What a peculiar document is the biblical book of Ecclesiastes!
"'Meaningless, meaningless,' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'" The Teacher starts with that happy thought and winds up with it, yet sprinkled throughout the book are hints of something that is not at all meaningless.
One commentator suggested the author is taking on the persona (perhaps from his own experience) of the worldly person. I think the author is addressing the person who perhaps believes in God in a casual sort of way, but who is really just a materialist. For his discussion the Teacher adopts this worldly viewpoint and drives it unrelentingly to its logical and hopeless conclusion, but all the time dropping hints of something different and better.
Everything, he says, is going to crumble, and you yourself will die. And he proceeds along those lines in kind of a stream-of-consiousness fashion, poisonously juxtaposing comments about enjoying yourself with comments about your ultimately meaningless end. Or, in another case, saying a stillborn is better off than the living because the child has never experienced the pain of life on earth, while in another section saying that a live dog is better off than a dead lion. So, is it better to be dead or alive? The materialist could follow either line of logic, and the Teacher explores them both: Life's meaningless so I might as well just die, or, Life's all I've got so I should enjoy it while I can.
Mr. Cheerful he is not.
But then he goes and drops these little clues all over the place about the spiritual.
Without God, he says, "who can eat or find enjoyment." God has "set eternity in the hearts of men;" "everything God does will endure forever;" what God has done is "so that men will revere him;" "God will bring to judgement;" when man dies "he takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand;" "I know it will go better with God-fearing men;" "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth;" on death "the spirit returns to God who gave it." Plus, there are lots of proverbs instructing people in how to live and, of course, there is the conclusion that men should keep God's commands and that God "will bring every deed into judgement."
His everyday proverbs on how to live and about doing good make no sense if the ultimate spiritual end is destruction. In that case, why do good unless it is convenient? His comment that God will judge makes no sense if that judgement is limited to this life. Listen to him: "Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men." I mean, he's just admitted that sometimes the wicked live a long time, and if, after that, everything is over, judgement makes no sense at all. And why should men revere or remember God if spiritually - not just physically - the good and bad are both going to just be dead? Why would God put eternity in the hearts of men if there was nothing besides death? Just to mock us? And listen to this big hint - Hint? More like a flat-out statement - that the Teacher drops when he says that on death "the spirit returns to God who gave it." Wow! That's what lives on! The spirit.
But even on the spiritual level, the emphasis is on God, not on what we can do. What God does "will endure forever" while nothing we do for ourselves will last for long. It makes me think of the gospel, that Jesus did it all for us. It's not our work. It's his. We just need to trust in him so that when our spirits return to God, as Ecclesiastes says, we will stand in our spiritual selves before God with our sins cleansed and ready to experience the joy of that eternity that God has placed in our hearts.