Have you ever had a friend who always saw the cup as half-empty? If something unexpectedly good happens, that friend is looking for any strings attached. If something bad happens, there is never any hope of escape. Eeyore plays this role well in the world of Winnie the Pooh. The Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes plays this role in Scripture. Now, admittedly, viewing the Preacher in a negative light is debated among scholars, but there are good reasons to read him this way.
But before we get to that, a few introductory notes are necessary. Of first importance is to note that the book of Ecclesiastes has two perspectives, a third-person narrative in 1:1-11, 7:27, and 12:8-14, and a first-person reflection comprising the rest of the book. Formally, the authorship of the third-person narrative is anonymous, and there are no external clues to help us identify who composed Ecclesiastes as a whole.
The first-person reflection, however, is a different story. Traditionally, the author of the first-person reflection has been identified as Solomon, David’s Son. Those who argue for this view point to the description of the Preacher as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1), “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12), the Preacher’s own claim of great wisdom (1:16), and the narrator’s description of the Preacher’s work with proverbs (12:9), among other things.
On the other hand, scholars dispute that Solomon is the Preacher based on linguistic evidence and the fact that the Preacher is never actually named, among other things. The linguistic argument appeals to the different styles of Hebrew writing in the Old Testament, but other scholars have successfully counter-argued (in my opinion) that a number of factors explain the linguistic evidence, including respect for the author’s personal style restraining standardization, considerations of dialect, the philosophical nature of the work, and the geo-political realities of Israel during the united monarchy.
Related to this idea, the fact that the Preacher is not named actually lends support to the argument that the Preacher is Solomon. Out of respect for this great king (whether alive or not at the time of publishing his first-person reflection), whom the Lord had cleared blessed with great wisdom, the narrator chose not to call out Solomon by name, but leave enough clues to make the positive identification.
Why does any of this matter? Academically, it helps with dating the book. It provides an historical root for the substance of the book. But more importantly for this reflection, it is a powerful reminder to each and every reader of Ecclesiastes that wisdom is of no value unless it is properly directed toward the glory of God.
And so, the main theme of this wisdom book is the following: your life is as meaningless as chasing after the wind if you do not fear God and keep his commandments. This theme gets hammered into the reader’s head in each of the 12 chapters of the book. As the Preacher turns his attention to different aspects of life, e.g. pleasure, pain, friendship, wealth, leisure, and so on, his pursuit is always fruitless, and his summary conclusion is that his pursuit is meaningless and a striving after wind. This is most starkly observed in the initial section of the Preacher’s reflection (1:12-2:26) in which he fails to find any lasting meaning in wisdom (1:12-18), pleasure (2:1-11), foolishness (2:12-17), and work (2:18-23).
But things take a darker turn towards the end of the Preacher’s reflection. This great wise man determines that true wisdom is beyond his and anyone else’s grasp (7:23-24). Moreover, God’s work in the world is a mystery to the Preacher: “then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (8:17). Finally, the Preacher admits his hopelessness in chapter 9. Though wisdom has benefits in this life, there is no difference between the wise and the foolish after death, for “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (9:5).
The Preacher, however, doesn’t have the last word in Ecclesiastes. After presenting the Preacher’s reflection, the narrator takes over to make a final evaluation. Though the Preacher was very wise, he got lost at some point along the way. Specifically, he lost sight of his chief end, i.e. to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Thus, the narrator ends with a call back to God: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
To conclude, why should we view the Preacher negatively? Because he is absolutely right that there is no lasting meaning in this world apart from God. If you pursue pleasure, wisdom, leisure, hard work, success, notoriety, wealth, or anything else apart from God as your first priority, then your pursuit will ultimately let you down. To say it another way, your life is as meaningless and fruitless as chasing after the wind if you do not fear God and keep his commandments.