Ecclesiastes is the quest of one man seeking the meaning of life “Under the sun”. When you look for the ‘interpretation’ of a book such as this, it helps to see what words are prominent, especially in the Wisdom Literature of the Bible.
1. Vexation occurs some 10 times 2. Under the sun about 31 times 3. Vanity occurs 33 times 4. Folly 7 times 5. Profit 6 times 6. Enjoy 6 times 7. God, occurs some 40 times 8. Labor about 23 times 9. Work 15 times 10. Wise, wisely, and wisdom about 30 times. There will be other words that stand out to you in your study of the book. (Gene often uses the N.I.V. Other translations may have different numbers)
What the author is looking for is what is ‘above’ the sun, and the question that he seeks to answer is: “Is there any meaning to the time that I spend in this world?” [JIV: ‘under the sun’ would be ‘in this world’]
We are born in a certain year and die in a certain year. In between our birth and death, we live out our lives. Is the time we spend here significant, or not? He asks the question early on in 1:3 “What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils ‘under the sun’?” (The Apostle Paul answers that in I Corinthians 15:58 when he writes:”Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is NOT in vain.”)
Solomon’s sermon begins with dark colors and as he develops his theme(s), the colors get brighter. Note that “God” is mentioned some 40 times in his discussion and what he is doing is poking holes in the canopy that is “under the sun” and letting the light of the knowledge of God shine through the ‘holes’ so that we can see the God that is “above the sun”. It is not a book of pessimism, but of encouragement to those who live in a dark, dreary and disappointing world. Solomon is simply looking at life under the sun, giving examples and explanations of that kind of life which seemingly stymies any chance or thought of happiness.
So, the collision course, or the deeply rooted question in the human heart is: “Am I doing this for nothing? Would it be easier to do nothing?” The ultimate answer and his conclusion is “NO”. The message is simple: There is a reason for one’s life; there is a reason for our suffering, pain and joy. The Apostle Paul answers this in the New Testament in Romans 8:28″And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”In all things–circumstances of life, or in the midst of negative experiences, God is working for THE good. The rest of the chapter defines what the good is and what it leads to.
Solomon is plumbing the depths of some heavy questions that have been asked throughout history and were prevalent even before his lifetime. Note that the Queen of Sheba had a list of difficult questions that she brought to Solomon and she was impressed at his answers. Undoubtedly her own ‘wise men’ were unable to satisfy her curiosity.
There was, in the ancient world, a strand of very pessimistic literature and Solomon begins his book with such a statement in 1:2 when he says: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” It doesn’t seem that there is any hope when “everything is meaningless.” What chance does a person have with such an outlook?
The book is heavily philosophical in nature and Solomon is certainly acquainted with the literature extant [existing] in his day. (Note: Solomon’s history in I Kings 3-11 and 2 Chronicles 1-9 which will give an overview of his experience in Israel).
There is a sense in which the book deals with literary pessimism but is not really dealing with it in its basic message. It is, rather, addressing the issue of literary pessimism. Both ancient and modern philosophers deal with the meaning of life and some existentialists (Camus and Sarte e.g.) determine that life is not really worth living. The futility of life is as old as life itself. It is not a modern innovation but an investigation of life that people have struggled with whenever they have looked at and examined the significance of life.