The son of King David, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. His purpose in writing this book is to explore the purpose of life and his own hopelessness.
As humans we focus on aspects of life that are expected to bring happiness. The author had the luxury to explore many aspects of life because of his wealth and his conclusion is that much of what is supposed to bring happiness is “vanity” or of a fleeting nature.
In chapter 2, he says, “I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure…I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine.” His conclusion was that it was a folly or mistake to go that route towards “happiness.”
He says in Eccl 2:4, “I made me great works, I builded me houses, I planted me vineyards, I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens,” etc.” He continues, “Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor.” His observation was that he did receive some joy from the fruit of his labor but overall, his material wealth was “vanity” or temporary wealth.
He turned to “behold wisdom and madness and folly” (Eccl 2:12) He could discern a difference between wisdom and folly as light is different from darkness. Yet there was no “remembrance of the wise man more than of the fool.” He could see that the legacy left by wise men was remembered for only a little longer than the deeds of the fool. Later in Eccl 7:1, he does conclude that a “good name is better than precious ointment” and is valuable in this world in the short term but overall the reputation that a person has is temporary.
These observations caused the author to question the point of life and even to “hate life.” He hated that all his labors would just be left to the next man after him. (Eccl 2:18) And it bothered him to think that the next man might be a fool and squander the riches that he had worked so hard to acquire. The idea that his efforts would be wasted just increased his frustration and hopelessness.
One natural conclusion to all of these observations is that there is no point to life and so we should eat, drink and be merry with the resources we have saving nothing for the future and investing nothing in the future. This conclusion increases hopelessness because people find happiness in having a purpose or a cause to which they can contribute.
Next the author considers God’s work. He ponders on how God’s work is difficult to explain but that what He does lasts forever (as opposed to the fleeting nature of mortal projects.) While the book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t define God’s purpose, God explains his purposes in Moses 1:37-39 “And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” God is not hopeless, his work is intentional and it has everything to do with us. His work lasts forever. It extends beyond the the lifespan of the solar system.
In contrast to this, humans are mortal. They die. “yea they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Eccl 3:19-20) The lifespan of all mortal creatures is fleeting. It begins and ends — but to what purpose? This is what the son of King David is searching for — a reason to hope.
The purpose of humans is linked to God’s purpose and that is where the ultimate source of hope lies for lasting and permanent happiness. As the son of King David considers the state of marriage he concludes that if one is alone, he has neither child nor brother to motivate his efforts. One benefit of marriage is that you don’t have this question to answer, “for whom do I labor, and bereave my soul of good?” (Eccl 4:8) In marriage, you have each other. Helping others and being comforted with the companionship of another person gives a sense of purpose to the labors of this life. But there is a greater purpose to marriage than just making this life easier. The purpose of marriage is to invite children into the world and to guide them in gaining self-mastery in preparation for immortality and eternal life. As humans cooperate with God in His divine work, they prepare themselves for immortality and eternal life. For no one can train up a child without considering which way to go. Children do what you say and not what you do. Those without children can and should prepare themselves for immortality.
The son of King David apparently explored some of the darker side of life. He says of a prostitute, “I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and her hands as bands.” (Eccl 7:26) He considers, in chapter 4, the oppressed. They have no power, they have no comforter. It seemed better to be dead than to live under oppression. I think he is approaching the idea that having power to oppress others is not a source of happiness even though “for this a man is envied of his neighbor.” (vs. 4) He returns to this theme in chapter 8 where he describes the power of the king, “where the word of a king is, there is power.” He notes that those with power cannot control the spirit nor does the power of this world extend beyond death. “Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.” (Eccl 8:12) I think he is trying to say that any injustice of this mortal world is fleeting in comparison to eternity. He doesn’t explicitly say that God’s justice with right all wrongs but in Eccl 3:17 he says, “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.” This promise of justice helps us make sense of the corruption, evil motives and abuses of this world.
I personally believe that the ancient temple ordinances were restored by Joseph Smith in the latter-days. Because of this, I see in Ecclesiastes 9:4,8 a few obscure references to temple ordinances. The son of King David says, “For him that is joined to all the living there is hope.” I take this to mean that there is hope and purpose in families that are sealed together in temples by one who has the authority to bind families together on earth and in heaven. Again, the eternal nature of families is part of what makes God’s work with and for us mortals purposeful. God is not working with dirt and dust without purpose. The soul of man is eternal and comes to this Earth as part of a progression towards eternal glory.
The son of King David tried to understand and compare all that could be experienced in this life. Because he was wealthy, he was able to both build an estate, marry and have children as well as look into the justices and injustices of life. In most cases, he found that mortal work is of temporary value. These things caused him to feel hopeless. However, in considering the eternal nature of the soul and God’s work, he found a reason to hope. He concluded that the best course of action is to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl 12:13) This conclusion is based on the idea that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinners in the eternal scheme of things despite the fact that many things go unpunished in this life. He also bases his conclusion on what is today commonly understood as karma - that what you give comes back to you in the form of natural consequences (Eccl 11:1). For this reason, there is justification for those who choose not to eat, drink and be merry in reckless abandon with the resources that they have and, instead, work for and build family relationships. The eternal family gives purpose to life choices like marriage and parenthood and hope in a mortal world for relationships that last forever.