One of the most fascinating books of Scripture, Ecclesiastes sets out on a difficult but foundational task—reconciling the human longing to discover and understand, to find meaning and purpose, with the practical realities of being a finite creature in a world created by an infinite being. What is discovered is that human reason and experience is inadequate to find purpose. If we rely solely on human reason and experience, we only find futility and madness. However, if we begin with faith, we can effectively use our human faculties to realize wisdom and fulfillment.
Ecclesiastes predicts the failure of human philosophy to discover purpose apart from faith, while offering a viable philosophical solution: to begin with faith.
The author, Qoholeth in Hebrew, or “Assembler,” is trying to make sense of life “under the sun.” It is widely believed “Qoholeth” is King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom. His goal is to synthesize philosophy with the practical world around him.
Solomon invites us on a great journey of discovery. If anyone could use reason to discover meaning through life experiences, it would be Solomon. Solomon’s great wealth meant he could use all his time toward his investigations. His unsurpassed wisdom allowed him the faculties to design a vast array of activities, as well as assess their results, and determine their meaning.
Solomon’s conclusion is dark but real: neither meaning nor purpose can be discerned through human reason and experience. As the rivers flow endlessly to the sea, so one life flows to the next. Without a foundation of faith, life has no meaning.
Solomon shares with us his experiments to find meaning through reason and experience. He tries achievement and engages in vast building projects. He tries every sort of pleasure and entertainment, spanning the full spectrum of wine, women, and song. He leaves no stone unturned, but finds nothing but futility. Solomon’s experience is summarized in one word: “hebel.” Hebel is Hebrew for “vaporous.” A fog, a mist. Something that is there but can’t be grasped. You see it for a moment, then it is gone. Such is a philosophy of life founded upon human reason and experience.
Ecclesiastes tackles the kinds of things we think about but do not often say. And likely do not wrestle with to the extent Solomon does. Utilizing a mix of imagery and direct description, the Book of Ecclesiastes is an honest attempt to reconcile life on this Earth with the mysteries of Heaven.
Ecclesiastes’s refusal to pull any punches has caused many to describe it as negative and depressing. But the truths discovered in this book are real. Reality might be an acquired taste, but Solomon urges us to see reality for what it is.
When Solomon sees reality firsthand, it causes him to turn to God, and find fulfillment. Life can be confusing and complicated. It can seem like we are living in a fog. We cannot gain clarity through our own efforts and experiences. But clarity can come if our starting place is faith in God. Solomon concludes with an exhortation that life’s fulfillment is found in following God’s ways, for it is He who will determine the meaning of all deeds in His final judgement.
The patient, teachable reader will discover truth, hope, and challenge within these chapters. In the end, it is a strange joy only found through full consideration of the mysteries of God.
As Solomon explores wisdom and madness further (from a foundation of experience and reason), his struggle to understand is thwarted at every turn. But it eventually leads to a resolution, the ultimate discovery—that purpose, meaning, and joy come when we find a foundation of trusting in God. Although we cannot understand it fully, Solomon discovers there are great benefits to the experience of following God.
When the foundation for Solomon’s investigation is his own reason and experience, he finds only futility. The wisest man on Earth with seemingly endless resources cannot get there on his own.
But starting from a foundation of faith, trusting God with the mysteries of life rather than trying to reason them out for himself, paradoxically unlocks reason and turns it into wisdom. It unlocks the futility of experience and redeems it for joy.
Solomon sets out to discover purpose in all the things people labor to accomplish. These are categories like science, industry, and work. The second area of investigation takes place in the realm of the mind—what we would categorize as philosophy or theology. These things are meaningless unless explored with a foundation of faith.
Despite Solomon’s concerns about the fleeting nature of existence, he concludes that he should enjoy life and affirms there is benefit in his toil because this is what God desires for him (2:24-26). There is redemption as the chapter concludes; Solomon’s compulsion to understand is still nagging at him. But, understanding his limitations and trusting in God, he can find a different path to meaning—faith, gratitude, and trust in The One greater than himself.