So what does the New Testament do with the big idea in Ecclesiastes? We've seen that the key in Ecclesiastes was the idea of hebel - that everything in this life is “just a breath” - it passes away.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, hebel was translated to ματαιοτης / mataiotēs, which my (borrowed) big Greek dictionary translates into English as “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness”. So pretty much the same idea.
Mataiotēs is only used three times in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:17 it describes the way that “the nations” think – taking no notice of God. In 2 Peter 2:18 it's used to describe how false teachers in the church are speaking – attracting Christians to go back to “fleshy desires” and “sensuality” instead of following Jesus. But it's the other use that's the most interesting, and which I mentioned the other day.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to mataiotēs, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV
The mataiotēs of the world is like the suffering of the Christian. It is transitiory. This world is subject to bondage to decay – to running down, to transitoriness, because it will be freed when we are freed. We're in a world that is passing away to remind us that our present situation is only passing away. Everything will be made new in the end.
So the pointlessness of life is in itself a pointer to the fact that the groanings of this life – the fact that we never manage to live up to what we aim for, the tension between being dead to sin but alive to God, the present suffering and the hope of glory – that they are also transitory. They will go, and be replaced by something much better.
But how does this affect the non-Christian? (and I know plenty of my readers wouldn't currently describe themselves as Christians). Life often seems pointless, especially when you think about it. We are born, we live, we die. But there is hope and meaning in life, and that hope and meaning comes only from God, who can do things that last forever, who has come and been born and lived and died so that death doesn't have to be the end for us and there can be a point to life beyond all the pointless transitoriness of existence.