Reading the book of Ecclesiastes at times seems like a study in cynicism. The writer looks at life and announces, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. Utter meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). He later says that his work “is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (2:17). He seems to feel that life is absurd and without purpose. So why is it that this book is in the Bible? Philip Yancey suggest several possibilities.
First, Yancey says that perhaps the book is pointing to the curse of getting what you want. Solomon may have written the book. Solomon has everything a man could want from a material point of view: great riches, a life of pleasures, even deep wisdom. But in spite of this plethora of comforts, his life feels empty and sterile. The Teacher has drifted away from God, with the result that his experience seems vacuous.
Second, Yancey argues that may the book is designed to teach unbelievers the futility of life apart from God. Maybe the author is describing the folly of paganism—the outcome of life disconnected from the Maker. The Teacher graphically depicts the despair of the secular life, and then closes with an appeal to honor God: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). In other words, the book is designed to point to the inevitable result of pursuing life without God.
Third, Yancey posits that Ecclesiastes is written to help us see two perspectives. “Ecclesiastes…presents both sides of life on this planet: the promise of pleasures so alluring that we may devote our lives to their pursuit, and then the haunting realization that these pleasures ultimately do not satisfy. God’s tantalizing world is too big for us. Made for another home, made for eternity, we finally realize that nothing this side of timeless Paradise will quiet the rumors of discontent. The Teacher completes his sentence: ‘He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God calls us to enjoy the gifts we have on this planet. But he also reminds us that in the end, nothing in this life can deliver ultimate satisfaction.
I once had a conversation with a Christian man who has been blessed with wealth. He is wise because he understands the source of his wealth and because he is generous toward God. But he is also wise because he recognizes that earthly things can’t quench our desires. He talked about the vacations he has taken. And he said, “You know, vacations are nice. But they don’t really bring happiness. They don’t really deliver what you’re looking for.” I think he captured the essence of Ecclesiastes. No matter how much we saturate our senses or accumulate wisdom or indulge our appetites, there’s still something desperately missing. And the something desperately missing is a relationship with God. Augustine put it this way: “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” That’s what Ecclesiastes is all about.