Question: "What does it mean that everything is meaningless?"

Answer: The book of Ecclesiastes starts out with a startling exclamation:

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Other translations have the word vanity or futility in place of meaningless. The point is the same: Solomon in his old age has found everything in this world to be empty and void of meaning. This lament becomes the theme of the whole book.

Saying that everything is meaningless sounds depressing, but we must keep Solomon’s point of view in mind. This is found in Ecclesiastes 1:14: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” The key phrase is under the sun, which is repeated throughout the book. Solomon is sharing an earth-bound perspective. He is only considering life “under the sun”; that is, a human life lived to the exclusion of any consideration of God. From that godless perspective, everything is indeed “meaningless.”

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon discusses ten vanities—ten things that are “meaningless” when considered from the limited point of view of “under the sun.” Without God, human wisdom is meaningless (2:14–16); labor (2:18–23); amassing things (2:26); life itself (3:18–22); competition (4:4); selfish overwork (4:7–8); power and authority (4:16); greed (5:10); wealth and accolades (6:1–2); and perfunctory religion (8:10–14).

When Solomon says, “Everything is meaningless,” he did not mean that everything in the world is of zero value. Rather, his point is that all human efforts apart from God’s will are meaningless. Solomon had it all, and he had tried everything, but when he left God out of the equation, nothing satisfied him. There is purpose in life, and it is found in knowing God and keeping His commands. That’s why Solomon ends his book this way:

“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).