The Meaning of Ecclesiastes: 8 Principles for Leaders

Ecclesiastes is a pretty unique book of the Bible, and many people struggle to understand its meaning. We typically think of the Bible as a place to find encouragement, but then you read the first couple verses and it says this:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NIV)

At first glance, Ecclesiastes feels like a bit of a downer, but further study reveals a book that helps us to find joy and purpose in a world where things are broken and chaotic. This world is not perfect and provides us with frequent reminders, and we need people who can provide steady leadership through chaotic times.

In this article, we will explore 8 leadership principles from the book of Ecclesiastes and seek to better understand the meaning of Ecclesiastes for people today.

If you want a great introduction to the book, then be sure to watch this video overview from the Bible Project:

Before diving into the leadership principles, I’ll share a short overview of the meaning of Ecclesiastes and then the following leadership principles:

What is the Meaning of Ecclesiastes?

In short, Ecclesiastes makes the case that life is “hebel,” in fact, the uses the word 34 times! The Hebrew word literally means “vapor” or “smoke,” but there is obviously a metaphorical meaning here, which is why it gets translated as “meaningless” by the NIV and “vanity” by the ESV.

And while those words help, they don’t quite capture the full meaning of hebel. Imagine you see smoke – it seems like something tangible. You can smell it and see it, but when you try to take hold of it, it quickly slips through your fingers. It’s mysterious and even chaotic, you don’t know which way it will go, and it can be here one moment and gone the next.

smoke photo

Life is like this – you may see something and believe it will satisfy you, but when you attempt to take hold of that thing it slips right through your fingers. Life is here one moment and gone the next. Things that look solid may actually be just a vapor, and life can often take unexpected turns that don’t seem to make any sense.

And so, this is the meaning of Ecclesiastes: We live in a broken world where life is confusing and chaotic, filled with things that seem satisfying but actually leave us empty, hurt, and/or angry. Instead of trying to seize control of the “hebel” all around us, we should instead focus our lives on fearing God and doing what is right. Life will still be confusing at times and there will still be pain, but ultimately God is the only sure place to find meaning and He will (one day) put all the broken things back together.

Let’s dive into some leadership principles from the book of Ecclesiastes:

1) We are not in control (and that’s ok)

Early in the book of Ecclesiastes we find these words:

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
Ecclesiastes 1:5-7

Mankind loves to feel important. Many of us believe we have a certain level of control: if we do things the right way then things will work out for us. For instance, if you work hard to start a business and hire the best people, create an awesome culture, and have a great product then surely you will have a successful business, right?

But what happens when a global pandemic shuts your business down and cuts off your entire revenue for months? Countless people have experienced this in 2020, when the Covid-19 virus took hundreds of thousands of lives and crippled much of the world’s economy.

And while this may seem like a completely new and unexpected thing, people have experienced this for generations. Pandemics, floods, famines, drought, storms, and other disasters frequently come our way and ruin the best laid plans.

Ecclesiastes 1:5-7 reminds us that the world keeps on moving, with or without our influence. While we may think we’re in control, the reality is there are so many things outside of our control.

This may seem like a scary thing, and frankly it can be. But there is good news – we believe in a God who is gracious, good, loving, and in control. We know that someday He will put the broken things back together, and in the meantime, we can trust that He is using the challenges that we face to shape us to become more like Him.

What is the takeaway for leaders? Be grateful for the success you have, because success is not guaranteed even when you work hard. Be patient and persevere through tribulations, seek God and trust Him to be at work in your heart in seasons of plenty and in want. Embrace your powerlessness, and let it drive you to greater dependence on the Lord.

2) Find pleasure in the simple things

Ecclesiastes frequently discusses the many things in life that are like vapor, but the book isn’t just about chaos and struggle. Throughout the passage, the teacher reminds us to find pleasure and enjoy the simple things in life:

  • Ecclesiastes 2:10 says, “my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil”
  • Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 says, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”
  • Ecclesiastes 3:22a says, “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.”
  • Ecclesiastes 5:18 says, “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.”
  • Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 says, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain [hebel or “vaporous”] life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”

Steve Jobs famously said, “I want to make a ding in the Universe.” Most of us are like Steve – we want to change the world and make an impact that everyone can see or feel.

The only problem is, there are billions of people on this planet and we cannot all be Steve Jobs. Even worse, people who do become famous and make big impacts rarely actually feel satisfied. Ecclesiastes doesn’t speak against trying to change the world, but it does remind us that we must find joy in the simple things in life.

the world photo

Work may be stressful, the commute might be killing you, school can be tough, and the world may feel like it’s falling around you. But then you have a moment of laughter with your child or your friend or your spouse, and suddenly things aren’t so bad. Perhaps you finish a project at work and feel a humble sense of pride in the quality of it. Or maybe you just get to eat a really delicious meal.

These things may just be moments, but those moments are blessings and should bring us joy. As leaders we can get distracted by the big picture, but Ecclesiastes calls us to find joy in the small things, because all of life is fleeting and nothing is guaranteed.

3) Remember that God remembers you

We all want to be remembered. In the movie Troy, Achilles inspires his men by saying, “immortality, it’s yours! Take it!” In other words, if you fight an amazing battle, people will remember you forever!

People were created to be eternal. Death came through sin, and ever since the garden, we’ve known that life is not how it was meant to be. Many people believe that if we live wisely or do memorable things, we will “live on” in people’s memories.

Ecclesiastes approaches this rather bluntly:

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!
Ecclesiastes 2:15-16

It doesn’t matter if you do memorable things or live wisely, it doesn’t matter if you do nothing memorable and live as a fool. All of us have the same destination: we will die. And eventually, even if we are memorable, the people who remember us will also die.

In the Pixar movie Coco, the afterlife exists for people who are still remembered by their family and loved ones. Once your family and loved ones also die, then you simply fade from the afterlife and no one knows what happens to you.

But here is the good news – God is eternal, and God will remember you. Thanks to the work of Jesus, eternity is within our grasp. Not because of the work we’ve done, but because of the work Jesus has done.

And so if you want to be remembered, if you want to be immortalized, then pursue the only one who can actually grant it. Even mountains rise and fall, but God is eternal, and He invites you into an eternal inheritance.

4) Teamwork makes life better

The teacher shares one key piece to satisfaction in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Doing things together is simply better than doing things apart. Having others support you means someone can help you when you stumble, cover your mistakes or inadequacies, and even protect you against external threats.

threefold cord in Ecclesiastes

And yet, often leadership can be a lonely position. We may be tempted to think we can stand alone and do everything ourselves, but the reality is we all need support.

I experience the benefits of teamwork often thanks to my wife – I’m great with the big picture and she sees details that I would never notice. Her emotional intelligence is far superior to mine, and I often find the most efficient way to do something. When I do something stupid at work or at home or in the community, she is there to support and encourage me. Having her in my life makes life more enjoyable and gives me a better chance of success.

Not only does Ecclesiastes have positive things to say about teamwork, it also speaks strongly against working alone and out of jealousy or envy:

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind…Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”
Ecclesiastes 4:4,7-8

Some would argue that when we make work a competition with our neighbor that we will be more successful, but Ecclesiastes calls this “hebel” and a “striving after wind.” Work that is motivated by greed or envy never results in satisfaction, in fact, it is an “unhappy business.”

This does not mean that working with others guarantees you massive success. It doesn’t mean you will find pure joy and solve all of life’s problems. It does, however, mean that working with others is more enjoyable and better than simply working for your own interests.

And this really applies to all aspects of life. The work of ministry, parenting, politics, business, education – all of these tend to be more successful and more enjoyable when done with others. So find people you can trust and get working together. And of course, remember your ultimate partner in life. You may go through seasons of loneliness, but God loves you and can be a constant presence in your life when other relationships fail you.

5) Listen to wise advice

One aspect of teamwork is the ability to seek, find, and listen to others who are smarter than you.

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.
Ecclesiastes 4:13

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
Ecclesiastes 7:5

We typically expect people to become wiser as they get older, but this verse reveals that this is not always the case. Often times, as we get older we become more stubborn. We think we’re smarter than everyone else and forget how to listen.

In a recent post on humble leadership, I shared the story of King Rehoboam. He received wise counsel about leading the people but didn’t like it, so instead he turned to some friends who would endorse whatever he wanted. Because of this, the bulk of his kingdom was torn away from him and his children.

Everyone wants to listen to good advice. The challenge, of course, is recognizing wise advice and separating it from advice that simply supports what you already believe. Adding to the challenge is how sweet the “song of fools” can sound.

bible study photo - wisdom and meaning in Ecclesiastes

There are several practical ways to help you identify the truth, but here are three quick tips:

  1. Recognize your own lack of wisdom
  2. Consistently read God’s word
  3. Pray for wisdom

When it comes to recognizing that you lack wisdom, remember the words of Ecclesiastes 7:23-24:

All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

If an author of the Bible recognizes that wisdom is far off and difficult to find, than we must also come to terms with our own lack of wisdom. This posture opens us up to hear the truth and should feed our desire to find it.

Secondly, reading God’s word helps tune your ears to the truth. In other words, it makes it much easier to know when something comes from the Lord.

Finally, prayer helps give us a humble heart and engages the Spirit to help us understand truth. Ask God to provide wise people in your life who will guide you well and point you to Christ, and never forget how much you need Him.

I can think of few skills more important to a leader than discerning the truth and identifying wise counsel. Stay humble, get to know the pattern of God’s word intimately, and pray for wisdom often!

6) You can’t take it with you

A friend of mine growing up had a dad (named Ted) who passed away from cancer while we were in high school. Ted used to say something like, “I don’t need a u-haul truck for where I’m moving.”

Ecclesiastes reminds us that death will come to us all, and we leave the world the same way we came into it.

As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?
Ecclesiastes 5:15-16

You can’t take it with you. There is no u-haul truck for eternity. You can work your whole life to build up wealth and security, but ultimately you will die and lose everything. Sound depressing?

That’s not the end of the story.

moving van photo - ecclesiastes meaning

First, Ecclesiastes reminds us to enjoy things as they come. If we simply try to accumulate wealth so that, one day, we can enjoy them, then we will probably miss out. If we enjoy the work as God provides it, then we will have a much more satisfying life.

But the work of Christ provides the real hope of glory. We can’t take it with us, but that doesn’t matter because those who are in Christ have an inheritance waiting for us.

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:13-14

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to save or plan for the future – those are  important things. But we should remember that those are not the most important things and they do not guarantee us anything. Our only real guarantee is the treasure in Heaven given to us through the work of Christ, and we would do well to prioritize that in our hopes and actions.

7) Satisfaction comes from the Lord

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2 opens with some sober words:

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.

We can have it all, but still not be satisfied. We can receive everything we want, but have no ability to enjoy them. Everything is “hebel,” a chasing after the wind.

The world is full of people like this. In fact, people who are unsatisfied with their wealth has become so prevalent that there is an actual word for it, affluenza. This isn’t just a trendy pun, it is an actual word in the dictionary: “extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.”

The American Dream puts great emphasis on building material wealth and security. It leads to countless people who are unsatisfied, exhausted, and wishing for more.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that the ability to enjoy things and be satisfied comes from God. He is “the bread of life” (John 6:35) and “the fountain of living water” (Jeremiah 2:13). When we make God our greatest desire, then we will never be hungry or thirst for satisfaction. Not only do we find satisfaction in Him, but He also gives us greater capacity to enjoy the many things He has given us.

So then, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

8) Fear God and obey His commandments

Ecclesiastes ends with a simple, but clear, conclusion.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In many ways, I want more out of this conclusion. I want it to say, “fear God and keep His commandments and lots of good things will happen to you.” I’d be happy if it said, “fear God and you will know great happiness.”

But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise us this, because the author knows that life does not have many guarantees. You could be the most ethical person in the world, and still lose your job. You could be kind and caring, but still get cancer.

I’m not saying you won’t experience happiness in this life – there is much to be had! At the same time, we must recognize that we live in a sinful world where bad things do happen.

happy photo

There is good news, however, Ecclesiastes does point to what God will do in the future. There will come a day when God does bring everything into judgment. What does this mean? Revelation 21 speaks to this in greater context:

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
Revelation 21:5-7

This life may provide trials and tribulations, but eternity will be better than we can imagine for those who fear God and are conquerors. Revelation 21:8 goes on to explain how things will be horrible for those who reject God.

So how do you ensure that we are in the group that “conquers” and not the group that gets rejected by God? Romans 8:37 gives us a clear answer:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

That’s it! We are conquerors through Jesus and his work. He conquered the grave, he conquered sin, and when you put your faith in his work, his status gets applied to you.

Therefore, if you want to be an effective spiritual leader, your duty is to do one thing: fear God and obey his commandments. You can’t do this on your own, of course, which means your real duty is to seek Jesus and allow his grace to renew you daily and equip you to fear God and obey his commandments.

Conclusion

Ecclesiastes is a tough book at times, but it carries an important message about the human condition and the world affected by sin. Life can be hard and doesn’t always make sense, but there is still room for joy and happiness.

Ultimately, God is our rock in all things. We live in a broken world right now, but He is putting the broken things back together and one day we shall know perfect peace, joy, and satisfaction. Until then, we should put our trust in Him, through the good and the bad, and remember to do what is right. Life will be hard, but you will never be alone. Life will be painful too, but we know that someday He will wipe the tears from our eyes. This hope in our future can help us to persevere through every season of life.

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