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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Ecclesiastes 1

 

 

Verse 1

1. The title1:1

The author identified himself by his titles (cf. Proverbs 1:1). These titles, as well as other references to the writer in the book (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:4-9), point to Solomon more than to any other person. [Note: See Kaiser, pp25-29 , for a good defense of Solomonic authorship.] Later he claimed divine authority for this book ( Ecclesiastes 12:1).

The term "Preacher" (Heb. qohelet, NIV "Teacher") refers to a wise sage who taught the Israelites God"s will. Along with the priests and prophets, the teachers were those through whom God communicated His Word to His people (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:9; Jeremiah 18:18; Ezekiel 7:26). Teaching typically appeals to the mind, and its main purpose is to impart information, whereas preaching typically appeals to the will, and its main purpose is to promote action. In Israel, the priests were primarily the teachers, and the prophets were primarily the preachers. In most modern church services-and this was true in Israel as well-speakers often seek to combine teaching and preaching. This is especially true in expository preaching.


Verse 1-2

A. Title and Theme1:1-2

The first two verses contain the title of the book and its theme.


Verses 1-11

I. THE INTRODUCTORY AFFIRMATION1:1-11

The first11verses of the book introduce the writer, the theme of the book, and a general defense of the assertion that Solomon made in the theme statement ( Ecclesiastes 1:2).


Verse 2

2. The theme1:2

"Solomon has put the key to Ecclesiastes right at the front door: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?" ( Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Just in case we missed it, he put the same key at the back door ( Ecclesiastes 12:8)." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, " Ecclesiastes ," in The Bible Exposition Commentary/Wisdom and Poetry, p478.]

"Vanity" (Heb. hebel) probably does not mean "meaningless." As Solomon used this word in Ecclesiastes he meant lacking real substance, value, permanence, or significance. [Note: Hebel appears38 times in Ecclesiastes and only35 other times elsewhere in the Old Testament. In13of these passages the word describes idols.] "Vapor," "breath-like," or "ephemeral" captures the idea (cf. Proverbs 21:6; Isaiah 57:13). [Note: See Kathleen A. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good? A Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes , pp142-46; Graham S. Ogden, Qoheleth, pp17-22; and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes , p219.] One writer favored the words "absurd" or "absurdity." [Note: See Michael V. Fox, "The Meaning of Hebel for Qoheleth," Journal of Biblical Literature105:3 (September1986):409-27.]

"It appears to imply here both (1) that which is transitory, and (2) that which is futile. It emphasizes how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one has them (cf. James 4:14)." [Note: Laurin, p586.]

"You think you have all the dishes washed and from a bedroom or a bathroom there appears, as from a ghost, another dirty glass. And even when all the dishes are washed, it is only a few hours until they demand washing again. So much of our work is cyclical, and so much of it futile." [Note: David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes ,, Song of Solomon , p48.]

"All" in the context of what he proceeded to describe refers to all human endeavors (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:3). David Hubbard understood it in a slightly different way.

"Hebel stands more for human inability to grasp the meaning of God"s way than for an ultimate emptiness in life. It speaks of human limitation and frustration caused by the vast gap between God"s knowledge and power and our relative ignorance and impotence. The deepest issues of lasting profit, of enlightening Wisdom of Solomon , of ability to change life"s workings, of confidence that we have grasped the highest happiness-all these are beyond our reach in Koheleth"s view." [Note: Ibid, pp21-22.]

The phrase "is vanity" is the most popular one in Ecclesiastes (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:1; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:15; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:19; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:7-8; Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 6:2; Ecclesiastes 6:4; Ecclesiastes 6:9; Ecclesiastes 6:11-12; Ecclesiastes 7:6; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Ecclesiastes 11:8; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Ecclesiastes 12:8. [Note: See H. Carl Shank, "Qoheleth"s World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases," Westminster Theological Journal37 (1974):65-67.] It forms an inclusio with Ecclesiastes 12:8 surrounding the evidence that Solomon offered to prove that all is vanity.

This verse contains Solomon"s "big idea" or proposition. It is the point he proceeded to support, prove, and apply in the chapters that follow. Some writers, however, believed there is no logical development in the writer"s thought. [Note: E.g, Svend Holm-Nielsen, "The Book of Ecclesiastes and the Interpretation of It in Jewish and Christian Theology," Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute10 (1976):48.] Proverbs 1:7 is such a statement in that book. This is the first hint that Solomon"s viewpoint includes "exclusively the world we can observe, and that our observation point is at ground level." [Note: Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p23. See also Edwin M. Good, "The Unfilled Sea: Style and Meaning in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ," in Israelite Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, pp59-73.]

"Because it apparently contradicts other portions of Scripture and presents a pessimistic outlook on life, in a mood of existential despair, many have viewed Ecclesiastes as running counter to the rest of Scripture or have concluded that is [sic] presents only man"s reasoning apart from divine revelation." [Note: Roy B. Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Solomon ," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p243. This essay also contains studies of the doctrines of God (pp246-47) and man (pp248-51) in Ecclesiastes. See also idem, "God and Man in Ecclesiastes ," Bibliotheca Sacra148:589 (January-March1991):46-56 , which is an adaptation of the former essay.]

". . . it is no exaggeration to say that there may be less agreement about the interpretation of Koheleth than there is about any other biblical book, even the Revelation of John!" [Note: Hubbard, p23.]


Verse 3

1. The vanity of work1:3

Rather than saying, "All work is vanity," Solomon made the same point by asking this rhetorical question that expects a negative response. He used this literary device often throughout the book (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:2; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 6:8; Ecclesiastes 6:11-12; et al.).

"Advantage" (Heb. yitron) refers to what remains in the sense of a net profit (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:13; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:9; Ecclesiastes 5:16; Ecclesiastes 7:12; Ecclesiastes 10:10-11). This Hebrew word occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament. Solomon was not saying there is nothing good about work or that it is worse than being unemployed. He only meant that all the work that a person may engage in does not yield permanent profit-even though it may yield short-term profit, including financial security (cf. Mark 8:36). [Note: See John F. Genung, Words of Koheleth, pp214-15.]

"Under the sun," used29 times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Old Testament, simply means "on the earth," that Isaiah , in terms of human existence ( Ecclesiastes 1:9; Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17-20; Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 4:3; Ecclesiastes 4:7; Ecclesiastes 4:15; Ecclesiastes 5:13; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 6:1; Ecclesiastes 6:5; Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 8:17; Ecclesiastes 9:3; Ecclesiastes 9:6; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Ecclesiastes 9:11; Ecclesiastes 9:13; Ecclesiastes 10:5; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 3:1). The phrase shows that the writer"s perspective was universal, not limited to his own people and land. [Note: J. S. Wright, p1152.] And it shows that Solomon was looking at life from the perspective of man on the earth without the aid of special revelation from God.

"The phrase "under the sun" ( Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 1:9) describes life and reality as perceived by mere human observation. It is a world-view devoid of special revelation." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, in The Old Testament Explorer, p505.]

"It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven"s point of view." [Note: Wiersbe, p478.]

"This man [Qoheleth] had been living through all these experiences under the sun, concerned with nothing above the sun, on the modern level of experience in the realm of the material, until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light." [Note: G. Campbell Morgan, The Unfolding Message of the Bible, p229.]

"Of course, looked at only "under the sun," a person"s daily work might seem to be futile and burdensome, but the Christian believer can always claim 1 Corinthians 15:58 and labor gladly in the will of God, knowing his labor is "not in vain in the Lord."" [Note: Wiersbe, p479.]


Verses 3-11

B. The Futility of All Human Endeavor1:3-11

In this pericope, Solomon gave general support to his theme ( Ecclesiastes 1:2). Essentially he said that it is impossible for any human endeavor to have permanent value. This section is a poem. [Note: See Addison G. Wright, "The Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of Qoheleth," Catholic Biblical Quarterly30 (1968):313-34.] Solomon chose the realm of nature as the setting for his argument.


Verse 4

No person is permanent on the earth. The earth remains, but people die and the next generation replaces them. The point is that since man is not permanent, it is obvious that his work cannot be, either. While a person"s work may outlive him or her (e.g, a skyscraper usually outlasts its builder), it will only last a little longer than he or she does. It, too, is only relatively permanent, not permanent as the earth is.

History does not answer the questions of ultimate meaning or purpose. These only come from divine revelation.


Verses 4-11

2. The illustrations from life1:4-11

To clarify his meaning and to support his contention in Ecclesiastes 1:3, Solomon cited examples from nature. Work produces nothing ultimate or permanently satisfying, only what is ephemeral.


Verses 5-7

Science does not answer these questions either.

People"s work is similar to the aspects of nature cited in these verses. In nature there are many things that recur in a cyclical pattern. They are never complete. For example, we never have a rainstorm that makes it unnecessary to have any more rainstorms (cf. Job 36:27-28). Our work is never complete in the sense that we never finally arrive at a condition in which no more work is necessary. There is always the need to do more work. Any homeowner can testify to this!

One writer argued that the preacher did not intend Ecclesiastes 1:5-7 to show the futility of the phenomena he recorded. He intended to show only "... the limitations imposed on them by their allotted natures and functions, which necessitates their constant cyclical repetition." [Note: R. N. Whybray, " Ecclesiastes 15-7 and the Wonders of Nature," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament41 (June1988):105.] These limitations reflect futility.


Verses 8-11

By saying, "there is nothing new under the sun" ( Ecclesiastes 1:9), Solomon was not overlooking inventions and technological advances that have resulted in civilization"s advancement through the centuries. Nevertheless, these have been only innovations, not basic changes. Man still struggles with the same essential problems he has always had. This is the round of work that is weariness to people, similar to the repetitious rounds observable in nature ( Ecclesiastes 1:5-7). There appears to be a significant advance (e.g, social evolution), but that is only because people evaluate history superficially ( Ecclesiastes 1:11 a). We dream of futuristic utopias because we fail to see that man has made no real progress ( Ecclesiastes 1:11 b). Future generations will make the same mistake ( Ecclesiastes 1:11 c-d). Technology changes, but human nature and human activity remain the same.

What about the doctrine of eternal rewards? The New Testament teaches that what a person does in this life, for good and for evil, affects his or her eternal state ( Matthew 7:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; et al.). Is there not eternal "net profit" for believers who do good works? Solomon had an unusually broad perspective for a person living when he did. Evidently most of the Hebrews were aware that there is life beyond the grave. The patriarchs also had some revelation of life after death (cf. Genesis 1:27; Genesis 25:8; Genesis 25:17; Genesis 35:29; Psalm 16; Psalm 73; et al.). [Note: See articles on "immortality" in Bible dictionaries and encyclopaedias.] However, Solomon evidenced no knowledge of revelation that deals with the effect a person"s work has on his or her eternal condition (cf. Job). In this respect, his perspective was not as broad as those of us who benefit from New Testament revelation. Solomon was correct within his frame of reference. New Testament revelation has not invalidated Solomon"s assessment of life from his perspective.

"Koheleth knew no such scenario as Jesus gave us in the parable of talents. The old sage had no real inkling of the ultimate judgment that offered, "well done, good and faithful servant.... Enter into the joy of your Lord," and "You wicked and lazy servant," your destiny is "outer darkness" with "weeping and gnashing of teeth" ( Matthew 25:21; Matthew 25:26; Matthew 25:30)." [Note: Hubbard, p205.]

Whether or not Solomon had insight into life beyond the grave, in this book he chose to limit his observations to life this side of the grave, "under the sun."

A factor that makes our work of lasting value is God"s enablement with His grace by His Spirit. Reference to either of these supernatural resources is totally absent in Ecclesiastes. This omission further highlights the fact that Solomon"s viewpoint was that of earthly life without supernatural intervention.

The fact that the name "Yahweh" does not occur in the book also clarifies the writer"s perspective. The name "Elohim," however, appears about37 times. Yahweh was the name God used to describe Himself in His relationships to people. The man "under the sun" in Ecclesiastes is one unaided by a personal relationship with God, not that he was necessarily unsaved. The man in view is every Prayer of Manasseh , including the Israelites. Solomon"s analysis simply omitted God"s enablement in the human condition. He did assume man"s belief in God, however, since it is a perversion of what is self-evident to deny God"s existence ( Psalm 14:1).

"Ignoring the book"s title ( Ecclesiastes 1:1), epigrams ( Ecclesiastes 1:2, Ecclesiastes 12:8), and epilogue ( Ecclesiastes 12:9-14), one discovers that Qoheleth begins with a poem concerning the "profit"-lessness of man"s toil ( Ecclesiastes 1:3-11) and ends with another poem calling man to enjoy life which he can ( Ecclesiastes 11:9 to Ecclesiastes 12:7) .... These two poems set the tone and direction of Qoheleth"s investigation and reflection. From a focus on the pointlessness of a work orientation-on the profitlessness of man"s toil when it is absolutized and, thus, misguided-Qoheleth turns to argue for the importance of enjoying life from God as a gift while we can. "Enjoyment," not "work," is to be our controlling metaphor of life." [Note: Robert K. Johnston, ""Confessions of a Workaholic": A Reappraisal of Qoheleth," Catholic Biblical Quarterly38 (January-March1976):17-18.]

"The enigmatic character and polarized structure of the book of Qoheleth is not a defective quality but rather a deliberate literary device of Hebrew thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous nature of this present world. The difficulty of interpreting this book is proportionally related to one"s own readiness to adopt Qoheleth"s presupposition-that everything about this world is marred by the tyranny of the curse which the Lord God placed upon all creation. If one fails to recognize that this is a foundational presupposition from which Ecclesiastes operates, then one will fail to comprehend the message of the book, and bewilderment will continue." [Note: Ardel B. Caneday, "Qoheleth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?" Grace Theological Journal7:1 (Spring1986):21.]


Verse 12

II. THE FUTILITY OF WORK1:12-6:9

The writer proceeded to elaborate on his thesis that all human endeavor lacks permanent value-by citing evidence that he had observed personally, and then evidence that everyone has observed.


Verses 12-15

1. Solomon"s investigation of human achievement1:12-15

Solomon had unique resources for investigating life. He was the king of Israel ( Ecclesiastes 1:12), and he possessed superlative wisdom ( Ecclesiastes 1:13; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:16; 1 Kings 4:26-34). He says he made a comprehensive study of all kinds of human activities ( Ecclesiastes 1:14). He observed that they were all a "grievous task" ( Ecclesiastes 1:13; cf. Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:14), namely, difficult and disappointing. "Striving [chasing] after wind" ( Ecclesiastes 1:14) graphically pictures the futility Solomon sought to communicate (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:6; Ecclesiastes 6:9). This phrase occurs frequently in Ecclesiastes 1:12 to Ecclesiastes 6:9 and is a structural marker that indicates the end of a subsection of Solomon"s thought (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:6; Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 6:9).

Solomon was saying that there is no type of effort or activity that can produce something ultimately permanent and therefore satisfying. There is nothing people can do that will yield this, no type of work or activity.


Verses 12-17

A. Personal Observations1:12-2:17

There are four parts to this section that fall into two pairs. Solomon first related his investigations (in Ecclesiastes 1:12-15 and Ecclesiastes 2:1-11), and then gave his evaluations of each of these experiments (in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 and Ecclesiastes 2:12-17).


Verses 16-18

2. Solomon"s evaluation of his investigation of human achievement1:16-18

To conduct his investigation of human achievements, Solomon had employed the tool of wisdom. Wisdom here does not refer to living life with God in view. It means using human intelligence as an instrument to ferret out truth and significance. However, he discovered it inadequate to turn up any truly meaningful activity. Consequently, wisdom was in this respect no better than "madness and folly" ( Ecclesiastes 1:17; i.e, foolish ideas and pleasures).

". . . in Scripture both "madness" and "folly" imply moral perversity rather than mental oddity." [Note: Kidner, p31.]

Greater wisdom had only brought him greater "grief" (mental anguish) and "pain" (emotional sorrow, Ecclesiastes 1:18). The phrase "I perceived" and its synonyms occur frequently in Ecclesiastes (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 2:1; Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 2:14-15; Ecclesiastes 3:17-18; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16; Ecclesiastes 9:1).

""Heart" points to the combined use of mind and will in the quest for knowledge. Biblical Hebrew has no specific words for mind or brain. Thinking and understanding and deciding are all done by the "heart."" [Note: Hubbard, p64.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2012.

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