Insight on Ecclesiastes:
When Life Seems Meaningless

Posted by on 07/21/2017 in:

Sometimes, life seems meaningless. And sometimes, God seems distant. If you’re feeling this way, you aren’t alone! The author of Ecclesiastes struggled with the same issue, but he continued to call God good and just all the same.

“The book of Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet as it’s called in Hebrew, is not meant to comfort the reader. The author was frustrated by the contradictions, tensions and incomprehensibility of life. He asked again and again if life is meaningless.

The book’s portrait of God is unlike that found in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Nowhere does the author address God as YHWH, the more personal and intimate name for God in Hebrew and the sacred name not to be misused in the Ten Commandments. YHWH walked closely with Adam and Eve in the garden and spoke to Moses from within the burning bush.

The author instead opted for addressing God as Elohim, actually a title and a more generic and less personal Hebrew name for God. The opening lines of Genesis begin with the actions of Elohim bringing forth the heavens and the earth. Kohelet prefers this choice of addressing God, Elohim, a slightly more distant or transcendent God. “God is in heaven and you are on earth” (Ecc 5:2). The book argues for caution and reverence for the divine (see Ecc 5). It also insists that God is both just and sovereign (see Ecc 3:17; 9:1); however, the justice of God is slow and at times seems absent: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Ecc 8:14).

The fact that Ecclesiastes is in the canon of Hebrew Scripture speaks to the depth, richness and nuance of Jewish theological and philosophical thought in the ancient world. The Christian canon also includes this theologically complex book. Human wisdom is often frustrated when contemplating life and the divine. But frustration, wondering and questioning all have a place in the religious life, which Ecclesiastes makes clear.

Ecclesiastes urges the reader to enjoy life, though much of life is cruel and meaningless. One should fear God, tread lightly and be grateful for simple pleasures.

The end of Kohelet also raises some interesting questions about the author’s view of God: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecc 12:13–14).

This passage is an epilogue, a common literary device in wisdom literature. But it also seems a bit out of place. Some scholars have suggested it was added by a later editor who was uncomfortable with the book as it was originally written.

Whether added later or written by the author, it is meant to balance out the tone of book. It is clear from the book that the author believed in God’s justice, though he did not always see it. The final line acts as a kind of last word. Whether one sees it or not, God’s justice will prevail.”

Does this encourage you? How does it give you a different perspective when you’re going through difficult times?

This blog was adapted from First-Century Study Bible Notes, on sale now.

33 Comments

  • Larry Sullivan says:

    Excellent thoughts on Ecvelsiastics, long one of the books I turn to when life gets too difficult. Thanks for the article.

    • beridiano peralta says:

      Thanks for such reflections on kohelet, the preacher. Indeed, at times of lonliness and hopefulness, I usually think over kohelet view of life and God s mercy and power . His feeling of life helps me to realize my present, my reality, strengthening my motivation to improve my life.-

  • Yewande Deji-Omotayo says:

    This article has helped me to understand better the book of Ecclesiastes, particularly, the mood of the author.

  • The article add to my understanding that in any situation don’t look as if God is not with us

  • Sharon says:

    I like that you’re providing an explanation of this difficult to read book. There is little comfort, but somehow when our preconceived notions about God are challenged, we arrive at a greater level of trust. We see through a glass darkly…but someday face to face. Praise his name.

  • Daz Sheppard says:

    There is a constant contrast given in the book between those who do not follow God, described as being ‘under the sun’, and those who do. Life is meaningless for those without God – there is nothing but death ahead – hence the constant car cleaning on a Sunday morning of those who have turned from God and have nothing meaningful to do on a Sunday anymore.

    • Hein Zentgraf says:

      Sunday is car cleaning day (lawn mowing, whatever), as Shabbat (Sabbath) is the day God makes an appointment with us. We should obey His commands, not those of priests and ministers.

      • QueenAna says:

        True, but try convincing Sunday worshippers that the commandments are still good for all.

        • k says:

          Moses face shined! Shine Brightly….Bright reflection from time with Lord. This is Sunday renewal, restoration, cleansing soul – mind, body and spirit.
          This is Sunday no matter what do if time with Lord, sometimes, on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, Thursday, or Wednesday. Our response to recognition and acknowledge of His Love, Work, Goodness, Light and nine fruits of His Spirit, Living Word ….

  • Mary Antonacci says:

    Thank you! A key to truly understanding the Bible is to understand about the Jewish people! That helps a lot! Thanks

  • Juetta Fraser says:

    I love that His compassions fail not, they are new every morning, great is His faithfulness. Life is challenging at times, but I have learned to lean on His everlasting arms, and to take Him at His word no matter the circumstances.

  • Ken says:

    Tremendous Godly wisdom and insight from a man prized by God and gifted with amazing wisdom and wealth. Then towards the end of his life, went very wrong with his choices and got so far away from God’s best plans for him. He had been warned by God. This is such a sober lesson for me

  • Gillian says:

    I love this book of the Bible because it gives us practical examples of the things we question and go through in our every day lives. It helps me to remember that we all go through for a season but we have to hold steadfast to the notion that God is still in charge and he will make all things good in His time.

  • Michael says:

    Ecclesiastes brings home the fact that life is not always fair, as we define fairness, that there are some questions that just won’t be answered on this side of heaven, and that ultimately God is just.

    Love this Book of Wisdom.

  • PB says:

    I glad I can to a part of the Bible when I’m feeling down and low

  • I am currently leading a Bible study on Ecclesiastes. I found the book, “A Table In The Mist,” by Jeffery Meyers to be a great help in unlocking the beauty and reassuring wisdom of this book.

  • Oluwole Kehinde says:

    Great thought. Quite revealing and interesting. Unfortunately we may never get answers to all the burning questions untill we depart this planet earth.

  • Hein Zentgraf says:

    All praise be to Yah!

    As He inspired all Scriptures, He also inspired this book to be part of the anthology in order to reveal to us our shortcomings, our weaknesses, our strengths and our absolute dependability on the echad God of Deuteronomy 6:4. We also need to realise that life is sometimes difficult, sometimes wonderful, but life is always good when we obey all the commandments.

    Praise be to Yah for His Son, Y’shua – our salvation.

  • Cee Craig says:

    Good to remember… When God seems far away, ask yourself, “Who moved?”

  • Timothy says:

    I have always loved the book of Ecclesiastics. King Solomon had wisdom and knowledge however the light in him was not so bright like believers in Christ. He was searching for Christ the hope of the living .Jesus said” of all born of a woman there was none greater than John the Baptist but a new born in Christ is greater than him. Including King Solomon. Reading the book of Ecclesiastic should teach us how privileged we are praise the Lord!😀

  • kingsley Imo Uko says:

    this help me to know in every situation ,God has something for his poeple so no matter what God will not fail his children

  • Beverly Mallory says:

    I am very happy to find this reading at this very moment as it clarified my very thoughts of where I am. Although confused with and at life, God’s sovereignty prevails and He is not finished with me yet. I can rest knowing that my best is still yet to come and praise God for this. Thanks again!

  • Bill Yan says:

    The Jews fully understand God’s Commandments and promises. Those who follow will be blessed and those who fail will be judged. But in reality it is different. This Book does not tell us life is meaningless. Although we do not understand, it has a meaning and we should not just look at this life but to eternity in trusting God.

  • Raj Victor says:

    The Christian (The term I do not think fits this group) world is confused. Ecclesiastics was pre-Christ. Christ has declared that the work is accomplished. All things revealed. Would do well to focus on Christ (His words) passionately. Get the Foundation right. The Foundation of this group is not Christ ONLY (The only Teacher/Master/Heavenly manna).

    • Mark says:

      I think that you probably don’t mean to suggest that followers of Christ ignore the Old Testament, but you are saying that they should get their comfort and understanding from the New. I agree with that. But there are many things addressed by the Old Testament that give inspiration as well.

  • Msnini says:

    God is sovereign. He is the Creator. So true that “His ways or not our ways”. He owes me nothing yet gives me so much. This way is worth it! Yeah, in spite of all the confusion in the world.It’s worth it!

  • Ada says:

    Thank you very much for this insight on Kohelet. I have learnt a lot.

  • GODprosperPius says:

    God existent is so suppressing. Actuary He does not act when His actions are expected. Thus His not a respecter of anybody.
    God is God

  • art says:

    I believe, king Solomon being the author, was saying even though he was the wisest person who ever lived realized without God on his side everything was vanity and striving after the wind. So he said to enjoy the wife of your youth and working hard to make money to buy and own many material possessions like houses, cars, jewelry, so forth is a waste of time cause he says once you die someone else will get all your possessions. So he says to obey God and walk in all His ways to be the wisest choice to make cause he was the richest man who ever lived was able to see that money or gold wasn’t enough for our little life span of approximately 70 to 80 years old.

  • Edmund Chan says:

    The book of Ecclesiastes tutors us that Life without God is a grand contradiction.

    For without God, life is spiritually barren, philosophically sterile, existentially meaningless and thus, ultimately futile. Indeed, without God, “ALL is vanity”!

    One way of capturing the thematic development of the book as a whole is to see that the book answers four fundamental questions about life –

    FOUR BIG QUESTIONS OF ECCLESIASTES

    1. Why Is Life So Frustrating?
    – The Struggle of Life (Ecclesiastes 1-3)

    2. Where Does Life Come From?
    – The Source of Life (Ecclesiastes 4-6)

    3. How Is Life To Be Lived?
    – The Stewardship of Life (Ecclesiastes 7-11)

    4. What Is the Key to Life?
    – The Secret To Life (Ecclesiastes 12)

    Ultimately, the book offers ONE DIVINE COUNSEL: “Fear God and keep His commandment”.

  • Don Onyegbu says:

    The book of Ecclesiates is indeed unique in the way it delivers the truth of God’s timing and the sanctity of His works. This gives us the encouragement to march on and keep trusting God no matter the odds.
    By the way I lost my dad today, he was my first friend ever and mentor, it broke my heart deeply ,but I give God praise

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