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Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 1

 

 

Verse 1

"The words of the Preacher the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man in all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is the thing that shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing, whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been done long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after."

"Words of the Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:1). These words identify Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. This verse is supplemented by Ecclesiastes 1:12 in the words, "over Israel," a word which includes all of the Chosen People; and this limits the identification to Solomon, because he is the only "son of David" that ever ruled over the entire Israel in Jerusalem. If anything else had been intended as the meaning here, the words would have read, "Over Judah in Jerusalem." Many scholars, of course, deny that Solomon is the author here; but in the light of the obvious fact that not any of such `scholars' even pretends to know who did write it, it is clear that none of them has any significant contribution to add to what is written here. We take it for what it says.

"Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This is the theme of Ecclesiastes. Is it the truth? Certainly! Especially, if it is construed as an accurate and tragic evaluation of all human life as perpetually circumscribed and condemned under the Divine sentence that fell upon humanity following the debacle in Eden. Is there any future for humanity? Apart from the redemption in Christ Jesus, our race has no future whatever. Augustine referred to Ecclesiastes as, "Setting forth the vanity of this life, only that we may desire that life wherein, instead of vanity beneath the sun, there is truth (and eternal joy) under Him who made the sun"![1]

"What profit hath a man of all his labor ... under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:3). As should have been expected of a man like Solomon, he was thinking only in terms of temporal, earthly, and materialistic `profit.' He who was "Greater than Solomon" asked a much more important question, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul" (Matthew 16:26, KJV)? There is a true evaluation here of the tragedy of all human life.

"One generation goeth ... another cometh ... the earth abideth forever" (Ecclesiastes 1:4). Solomon was wrong about the permanence of the earth. "No one must think of the earth as something permanent."[2] That is the same foolish error of today's frenzied "Environmentalists." Heb. 12:26-27,2 Peter 3:8-10 stress the ultimate `removal' of the earth itself. It is primarily this earth-centered concern of Solomon which the Book of Ecclesiastes is designed to correct.

"The sun ... the wind ... the rivers" (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7). The argument here is somewhat humorous. The sun just goes round and around and never goes anywhere; the wind can't make up its mind; it blows one way today, and the opposite way tomorrow; and the rivers work at it all the time but never fill up the ocean. This, of course, is also exactly what is happening with the generations of men. In pitiful and endless succession, they rise and fade away. In view of the magnificent conclusion of Ecclesiastes in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, we accept the extreme pessimism of these verses as the false viewpoint which Ecclesiastes was designed to refute. "What we have here is a glance at life within the mundane limits which are the same for all men."[3]

"The eye is not satisfied with seeing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8). This is exactly the same as Solomon's proverb (Proverbs 27:20). See our comment there.

"There is no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is the equivalent of the modern truism that history repeats itself. The reference here is not to such things as discoveries and inventions. The prophet Daniel foretold that, "knowledge would be increased," in the time of the end (Daniel 12:4). Despite this, the verse here is profoundly true. Emotionally, man is exactly the same as he always has been. The sins of America today are exactly the sins of ancient Babylon. Man rationalizes his sinful behavior and yields to seductive temptations in exactly the same patterns as always. In this sector, there is indeed "nothing new under the sun." Man's basic spiritual need is the same as that of Adam and Eve after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Ecclesiastes 1:11 may be translated differently, as in the RSV. "There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after."

One of the mysteries of Ecclesiastes regards the terrible pessimism that marks many of the isolated statements. Are these the actual belief of the writer, or is he merely presenting what he regards as a false view which he will forcefully deny and correct in his conclusion? To this writer, the second explanation is the proper one.

Regarding the negative declaration here that there is no profit whatever in this life, regardless of the concerns and labors of any person whomsoever, "Such pessimism is unacceptable to Christians who hold that Christ constitutes the meaning of all human history and who hold that labor done in His service is not meaningless."[4] Indeed, even he who gives so small a thing as a cup of cold water in the service of Jesus Christ, "Shall in no wise lose his reward" (Matthew 10:42).

However, the author of Ecclesiastes was writing without any knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; and, in that context, the picture given here of the pitiful uselessness and futility of human life on earth is profoundly and tragically accurate. To every non-Christian who might see these lines, read here the summary of your life as it will inevitably develop apart from service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 12
THE AUTHOR SPEAKS OF HIMSELF

"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: it is a sore travail that God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."

"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:12). "The word from which `Preacher' is translated is a Hebrew term, [~Qoheleth], pronounced `Koheleth' or `Kohelet.' Many attempts to translate this have given us: `Ecclesiastes,' `The Preacher,' `The Speaker,' `The President,' `The Spokesman,' `The Philosopher,'; and we might add, `The Professor.'"[5]

Along with Ecclesiastes 1:1, this virtually names Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. Some scholars think that the words, all that were before me in Jerusalem, denies that Solomon was the author, but there is no such denial in it. All that were before me, should not be read as if it said, "All the kings that were before me." Even if it meant `kings', the words all that were before me would apply to the two kings who preceded Solomon as well as it would apply to twenty-five or thirty. Scott noted also that, "If the passage is construed as a reference to `kings' who preceded Solomon `in Jerusalem,' then it might include pre-Davidic kings such as Melchizedek."[6]

Also, the Revised Standard Version renders Ecclesiastes 1:12; "I, the Preacher, have been king, etc.;" and many scholars understand this as an assertion that the writer, at the time of his writing, was not king. We do not accept that as a necessary conclusion. F. C. Cook, a very dependable scholar, stated flatly that, "This does not imply that Solomon had ceased to be king when this was written"[7]

"In much wisdom is much grief" (Ecclesiastes 1:18). This is the message of the whole paragraph. Even the pursuit of wisdom, like everything else, is vanity and a striving after wind. In all of these negative and pessimistic statements, one should understand that their primary application is to every life that is without the blessed hope in Christ Jesus. This is the message that should be thundered in the ears of all mankind: You are never going to arrive at any worthwhile place without the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. You will never chase anything except "the wind" unless you receive and obey Christ.

"It is a sore travail that God hath given unto the sons of men" (Ecclesiastes 1:13). This is a very significant line. The author is not an infidel. He believes in God and is able to see in the universal frustrations of our fallen race the will of God. Why is this so? Because the human family, in the person of our progenitors, by reason of their choosing to serve Satan in Eden, have brought all their posterity under condemnation.

Yes indeed, it is God's will that man's activities should end in frustration and defeat (until they might turn to God and obey Him). Did he not curse the earth itself for Adam's sake (Genesis 3:17-19)? "The conclusion reached here is that man is destined by God to ceaseless effort without results."[8]

"That which is crooked cannot be made straight" (Ecclesiastes 1:15). "Nothing that man can do can remedy the anomalies with which he is surrounded."[9] The inadequacy of all systems of government, economics, education, etc., are utterly beyond his power to improve or correct them. In a word, "He is stuck with the situation into which he was born."

"I have gotten me great wisdom" (Ecclesiastes 1:16). If Solomon indeed is the author here, his thoughts have already departed from the way of the Lord, because here he claimed that, "I have gotten me, etc.," whereas, as a matter of truth, God had given Solomon his great wisdom in answer to prayer." Here he was already well on the road to the apostasy that wrecked his life, his administration, and the kingdom of Israel. Solomon's wisdom was nothing whatever that he searched out. It was a loving gift from God.

In this context, Cook pointed out that even in those thirty-nine times that the author used the term God in the Book of Ecclesiastes, he never once used the sacred covenant name Jehovah by which God was known to the Chosen People. All of the references use the term [~'Elohiym].[10] This might indicate that Solomon no longer, when this was written, considered himself obligated by the sacred covenant.

Some recurring phrases in Ecclesiastes should be noted. "Under the sun," "on earth," "under heaven," and "those who see the sun" " - All of these indicate the sphere of vision that prevails in Ecclesiastes, MAN'S LIFE ON EARTH."[11] Furthermore, it is a view of man's life on earth without any knowledge whatever of the Redemption in Christ Jesus. The profound tragedy is that this description fits millions of people this very day. A proper understanding of the seventh chapter of Romans gives us another picture of these Christless millions "without Christ." See our comment on that chapter.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:1". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/view.cgi?book=ec&chapter=001". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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