The book of Ecclesiastes is the work of an individual known as Qoheleth who was searching for meaning in life. Confronted with inconsistencies, inequalities, and other things that to him were absurd, Qoheleth tried to make sense of life and its mysteries.
The main theme of the book is expressed by the word “vanity”: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This cry, found throughout the book, reflects the futile effort at understanding the things of God through human wisdom. Qoheleth said: “I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done in the world” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). What he discovered was that it is futile to try to understand the mysteries of life apart from God.
In his search for meaning and in his attempt at trying to make sense of life, he discovered that without God all endeavors are futile, that life is empty and meaningless, and that human wisdom leads to skepticism.
The author of Ecclesiastes used his own personal experience to show that all human efforts and earthly goals, when pursued for selfish desires and unbridled ambition, only lead to dissatisfaction and emptiness. This is the premise he introduced to the reader in the first chapter of the book. Qoheleth speaks of the futility and meaninglessness of all human endeavors and occupations. In his quest for answers, Qoheleth discovered that any attempt at finding an answer to the ultimate meaning of life through the acquisition of wisdom or knowledge provides no answer, and, in fact, it only increases the sense of futility and inadequacy.
To better understand the message of Ecclesiastes, it is important to acquire a background about the book and its author.
The book receives its name from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint the book is called ekklesiastes, a word that means “assembly, congregation.” The name of the book in Hebrew is “Qoheleth.” The name comes from the word “qahal,” and it means “one who assembles.”
The title of the book has been taken to mean either, “one who collects wise sayings” or “one who addresses an assembly.” The author has been called “a preacher” or “a speaker.” Thus, the title implies that Qoheleth was the leader of an assembly, one who assembled a group for the purpose of addressing it.
In his book, Qoheleth describes himself as “the son of David and king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). This veiled reference to Solomon (Solomon’s name does not appear in the book) serves to emphasize that the one who is speaking was one who possessed wisdom and enjoyed the pleasures of life.
Most scholars agree that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes, but he is the central figure of the book because the unknown author, Qoheleth, used him as a literary device to present his message to the reader.
The book of Ecclesiastes has a message for today’s society. Every day and everywhere we see many examples of what this book is conveying to his audience. People today seem to be reliving the life lived by Qoheleth. People work hard at trying to be happy in life. They buy things, change lifestyles, and seek after unending sources of pleasure in order to find happiness. However, in the end, many of these people do not find the happiness they seek, rather, it eludes them in spite of their efforts and hard work.
In western societies many people believe that career, success, and personal achievements are the most important goals in life and that achieving these goals is crucial for attaining a happy life. It is in light of these achievements that people are judged to be successful.
People today search for happiness and the true meaning of life in different ways: in satisfying physical desires, in material possessions, in wisdom and even in religious experiences. This is what Qoheleth did: “I determined that I would examine and study all things that are done in this world. I have seen everything done in this world, and I tell you, it is all useless” (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).
In his search for life’s supreme good, Qoheleth, examined and studied every thing and experienced everything: drinking, possessions, wealth, power, pleasure and he concluded that, no matter what he did, the end of life was the same for everyone. He also discovered that no matter what he did or who he was, no matter how good or how badly he behaved, or how wise or how foolish he was, there was no ultimate good in life.
What people must learn today, as Qoheleth learned many years ago, is that life without God is empty and meaningless, that wealth and power, pleasure and possessions, position and prestige cannot make anyone happy.
Qoheleth has a very important lesson to teach people today. We must learn from him.
Posts on Ecclesiastes:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary