What’s the point of life? Is it worth living? Can fulfilment, meaning, even joy be found in it? These are the questions Ecclesiastes grapples with. It does so adopting a rather eccentric style of writing known as ‘pessimism literature’. Other such ancient works outside the Bible present an entirely negative, bleak and depressing view of life. Ecclesiastes certainly presents a similar perspective, on what it calls life ‘under the sun’, but it differs from other pessimism literature in one important respect: there are rays of hope.
But first the negative: life ‘under the sun’. The bulk of the book is a merciless exposé of how life can be a meaningless slog, full of empty promises. It points to loneliness, tears, oppression, and all the apparent injustices of life. Even if these fates don’t befall us, the author shows how ultimately everything on earth comes to nothing through death, rendering it meaningless. He notably experiments with intellectualism, materialism and hedonism, engaging in impressive endeavours and projects, and gratifying all his earthly desires. He discovers, as others able to conduct such experiments will tell you, that such appetites are never satisfied, there’s always an empty craving after more, and it’s all a ‘chasing after wind’(Ecclesiastes 1:14).
The book is designed to leave the person who puts their hope in this world utterly depressed.
However, there are hints throughout the book that this meaningless life ‘under the sun’ is not the whole picture. These verses are few and far between, but the observant reader, with an eye to see, will spot them. This study text is one such verse. Like shafts of light from heaven these penetrate Ecclesiastes dark pessimistic cave, allowing it to be viewed from an entirely different perspective, making our wearisome lives begin to look and feel very different. The key detail these verses bring into the picture is God. Most of the book does not mention God at all. That’s what the author means by an ‘under the sun’ view of life. But here, as with similar verses, we see God introduced as the giver of this life. Realising that fact is the beginning of an answer to the author’s quest for meaning.
First we must know our place and learn the blessing of accepting our ‘portion’. Earlier chapter 5 states, ‘Guard your steps when you go to God’s house… draw near to listen… God is in heaven, and you on earth. Therefore let your words be few.’(Ecclesiastes 5:1-2). And chapter 3, ‘man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end.’(Ecclesiastes 3:11). We mustn’t fight against the fact that God is sovereign and we are subjects, and must realise that we don’t know everything but he sees the whole picture. So Ecclesiastes ultimate conclusion in chapter 12 is, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.’(Ecclesiastes 12:13). Paul sums it up when he writes to Timothy, ‘godliness [looking to God’s lead] with contentment [accepting our portion] is great gain.’(1 Timothy 6:6)
Secondly, enjoy simple everyday pleasures as gifts from God: ‘that which I have seen to be good and proper is for one to eat and to drink’. In chapter 3 we read, ‘that every man should eat and drink… is the gift of God.’(Ecclesiastes 3:13). And such simple pleasures, when received as gifts from God, taste so rich that our appetites are satisfied with materially remarkably little, as Paul continues, ‘having food and clothing, we will be content with that.’(1 Timothy 6:8)
Third is the blessing of finding fulfilment in work: ‘to enjoy good in all his labor’. In chapter 3 again this ‘is the gift of God.’(Ecclesiastes 3:13), and chapter 5 adds ‘he shall not often reflect on the days of his life; because God occupies him with the joy of his heart.’(Ecclesiastes 5:20). The New Testament shows how this applies even to slaves, because ultimately everything can be done in service to God and will bear fruit, at least in eternity, ‘whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward’(Colossians 3:23-24).
So Ecclesiastes presents not just pessimistic gloom ‘under the sun’, but hints at fulfilment, meaning and joy under God. This is found in obedient service, resting in His will and enjoying His blessings.