One of the things that makes the book of Ecclesiastes so difficult for some to understand is the way that Solomon allows himself to think. Solomon was looking at life to see meaning and purpose. He wanted to be able to show what is right and wrong, good and evil, worthwhile and worthless.
What you might miss is that Solomon accomplishes his task in this book by, at points, examining life from a this-worldly point of view. He looks at life, all our pleasures and pains, and he thinks about what would matter if indeed there was no future for mankind after death. What Solomon concludes, what we see in his examples, is that without an afterlife, it is hard to see why anything in this life matters.
Here is a simple example of how this reasoning goes.
Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 – 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
If you were to read this without context, without knowing what is happening in Ecclesiastes, you might think this to be unbiblical thinking. Solomon is not an atheist. Even in his greatest despair, he never would pretend like there is no God. Instead, what Solomon did here was to look at human circumstances with the assumption that this life is all there is. And this led him in place after place to declare that all we do is in vain, it is meaningless.
In verse 2, as an example, Solomon says that being good or being bad is irrelevant. After all, good people and bad people all die. Sometimes bad people live longer and happier lives. Sometimes good people live longer and happier lives. But either way, the same thing happens, all end up in the grave.
In verse 5, Solomon points out that, if this life is all there is, the only thing we know is that it is better to be alive than to be dead. After all, if this life is all there is, the dead know and think nothing. There is no justice. There is no reward for righteousness. There is no punishment for evil. Without a life to come, Solomon sees that the only good is to live; and even there, living is a vanity, because life leads to death.
Now, to stop us from really not liking this little book, let’s remember that Solomon will draw the perfect conclusion. Solomon, in chapter 12, will remind us that God does bring deeds into judgment. There is a life beyond this one. Solomon knows all this. He is just taking us through a teaching exercise that shows us how empty life is when one has no hope beyond their 80 years or so.
But we should be learning that there is a genuine emptiness to naturalistic worldviews. Solomon, even three millennia ago, understood that a person who views this life as all there is has no basis for either morality or hope. Even if we know our actions are evil, if we see this life as all there is, so what? Why would we care if we have been good or evil? Solomon shows that, in the end, all we do is live and die and return to dust. There is no hope and no meaning in such a worldview. And thus, such a worldview is unsatisfying and untenable. A this-life-only view offers no basis for morality, no reason for morality, no rational explanation for limiting aggression, no reason to value human beings over animals, no incentive for right behavior, and no deterrent for great evil.
Ecclesiastes is valuable for us because we need somebody to be honest with us about what happens when we see ourselves from a this-world-only view. Solomon was intellectually brighter than all his peers. He did the study. He showed us that naturalism leads to despair. But he did not lose his faith. In the end, he expresses confidence that God is, that God is good, and that God will judge. God will reward those under his favor. God will judge those who have opposed him and his ways. And we can be grateful that Solomon worked through this exercise and wrote it down for us under the inspiration of God. That should keep us from having to walk the same ugly path.