The book of Ecclesiastes contains the words of "the Preacher" (1.1). The word may be broadened (as per the original Hebrew) to mean, the gatherer.
Indeed, the author has gathered information worthy of repeating to others. The preacher reminds us that even if you have achieved the highest fame, power, and fortune possible in this world (as had the author himself), (1) you are still obliged to "gather" and comprehend God's truths for yourself; and (2) having this information which others need, you are therefore obliged to pass it on (cf. Job 32.7-22; Eze. 33.1f; Jer. 20.9). This is especially true of all those who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4.13-15).
Although the name of the author is withheld, Ecclesiastes was written by "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1.1), a description suitable for only one man: viz., Solomon.
In contrast to his father's reign, Solomon ruled Israel in peaceful security and prosperity (cf. 1 Kngs. 4.24; 5.2-3; 1 Chron. 22.9). During his reign, the Lord fulfilled the bountiful land promise he had given to Abraham (cf. Gen. 12.1f; 15.18; 1 Kngs. 4.24; 2 Chron. 9.26; Ps. 80.11; Neh. 9.7-8).
In gold alone, Solomon's average income — in today's terms — amounted to about three-quarters of a billion dollars per year (cf. 2 Chron. 9.13). And that doesn't include other commodities (v. 14)! His fabled luxury and wisdom made him the jewell of his age (cf. vv. 22-24). Surely, if any man had a chance at happiness in this world, it was he.
Yet, for all his earthly splendor, Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes leads us to think that Solomon had not lived a very happy life. His constant refrain is: All is vanity. In fact, he alludes to the vanity of earthly life at least 39 times in the book.
In spite of this doleful refrain, we find in Solomon a better way — a higher pursuit, which, if faithfully followed, leads to undying happiness and fulfillment. This life is not all there is!
The gist of the book of Ecclesiastes has to do with Solomon's search for the meaning of life. He examines life "under the sun" (i.e., in the material universe) — an expression found 27 times in the book — from nearly every angle.
The book follows his life's attempt at finding happiness and fulfillment in all the wrong places (viz., in earthly environments and with earthly things). Solomon discovered that happiness was not to be gained in earthly wisdom (1.13-18), pleasure (2.1-2), drinking (2.3), great feats (2.4-7), riches (2.8), music (2.8), fame (2.9), or in fulfilling every conceivable desire (2.10). All such pursuits are, ultimately, vain, since they all "perish with the using" (Col. 2.22) and "grow old like a garment" (Heb. 1.11).
The accumulation of wealth itself, according to the author, is conceived as a "severe evil" which tends to hurt its owner (5.13). The wealthy man spends his days thinking of new ways to gain more (5.10), worrying about others surrounding him purely for his money (5.11-12), only to be forced to leave it all behind when he dies (5.14-16). He becomes miserable by the futility of it all (5.17).
If our "raison d'être" cannot be found in the material universe, then — as the preacher concludes — it must be found in the heavenly sphere. He says, "[l]et us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man's all" (12.13).
Everything about man and for man may be summed up in that principle. Those who neglect it, deprive the soul of true and lasting fulfillment.
Thus, instead of devoting your life to vain, carnal pursuits while you are young, the preacher stresses the importance of beginning service to God "in the days of your youth" — long before the frailties, miseries, and difficulties of old age inhibit you from achieving truly great things for the Lord (cf. 12.1-7).
Let us learn our purpose in life — to "seek the Lord, in the hope that [we] might grope for him and find him" (Acts 17.27) — before it is everlastingly too late!
How can a man live in a world in which "all is vanity?" What is he to do? The sage suggests a number of possibilities: 1) eat and drink (2.24); 2) rejoice (3.12); 3) do good (3.12); 4) be sincere, discreet, and honest in all your doings (5.1f); 5) obey the laws of the land (8.2f); 6) live joyfully with your spouse (9.9f); and 7) work in pursuit of excellence (9.10).
Yet, above all these things, a man ought to remember that God will bring every work into judgment, whether public or secret, good or evil (cf. 11.9; 12.14). Ergo, the essence of life — the chief aim of the human race — is this: "fear God, and keep his commandments" (12.13).
From a materialistic point of view, the world is, in the grand scheme of things, vain and trivial. Even the good things in this life are futile when man divests himself of his Creator. But, despite all the vanities of earthly life, it is the existence and nature of God which breathes fresh meaning into man's being. God, who is mentioned at least 40 times in the book, is "man's all" — i.e., his everything.
When men defy religion and belief in God, they defy their own essence and design. Saul was reminded of this as he defied the religion of Jesus on the road to Damascus: "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" — i.e., you are only hurting yourself, Saul (Acts 9.5).
When men belittle keeping all of God's commands, calling it "legalism" or some other pejorative, they belittle themselves in the process, for keeping God's commands is as much the scoffer's "all" as it is the believer's.
One day, we will all stand in judgment for our conduct in this life. Have we respected God's authority and kept his commands? Or, have we pursued a life of selfish humanism and materialistic ignorance?
Part 1: Jewish Poetry (1): Job
Part 2: Jewish Poetry (2): Psalms
Part 3: Jewish Poetry (3): Proverbs
Part 4: Jewish Poetry (4): Ecclesiastes