Introduction

Ecclesiastes is called “the words of the Preacher.”[1] Solomon speaks in the third person to make plain that he embodies wisdom in what follows. If anyone thinks he can outsmart Ecclesiastes, he is mistaken. Many people have thought themselves cleverer than the Bible. We see this ambition today in the academy. Men and women of great intellect think they have unhitched themselves from God’s ancient wisdom. However, no one has ever been as wise as Solomon (1 Kings 3:12); no words have ever been so keen as the words of the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Ecclesiastes, as the Word of God and the testimony of a man who embodies wisdom, should have doubled weight with us. There is no escaping the teaching of Ecclesiastes.

The book opens with a traditional poem (vv.2-11). All of Ecclesiastes is poetry, but it isn’t all poetry in the same way. There are proverbs (e.g. vv.15, 18), like the book of Proverbs. There are soliloquys (e.g. vv.12-14, 16-17), which comprise most of the book. These are long chains of thought where Solomon advances his argument poetically. Last of all, there are traditional poems (e.g. vv.2-11), like the book of Psalms. All three of these categories are poetic. The text before us is a traditional poem.

All is Vanity

All is vanity,” Solomon says (v.2).[2] “Vanity” is translated from hebel (הָֽבֶל), which means literally “breath, wind” (e.g. Isaiah 57:13) and figuratively “fruitless, futile” (e.g. Jeremiah 10:15).[3] “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4 [cf. James 4:14]). Hebel feels like trying to punch in a dream or swim upriver. Hebel looks like a basketball player sprinting for a lay-up while his team is losing by fifty points and the clock reads “.8 seconds.” Hebel tastes like raisins in a cookie when you’re trying to believe they’re chocolate chips. In Ecclesiastes, something is hebel (“vain”) if it produces no effect. For this reason, it is best we interpret hebel as “futility” or “fruitlessness.”[4]

When Solomon writes, “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2), he is thinking about everything a person is or does; man lives a “vain life” (7:15; cf. 9:9). He emphasizes just how futile life is by repeating, “Vanity of vanities” (1:2), which is a superlative expression in Hebrew (CSB reads, “absolute futility”). When you gather all fruitless things into a basket, our lives stick-out as the most futile. There was a “holy of holies” in the tabernacle (Exodus 26:33); Canaan was a “servant of servants” (Genesis 9:25); God inspired a “song of songs” (Song of Solomon 1:1); Nebuchadnezzar was called the “king of kings” (Daniel 2:37).[5] In the same way, our lives are a “vanity of vanities.”[6]

It is clear that Solomon is calling man’s life futile because that fact that all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2) leads him to ask in verse 3, “What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?[7] The implied answer is, “nothing,” because all his toil is vanity. Life is an apple tree that never produces apples. Life is a blanket that never keeps you warm. Life is a roof that always leaks. Man gets a few decades to wrestle the universe and nothing comes of it.

This revelation frightened Solomon.[8] In the first two chapters of Ececlesiastes, he gives an account of coming to this conclusion (1:1-11) and trying to escape it (1:12-2:26). He elaborates on why a man’s toil is futile in verses 4-11. First, he considers the permanence and cycles of nature (vv.4-7). Second, he considers the limitations, appetites, and general folly of man (vv.8-11). “Look at the world around you, and know that toil is futile,” Solomon says in verses 4-7. “Now look at yourself, and know that toil is futile,” he says in verses 8-11. Nature and man repeat themselves over and over again, which demonstrates that all our blood, tears, and sweat never actually change things. It’s all futile.

Vanity Around and Within

First, nature demonstrates the vanity of toil (vv.4-7). “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (v.4; cf. Psalm 104:5). Everyone has a family tree, comprised of births and deaths. This goes on and on, generation after generation. Eventually, generations are forgotten – case-in-point, you probably don’t know what your family tree looked like in the 1200’s AD. Solomon points out that as our generations come and go, the earth remains. The terebinth tree under which Jacob buried idols (Genesis 35:4) was the same tree against which Joshua leaned a stone (Joshua 24:26), five hundred years later. Wars are fought, ages passed, economies spent – all on the same dirt, under the same sky, against the same mountains. When you have passed, things will be the same.[9]

However, Solomon is not simply saying that the earth is permanent; he is saying that the ways of the earth are permanent. Nature exists in cycles, and these cycles are irreversible. God explained this after the Flood: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). The sun rises and falls every day (Ecclesiastes 1:5). The wind blows around and around until it returns (v.6). Streams form rivers, rivers run to seas, but seas are never full. The water evaporates and falls back down to earth, joining to form streams, and the cycle starts over again (v.7). Nature is filled with circles, “restless motion always renewing itself.”[10] The earth is a mother constantly in labor with no child to birth.

Solomon calls the way of nature “weariness.” Nature does not become tired, but it betrays weariness in its repetition. “Hastens” (ESV) in verse 5 is literally “returns panting,” explaining the sun’s nocturnal journey as a sprint.[11]The image Solomon hands us is of a world with circles under its eyes.[12] Practically, Solomon means by “weariness” that it is tiring to live in such a world.[13] The cyclical design of the earth is full of weariness for us. We (like the sun, wind, and water) travel in a circle, always back at the place where we began. Adam was made from dustand to dust he returned (Genesis 3:18). The repetitions of nature will continue regardless of how hard you work.

There is an order that you can’t tamper with. There is a way the world is that, no matter how hard you work, you won’t be able to change. Men build enormous empires, with complex economies and remarkable technology. Spring still turns into summer, which gives way to fall, and after that, winter. With all his glory, man cannot make the sun come up faster. With all his ingenuity, man cannot keep the hurricane from blowing. Even our best attempt at global warming fails to fill up the sea.

Second, mankind demonstrates the vanity of toil (vv.8-11). Solomon briefly anticipates a theme he will pick up on later: “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (v.8). What Solomon means is that a man cannot explain it. The earth keeps spinning around and around, century after century, and no one can explain the meaning of it all. No one knows why things appear so weary. This is the limitation of man, which Solomon presents fully in chapter three. You could study the world a thousand lifetimes and still be left wanting for understanding. This is where part of the weariness of nature is found: we live in a world that keeps repeating itself over and over and over again, yet we still can’t explain it all.

After alluding to the limitations of our mind, the Preacher points to our appetites. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (v.8; cf. Proverbs 27:20). A man sees or hears something he likes, and he takes it. The problem is that eventually the desire will return. You will eat dinner tonight, but tomorrow evening you will be hungry again. A drug addict will use tonight, but tomorrow evening she will need another high. We all have desires that we fulfill, and which come again sooner or later. Our unquenchable desires will never be fulfilled, because there is never anything new (v.9). If nothing satisfies the eye and ear today, there will be nothing to satisfy it in a hundred years.

Solomon points to one last vanity of mankind in verses 9-11. He makes a general point concerning man’s history: “There is nothing new under the sun” (v.9). What we read in ancient chronicles is what will be in our children’s biographies: “What has been done is what will be done” (v.9). Anything you may be tempted to point at and say, “Look! Here is something new!” is a thing which has been already in ages past (v.10).

This is a philosophical statement, not a technological one. Solomon’s assertion has nothing to do with advances in medicine or metallurgy, for example. His point concerns how we live. Our tools change but our ambitions do not change. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. His army used muskets and horses. On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. His army used machine guns and tanks. The tools each used were different, but the objective was the same. The outcome was the same, too: Napoleon and Hitler were both crushed by the Russians in winter. Hitler committed the same mistake Napoleon had made 130 years earlier.

Communism failed in the 20th century, but people will keep calling for it. Adultery has ruined families for thousands of years, but families will continue to be ruined by it. Pelagianism was rebuked by the church 1600 years ago as heresy, but Christians will continue to be swayed by it. On and on, history repeats itself. “There is nothing new under the sun” (v.9).

We repeat ourselves because “there is no remembrance of former things” (v.11). Like Israel in the Old Testament, mankind continues to stumble over the same mistakes. Our memory is too short. This is the very definition of insanity: “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11 NASB). What good is your toil, then? You will work and labor on this earth for days and months and decades, only to have your lessons forgotten and wisdom unheeded. The mistakes you have made will be repeated by your great grandchildren. All is vanity, all is futile![14]

One Eye on the Map

This traditional poem is the first part of the first section of Ecclesiastes. The first section encompasses 1:1-2:26. In this section, Solomon walks us through his journey to find fruit in fruitlessness. In the first part, which we have just considered (1:1-11), Solomon comes to the realization that everything is vanity. In the second part (1:12-18), Solomon will reflect on toil and sets his face toward escaping futility. In the third part (2:1-16), Solomon will detail his great search for fruit. In the fourth and final part (2:17-26), Solomon will reveal the answer: the point of our toil is joy, and the kind of joy only God can give. The second section of Ecclesiastes is about the sovereignty of God (3:1-8:17). The third and final section of Ecclesiastes is about wisdom (9:1-12:14).

It is important to keep one eye on this map of Ecclesiastes, because it will be tempting to draw improper conclusions from solitary verses. For example, if we read the traditional poem we just studied (1:1-11) and went no further, we might conclude that only sadness and unfettered indulgence are all we should give ourselves to. When we read 1:1-11 in light of why Solomon is saying what he is saying, we realize he is not yet telling us how we should live, but rather giving us a personal testimony about how he came to the conclusions he later details. The Preacher, from the beginning of this book, is taking you through the journey his mind went through for several decades. So every time we study Ecclesiastes, I will remind you of where we are on the map.[15]

Exhortations

First, this opening poem should humble you. Many say, “You can do and be anything you want.” Youth are called to be “world changers.” Christians must go “make an impact” for Christ in the world. Ecclesiastes has from the beginning begun to curb these notions. There are in fact some things you can’t do. God is in the heavens, you are on the earth. We all must learn to live as God’s creatures, humbly accepting how He has created us.

Second, this opening poem should compel you to study nature. History, science, mathematics, philosophy – these are all valuable endeavors. School may be wearisome for you, but let God’s wisdom through Solomon give you renewed energy and motivation to study the world you live in. Knowing history will keep you from repeating mistakes of the past.[16] Knowing science will reveal to you the fingerprints and genius of God in the cycles and patterns of the universe. Studying the natural world can be very fruitful.

Third, this opening poem warns you against thrill-seeking. Some people thrill-seek at parties, others want roller coasters and stunts. Many Christians seek the thrill of a modern worship service. The irony of thrill seeking is not that thrills are unreachable, but that they leave you more wanting than before. The eye is made for seeing, but Solomon says it is not satisfied with seeing. The ear is made for hearing, but it is not satisfied with hearing. You will remain unsatisfied if you cannot satisfy yourself with how God made you.

Fourth, this opening poem should sober your comfortable life. Some families are wealthier than others. Regardless, we all have comforts to enjoy. A couch and TV are comforts. Nice clothes are a comfort. Three meals a day is a comfort. Some people have luxurious comforts, like mansions, diamond jewelry, and lavish parties. No matter how great your comforts are in life, you have been warned: it is all in vain. It will all come to nothing. Netflix can’t stop the way of the earth from overtaking you.

Fifth, this opening poem should make plain for you the richness of God’s grace. In the grand scheme of things, you are not powerful or important, special or innovative. You are one among billions and billions of people. Your life is a breath, your work is fruitless, your knowledge is miniscule – but still, God has stooped down to relate with you. God has taken time to reveal Himself to you. Look at who you are and what God has done on your behalf. Jesus Christ, Who created the earth you sleep on, bore your sin on a cross – made from a tree He caused to grow.

One of the greatest comforts is that God’s grace is not fruitless – it isn’t vain. The work of your hands won’t really amount to anything, when all is said and done. The work of God’s hands, however, will be eternally fruitful. So do not hesitate to come share in His grace. There is nothing else on this vain earth to hope for.

Bless God, then, O my soul—in Jesus thou hast that which is not vanity. In Jesus thou hast all that’s solid, durable, and perfect; food, riches, strength, life, pleasure, comfort, peace. In Him what hast thou not? A sure foundation! A Rock that moveth not! Unfailing help! And hope, which maketh not ashamed! Receive, then, of His fulness, and be full indeed.[17]

G. W. Mylne

[1] Some commentators consider the third person evidence at the beginning and end of Ecclesiastes to be evidence of later addition (e.g. Young). This is a complicating and unnecessary theory. The poetic character of Ecclesiastes satisfactorily explains Solomon’s use of the third person.

[2] Solomon’s emphatic point that life is vain would have struck Israel as odd, for with Solomon they enjoyed golden years. However, Israel would quickly learn that their kingdom was not the consummate kingdom of God. Soon Israel would stop looking back to the Garden (viewing Canaan as a return to the good creation Adam enjoyed) and would start looking forward to a New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; cf. Matthew 19:28; 2 Peter 3:13). Ecclesiastes is the first emphatic declaration of the church’s need for a glory beyond, not simply back to, the Garden. The opening poem of Ecclesiastes (1:1-11) elegantly begins to construct such an eschatology by means of pristine Biblical theology: 1:1-11 is essentially an expression of Adam’s curse (Genesis 3:17-19). When God created the world, it was good (vv.10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and man had good work to do (2:15, 18). Now in Ecclesiastes, we are confronted with a terrifying world where all work is fruitless: creation is cursed (Genesis 3:17-19) and given to futility (Romans 8:20). The pain of this vanity was not unique to Solomon. Adam and Eve named their son hebel (Abel, Genesis 4:2). Noah’s father lamented the futility of toil (5:29), as did Jacob (47:9), Moses (Psalm 90:10), and David (39:6-7) (See E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon [Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860], 44; E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon [Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860], 44). This opening poem (and the entire “vanity” theme in Ecclesiastes) is calling the reader to recognize that the Adamic Curse is not over-thrown by the Old Covenant. For this to occur, a new covenant is needed. Therefore, 1:1-11 is a preliminary herald of Christian eschatology.

[3] Hebel was also Abel’s name (Genesis 4:2) and a term for idols (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:21; Psalm 31:6). The word occurs thirty-seven times in Ecclesiastes and only thirty-three times elsewhere (E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, trans. D. W. Simon [Philadelphia; New York; Boston: Smith, English, & Co.; Sheldon and Company; Gould and Lincoln, 1860], 46).

[4] The New English Translation and the Christian Standard Bible both translate hebel as “futility.”

[5] cf. Ezra 7:12; Ezekiel 26:7. Christ alone is truly King of Kings (2 Timothy 6:15).

[6] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 404. This expression “is the non plus ultra of vanity, – vanity in the highest degree” (Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 6 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996], 658).

[7] Some commentators consider “all” to refer to “all things” (e.g. Jamieson, Hengstenberg, Bridges) but Solomon never applies hebel in Ecclesiastes to all things (see the following: 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7, 8, 16; 5:7, 10; 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8). Those who hold this position typically see verse 3 as a consequent of verse 2. In contrast, I submit verse 3 as explanatory, not consequential, to verse 2. In so doing, I agree with Young that verse 3, not verse 2, is the “key to the whole treatise” (Young, 44), though understanding what “vanity” means may be most important. Of verse 3 Stuart says well, “It challenges all men to show that there is any profit. And if none, then all is vanity indeed” (Moses Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes [New York: George P. Putnam, 1851], 111). “Under the sun” is a poetic expression that is best taken literally. On “toil” Wardlaw says well, “Not only the labour of the hands, but also the labour of the brain” (Ralph Wardlaw, Lectures on the Book of Ecclesiastes, vol. 1 [London; Glasgow: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown; Wardlaw and Cunninghame, 1821], 15).

[8] Many commentators (e.g. Cotton, Buchanan, Finlayson, Holden, Wardlaw) are compelled to clarify Solomon’s words in verses 2-3, that the Preacher does not actually mean all labor is vain (as Solomon acknowledges in Proverbs 14:23). Those under such compulsion have failed to grasp or hold in view the context of these verses. Solomon is giving an account of the beginning of his search for meaning, he is not laying out principles to live by. The time for these principles will come with chapter 3, but for now (ch.1-2) Solomon does nothing of the sort.

[9] Augustine wrote, “The generations of men upon the earth resemble leaves upon an evergreen tree. The earth bears the human race, as the tree bears its many leaves, and is full of men, some dying, and others by birth succeeding to their places. The tree is always evergreen, and replenished with leaves. But look beneath the crust of the earth. Consider over how many dead leaves you constantly walk (Quoted in John Noble Coleman, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Notes Explanatory, Illustrative, and Critical, Second Edition [Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1867], 2).

[10] Keil and Delitzsch, 659.

[11] Jamieson, 404.

[12] All things “are restless, hastening on, giving the impression of fatigue” (Keil and Delitzsch, 661).

[13] His primary intent with verses 5-7 may be to draw a comparison between the cyclic nature of the earth and mankind, as Young explains: “Indeed the Hebrew word or letter vav, here translated ‘also,’ is often used to make a comparison. (See Gesenius’s Lexicon, Job 5:7. ‘Man is born to trouble as [vav] the sparks fly upward,’ 14:19: ‘[so] thou destroyest the hope of man,’ 12:11; 34:3; Proverbs 26:9).” (Loyal Young, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1865], 47). I consider Solomon’s intent broader than this, but acknowledge it is a possible implication in the text.

[14] “There is no remembrance of former things” may also refer to a general forgetfulness in due time. In the late 19th century, Strong remarked, “The modern world is frequently hearing of ‘the lost arts’ of antiquity, and is constantly surprised at discovering in ancient records and monuments signs of intelligence and skill which we have been in the habit of claiming as more recent inventions and improvements” (James Strong, A Complete Hermeneutical Manual on the Book of Ecclesiastes, The Student’s Commentary (New York; Cincinnati: Hunt & Eaton; Cranston & Curts, 1893), 48.). In the early 21st century, the same is true.

[15] There are three primary ways to explain Ecclesiastes. The critical opinion holds the Preacher in contempt for cynicism and poor theology. Because Ecclesiastes is God-breathed, we dare not hold the Author in contempt. A cautionary explanation sees the entire book as an exercise in dangerous, speculative wisdom, which we are drawn out of in the twelfth chapter. The constructive opinion finds the main body of Ecclesiastes as instructive and beneficial, only the first few chapters being any type of speculative exercise. I explain Ecclesiastes in the third way, as evident in the above outline.

[16] “It is ignorance and inexperience that makes objects appear new, which indeed are old” (Edward Reynolds, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, ed. Daniel Washbourn [London: Mathews and Leigh, 1811], 26).

[17] G. W. Mylne, Ecclesiastes; Or, Lessons for the Christian’s Daily Walk (London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1856), 2.

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