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Bible Commentaries

Gaebelein's Annotated Bible

Ecclesiastes 1

Verses 1-18

Analysis and Annotations


1. The Prologue and the Search Begun


1. The introduction and prologue (Ecclesiastes 1:1-21.1.11 )

2. The seeker; his method and the results (Ecclesiastes 1:12-21.1.18 )

Ecclesiastes 1:1-21.1.11 . In the general introduction we have already referred to the opening verses as giving the information who the author is and what is the object of his treatise. So sure is the critical school that Solomon is not the king mentioned that one says “the fact that Solomon is not the author, but is introduced in a literary figure, has become such an axiom of the present day interpretation of the book, that no extended argument to prove it is necessary.” Still another makes the following remarks as to the date of the book: “I shall presume that we have in this book, a late, perhaps the very latest, portion of the Old Testament canon; and that the book was written, not in the palmy days of the empire of Solomon, but at a time when the Jewish people, once so full of aspirations to universal empire, always so intolerant of foreign supremacy, was lying beneath the yoke of Persian or Syrian or Egyptian kings; when the Holy Land had become a province, ruled by some Eastern satrap, and suffering from the rapacity and corruption inherent at all times in such government” (Dean Bradley). Such presumptions spring from ignorance about the message of the book. We shall find in the text the above assertions refuted and a confirmation likewise of the Solomonic authorship.

“Before following the Preacher in his great quest it should be noted that he is to be viewed as a man who himself belongs under the sun. Whether the word Koheleth is rendered “preacher,” “debater,” or “assembler,” or “one of an Assembly,” the whole tenor of the teaching proves it is wisdom from under the sun, natural wisdom, that is speaking. The wisest of men undertakes to observe and experiment with life under the sun, in order to find out for all men the outcome of all his searchings, and then rehearses all to an assembly of his fellows. He is not supposed to know any divinely-revealed wisdom, or to have heard of a righteousness of faith, or of divine mercy, or of forgiveness of sins. He is to make answer as a natural man to whom is given the resources and helps common to natural men, only he is wiser and richer than they, and so must bring the final answer for all. And also he is a Hebrew and knows of one living and true God. When he says “thou,” in advice or warning, it is not so much to some disciple or “son” he is speaking as to himself, or he is then assuming a high ground, far above “the maddening crowd,” but it is soon apparent how, in these most exalted frames of the pious and philosophic mind, he is still only a natural man, for he is found, soon after, in the depth of despair uttering his disgust and hate of life and exclaiming: “The whole is vapor and a chasing of the wind.” That “thou” is, after all a sign that he is talking to himself, telling what he and all men under the sun ought to do, but utterly fail to do.

Not only does he pronounce the verdict of “vanity” for all, but he resorts to the same passing mirthful enjoyment he commends to all; but he would do it all before God. He is indeed wiser and more serious than other men, only to become more perplexed and sorrowful than they.

On him hangs more heavily than on other men

... the burden of the mystery

... the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world.

He, if any, can say, “I know there is nothing better for them.” He is king and can lay the whole world under contribution to furnish the means for answer. “What can the man do who cometh after the king?”

He repeatedly says, “I have seen all the works that are done,” all the “oppressions”, and “all the labor that I have labored at.” And so he is to speak for the world, for the race, for man, for high, for low, wise and foolish, rich and poor, in hut and hall, living and dying. And he speaks as before God. He, of all men, feels a strange fear, seeing that somehow man’s imperfect vain life under the sun is mysteriously related to and controlled by the unalterable purpose and work of God. W.J. Erdman, Ecclesiastes.)

The first note as to vanity is found in Ecclesiastes 1:4-21.1.11 . There is a law of repetition, or circle-movement. It works in the sphere of nature as well as in human life. Generation follows generation; the sun has his circle; the winds too have their currents in which they blow from north to south and south to north; the waters also are subject to the same law. History repeats itself, for the thing that has been, is that which shall be and that which is done is that which shall be done. There is then, no new thing under the sun; nothing is new, all is repetition, a monotonous unchangeableness. Man is in the midst of it; he too is subject to this law. Everything then under the sun is restless, unstable (except the earth itself, which abideth forever: Ecclesiastes 1:4 ) hollow and empty, therefore all is vanity. Here is a picture of unrest, weariness, if not melancholy and despair.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-21.1.18 . On the critical objection that Solomon is meant in Ecclesiastes 1:12 see the general introduction. The great king, filled with wisdom and learning, rich and prosperous as none ever was before him in Jerusalem, nor after him, gives his heart to search out everything that is done under heaven. When he says: “I communed with mine own heart,” he states the method of his search. He does it by meditation and not through revelation. He searches not in the light which comes from above, but that which comes from nature and by observation. He tells us a little more of himself. “Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” Is this language not sufficient to establish beyond the shadow of the doubt that Solomon speaks? And if not Solomon, who was it who dared to write these words? And what are the given results by the great and wise king of Jerusalem? The result is twofold. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and vexation of spirit”--the pursuit of the wind, that is chasing air-bubbles. And another conclusion: “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 ). What a verdict from such a man as Solomon was. He had all things man can enjoy; all pleasures and honors; great possessions, chariots, horses, palaces and a large estate and he exclaims “nothing but travail!” “Nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit!” It all leaves me empty; it does not satisfy.

But he had given himself to wisdom. He possessed unusual wisdom. The king was what we would term today a great scientist. He excelled in wisdom all the children of the East country. Proverbial in his days was “the wisdom of Egypt”; yet his wisdom was greater. His fame was in all nations round about. Philosophy and poetry were his great achievements. “And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things and of fishes” 1 Kings 4:29 9 , etc.). He was a great botanist, an ornithologist and zoologist. He traced God’s wonders in nature, that which the natural man can so easily do. But what about all this wisdom? Did it satisfy his soul? We listen to his answer: “I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.” The more knowledge the more sorrow. Alas! how trite it all is!

But is there something else which satisfies? Is there a higher wisdom and knowledge? There is, but in the book of the natural man it is unrevealed. That which satisfies, which is not vanity and vexation of spirit, is that which is above the sun, and not under it. From above the sun He came, who is the wisdom of God, the son of God. He has come and gone, but brought to the poor thirsting and hungry heart of man the true knowledge. He who died for our sins and is now back above the sun, is He “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” Colossians 2:1-51.2.23 . That which alone can satisfy is Christ.

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Bibliographical Information
Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". 1913-1922.