We’ve all heard the story. A rising star rockets to pinnacle celebrity status and then crashes and burns. They seemingly gained all that life had to offer—fame, money, admiration, power—but they somehow found it empty. At the top of their game, they realized that it was all meaningless.
The book of Ecclesiastes speaks directly to this person and to all of us from the perspective of someone who had it all, became disillusioned, and eventually realized the surprisingly simple things that are ultimately important in life. It is in the genre called Wisdom Literature, along with Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs.
Who Wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes?
The book seems to have been written by Solomon; verse one prefaces the book by saying “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). He pleased God at the beginning of his reign, and because of this, “the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream” saying “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Surprisingly, Solomon did not ask for anything that would benefit him materially, but instead humbly prayed:
“Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:7-9).
God rewarded Solomon for this selfless reply: he gave him incredible wisdom and also chose to bless him with wealth and honor. These riches proved to be a mixed blessing. While Solomon was able to build a beautiful temple for God (1 Kings 6) and do other good things, he also was led into idolatry by his pursuit of the good life at all costs (1 Kings 11:1-7). Eventually, it seems that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as a chastened man who learned the hard way what really matters.
How Should Christians Read Ecclesiastes?
The book of Ecclesiastes provides relevant wisdom for Christians today who struggle with the seeming meaninglessness of life. Why are we here? What is it all for? Does what we do even matter? What is truly important in life? All these answers and more can be found in the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. At the end of the twelfth chapter, Solomon sums up with the wisest statement he can possibly muster, and we feel ourselves leaning forward in order to catch every word: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” This is the overarching theme of Ecclesiastes and should be the overarching focus of the Christian life, but Solomon also has other wisdom to share.
3 Lessons from Ecclesiastes
1. Right now, we live in time but we were made for more.
Though we live our lives on a timeline now--birth, life, death--yet Ecclesiastes says that “he has put eternity into man's heart” but in such a way that he can’t fully understand yet (3:11). The New Testament echoes this, encouraging believers that we have eternity to fully grasp God’s glorious works in the world: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
This longing for something beyond this earthly life is a divine gift meant to help us to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). As C.S. Lewis has famously put it: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” (Source: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6439-if-we-find-ourselves-with-a-desire-that-nothing-in).
2. Life only has meaning when lived in relationship with God.
Solomon wants his readers to know that he has tried everything in a relentless pursuit to find the meaning of life. He’s tried gaining knowledge and wisdom and being very righteous. He’s tried indulging himself with everything that money could buy. He’s tried working hard and playing hard. He’s tried pursuing fame and greatness and passion and in the end, found all of it empty. Depending on what translation you’re reading, the resounding refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is some variation on these words:
When any of the things mentioned above are pursued wholeheartedly, they become “a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). We all want to be happy and pursue it in various ways as Solomon did, but only one way will truly provide happiness: pursuing God Himself. Lewis again: “It is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.” (Source: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/106874-god-made-us-invented-us-as-a-man-invents-an).
3. Joy can be found in life through gratitude for God’s gifts.
Life is a gift. Though it sounds like a cliche, deep down we know this is true. We did not create ourselves, and, after all, “what do [we] have that [we] did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Though life is full of hardship, it is also full of beauty if we have eyes to see. After experiencing all the world had to offer in terms of opulent luxuries and worldly pleasures, Solomon emphasized simple things as the ones which could bring real joy “under the sun” (which is the way Solomon refers to this earthly life). He mentions family life, food and drink, and honest work as aspects of life that can give satisfaction in a temporal sense as we live out our lives on earth. We don’t put our hope in them or expect them to give us lasting fulfillment, but can we thank God for them and enjoy them as good gifts, knowing that “whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (James 1:17).
Solomon had it all but found in the end that only one thing was important: a relationship with God characterized by awe and obedience. Pursued as a means of ultimate happiness, everything else in the world ends in futility. But when God is central in life, all of his gifts come into proper perspective and are able to be enjoyed. While we may not fully understand the meaning of all of life while we are here on earth, we can trust that God has full wisdom even when our wisdom falls short. As Ecclesiastes 5:2 says:
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
An article on Ecclesiastes could go on and on sharing many valuable lessons from the book, but it may be wiser to heed the advice of Solomon and cut to the chase: “Many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jodie777
Jessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.