So what do we gain from studying Ecclesiastes (a wisdom book which like Job, contains the good, bad and the ugly before things are reconciled at the end)?
Maybe the place to start is to say that Ecclesiastes makes us think. Qoheleth (koh hel’ ith in the Hebrew and translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”) does that because not everything he writes is of equal value. That’s not to suggest that the rest of the Scripture is flat but that the terrain of Ecclesiastes is rockier than most books. And more to the point, Qoheleth doesn’t help us—we have to figure that out for ourselves the worth of his pronouncements. Therefore, reading Ecclesiastes is not a matter of opening our brain and pouring it in—it’s more like panning for small pieces of gold. We have to be discriminating
Ecclesiastes should also help us to appreciate what we can and should have in our relationship with God through Jesus. Although Qoheleth mentions God over 30 times, his knowledge of and intimacy with Him are for whatever reason, lacking. Consequently, though he wants to find the meaning of life more than anything else (“What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” – 1:3); he looks everywhere (1:12-2:23) but finds it nowhere. He is like a person stumbling through a dark room despite the presence of lights. Thus the inclusio for the book is the word “meaningless” (1:2, 12:8). It occurs 26 more times in the book, punctuating Qoheleth’s disappointment and frustration. What he settles for in lieu of meaning is a muted enjoyment. There are several passages where this is offered as a consolation prize for the failure to find purpose (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-9).
This speaks to many people today—both in and out of God’s kingdom. They are enjoying life to some degree per Qoheleth but beneath that there is a hunger for something more, something deeper, something transcendent. It’s one thing to have everything to live with and quite another to have something to live for. The late Stephen Hawking was a decided atheist but nonetheless conceded that “one can’t help asking the question: Why does the universe exist? . . . I don’t know an operational way to give the question or the answer, if there is one, a meaning. But it bothers me.”
Contrast this with what John says toward the end of his gospel when he writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that by believing you may have life in HIs name” (20:30-31). He makes it clear that Jesus gave us more than Someone to believe in–He came to bring us life (see HIs claim in 10:10). He says in 17:3 that “knowing” (i.e., having a relationship with God through Him) is “eternal life.” That doesn’t mean that disciples don’t face dark times or live with mysteries we’re unable to fathom; but it does mean that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we a re known intimately and loved ultimately and that the purpose of life is to live fro Christ (Philippians 1:21).
Finally, Qoheleth shows well the futility that results when faith is rejected. For whatever reason, Qoheleth makes the decision to go it alone and live life based on his experience and observations rather than embracing truth as revealed in the word of God. The results are profound and predictable: disillusionment, disappointment, frustration and cynicism. There is no comfort to be found in the book. Life is one gigantic (meaningless) fog and then you die. A thoughtful reading of Ecclesiastes will only reinforce the idea that life without God is a dead-end street. A thoughtful reading of the gospels will let us know that there is hope and life for those on a dead-end street through Jesus.