Some people believe that the book of Ecclesiastes teaches that life is meaningless. After all, we find in this book many statements like, “So I commended enjoyment because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat, drink, and enjoy himself . . .” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 CSB).
But does this book really teach that there’s not much more to life than pleasure, because life really is meaningless?
The Preacher (most likely Solomon, the son of King David) explores “life under the sun,” which refers to everyday life in our world. The phrase “life under the sun” is used 29 times in the book, indicating Solomon’s focus on this world. He looks at the world around him only to be frustrated by injustice—the hypocrisy of the “righteous” (Ecclesiastes 3:16), the fact that gaining wisdom often makes us more sorrowful not happy (Ecclesiastes 1:13-18), and the reality that no matter how hard we work in this life, death comes for everyone and everything (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3).
Solomon spends the book of Ecclesiastes acknowledging that life is hebel—a Hebrew word meaning vapor. Life is short and elusive—like your breath exhaled on a cold winter morning. To return to our original question—so is it meaningless?
Not even close.
Life is meaningless if life “under the sun” is all that exists. But it isn’t. The rest of the Bible testifies to the fact that God exists above the sun, all the while providing for and planning our lives.
Solomon wants us to understand that, due to our human condition as sinners in a sinful world, our understanding of the world is limited. But we like to live as if we aren’t limited. We live as if we aren’t finite. Living in that sort of disillusioned pride leads to our lives truly adding up to nothing of lasting value. The book of Ecclesiastes meditates on the inevitable frustration that follows when humans try to live like God.
Solomon calls us to humbly acknowledge that we are creatures and there’s more to life than what’s under the sun—there’s a Creator over it all.
Ecclesiastes is about living the “good life.” For Solomon, living a good life means you “fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgement, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 CSB).
Understood this way, verses like, “So I commended enjoyment because there is nothing better for a person under the sun . . .” are rather a summons to rejoice in the good things God has given us—because he has a purpose for it all, even if that purpose goes unperceived to us.
But Solomon warns us that meaningless life can result if we live for God’s good gifts as an end in themselves. Life becomes meaningless when we forget our Creator.
Are you frustrated by injustice in the world and in your own life? Are you trying to make sense of it all? Are you searching for purpose? Do you feel like your life is meaningless?
Read the book of Ecclesiastes. Listen to the Preacher—he felt the same way. And God had him write this book for you.