Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s books of wisdom literature, and it explores the meaning of life through the word of the “Teacher.”
There is some debate about who this teacher is. Many believe it was King Solomon, David’s son, who was known for his wisdom. Others believe it was another descendant of David.
But the Teacher is different from the author. The book’s author remains anonymous.
Ecclesiastes begins with the author introducing what the Teacher has to say about life.
And this is his opening argument:
“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
The Hebrew word used for meaningless is “hevel,” which literally translates to “vapor” or “smoke.”
The Teacher uses this word 38 times throughout the book to demonstrate that life is as temporary as a vapor and as unpredictable and difficult to catch as smoke.
Ecclesiastes is unique in that the Teacher uses wisdom to deconstruct all the ways we find meaning in life apart from God.
The Teacher emphasizes that the pursuit of things like wealth, status and pleasure are meaningless and uses concepts like time and death to teach the reader this difficult lesson.
He explains in chapters one and two that, in spite of all the human effort in the world, nothing really changes. In chapters 10 and 12, he looks at death as the “great equalizer,” bringing an end to all of our efforts on earth, no matter how wise, foolish, rich or poor you were in life.
Death comes for everyone.
So what then? Do people simply become hedonists who do whatever they want because “everything is meaningless”?
The Teacher acknowledges the wisdom of the Proverbs and that living with wisdom and a healthy fear of the Lord are things worth pursuing. But he also recognizes that life is not that black-and-white.
No matter how perfectly you live your life, the world is still full of sin and brokenness.
Wisdom and fear of the Lord are, in their own way, “hevel” too.
They don’t guarantee a perfect life. They are a smoke-like enigma.
But in spite of this, the Teacher reasons that the best way to enjoy life is to accept the wisdom of “hevel.”
Everything in life is ultimately out of our control, but God is our greatest gift. He is the reason for all that is good: friendship, family, a good meal, a sunny day.
To truly enjoy life is to adopt a posture of complete trust in God.
And in the last chapter, the author returns to close the book with this:
“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. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Trust in God: The Teacher in Ecclesiastes shows the reader that although life is fleeting and difficult to understand, trust in God allows people to enjoy life the way it was meant to be lived, not the way they think it ought to be lived.
Humility: As you read through the book of Ecclesiastes, it may seem like the Teacher’s approach to life is discouraging and pessimistic, but he’s actually teaching from a very humble position. In chapter 12, the author describes the Teacher’s message as somewhat like a cattle prod. Although it stings to hear that life is fleeting and our own efforts are futile, its purpose is to remind us to humble ourselves and trust that God is in control.
HOW DOES THIS FIT INTO GOD’S STORY?
Like all other wisdom literature in the Bible, Ecclesiastes seems to raise more questions than it answers.
But the purpose of Ecclesiastes is not to try to answer all of life’s mysteries. It is to challenge the reader to look to God, rather than themselves and their own efforts, for meaning in life.
Ecclesiastes reminds the reader that, no matter what anyone “accomplishes” in life, what matters is that they devote themselves to God above all other things. This life is a vapor, but God is worth it.