1The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem: 2"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." 3What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
The book of Ecclesiastes begins: "The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem" (vs. 1). On the face of it, I think you'll agree, it seems that the author is Solomon. Some commentators (most notably, Delitzsch) have argued that the language of Ecclesiastes does not fit the language of Solomon's time, but others have refuted this by pointing out that the language of Ecclesiastes does not really fit later Hebrew either (see Kaiser, JFB, et. al.). I think that it was Solomon who wrote this book, for a number of reasons. First, since after Solomon's reign, the nation of Israel split into two nations (see II Chron. 10-11; I Kings 12), so then verse 1 above, as well as verse 12 of chapter 1, describes only Solomon: he was the only "son of David" who was "king over Israel in Jerusalem" (vs. 12). Also, many passages in Ecclesiastes refer to events in or aspects of Solomon's life and character: Solomon's great projects as described in Eccl. 2:4-10 are chronicled in I Kings 4:27-32; 7:1-8; 9:17-19; 10:14-29; Solomon's downfall following his chasing after women (see I Kings 11:1-8) is reflected in Eccl. 7:26-28; Solomon's imparting of his wisdom and knowledge to others, as stated in Eccl. 12:9-10, can be found in I Kings 4:34; 10:2,8; et. al. Moreover, the goal of the "Teacher" in the book of Ecclesiastes, as stated many times and in many ways, is to "study and explore by wisdom all that is done under the sun" (Eccl. 1:13), and wisdom was also Solomon's great passion in life (see I Kings 3).
The words in Ecclesiastes are "The words of the Teacher". The word translated here "Teacher" is also often translated as "Preacher". The verb form of the word (translated elsewhere as "assemble") is used when people are assembled to hear important teaching or an important announcement (see Ex. 35:1; Lev. 8:3; Deut. 4:10 for other uses of the word). So, the implication is that Solomon, the "Teacher", has something important to say. And what does he have to say?: "Meaningless! Meaningless!... Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?" (vs. 2-3). Is this the important teaching for which the "Teacher" has assembled us? This is far from uplifting. This is downright depressing! With these statements, the "Teacher" states the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes, by use of a "sweeping conclusion" and a "guiding question". The sweeping conclusion: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" The guiding question: "What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?" Most of the rest of the book consists of Solomon's search--by his wisdom, by human wisdom--for meaning. As we shall see, rather than "meaning", Solomon finds "meaningless"ness at every turn.
This happens despite the fact that Solomon searches for meaning (seemingly) in all the right places. He searches for meaning through pursuit of wisdom, through pleasure, through the undertaking of great projects, through hard work and achievement, through riches. Each of these things is pleasing to the eye, and a promising place to find meaning. I dare say that all of us desire more of each of these things in our lives. But Solomon, who had the power and the means to explore each of these things, far from finding his life enriched by these things, was left with a feeling of emptiness, a feeling that he had been merely chasing after the wind. "Earthly things look grand, till the trial has proved their vanity."
Much of Solomon's problem lies in the formation of his guiding question: "What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?" Solomon's was inherently a selfish pursuit. He was looking for some sort of "gain" for himself. This is the root of Solomon's difficulty in finding meaning. Solomon's definition of "meaning" was tied to "gain" for himself.
As we go through the book of Ecclesiastes, we will see that it is full of results and conclusions reached through worldly means. We will also find that, elsewhere in the Bible, God has addressed these matters and has given us godly alternatives to these worldly results and conclusions. Where Solomon's search for meaning has resulted in a dead end, God elsewhere has pointed out the flaw in Solomon's search, and has corrected the parameters of the search so that it can result in, not a dead end, but a new life.
For example, Jesus Himself points out the flaw of Solomon's guiding question. Solomon asks: "What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?"; but Jesus warns: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36). The answer to life's puzzle cannot be found through looking for "gain"; for you can "gain" the whole world, and yet "forfeit [your] soul". And so, Solomon's search for meaning was flawed from the get-go, because his basis for meaning in life was measured in terms of "gain". He asked from the start: "What does man gain...?" Jesus, alternatively, teaches that true meaning in life is found, not through "gain", but through loss. Jesus teaches: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35). This is difficult teaching. For in our selfish, sin nature, we are inclined to seek "gain" for ourselves, not loss. In our sin nature, our natural inclination is to look for meaning in life through "gain": through wisdom, through achievement, through labor, through riches, all for ourselves. But God has purposefully made the end of these roads "meaningless"ness. He has done this to steer us to glory. For if we could find meaning in life through human wisdom, through man's achievement, through riches, through pleasure, then we would stop there. We would not go on to seek the glory that God has set aside for us. Paul teaches: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21). By the will of God, the "creation was subjected to frustration". Thus, search for meaning in the world will necessarily lead to "frustration". But God had a goal in subjecting the world to "frustration". This was done "in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from the its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." So, the "frustration", the "meaningless"ness, was purposeful: through it we are meant to turn away from the world, and turn to God for meaning.
Oh Lord, help us, guide us by Your Spirit to look to You for meaning in life. May we find joy in seeking You, satisfaction in serving You, riches in knowing You, gain in losing our lives for You. We confess that we are weak in this. Our inclination is to seek gain for ourselves. Change our lives and attitudes so that we may know the value of losing our lives for Your sake. In the name of Jesus, who gave His life for us, we pray these things, Amen.