In my previous post, I said that the book of Ecclesiastes reflects the struggle of an individual who was searching for meaning in life. He was a troubled person, a person bothered by the inconsistencies, the inequalities, and the mysteries of life.
The author of the book, known as Qoheleth, used Solomon as a literary devise to tell his story. Although he did not find meaning in riches and pleasures, he found something greater. Qoheleth’s search for a better life is the search of every individual and it is here where his book can help us.
The author of Ecclesiastes presents “the son of David” reflecting back on days he lived in futility and on the tragedies of his life. By adopting Solomon as the literary character of the book, Qoheleth introduces the “son of David” as one who was everything a king represented and who had everything a person wanted. And yet, he was dejected, haunted, disillusioned, and disappointed.
Having gone after wisdom, pleasure, and wealth, Qoheleth realized his prodigal ways of life and his efforts to find happiness left him empty, as empty as he was when he began his search.
The primary lesson of Ecclesiastes is that money and power cannot satisfy that unnameable hunger of the human spirit. The human spirit is hungry for meaning, for the assurance that life matters, that the world will be different once answers are found, and that human life will be better because one understands one’s purpose in the world.
Qoheleth’s theme is that human life without God is vanity and empty of meaning. He illustrates his theme by stating the futility of all wisdom, the vanity of pleasure and labor. To him, everything in life is hollow, it is like vapor, and it amounts to very little. People live in a world in which there is endless movement but little change, there is a perpetual pouring out of effort and yet, little profit.
Qoheleth believes that “There is a time for everything, and there is a time for every activity under heaven,” (Ecclesiastes 3:l-8). These words reflect his view that everything that happens to people has been predetermined and it will happen in its uniquely appropriate time. He knows and understands that people must learn to live with what cannot be changed for God has already decreed everything that is to happen: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
In the end he discovered that anything under the sun that dominates a person’s life is futile. His conclusion tells all: “After all this, there is only one thing to say: ‘Have reverence for God, and obey his commandments because this is all that man was created for’” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
It seems that the author of Ecclesiastes wrote his book to tell others the results of his search for wisdom, to comfort those who were experiencing the burdens of life, and to lift up those
who were naturally weak or depressed by their own circumstances and to lead them back into the ways of God.
He was moved to write his book as a result of a life painfully full of disappointing experiences, a life he lived away from God. With deep sympathy for other seekers who may have been experiencing the same feelings and sufferings in their lives, he wrote to lead them out of the skepticism and perplexities in which he once was entangled.
The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is a message than can also be addressed to people who live in the twenty-first century, people who are trapped in a world of materialism, secular humanism, greed, and hedonism. Like Qoheleth, they are searching for a better life but are unable to find satisfaction in the things they do and in the things they have.
People who read the book of Ecclesiastes discover that the way of life described in the pages of this book is an accurate description of the way life is lived today. Ecclesiastes brings a special message of hope and direction to those who are searching for a better life, for the book shows that the author confronted a life of perplexity and meaninglessness and in the end found his answer.
What then is life all about? Qoheleth struggled with the mysteries of life and he found an answer. His answer? Qoheleth discovered that all human affairs and pursuits are vain and useless unless God is present in human affairs.
The book exhorts the reader to avoid the vanities of this life and to pursue the things that lead to love, industry, patience, and the fear of God. In the end, the book is an invitation to draw near to the living God in reverent worship and in humble acknowledgment of his power, and in reliance on his justice. Life is highly complex, and it is the work of a great Creator. God has designed the world and everything in it to function according to his wonderful purpose.
Qoheleth discovered that people try to live their complex lives independently of God, without living their lives according to the purpose for which the Creator intended: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
The work of Qoheleth serves as a preparation for the Christian faith for his book shows the full impact of what happens when an individual lives without God. A. S. Peake (p. 155) spoke of the significance of the book of Ecclesiastes. He wrote:
“It puts forth the logic of a non-Christian position with tremendous force, to all who feel keenly the misery of this world. More vividly than anything else in the Old Testament, it shows us how imperious was the necessity for the revelation of God in Christ.”
Because Qoheleth was courageous enough to express the deepest sentiments of his heart, we can acknowledge with all certainty that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best help for us who live today in a world that offers no easy answers to the difficult problems of life.
Reference: A. S. Peake, The Problem of Suffering in the Old Testament. London: Epworth Press, 1947.
Posts on Ecclesiastes:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary