Last week we introdcued our study of Ecclesiastes, now its time to tackle the text itself. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 form a narrative introduction to the book itself. While the vast majority of the book consists of wisdom and philosophical discussions about God, life, and our purpose, these verses set the stage for that content. They essentially begin the discussion and propose the question that will continually be asked throughout the entirety of the book. We’re also introduced to the author of the book, the Preacher.
It begins in 1:2 with a dramatic statement that introduces us to one of the key points of the book. The word translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel which is best translated “vapor” and implies “something of little or no value.” That word appears 38 times in the book and will continue to pop up in the discussion. It’s the culmination of the author’s life-long survey of the world around him. The emphatic statement “all is vanity” seems to show us that he cannot find the meaning of life amid what he observes and experiences. Simply put, life is an enigma.¹ It seems prudent to connect these first few verses to James 4:14 which says:
What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
1:3 asks the question that will dominate the direction of the book forward, what profit does life provide? That question is difficult for us, because it’s quantitative, while we measure life qualitatively. We all live, but does life have purpose or even value? Solomon is struggling with that question and while he doesn’t answer the question here, he uses it to draw our thoughts towards the answer. The questions he’ll eventually ask follow this path. First off, what is the point of work? Then, what is the meaning of life? Finally, how do we even know life is meaningful?²
In 1:4-7, Solomon draws our attention to the endless repetition and futility seem in nature.³ It says:
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
When he talks about the “earth remaining forever” in 1:4, forever is the Hebrew word olam which denotes an indefinite period of time.4 The idea is pretty simple, the earth is here and the things of this earth come and go in a cycle of futility. They are a natural example of the hevel Solomon has been talking about.
In 1:8-11, the focus of the vanity shifts to mankind. When he says “all things are wearisome” in 1:5, he is implying the monotony and repetition of life is enough to wear someone out.5 If the cycle that nature displays is evidence to the preacher that “all is vanity,” then how much more would the constant cycle of human mistakes and challenges trouble him? It seems fairly obvious that he sees no end to the cycle when you consider his thoughts in verses 9-11 which say:
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.
Starting at 1:12, the preacher takes over and presents the content of the book from his perspective. From now on, these are not just his words, they’re his point-of-view. He does not begin like Proverbs, with the fear of the Lord, instead he depends on himself (note the use of the term “I” throughout 1:12-18). As this discussion begins, Solomon turns inward instead of upward for an answer to the perplexing questions of life.6 Once again, the passage points us towards a question that needs to be answered – how do you determine if life is meaningful amid the circumstances of this world where nothing seems to make sense.7 Notice what 1:12-15 says:
I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.
The final section in this chapter seems to validate the aforementioned choice of Solomon as author. The mentions of “greatness, wisdom, and knowledge” hint at the moments described in First Kings 3:4-15 and 4:20-34. However, the last verse presents a troubling conclusion for someone “full of wisdom.” In that verse, a radical idea is presented that challenges the basis premise of Proverbs, Psalms and all wisdom literature. 1:18 says:
For in much wisdom is much grief,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Those words question whether devotion to wisdom is the one true road to the good, fulfilled life.8 No other verse shows just how confounded by life our Preacher is than the final one of chapter 1. It’s a disheartening end to the first chapter, but one that seems fitting. Solomon is perplexed by the vanity of life, therefore, Ecclesiastes is his answer to that problem.
¹ Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature, 194.
² Bartholomew and O’Dowd, 197.
³ Denny Petrillo, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, 29
4 Petrillo, 27.
5 Petrillo, 29.
6 Bartholomew and O’Dowd, 199.
7 Bartholomew and O’Dowd, 200.
8 Robert Alter, Job, Proverbs, & Ecclesiastes, 348.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.