2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? ... 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl 1:2-3, 8-9)
The Bible is the greatest of books, and Ecclesiastes is the only book of philosophy, pure philosophy, mere philosophy, in the Bible. It is no surprise, then, that Ecclesiastes is the greatest of all books of philosophy. (Three Philosophies of Life, Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989, pg 15)
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, makes a rather bold assertion here. I have no intention of supporting his assertion, but I do intend to fairly summarize his exegesis on the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is interesting, as he is a philosopher, not a theologian; and Ecclesiastes is indeed a book of philosophy.
First, let's take note of the author, who calls himself "the Preacher." In Hebrew, the word is qoheleth, in the Greek LXX, the word is ecclesiastes, from which the book gets its title. The word can be translated to 'preacher' or speaker or any number of similar things. In v.1, this preacher calls himself "the son of David, king in Jerusalem;" so rabbinical tradition holds this book was written by the wisest of the wise, King Solomon.
Ecclesiastes is a beautifully melancholic work of existential ethics. The entire premise is as stated in the above text: all human works are vain, that is, utterly meaningless. Ethics seeks an ultimate end – what is the final good, the highest good? And given such an end, what should we do to tend towards that end? Qoheleth specifies the end: death; and so what we must do: who cares. Do everything or do nothing; it is all the same.
Ecclesiastes speaks of life and death, of good and evil, of human works, of the passage of time and of God. But nowhere does God speak – the book is purely the monologue of Qoheleth. He sets forth his premise, as above, and he creates a syllogism, an argument to prove his premise:
Major: All toil is under the sun;
Minor: All that is under the sun is vanity;
Therefore, all toil is vanity.
The entire book is merely a philosophic proof of this syllogism.
The word ‘toil’ does not mean hard work; it means any kind of human action. In chapter two, five such actions are clarified: wisdom, pleasure, wealth & power, duty, religion. The first three actions are living for one self, the fourth is living for others and the fifth is living for God. We might wonder about this fifth action: why isn’t living for God meaningful? See how he puts it:
26 For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl 2:26)
This is not revealed religion, this is not knowing God as our Father; this is natural religion, where God is a far away being who dispenses goods to each person according to the rules. As such, this too is meaningless.
Qoheleth proves the futility of all things under the sun by noting several characteristics of the world. First, the universe is indifferent. Second, death comes for all. Third, the passage of time is just an endless cycle of life and death, winters and summers, sunrises and sunsets; nothing ever changes. Fourth, injustice reigns, evil often conquers good. Finally, God exists, but He is a transcendent mystery. That is, He is there, not here.
This is all true and all very depressing. But there is a conclusion and it comes at the very end:
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13-14)
This is the response to the argument and was likely written not by Qoheleth, but by someone else, later, with the answer: fear God and keep His commandments. That is, life is meaningless without God. Truly, nothing has meaning without God to provide it. If there is nothing more than the world of things, then we are all just clouds of subatomic particles interacting with each other. The things we claim to experience and know are mere constructs of our own neurochemistry. Whether I live or die is indifferent, because there is no life or death or “I;” all of these concepts are just the activities of my brain, itself the result of the neurochemistry that fashioned it, and that too the result of quantum physics, quarks, photons and the like. The idea of an “I” turns out to be a fraud. No me, no you, no love, no good, no evil, no ethics, no values, no meaning; even the idea of meaning itself would be preposterous. The universe is only a massive whirl of subatomic particles interacting with each other; nothing more and nothing less. This is a world without God: all is vanity and a chase after the wind.
That answer was correct, but it does not actually answer the argument as raised, nor any point within it. The argument is truly answered by Christ. First, He is the immanent God who is here and now. He brings us the Father; God is within us, not far away and mysterious. Second, He did something new under the sun: His Incarnation and Resurrection; and still to come will be the Last Judgement. These events break the endless cycle of repetitive time. Third, death is no longer our final end; it’s merely a gate. Our final and highest end is God Himself. This is what life under the sun is for.
Of all I have ever seen or learned, that book [Ecclesiastes] seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man's life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound. (You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe, chap 47)