Ecclesiastes is a very dark book whose message can easily be taken to be that everything is meaningless, so what’s the point of anything, including living? We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbath 30b) that the Rabbis tried to keep the Book of Ecclesiastes out of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. I can see why.
The popular parts are taken out of context. As a child of the 1960’s, who is now in his sixties, I remember when “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” by the Byrds was a big hit. Written by Pete Seeger, the song is a musical recitation of Ecclesiastes 3.1-8. Sung at too many weddings by young men and women with daisies in their hair, it might just as well have been sung at funerals, but as far as I know it wasn’t. But I didn’t go to many funerals in those days.
Grand mimetic incoherence
Ecclesiastes has been called a work of “grand mimetic incoherence.” The incoherence of the style mimics (mimetic) a fundamentally incoherent reality (Berger, p. 163). One moment the author, conventionally called the Teacher (Kohelet), tells us that
Meaningless, says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (1.2)
Nice way to begin a book that says that everything is wearisome, whatever has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun, and in the end, a man’s wisdom and acts count for nothing. Soon he will be dead and forgotten, his achievements momentarily eclipsed by another who will soon go the same way.
A few verses later we find the author, who purports to teach the wisdom of Solomon, arguing that God will bring the righteous and the wicked to proper judgment (3.17). And back and forth it goes for twelve chapters: all is meaningless, but God has everything in hand, we just don’t know his plan.