“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Eccl. 1:1-2). Thus begins the reflection of Qohelet, translated “Teacher” (NIV) or “Preacher” (ESV), on the meaning of life. Why does he render such a bleak conclusion that everything is meaningless? And is this the central message of the Book of Ecclesiastes?
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, who speaks in the first person (“I, Qohelet”) in the main portion of the book (1:12-12:7) and a second person, who talks about Qohelet in the third person (“he, Qohelet”) at both ends of the book (I:1-11 and 12:8-14).
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 as 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). The second wise man’s message to us is that one can only find the true meaning of life in a personal relationship with God. Authorities say 2023 will be a difficult year for many. In spite of the meaninglessness, contradictions and difficulties of life, may we look to God in the new year, for only in Jesus Christ can we find abundant life now and in the life to come.