We all know the book that follows Proverbs in our Bibles. Often, after reading Proverbs, we may quickly read through its difficult neighbor, but we seldom spend time in Ecclesiastes. Many Christians feel uncomfortable reading it, as it seems to be a book that offers conclusions based on a view of life as meaningless. But is this really the message of Ecclesiastes?
Composed by King Solomon “The son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 2:16 could not have been written by any of Solomon’s successors), Ecclesiastes is unique in the Old Testament in that it hardly mentions the nation or law of Israel. Instead it stands back and looks at the most basic truths about life apart from any specific theological context.
But that is not to say, as many people presume, that the book offers a picture of life without God. God is actually very present in the book – from the first chapter to the last. In fact, God is mentioned some 42 times within the twelve chapters of the book – an average of almost four times each chapter!
Another false assumption about Ecclesiastes is that it carries a message of unavoidable unhappiness with life; yet it frequently urges us to rejoice in the good things we experience (for example, Ecclesiastes 11:8-10). Despite another common misconception, the theme of the book is not that nothing matters. Ecclesiastes concludes with the summary that “… God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14), showing in fact that ultimately everything does matter.
But on the way to that conclusion, Ecclesiastes searches the whole range of human experience – including pleasure, work, foolishness and even despair – and finds it all empty. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
It is this unrelenting assessment that can make us uneasy in reading the book, yet that is not the book’s conclusion. Ecclesiastes is brutally honest about the frustrating and inexplicable aspects of life, but as theologian N.T. Wright has written, it “encourages the reader to a God-centered worldview rather than falling victim to frustrations and unanswered questions.”
Ecclesiastes is in constant tension between present reality and ultimate reality. What we experience now is contrasted with what we will experience eventually. We see this constantly throughout the book, but consider a single example:
“There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Ecclesiastes 8:14).
This may sound fatalistic in the extreme, but it is balanced with an opposite truth:
“Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow” (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).
The apparent contradiction between the fact that the wicked “may live a long time” and “their days will not lengthen” is resolved when we see that Ecclesiastes continually contrasts what is wrong in the present with what will be made right in the future. It continually returns to a position where meaning is found in the longer-term view of things – even though we may not understand God’s plans or purposes at this time (Ecclesiastes 8:17).
So although the words of the Preacher paint a graphic picture of the futility of life from the perspective of the present, Ecclesiastes does admit to meaning when eternity is considered. When we see that, we realize that the hardest book in the Bible is simply one which requires us to admit two opposite but equally correct truths. Much of life may seem futile now, but life will not have been futile eventually. Ecclesiastes admits the problems of the present life, but also looks beyond to a reality in which wrongs will be righted and what may now seem meaningless ultimately will be seen as having meaning.