Spoiler alert: I’m going to explain how the book of Ecclesiastes turns out, while our weekly study will continue running for a couple of months.
First, a little context. Solomon took the throne rather like a big fish in a small pond. He wasn’t the most powerful of emperors because he avoided the sort of control that comes with empire. He was a king over the one most stable and prosperous kingdom in an age when there weren’t very many stable governments anywhere.
His father David did most of the work of extending influence and power over the unraveling edges of previous empires. At the same time, David established the standard for Hebrew poetry. Solomon established the standard or Hebrew wisdom literature. David still carried the familiarity with nomadic living and fighting for survival, so things had not hit the stasis we see much later when Israel virtually forgets how to live in tents. Thus, David’s poetry exhibits the kind of depth and hunger of soul for peace that makes great art. Solomon still had the taste of that as he settled things down. He experimented with a lot of things in a very short number of years and had the talent to comprehend the importance of what he did. Thus, the pinnacle of Hebrew visionary prophecy was just a couple of centuries later, then the culture of the people went downhill on the same slope of their lost devotion to God’s truth.
Solomon represents the pinnacle of Hebrew self-awareness. It is deeply ANE (Ancient Near Eastern). If you approach Solomon’s books of wisdom from a Western perspective, you’ll be lucky if you are smart enough to think it’s existentialism. It isn’t, but it will seem that way from a Western epistemology. You’ll read things back into his words in just about any translation and it will seem to match the likes of Albert Camus.
You’ll miss the point entirely.
There are several ways to state the fundamental query Solomon makes. In essence, he explores every effort mankind has made, or could make under any context, to overcome the curse of the Fall. Can it be ignored? Good luck with that; you still won’t escape it. Maybe you can convince yourself it’s all bogus and really do some great things and rise in power and importance over great stretches of land and humanity. But it won’t allow you to escape the futility of human existence. Being human after the Fall is the definition of futility. This life isn’t worth much trouble, and certainly not worth a moment’s anxiety.
Solomon does not directly address the issue of cosmology. It’s not a simple matter of not having one, or not understand it. They had access to ancient legends and literature. Don’t forget that despite all the lies by those who hate the Bible (ala the Documentary Hypothesis), the Books of Moses were already published and available for anyone to read. They knew what they believed, and didn’t see much need in hashing it out again. If anything, Solomon hashes out the failed assertions to the contrary.
The one thing you could easily miss is how he smashes the entire range of Western epistemology before there was a West.
The point of Ecclesiastes is to show how foolish it is to embrace the idea that man is not fallen. There were plenty of philosophers in his day promoting the ideas later crystallized in Aristotle’s teachings. Aristotle might have come up with his ideas independently, but they weren’t new. Lots of folks had long asserted the unitary universe. So Solomon decides to play their game and applied his legendary wisdom and intellect to the question of whether they were right. He points out how it all goes wrong in the end.
He tested living on those terms, an honest effort to see how it works out. He did all the things humans could do, all the different ways people chased after some sense of purpose and accomplishment on this earth. Even at the pinnacle of his power, it really didn’t mean much. In the end, he still had to die. And even if you could be immortal on this earth, you wouldn’t like it.
Without directly saying so, Solomon asserts it is not possible to evolve into a higher life form, either. God won’t permit it. Feel free to argue with Him, but it’s a waste of breath.
If you focus on the thing itself, nothing you do will matter for long. You’ll enjoy it, but when it runs out, it’s game over. You still die and someone else gets your stuff. The final answer is for you to make your best effort to discern what God intended for you personally. Don’t make the mistake of thinking He doesn’t notice. He made you and knows what’s best.
Don’t chase what captures your imagination. That might tend to indicate something, but it could also be the worst delusion. Stop daydreaming about stuff you can do, as if doing is important. Stop dreaming about being something or someone. Solomon was in his day the ultimate Someone, and it didn’t matter in the end. That’s the part that sounds like existentialism, or fatalism and some other -isms you might dream up. It all misses the point.
If you are certain God has called you to conquer the world, do so. If you simply want it for yourself, don’t be a fool. Meanwhile, the humblest peasant who scraped by is no worse off than King Solomon in the end. Living as King of Wisdom didn’t help matters, except it allowed him to see all too clearly and write it up in a little book.
You can do no better than embrace God’s revelation and figure out what God wants for you. Then chase that with all your might, because that’s how you reach out to God Himself.