"The Whole Duty of Man "
The book of Ecclesiastes is too often treated as either a depressing litany of the futilities of life, or a simplistic series of homilies, warning people to avoid things in life that might seem good, because they are really bad ("vain"). The great, triumphant, enlightening truth of Ecclesiastes is treated rather as the only slim ray of hope that can be grasped by the desperate reader.
Ecclesiastes is much different and much more than that. It is the only book of pure philosophy in the Bible. It's the only one needed, because it considers, however briefly, the entire human condition, and provides the answer, thus rendering further speculations somewhat unnecessary.
Part of the dark and simple view of Ecclesiastes comes from our own cultural background as American religious folk, firmly rooted in Puritan ideals. The Puritan view of Ecclesiastes matches well with the common view now - all the enjoyable physical things of this life are bad, and a waste of time, and thus should be avoided.
Part of this may also stem from a conscious or sub-conscious analysis of the "life" of Christ. After all, we don't read about Jesus taking a lot of time to "stop and smell the roses," and so that makes it somehow wrong for us to do so. But this ignores the fact that we have a record of just under 10% of His life. Before His baptism by John, we don't really know how He spent His time. We can certainly presume that He spent appropriate amounts of time doing God's will, supporting himself, and other necessities. But we cannot assume that just because He didn't spend much time on pleasure during His ministry that He never did. Once His ministry began, He only had 3 years to change the world. No entrepreneur, when starting a new and ambitious venture, has much time for anything else for the first 3 years. That can hardly be considered conclusive proof that he doesn't ever do anything just for fun. Nor does it with Jesus.
People have misunderstood Solomon's (and yes, Solomon definitely wrote Ecclesiastes) words, repeated throughout the book, to the effect that "All is vanity". In the same way that people attach invalid and inappropriate feelings and assumptions to the unfortunate translation of `talents' in the "Parable of the Talents", so also people incorrectly assume that the meaning of `vanity' in Ecclesiastes has the same negative connotation with which we associate the term `vain' ("she's so vain") today.
This is incorrect, and leads to a false sense of both the word itself, as well as the major premise which it reveals in Ecclesiastes. The use of the term is descriptive, but not pejorative. It is an adjective, not a moral judgment. The idea of `vanity' in Ecclesiastes is that of ephemerality, fleetingness, undependability, fickleness, unpredictable in duration. These things that are "vanity" are not inherently bad; they are inherently transitive. They are passing away. They will fail to provide a permanent basis for happiness, contentment, fulfillment, purpose, or satisfaction in life.
They can and do give temporary pleasure, and these are not bad things to enjoy. In fact, Ecclesiastes encourages people to find pleasure in the blessings of life (which we should know are from God). But they do not, and cannot, ultimately fulfill or satisfy.
Most of humanity spends its life in pursuit of things that they believe will fill the void, the hunger, the nagging sense of emptiness, and the longing for purpose in their lives. Since most people cannot have anything approaching the sum of their desires, it is easy and tempting, and very nearly universally done, to assume that the key to happiness and contentment must lie in the possession of one of those other things that we don't have (since obviously, the stuff we already have isn't getting it done).
But Solomon was perhaps uniquely positioned to try it out for us. And he did, as he says in the book. He gave his heart whatever it desired, to see if it would bring him happiness. Each failed, and he reports to us faithfully the result of each of his experiments, spanning the range of human endeavors and pleasures. Finally, after failing to find complete satisfaction in anything else he had tried, he reveals to us that the only true answer is to serve God.
Let us examine each of the areas in which Solomon searched for the answer before concluding that God was the only one.
I. Learning (1:13-18)
II. Pleasure (Wine and mirth) (2:1-3)
III. Great accomplishments ("A legacy of achievement") (2:4-17)
IV. Hard work and financial reward ("A successful career") (2:18-23, 4:4-12, 6:7-8)
V. Popularity and Fame (4:13-16)
VI. Wealth (5:8-6:2)
VII. Family (6:3-6)
VIII. Anticipation of the Future ("A dreamer") (6:9-12)
The second half of the book begins giving answers. After exhausting all the available avenues of pleasure or fulfillment available on this earth, Solomon begins the second half of the book by explaining such things on the earth as can bring some peace into life. While not ends in themselves, and while not the ultimate goal or purpose of existence, his advice throughout most of the rest of the book is practical and true, and tends to help greatly in leading a contented life.
Finally, the conclusion of the whole matter, which is really quite simple:
"13Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."
So what's depressing? Only if you wanted deeply to find fulfillment in physical things should this conclusion make you sad. In fact, we should actually feel relieved when we read Ecclesiastes. It should be a joyful thing to us. If happiness could only be found in completely indulging all of our heart's desires on this earth, how many of us could ever hope to be truly happy? Which of us can do what Solomon was able to, and indulge every one of his whims?
But what Ecclesiastes tells us in the end is that anyone can find fulfillment and satisfaction in life. That's because anyone can choose to serve God. And if we understand and choose to accept and embrace our purpose and our duty on this earth, we will find the contentment and peace that continues to elude the world, and that eluded even Solomon during his search among earthly things.