The author of Ecclesiastes is often labeled a depressed pessimist.[1] But a careful study reveals the author to be an honest—and hopeful!—realist about life, not a candidate for Prozac.

It’s easy to understand why people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, or think that the conclusion of the book is that life is meaningless. Verses like “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive” (Eccl 4:2 NIV) make the book seem less than hopeful. Even its famous phrase “vanity of vanities”—found at the beginning and the end of the book (1:2; 12:8) makes the author sound like a complete pessimist. I’ve found, though, that if you give the book enough serious attention, Ecclesiastes reveals that the author is actually hopeful, and his message can easily be applied to each of us.

The refrain “vanity of vanities” (1:2 and 12:8) is where we find our first clue to the author’s optimism. The translations “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (NASB) come from the Hebrew word hebel. This word occurs in Ecclesiastes far more frequently than in any other book of the Old Testament (38 of 73 occurrences). Neither “meaningless” nor “vanity” quite fits the way it is used in Ecclesiastes. Sometimes hebel emphasizes the brevity of life; at other times it speaks to the futility of life. Most often, however, the author uses hebel to judge situations as senseless, absurd, unreasonable, or unfair. For example, in 2:21 the fact that the author must leave his fortune to someone who did not earn it seems “unfair” to him (not just “worthless” or “vain”). Likewise, in 8:14 it seems “senseless” to the author that the outcomes of a righteous or a wicked life are reversed.

The author’s main point in using hebel is to show that life often does not make sense and that neither he (being extremely wise; see 1:16 and 12:9) nor anyone else can explain the senseless situations that life can bring. Life is contradictory, and human ability to understand life in all of its contradictions is limited.

The limitation of human wisdom is an important theme in Ecclesiastes. The author’s goal was to understand life (1:13), but it is a goal he was unable to reach. In fact, it is a goal which no one can reach (8:16–17).

But doesn’t this make the author a pessimist? The answer can be found in 3:10–17. This passage affirms that God is the One who controls “the times.” He has made everything “beautiful” or “good” in its time (3:11a). We are not able fully understand everything He has done (3:11b; 8:17). It is clear that He is the One in control (3:14a). “God does [all this in mystery] so that man will fear him” (3:14). The proper response to living in a chaotic world, with situations that are often beyond our control, is to put our trust in the One who is in control—God.

Rather than a message of gloom, Ecclesiastes gives us hope: while life might be full of injustice and absurdity (3:16), we can trust that God is in control and ultimately justice will prevail (3:17).[2] Ecclesiastes points out life’s difficulties, but does not call for despair. The book’s conclusion drives the point home (12:13): “This is end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this applies to everyone.”