, but how things are. He recounts what he has seen and experienced as he sought out "wisdom" and "the scheme of things" as they are "under the sun" (see Eccl. 7:25). Invariably, as Solomon follows worldly pursuits--worldly wisdom, worldly pleasures, worldly projects--he ends up in the same place: with an empty feeling, complaining that "everything is meaningless!" Yet, there is a purpose to Solomon's ravings. "He is demolishing to build." In order to truly appreciate the wisdom of God and the wisdom of His plan, we must come to realize that the wisdom of men and the schemes of men lead to meaninglessness, to vanity.
Solomon's discourse strikes a chord. "The searching questions he has asked are those that life itself puts to us." This is life from the world's point of view. We have all seen many of the things that Solomon has written about here. We have ourselves pondered these things and wondered at the perceived meaninglessness of life. Since these issues resonate in the lives of all of us, believers and non-believers, this book can be valuable as a gateway into the Bible for non-believers. Non-believers are interested in these things. Many are seeking an answer to the questions that Solomon raises. In this book, Solomon uses the thought processes of men, of the world's philosophers. Many non-believers throughout the ages have come to the same conclusions that Solomon has. Thus, the book of Ecclesiastes is important in this way: by its inclusion in the Bible, it shows us that God knows and understands the things men ponder about life. God knows and understands the hearts of men. He knows what they feel, what they think, what they ponder, what they seek to understand. God knows and understands that when men, by their wisdom, seek to find the meaning of life, they conclude that "everything is meaningless".
And surely, God purposely designed life in this way. You see, God wants us to depend on Him for answers to the ultimate questions of life. When the philosophers of the world ponder and investigate and search out the scheme of things, they get nowhere. But when they give up, when they come to their end, when they kneel down in their despair and cry out, "God, if you are there, answer these things,"--then they begin to find meaning. Our God is not the god of the agnostics. The god of the agnostics, in the beginning, wound up the universe like a toy and let it run by itself. This is not our God. This is not a true picture of the living God. The god of the agnostics has left men to their own resources in seeking answers to ultimate questions, and their conclusion throughout the ages has been "everything is meaningless." But the True and Living God has not left us alone to figure out these things for ourselves. The Bible is a history of God's personal dealings with man on earth. God has not left us with meaninglessness, but has intervened on earth and has given us His own Word, the Word of God in the Bible, so that we may discover the true scheme of all things. Moreover, He Himself, in the supreme act of love in the universe--I say, He Himself has come down to earth in human form, in the body of Jesus Christ, and has testified to the truth of the Word of God in the Bible. The truth of Christ's testimony was confirmed by His signs and wonders, as well as (and especially) by His resurrection from the dead. Certainly, the One who has conquered death knows the meaning of life!
There are some who think that Ecclesiastes should not be part of the Bible. But on the contrary (as we have discussed here), Ecclesiastes is a very important book of the Bible. Again, the book of Ecclesiastes shows us that God understands the human condition. At the end of Ecclesiastes, the author states: "[W]hat [Solomon] wrote was upright and true" (Eccl. 12:10). As we read through Ecclesiastes, we will come to agree with this statement. Though at times he is cynical, though at times he is downright irreverent, Solomon very eloquently expresses the philosophical problems that we face here on earth. It is not God's will that we ignore these philosophical dilemmas--God knows very well that we will face them sooner or later--rather, it is His will that we face these things head on, so that through discovering the "meaningless"ness of life from man's point of view, we will be drawn to the meaningfulness of life from God's point of view. Indeed, this is why God has included these writings in His Word. As Solomon himself points out, the words in Ecclesiastes "are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails--given by one Shepherd" (Eccl. 12:11). They are goads, prodding us to seek true meaning of life from God. This is why our "Shepherd", the Lord, has included this book in His Word.