The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the strangest books in the Old Testament. It is included in the section of scripture that we call Wisdom Literature, and is generally agreed to have been the work of King Solomon. The aspect of this book that makes it seem so strange to us is the author’s attitude about life. Ecclesiastes is gloomy and dark, and is characterized by the statement, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). This gloomy perspective is difficult for us to fathom, especially considering its source.
Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. He was also one of the wealthiest kings who ever lived. By most standards we would consider him to have had it made. He ruled a stable nation that held the upper hand against all its enemies. He was favored by God as the son of David and the ruler of God’s people. The many blessings that had been poured out on him were the sign of God’s approval resting upon him.
But the Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes was not the humble man who had asked God for an understanding heart to judge His people (1 Kgs. 3:9). As he aged Solomon violated God’s command to not marry foreign women. In 1 Kgs. 11:4 the scripture says that when Solomon was old his foreign wives turned him away from God. He worshiped and served the despicable gods of the pagan nations, and even built high places as sites to worship them.
This is why Ecclesiastes is so gloomy. As Solomon wrote this book he was reflecting on the dissatisfaction that had engulfed him due to his rebellion against God. At this point in his life he saw nothing good in his future, and with good reason. While he was estranged from God Solomon had no hope and he correctly observed that everything he had done up to that point was vanity. All his labor, all his wealth, all his wisdom, all his majesty as a king was literally like dust in the wind. He realized that he would soon die and all that he had acquired would fall into another man’s hands.
This is the simple truth about human endeavor undertaken apart from an obedient relationship with God. Unless one’s life is devoted to God’s will, all is vanity. One can amass great wealth or power, but if he is not obedient to God, it is all for nothing. Like the rich fool in Lk. 12:16-21, Solomon was not rich toward God, and he could see the futility of his situation.
Fortunately, Solomon learned his lesson before it was too late. At the end of Ecclesiastes, he said, “The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person” (Eccl. 12:13). If one reverences God and obeys all He commanded, then his life’s pursuits will not be in vain. He will have the satisfaction of having accomplished God’s eternal purpose in his own life, and in the lives of his family, no matter how much or how little of the world’s goods he might amass. The greater satisfaction, however, will be in knowing that his name is written in the book of life, and a home in heaven awaits him. Nothing about this kind of life is vain.