1. Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is brief.
Many people stumble at the very beginning of Ecclesiastes because they are tripped up by the announced theme of the book. In the KJV (and related translations) the theme is announced as, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:1, KJV). The NIV puts it this way: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” The CSB says: “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” If everything is vain, or futile, or meaningless, why read any further? The statement appears to contradict all that the Bible teaches about life.
Perhaps, however, the problem is with the translations and the expectations they provoke. The Hebrew word translated “vanity” (hebel) has the sense of transitoriness, impermanence, and quickly passing. James picks up on this idea when he says, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). The first thing that we should know about Ecclesiastes is that it teaches us that our lives here, under the sun, are passing.
Our days are few and quickly gone. As Ecclesiastes puts it, “A generation goes, and a generation comes” (Eccl. 1:4). This idea is found throughout Scripture (see Pss. 90:10; 103:15; James 4:14). We find a similar idea in 2 Corinthians 4:18: “As we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Since our lives are brief, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl. 9:10).
2. Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are living in a fallen world.
The second thing we should know about Ecclesiastes is that it reminds us we are living in a fallen world. When I became a Christian, a parachurch ministry that I spent some time with had an evangelistic tract that emphasized John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” This produced in me expectations of an easy road ahead, though that is not at all what the passage means. I had to learn that while I had been given a new life, the world itself had not yet been re-created.
Paul teaches the same thing when he says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21). The word Paul uses that is translated “futility” in the ESV is the same Greek word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate hebel in Ecclesiastes.
3. Ecclesiastes reminds us that joy is possible in a fallen world.
The translations of hebel cited above are not entirely wrong. Because we are ephemeral creatures living in a world corrupted by sin, our activities can at times seem futile. Our busyness can seem meaningless. Our very lives can seem vain. If this were all Ecclesiastes had to say, it would indeed be a book to stumble over. Thus, we need to learn the third thing that Ecclesiastes has to say: joy is possible, even in a fallen world.
Ecclesiastes makes it clear that joy is not found where we might expect to find it. It is not found in the big events or the memorable moments. Instead, it is found in the ordinary, the simple, and the repetitive aspects of mundane life: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). Repeatedly, Solomon encourages us first to find and take joy in these ordinary aspects of life.
And second, he urges us to recognize that these are good gifts from God: “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Eccl. 3:13; see also Eccl. 5:19–20; 8:15; 9:7). As James puts it: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:17–18). And the joy that He gives us here is a foretaste of the joy to come in a world no longer corrupted and where we are no longer transient, but rather immortal, creatures.
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.