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All is Vanity
1-11. The writer describes himself. He declares that all things are transitory and without result, whether they be the works or the life of man, or the natural forces of heat, air, and water. Language cannot do justice to nature’s wearisome sameness. The oblivion which overtakes all.
1. Preacher] see Intro. §§ 1, 2.
2. Vanity of vanities] lit.’breath of breaths’; the form of expression being a Hebrew way of indicating the superlative degree. Of all fleeting things existence is the most fleeting. The same figure is used in Psalms 62:9; Psalms 144:4 of the brevity of man’s life. The word vanity, occurring thirty-eight times, strikes the keynote of the book. All things living and otherwise bear the stamp of the transitory.
3. What profit] Man toils; but even granting that he gains some tangible result, he cannot retain.
4. The earth abideth] Man is so far from being lord of the earth, that it survives ever fresh generations of its inhabitants, and so by contrast brings out more clearly the brevity of their existence.
5. Hasteth to his place] The sun, on the supposition of his apparent motion across the heavens from E. to W. by day, returns eastward beneath the earth by night.
6. The wind, etc.] We may render more closely thus: ’Going toward the south, and circling toward the north; circling, circling goeth the wind, and on its circlings returneth the wind.’ The sameness involved in the constant renewal of its changes of direction is brought out by the wording. The ’circling, circling,’ the changing, at once endless and monotonous, marks here too an emptiness of aim.
7. Unto the place] The writer supposes that the salt water percolates by underground fissures, getting rid of its salt on the way, and so through hidden channels returns to the sources whence it had set out.
8. All things are full of labour] RM ’all words are’ too ’feeble’ to set forth the case, so vast is the subject.
9. The thing] History has been repeating itself from all time, and will do so evermore.
10, 11. Is there] He calls on any one who may doubt his word to point to something which is really new. The only reason that events strike us as new is because that which has been is swept into oblivion. Previous generations have no existence for us, and we in like manner shall have no existence for those who come after us.
12-18. The writer, availing himself of his status, recounts how he had tested the various aspects of life in their aims and results, but all to no profit. Everything is perverse or defective. Great as were his acquirements, the result is nil, nay, worse than nothing.
12. Was king] see Intro. § 2.
13. My heart] We should say my ’mind,’ but the heart was considered by the Jews to be the seat of the intellectual powers as well as of the emotions. All things] the different ways that men work, and their hopes and fears in so doing; their circumstances, pains, pleasures, feelings, aims. Perhaps, he says to himself, men of various trades, modes of life, surroundings, will enlighten me, or help me to bear my burden. This sore travail, etc.] Men who are endowed with any activity of mind cannot but be interested in all human endeavour; and their researches and enquiries, unsatisfying though they be, are a part of God’s order.
14. Vexation of spirit] RV ’striving after wind’: cp. Hosea 12:1. The satisfaction that might have been expected from these studies is not to be attained. Air itself is not more elusive to the grasp.
15. Crooked] for the phrase here cp. Isaiah 40:4. The world is disordered, and there is no cure discoverable.
Numbered] The required numbers are lacking, which were needed to make up the sum of human action, and no amount of skill in arithmetic can supply the deficiency.
16. Great estate] RV ’Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all,’ etc. (omitting ’am come to great estate and’). He has had exceptional advantages in gaining wisdom, and has made the most of his opportunities. Yet even so he has failed. What hope, then, can there be that others will solve the problem that remains dark to him? All they] see Intro. § 2. Wisdom and knowledge] knowledge, the possession of facts; wisdom, skill in employing them.
17. And folly] He tries whether the study of folly may perchance give him some grasp of its opposite, viz. wisdom. But this too only serves to confirm him in his general conclusion. Vexation of spirit] see on Ecclesiastes 1:14.
18. Much grief] Sir Isaac Newton spoke of himself as a child picking up a few pebbles on the shore of the wide sea of knowledge. So the more the veil is lifted, the wider is seen to be the extent of that which is still unknown. Bodily and mental exhaustion, sleepless and futile endeavour—this is the picture which concludes the writer’s sketch of his quest after the highest good in the shape of wisdom.
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29