This article addresses the Bible as literature, not as a religious text. The story told in Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, one of the Kings of Israel, a son of David. Whether or not it is literal or allegorical is no more or less important than knowing which characters in On The Road represent what real life people.
Not everyone who quotes the Bible is a conservative or evangelist. Hunter S. Thompson wrote "I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language--and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music." -- Generation of Swine. Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s(Thanks to Kevin Kizer for helping me find that quote.)
Of course, the famous folk-rock band, The Byrds, had the hit song "Turn, Turn, Turn". This song is based on a passage from Ecclesiastes:
To every thing, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap"
Even when the book speaks directly of "fearing God", the skeptic need not avoid it as fairy tale; "fearing God" can mean many things. Remember, Ecclesiastes is a Jewish document and so fearing God harkens back to the ten commandments. Those ten commandments can basically be broken down to "treat others fairly and honestly". So when the Elder says "fear God" he is saying, "live by your code of right and wrong. Start living now. But know right from wrong. Don't wait until it's late in life and the 'silver chord' is about to break.
The first thing the writer shouts out right from the top of the page is, "Vanity! Futility!" Okay . . . well, the King James Bible says "Vanity, but all the scholars agree that the word meant, "Futility." It's really the same thing.
The story follows this powerful King who surrounds himself with all of life's pleasures. He sets out to discover what life is all about. He tries everything: studying and gaining knowledge from books and teachers, drinking wine and laughing like crazy, building great gardens and increasing his possessions and wealth, having as many women as he wanted (strange thing that the conservative Christians don't explain why Solomon had so many wives, other than to say "those were different times"). He gets tired of studying and brushes it off with the observation, "Many words can be wearying." In fact, he gets tired of everything. He doesn't say that any of these activities are wrong, but simply that there is still something missing on the inside. All activity under the sun is futile in and of itself.
The writer of this story also sought pleasure in working hard and enjoying the feeling of calm and rest that comes after an honest days work. At one point he even says:
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen , that it is from the hand of God.
But even this life becomes wearisome to the Wise Man, and he unleashes this:
So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me [I can relate to that] because everything is futility and striving after the wind.
The writer then looks outward, globally, and he sees:
I looked at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them.
This great King who can have any woman and all the wine he wants says, "It would be better to never be born." He can't find peace in all of his labors and revelry until he gets the epiphany! It's all right to be happy. It's all right to enjoy the fruit of your labor and the wine and food. Just live with a conscience. There is right and there is wrong. Stand as honest as you can to your fellow human.
This is not much different from the revelation the Buddha had. As Levi Asher writes in his Litkicks article on Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened when he looked at both the self-destructiveness of those who deny their desires and the misery of those who follow their desires, the Prince realized that there is a Middle Path, which is to simply lose one's desires. That is, an enlightened person should simply exist without desire. His needs and urges cease to control him, and he thereby avoids the cycle of indulgence and denial that tortures, confuses and distracts every living soul."
We've all heard the saying, "If I knew then what I know now . . ." That's what the writer is talking about. Get a little wisdom now, while you are young. It can only help you.
I'm not sure what to make of Chapter 8 where he says, "Obey all your rulers." Either the rulers were really good at the time, or this writer had some vested interest. Oh, wait a minute. Didn't we say King Solomon supposedly wrote this? Well, he sounds like a good ruler in my book, so to speak, I guess he can express a call to order.
Toward the end, the writer challenges the reader "Whatever you hand find to do, do it with all your might." When I was younger, some conservative Christians tried to tell me this meant I had to work myself to death; then I found out, it's like, if I'm engaged in an artistic project like writing or playing guitar, I will put my entire self into it.
Noel Paul Stookey is one of the members of Peter, Paul, & Mary, who are friends with Bob Dylan. In a magazine called Christianity Today, Mr. Stookey said, "Scriptural references were commonplace in Dylan songs, mostly Old Testament images. The allusions were rather strong, and there was no denying the power and authority of lines like "the first will be last," in "The Times They Are A-Changin'". Then Woodstock, 1967: "I'm looking for truth; Bob is recovering from a motorcycle accident. He graciously allows a friend and me into the house to ask questions of the universe. He is totally honest with me, kind" and suggests I do some Bible reading. Thanks, Bob. -- Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary from the January 4, 1980, issue of Christianity Today.
(I just threw in that Dylan story to further legitimize this foray into Bible territory. Not that I think I have to.)
Check out Ecclesiastes (EEE-Clees-y-AST-ees). I would recommend a modern version, not the Old English of the King James version. Some of them have cool illustrations.