“Meaningless! Meaningless!” Qohelet said, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Eccl. 1:2). Thus begins the reflection of Qohelet, translated “Teacher” (NIV) or “Preacher” (ESV), on the meaning of life. What is the significance of his bleak conclusion that everything is meaningless? Commentators point out that to properly understand the Book of Ecclesiastes, it is important to understand that there are two speakers with separate messages in the book. That is, Qohelet speaks in the first person (“I, Qohelet”) in the main portion of the book (1:12-12:7). However, his message is sandwiched or bookended (1:1-11 and 12:8-14) by a second person who talks about Qohelet (“he, Qohelet”) in the third person.
Simply put, Qohelet’s message is straight-forward: “Life is difficult and then you die.” He talks about the futility of trying to find meaning in human wisdom, pleasure, work, wealth, status, and relationships. There are several reasons why Qohelet regards life meaningless. Firstly, death renders life meaningless, since Qohelet is uncertain about an afterlife (12:7). Secondly, inexplicable contradictions render life meaningless. Qohelet has witnessed “a righteous man perishing in his righteousness and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (7:15). Thirdly, humanity’s inability to fully understand God’s work from beginning to end also renders life meaningless (3:11).
What is the message of the second wise man? He commends Qohelet for his honest reflection on the futility of life “under the sun.” However, he also encourages his son to look beyond the here-and-now by establishing a right relationship with God. He writes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14). His message to us is that one can only find the true meaning of life in God.