Everything Is Not Meaningless

Perplexing Passages

Editors’ note: 

This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously:

“Completely meaningless,” Qohelet said, “completely meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Eccl. 1:2)

Thus begins the reflections of Qohelet, often translated Teacher (NIV) or Preacher (ESV), though the Hebrew Qohelet means neither, but rather Assembler. Later we will consider the significance of this name, but first we will explore the significance of Qohelet’s conclusion that everything is meaningless.

To properly understand the book of Ecclesiastes it’s critical to understand there are two speakers with separate messages in the book, not just one. Qohelet speaks in the first person (“I, Qohelet”) in the body of the book (1:12–12:7), but his words are framed (1:1–11 and 12:8–14) by a second speaker who talks about Qohelet (“he, Qohelet”).

The Message of Qohelet

Simply stated, Qohelet’s message is this: “Life is hard and then you die.” He has tried to find the meaning of life in wisdom, pleasure, work, wealth, status, and relationships and has come up empty.

Three factors render life meaningless. First, death renders life meaningless. Qohelet has no confidence in an afterlife. One grows old and dies. “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God, who gave it” (12:7), a reversal of God’s creation of Adam (Gen. 2:7). Thus, wisdom may have limited value over folly, but death renders even wisdom meaningless (2:12–17).

Second, injustice renders life meaningless. If there is no afterlife, then perhaps meaning might be found in rewards in this life for the godly, wise, righteous person. However, Qohelet’s experience indicates that life doesn’t work that way. He’s seen “a righteous person perishing in his righteousness, and . . . a wicked person living long in his evil” (7:15).

Third, humanity’s inability to discern the proper time renders life meaningless. As the well-known poem beginning in Ecclesiastes 3:1 describes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every activity under heaven.” Indeed, the wisdom enterprise in the Bible depends on the sage’s ability to discern the right time for the right word and the right time for the right action. But, according to Qohelet, even though God has “made everything appropriate in its time . . . no one can discover what God is doing from beginning to end” (3:11).

For these reasons, there is no meaning in life. The best one can do in the light of the human predicament is carpe diem, that is, grab whatever gusto one can in life. Of the six times Qohelet urges his hearers to carpe diem (2:24–26; 3:12–14, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10), the most telling is 5:18–20 where Qohelet states that those who are able to carpe diem do “not remember much about the days of their lives for God keeps them so busy with the pleasure of their heart.” In other words, those who carpe diem can at least distract themselves momentarily from the harsh reality that life is difficult and ends in death.

Is Qohelet Solomon?

Qohelet’s message is indeed sad, but it’s not the message of the book any more than the message of the book of Job is that of Job’s three friends. But before proceeding to the message of the frame narrator, it’s important to reflect on the significance of the name Qohelet.

Qohelet, as mentioned above, can best be translated “Assembler.” It is a nickname, not a proper name, and serves to associate Qohelet with Solomon. I say “associate” rather than “identify” since it’s unlikely Qohelet is Solomon, as has been noted by numerous interpreters since Luther (including Moses Stuart, Franz Delitiszch, and E. J. Young, among many others). Today very few commentators—including evangelical commentators—think Qohelet is Solomon. After all, if Qohelet is Solomon, why use a nickname like Qohelet? And why are there so many passages in which Qohelet speaks of the king as a third party (1:16a; 4:1–3; 5:8–9; 10:20)?

So why even bother to associate Qohelet with Solomon in the first part of the book when Qohelet searches for meaning in wisdom, wealth, work, status, and pleasure? Well, the readers of the book would remember the story of King Solomon, the king who had it all. He had more wisdom than anyone, more wealth, more pleasure (remember he had hundreds of wives and concubines). He was, speaking anachronistically and a bit flippantly, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Hugh Hefner all rolled up into one. But all that wealth, wisdom, and pleasure was not enough for Solomon, who ended his life a sad apostate. The message for the reader of Ecclesiastes, then, is a warning not to live with the illusion that “if I only had more” (money, wisdom, pleasure), then I would be satisfied with life.

More than Life Under the Sun

But what’s the message of the second wise man? First of all, there’s a reason why he’s exposed his son to Qohelet’s thinking. After all, Qohelet wrote “honest words of truth” (12:10). But he also warns his son that such thinking is not only instructive but painful (“like goads . . . like firmly implanted nails”), and that he shouldn’t become obsessed with such thinkers (“Furthermore, of these, my son, be warned! There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body,” 12:12).

The second wise man commends Qohelet as an example of honest thinking about life “under the sun.” In essence he’s saying, “Son, Qohelet is 100 percent correct. Under the sun, life is difficult and then you die.”

However, the second wise man goes on to encourage his son toward what we might call an “above the sun” perspective: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of humanity. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (12:13–14).

The take-home message of Qohelet is brief, but packed with meaning. The second wise man tells his son to establish a right relationship with God (“Fear God”) and maintain that relationship by obeying his commands and living life in the light of the future judgment. We might anachronistically say that he speaks of justification, sanctification, and eschatology in a verse and a half.

In my opinion, it’s also likely that these final two verses, written toward the end of the Old Testament time period, allude to the three-part Hebrew canon: “Fear God” (the Writings), “obey the commandments” (Torah), and the future judgment (Prophets). Thus the father tells his son (and later readers) he shouldn’t try to find meaning under the sun, but only in God. Put God first and then everything else can find its proper place.

Ecclesiastes in Light of Christ

As a final comment on Ecclesiastes’ message, we turn to the one place in the New Testament that alludes to the book:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it. (Rom. 8:18–20)

The word frustration (mataiotes) is the Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word meaningless (hebel) in Ecclesiastes. Paul points out, through the use of the divine passive, that God subjected the creation to frustration (an obvious allusion to the Fall). Thus when Qohelet sought to find meaning “under the sun”—that is, in a fallen world—he was doomed to failure.

Paul, however, does not stop there. He goes on to speak about how the creation was subjected to frustration “in hope, that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21).

The apostle here speaks of the gospel. Jesus subjected himself to the fallen world (Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:6–11) in order to free us from the curse of the Fall. He even suffered death, the thing that rendered Qohelet’s life meaningless, in order to liberate us from the sting of death.

Reading the book of Ecclesiastes in light of the New Testament points us to Jesus in whom our lives find true meaning.