I'm preaching through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes right now. It's a very challenging book to understand and apply. It's full of what scholars call "polar tensions." For example, in 7:3 the author says, "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart." But in 11:9 he says, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth." Here's another example: In 7:11 the author says, "Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun." But in 2:15 he says, "What then do I gain by being wise? I said in my heart, 'This too is meaningless.'"
So I've struggled to come to terms with these tensions, to figure out who is the man (known in Hebrew as Koheleth, which means Preacher, Teacher, or Professor) who wrote Ecclesiastes, and to decide how to apply the book to contemporary Christians. I've been most helped by the commentary on Ecclesiastes by Tremper Longman III. While his interpretation is not bullet-proof, I think he offers the most sound argument for understanding the book as a whole.
What Longman and others say is that Ecclesiastes is the product of a godly narrator (1:1-11 and 12:8-14) and a skeptical sage (1:12-12:7). You can tell there are two speakers by the change in voice from third-person in the prologue to first-person in the long middle section, and back again to third-person in the epilogue. The narrator opens with a summary of the teaching of the Preacher, including the famous theme verse: "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Then, beginning in 1:12, the Preacher shares his observations and reflections on life. In the concluding section, the narrator comes back to critique the views of the Preacher and tell us the better way to view life under the sun.
For me, the breakthrough in understanding Ecclesiastes came when I discovered that Koheleth really and truly believed everything is meaningless. He wrote as a skeptic and a pessimist, not as a person in covenant with God. His thinking reflects a sub-Christian or secular worldview. He reached the point of resignation and believed that efforts to find purpose and lasting joy in work, relationships, and even wisdom are pointless. In that sense he is correct. Life "under the sun" (i.e., apart from faith in a personal God) really is ultimately frustrating. Koheleth said the same thing numerous artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, and thinkers have said who view life through a secular grid and come up empty. For example, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:
"It was true, I had always realized it - I hadn't any 'right' to exist at all. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe. I could feel nothing to myself but an inconsequential buzzing. I was thinking...that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing" (Nausea, 1938).
Sartre sounds exactly like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes who said, "Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both...man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless" (3:19).
One problem with the view I am espousing is that Koheleth makes frequent references to fearing God (3:14, 5:7, 7:18, etc.) and receiving life as a gift from God (2:24, 3:13, 5:18, etc.). Also, the epilogue seems to commend the Preacher as a wise man who "wrote [what] was upright and true" (12:10).
But, in context, the fear the Preacher advocates appears to be an impersonal, slavish fear rather than the reverent, trusting fear of a man who knows God to be not only sovereign but also good, kind, and loving. (Contrast Ecclesiastes with the Psalms, for example.) And the verses that mention enjoying life strike me more as a resignation than an affirmation. It's like the Preacher is saying, "Oh well, since there's no meaning to life you might as well live for the moment and enjoy the ephemeral blessings that come your way. Carpe diem." Finally, Tremper Longman offers an interpretation of the epilogue that differs quite a bit from the NIV translation, and shows how rather than commending the Preacher, the narrator criticizes him and warns the reader not to be persuaded by his argument.
Koheleth is not an atheist; he acknowledges the existence of God. But he never refers to God using the covenant name Yahweh; it's always Elohim. There's no mention of atonement, or forgiveness, or trust. So God exists, he's just not personal or loving. He seems to be rather like the God of deism.
Furthermore, many of the statements made by Koheleth are in conflict with the clear teaching of the rest of the Bible. Life, while frustrating at times, is not meaningless - not for the Christian anyway. Work is not pointless. Sorrow is not better than laughter. It is not true that "the dead know nothing" (9:5) or that time and chance happen to everyone (9:11) or that human beings and animals all wind up in the same place (3:20) or that "a man cannot discover anything about his future" (7:14). There are many other instances of statements that come not from the heart of faith (or even doubt) but of unbelief. So Koheleth is someone with a secular worldview. He speaks for many skeptics and unbelievers today who see the problems of the world but do not look in faith to a God who has intervened in time and space through Jesus Christ, has identified with us in our sin and misery, and lived under the sun with us as our Substitute and loving Lord. It's the narrator who, in the end, speaks of living in covenant with God.
Whatever is the best way to view Ecclesiastes, one thing's for sure: It screams for the gospel. It reminds us that life cannot be found apart from relationship with God, and shows us the vanity of all pursuits when divorced from faith.
Perhaps it's by deliberately NOT offering answers, that the book of Ecclesiastes drives us into the New Testament to seek the ultimate Answer in the person and work of Jesus Christ.