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There are three books in the Bible written by Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The Jewish tradition says that he has written
1. Song of Songs in his youth;
2. Proverbs when he is middle-aged;
3. Ecclesiastes when he is old.
There is something to be said for that when we know the course of Solomon’s life:
1. In Song of Songs he describes his feelings for the woman with whom he wants to share his life and how he and she come together.
2. In Proverbs he is married. He speaks to his son and about his son’s mother.
3. The book of Ecclesiastes he will have written when he has become old and unfaithful to God, but by grace has also been restored in his relationship with God.
In Ecclesiastes he writes about his experiences in life without fellowship with God, that is, about the period in which he deviated from God. He lives a life ‘under the sun’ without a direct, open connection with heaven. This has led him to ask questions of sense: What is the meaning of my life? Is there anything that makes my life valuable? What is real wisdom? How should I give death a place in my existence? What place does God have in my life? In his book, the Preacher invites us to think about these questions.
The philosophers of the world have made it their profession to think about these kinds of questions. Only, in their folly they do so without involving God. Therefore, all their philosophical reflections are of no use to anyone. Learning about their imaginations is only tiring (Ecclesiastes 12:12). They would do well to learn from the Preacher.
The Preacher is a philosopher who has not given up faith in God. That makes him a real wise man. God is present in the background in everything he contemplates. It is impossible for every thinking person to ignore Him. The Preacher certainly believes in God and also takes Him into account. After all his investigations, he finally ends up with God.
His intention with this book is to warn us not to fall into the same mistakes as he did. He does this by passing on his experiences to us – and especially young people.
Ger de Koning
Middelburg, November 2016, translated October 2020
The Preacher is Solomon. After a good start as king, Solomon later in his life makes a deep fall. In his heart he turns away from God, the Source of all grace (1 Kings 11:4). In his good years he pointed out to his son to keep his heart (Proverbs 4:23) and to beware of strange women (Proverbs 2:16). However, he himself has not guarded his heart and has fallen into the pit of strange women. We see in Solomon what the most wise man on earth can come to when he forgets his constant dependence on God.
It is inevitable that Solomon is restored after his fall. There are some arguments that show that he remained “Jedidiah”, the beloved of Yahweh (2 Samuel 12:25):
1. Solomon is a picture of the Messiah in His kingdom of peace. Therefore it is unthinkable that he would eventually have been rejected anyway.
2. We also see that the concluding comment on his life is about his wisdom, not about his deviation (1 Kings 11:41).
3. Furthermore he is mentioned in one breath with his father David when it comes to the way both have gone (2 Chronicles 11:17).
4. We also see that the historian of 2 Chronicles ignores the sins of Solomon, which would not have been right if they had not been forgiven.
Another argument is that the origin of the book of Ecclesiastes can only be explained if we hear in Solomon a man speaking who has returned to God. After his striving after wind, he got his wisdom back from God. In what he says in Ecclesiastes 7 (Ecclesiastes 7:26), he seems to confess his wrong way. Everything speaks for the fact that the book came into being after the writer has found his only and full satisfaction in God again.
It is conceivable that by his bad example he has led others to go astray. In particular, he also wants to teach them. Now that he has come to repentance, he wants to warn others of this disastrous path. Someone who has returned from a wrong path will desire to warn others of going astray (Psalms 51:12-1 Chronicles :; Luke 22:32).
The theme of the book is wisdom. The word “wisdom” or “wise” occurs almost fifty times. This is not innate wisdom, but wisdom gained and obtained through experience; we can also say that it is about wisdom gained and obtained through pain and shame. It is wisdom to behave wisely in this life (Ecclesiastes 7:12). The elder teaches the young person on the basis of his experience. He shares his acquired experiences with the young people.
The book of Proverbs is also a book of wisdom. That book is about the wisdom we need to be able to go our way safely until the end. The book of Proverbs leads man in the light of the fear of God, so that he may stay in it. Ecclesiastes leads man through the darkness of the world without God, but also shows bright spots, which shine brighter as darkness increases. Perhaps we could say that Ecclesiastes is the introduction to Proverbs, or that Proverbs begin where Ecclesiastes stops.
The book can best be summarized with the words that the Lord Jesus addresses to the Samaritan woman who comes to the well of Sychar to draw water: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again” (John 4:13). The well of Sychar is a picture of a dry, deceptive world where no permanent happiness can be found. In that world we are being guided by the Preacher. Most of the people look like the poor Samaritan woman before she had that memorable encounter with the Lord Jesus. They hew for themselves cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13), meaning that they search for satisfaction in the things of the world that can never give the satisfaction they are looking for.
The book describes all kinds of efforts to become happy, but it is always in vain. In general, five aspects of life are tried out to see if the possession of it gives lasting happiness: wisdom, pleasure, possession, power and piety. Solomon examines these things to see if the possession of any of these things gives the heart lasting happiness and constant satisfaction.
They are not sinful things. It is about being busy with things God gives to enjoy and what the result of that pleasure is. However, the heart does not rise above creation and therefore remains unhappy. When it comes to finding the true meaning of life in what creation offers in pleasure, the disappointment is great. It always appears that all things on earth are labelled ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ because of their temporariness.
We could say: the heart remains stuck in the blessing and does not end up at the Source of the blessing. A clear example can be found at the beginning of the Bible. God has told man not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In her answer to the serpent, however, Eve does not speak of the tree, but of the fruit of the tree. This indicates that her attention has shifted from the Source of blessing to what is presented to her as a blessing. Then we are in the territory of Ecclesiastes.
Christians may wonder how the emphasis in this book on the use and enjoyment of life can be harmonized with the New Testament commandment not to love the world (1 John 2:15). The answer is that the teacher – the Preacher – fully agrees with John’s statement: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts” (1 John 2:16-Esther :). There can hardly be a better explanation of the whole theme of this book. The findings that the Preacher puts down in this book confirm that life in the world can only be meaningful if man remembers his Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
The Preacher puts the life in which it is all about the own ‘I’, opposite the life in which it is all about God. Alternately we deal with the two classes of mankind. The one class consists of those who fear God (Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 5:7Ecclesiastes 7:18; Ecclesiastes 8:12-1 Chronicles :Ecclesiastes 12:13), the righteous (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 7:15-Nehemiah :Ecclesiastes 7:20; Ecclesiastes 8:14Ecclesiastes 9:1-Exodus :), the good (Ecclesiastes 9:2), and the wise (Ecclesiastes 2:14; Ecclesiastes 4:13Ecclesiastes 10:2). The other class consists of sinners (Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 7:26Ecclesiastes 8:11; Ecclesiastes 9:2Ecclesiastes 9:18) and the wicked (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 7:15Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:12-2 Chronicles :Ecclesiastes 9:2). Sinners and wicked people are the deliberate villains. There is also mention of the fool, of fools and of folly (Ecclesiastes 2:14-Nehemiah :; Ecclesiastes 10:12-1 Chronicles :). The fool is one who is wicked and evil (Psalms 14:1; Psalms 53:1). It is someone who makes no effort to discover the will of God because he completely ignores God and pretends as if He does not exist.
The Preacher shows himself to be a master in seeing through all kinds of ideas, such as those concerning the value of knowledge and wisdom, getting lost in amusement and pleasure, the importance of hard work, controlling your own life, and striving for justice and righteousness. He knows what he is talking about: he has been going around among the people and went to farmers and workers, has been in the homes of the rich, has visited places where justice is spoken, and has been present at funerals and weddings. Wherever he has shown his face, he has listened to what has been said, and he has taken a good look at it.
Therefore his conclusion is not based on a superficial observation. He draws his conclusion after thorough research and deep reflection. If after all his research he has the message that everything is vanity, just like a breath, then he knows what he is saying. He concludes that nothing is permanent, nothing is lasting. Everything has a limited tenability or has only a short-term effect. For example, you can strive for justice, but you will see that justice continues to stumble on the streets. He does not say that hard work is pointless, but that all the toil of man produces nothing lasting. Our ideals are just like our breath in the fresh air in the morning: we see a beautiful little cloud for a moment and then it is gone, dissolved and intangibly disappeared.
Division of the book
I. The pointlessness of nature, wisdom and wealth (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:23)
1. The theme: Everything is frustration (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)
2. The frustration in nature and history (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11)
3. The frustration of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
4. The frustration of unlimited richness (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
5. The ultimate frustration: death (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23)
II. The Divine order of life (Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:22)
1. Everyday life to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)
2. God’s plan for life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
3. The parts and the whole (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15)
4. The consequences of mortality (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22)
III. The frustration of politics (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16)
IV. The frustration of life (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7:29)
1. Silent before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
2. Money and death (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20)
3. The unfulfilled life (Ecclesiastes 6:1-9)
4. What is good? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12)
5. Practical advices for daily life (Ecclesiastes 7:1-14)
6. Moderation is recommended (Ecclesiastes 7:15-22)
7. Bad relationships (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29)
V. Life in view of death (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9:18)
1. The inevitability of death (Ecclesiastes 8:1-14)
2. Life to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 8:15-9:10)
3. Insecurity and injustice (Ecclesiastes 9:11-18)
VI. Proverbs (Ecclesiastes 10:1-20)
1. Wise relationships (Ecclesiastes 10:1-7)
2. Wise management (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)
3. Wise speech and thoughts (Ecclesiastes 10:12-20)
VII. Wisdom for the future and present (Ecclesiastes 11:1-10)
1. The insecure future and present behavior (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)
2. The secure future and present behavior (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10)
VIII. The frustration of old age (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)
IX. Epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
1. The credibility of the author (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12)
2. The conclusion of the matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
The Hebrew word for “Ecclesiastes” is Qohelet, a word that means something like a ‘leader who speaks to a gathering of people’. As such he speaks his “words” with which he teaches the people and preaches to them. He calls himself Preacher several times (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 1:12Ecclesiastes 7:27; Ecclesiastes 12:8Ecclesiastes 12:9; Ecclesiastes 12:10). As already mentioned, the Preacher is Solomon. However, he does not mention his name, because it is not about his person, but about his message. He, the Preacher, the wisest among men, takes it upon himself to explore and experience life under the sun, and to share the results of his examination with the gathering of his companions.
“The son of David” shows his special and high descent and thus his great responsibility, to which he unfortunately did not respond for a certain period of time. The fact that he had a God-fearing father in David makes the sinful period in his life all the worse (cf. Jeremiah 22:15-Esther :). He knew of his father’s sin of adultery, but also of his repentance about it. This has also made his own return possible, for he has seen that a return to God after repentance is possible.
“King in Jerusalem” refers to his reign in the city that God has chosen to be His city. A man cannot be given a greater honor. In that area Solomon does his research and there he draws his conclusion. That conclusion is that in the midst of so much wisdom, honor, wealth and power, his heart remains empty.
The Conclusion of the Research
The Preacher does not start with a light-hearted story to flavor those whom he addresses to taste and make them desiring to hear more. Against all advices about building up a speech, he gets straight to the point. He starts by expressing the conclusion of all that he had examined: everything is “vanity of vanities”. He does not say this as an occasional remark, but he makes us face the facts by repeating it three times, so that we cannot ignore it.
In the course of the book he will substantiate his conclusion comprehensively and thoroughly. Then it will appear that it is not an expression of despair – that is how a superficial reader might interpret this conclusion – but the sober observation of the nature of the world and everything in it. Each time he mentions a problem or riddle he has encountered in life, and identifies that everything is “vanity of vanities” or meaningless.
If we look at life honestly and carefully, according to the Preacher, we see that life is short and empty, deceptive and without result. He says this to draw the heart of the believer away from the world and to direct his desires and expectations toward the unseen, imperishable world that is not subject to vanity (Romans 8:20; 1 Corinthians 7:31; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Peter 3:11; 1 John 2:17).
“Vanity of vanities” is a Hebrew superlative and means “the greatest vanity”. We also find this in expressions like ‘the God of gods’, ‘the holy of holies’, ‘a servant of servants’. It also includes that all is vanity, without exemption, and not just a little or occasionally. It should be kept in mind, however, that these are observations outside of God’s realm in which man is considered as alienated from Him.
With this statement – which is not theory, but has been experienced by him – he shows how pointless and aimless everything is. Vanity has the meaning of emptiness, a breath, a gust of wind, in vain, fast passing, aimless, you have nothing to gain from it; you cannot do anything with it, worthless.
The Preacher is wiser and more serious than all people. But that does not make him happier, but only more confused and sadder than anyone else. Some speak despicable of the world because they are hermits and do not know the world, or because they are beggars who have nothing. This is not the case with Solomon. He knows the world and possesses everything.
We who believe, may view life from heaven, that is, from a place above the sun. By this we know that the world and its lust pass away, but that “he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
What Advantage Does Hard Work Give?
The first question the Preacher asks himself and us touches the heart of his research. He will work out this question in all its parts in the course of this book. The answer is that man has no “advantage”, in terms of net permanent gain, of all his work “which he does under the sun”. The original word “advantage” is used only in this book (Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 2:11Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:10Ecclesiastes 5:15; Ecclesiastes 7:11Ecclesiastes 7:12). The word comes from the trade and means profit, what is left when all costs have been deducted. The meaning here then is: what is left as a net result of all your hard work? The answer is: nothing. No profit has been made.
The expression “under the sun” – which appears almost thirty times in this book – is important and characteristic of this book. In this book we also encounter the expression “under heaven”. This last expression emphasizes that it applies to the earth, the earthly. The expression “under the sun” also determines us with the earth, but places more emphasis on the temporary, transient character of everything that happens. The Preacher looks at everything horizontally, looks around, perceives and experiences. He does not look upwards, to the origin of everything he sees and experiences.
What happens, happens on earth; people do not look to a higher purpose. If the view of life does not go beyond ‘under the sun’, everything we strive for will have an undertone of dissatisfaction. It is all connected with the pursuit of the sinful man and therefore temporary and imperfect. Never will a person be able to look back with satisfaction at his work and say “behold, it is very good”, because nothing is perfect, nothing is finished. Others follow him and go on with his work. Nobody delivers something that is unchangingly good.
If we look from that point of view at everything man does, the conclusion can only be that everything is for nothing. All activity is work that is tiring; it never results in anything that gives lasting happiness. We see this in business and politics. The next president and the new politician solemnly promise that they will do better than the previous one, but over time they will have to vacate their post because they have failed. The same will happen to them and to all who come after them. All the work without ever finding satisfaction must bring man to Him Who said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The Lord Jesus connects to the Preacher’s question when He says: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26; Luke 12:15). You can dedicate yourself and get everything you have worked so hard for, but what is the final result when you die and have to let go of everything and leave it behind?
Paul tells us where the real profit is found: “But godliness [actually] is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either” (1 Timothy 6:6-Judges :). Profit is only where the heart is in connection with the eternal God and eternity. To work for the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
An article in the Reformatorisch Dagblad (a Dutch newspaper) of 5th May 2003 proves the truth of this verse in a practical way:
Jip Wijngaarden was barely 17 when in 1982 she was chosen from 3000 candidates to play the leading role in the theater play ‘Anne Frank’. A turbulent career as an actress and film star followed. Hollywood beckoned. For nine years Jip moved into the world of glitter and glamour.
But gradually, doubt attacked. ‘As an idol you are a community property, you lose yourself. I didn’t know what to do with it and started thinking. Is that all? I had earned honor and fame, but I was not happy. The life I led was superficial and empty. My heart was a big hole through which everything was blowing.’
For Jip, the change to Christendom meant a radical break with the past. ‘I felt that the new life would cost me everything. And that is how it went, because the basis was not right. People around me declared me crazy that I let Hollywood and other offers slip by for something you cannot see’. [End of article]
Illustrations of Meaninglessness
The Preacher gives some examples in Ecclesiastes 1:4-1 Kings : of the endless cycle of life with all its events. He points to ‘the law of repetition’. He observes an endless circular movement. This circular movement works in the atmosphere of nature and in that of human life. History also repeats itself countless times. Movement, however, is not progress. Everything remains as it was, without all of these movements bringing about any real change in a person’s life, so that he will have full fulfillment, full satisfaction, and a full and uninterrupted happiness.
Generations come and go (Ecclesiastes 1:4). They enter the stage of life, cross it with a few steps, turn their pirouettes, make their bow and then disappear again from the stage. The stage, the earth, is always the same, as well as the game and the roles, the masks and the clothes. Only the actors change. How futile is all that. Life is a never ending theater play with ever-changing players and a never-changing decor. In that respect, life can also be compared to a home trainer. You cycle, but you do not move one inch forward.
Nobody stays alive on earth all the time. Seen “under the sun”, a person’s life is futile like a vapor (James 4:14), goes faster than a weaver’s shuttle (Job 7:6), and is as momentary as the grass (Psalms 103:15; Isaiah 40:6-Judges :; Isaiah 51:12; 1 Peter 1:24). We receive our earthly possessions from others, and a short time later we have to hand them over to others. These possessions are no more essential than the life lived with them.
Each generation works during the short time of its stay on earth for its existence. Then life is over as far as that generation is concerned and it disappears again. The next generation shows the same picture, as well as the next. And so on and so forth. Life, limited to here and now, can be seen as a ‘rat race’. The ‘rat race’ is a concept that refers to the futile attempts of a rat to escape from a treadmill in which it runs endlessly and keeps it running at the same time. It is a good illustration of a series of endless or useless actions that offer no prospect of result.
The only one who remains is the earth that carries all these generations. That shows the contrast between the brevity of life and the (seemingly) permanent existence of the earth. There is no hope for change: the coming and going of the generations is as unchanging as the fact that the earth is fixed. Thus is the perception of the Preacher and of anyone who looks at life with a sober view, without looking at or thinking about the origin of the generations or of the earth.
In Ecclesiastes 1:5-Judges : the Preacher looks at creation. He observes a lot of activities. At the same time he notes that there has been no progress. Just as there is no advantage for man to all his work (Ecclesiastes 1:3), so there is no advantage for creation to all its work. It is with so many things in nature just like with the changing of the successive generations of Ecclesiastes 1:4. The Preacher mentions as examples the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:5), the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:6) and the water of the rivers and the sea (Ecclesiastes 1:7).
Look at the sun. The sun is the source of light for the earth. It always stays the same and always does the same work. It always illuminates the same world and always does so at the same time. Every morning the sun rises and every evening it sets. It always rises at the same place and always sets at the same place. So it goes on endlessly, invariably, day in, day out.
The fact that the heavens tell the glory of God, that creation is the work of His hands, and that He has given the sun its place in it (Genesis 1:14-Psalms :; Psalms 8:3), is not taken into consideration by the Preacher. By looking at the sun in this way, the Preacher in fact says that creation does not reflect God’s glory if you do not involve Him, but that creation illustrates all man’s senseless work.
After the sun, the Preacher points to the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:6). The sun goes from east to west, the wind turns from south to north. Life is like the wind, which is constantly turning. The wind is much more unpredictable in its movements than the sun, which follows a fixed, predictable course along the sky. But despite all the twists and turns of the wind and the unpredictability of its course, everything remains the same. The wind is invisible, but we feel it and perceive it by the movement of the clouds and leaves on the tree. But when it has blown and the wind has subsided, what has essentially changed? Nothing, right?
Even if a storm has wreaked havoc, nothing changes. Man calculates the damage and builds up what has been destroyed, or starts a new life somewhere else. Only when a person in the storm recognizes the speaking of God and allows Him into his life, does something essentially change.
The third example in creation with which the Preacher compares life is that of the water that flows through the rivers to the sea (Ecclesiastes 1:7). The rivers constantly bring water to the sea. You would say that the sea should get full one day, should it not? But no, the sea never gets full. The rivers keep on flowing, without ever finishing their work to fill the sea. Our saying “transporting water to the sea” indicates the same: it is a pointless activity.
In this example we can also think of the endless cycle, for “all the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.” We know that the water that the rivers bring to the sea evaporates. This creates rain which is poured out again at the place where the rivers originate. This water brings the rivers back to the sea, to evaporate again, after which the cycle begins again (cf. Amos 9:6).
The unchanging course of the sun, the restlessness of the wind and the insatiability of the sea fill the lives of every generation. Man is constantly restless and imperfect. He is always hectic in search of more, without ever becoming satiated. His spirit knows no rest. But all his hurry and work does not make any impression on the firmness and movements of nature. Nothing changes in the firmness of the earth and the cycle of nature.
Despite the fact that creation is always in motion, it is not capable of satisfying man, who only has the earth as his horizon. This dissatisfaction is heavy and so tiring that it cannot be expressed in words (Ecclesiastes 1:8).
How different it is for those who know God and involve Him in their lives. Such a person also knows difficult situations in his life, for which he lacks the words to describe them, but he has the Holy Spirit Who gives words to his sighs (Romans 8:26).
“The eye” of man is always looking for new things. If you’ve been somewhere once or maybe even a few times, you’ve seen enough of it. At some point it bores you. It is like a movie. If you have seen it once or maybe even twice, then you want to see something else. You will look for variety.
So it is with “the ear”. At first it absolutely loves a certain song, but if it has heard this song more often, another song must come. Looking for something new is always the same song. The Athenians of ancient times sang it as well. They devoted their time to nothing else “but to say or hear something new” (Acts 17:21). The new was interesting for a while, but then they wanted to hear something new again.
Eye and ear cannot be saturated by earthly things and philosophies. Nothing that belongs to this creation is capable of permanently satisfying the heart and giving it lasting happiness. No matter how much effort someone makes, there is no saturation on earth. It is only with the Lord Jesus. The eye that sees Him and the ear that hears Him is truly happy (Matthew 13:16). There is plenty of joy when the eye sees Him (Psalms 16:8-1 Kings :). There is complete joy when there is fellowship with Him (1 John 1:4).
There Is Nothing New Under the Sun
“That which has been”, are the circumstances (Ecclesiastes 1:9). A man always finds himself in certain circumstances given and directed by God (Genesis 8:22) which greatly determine his life. “Which has been done”, are the human efforts. Man always tries to create the most favorable circumstances for his life. So he has always been busy in and with his life and so he will always be busy. What he invents to make life more pleasant, is only building on what has already been invented (Genesis 4:20-Song of Solomon :). There is quite simply “nothing new under the sun”.
Start to involve God in all things and all things will gain their meaning. Everything remains subject to the laws God has laid down in creation. Nothing can break these laws. Therefore, nothing really new can ever come, only variations on what has always been and will always be.
Although there is constant change, there is nothing really new (Ecclesiastes 1:10). Everything is a repetition of what has been before and what will soon be over, while the heart remains empty and hungry. A new discovery or invention does not change anything essential to man or to creation. It does not make him happier or more satisfied.
We also find out that the progress that has been made also has unforeseen disadvantages. We need to come up with another solution for that too. All efforts for something new proves the emptiness of man at the same time. Man dreams of realizing ‘Utopia’, the ideal society. Although the dream shatters again and again, man still believes in it because he is blind to the fact that he has not made any real progress.
There are new things, but they belong to another world, the world above the sun. So there is the new birth, or the birth from above (John 3:5). And he who has repented is “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “A new song” will be sung (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 14:3) and there will also be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). That all comes from Him Who is unchanging in Himself, but who makes new things from Himself over and over again. He will make everything new and create a situation that has never existed before and that will never end (Revelation 21:5).
If we say of something that it is new, it is because we do not remember “the things of the past” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). As the ancient Greeks said: ‘All learning is only remembering’ (mathesis is anamnesis). Someone can gain ‘eternal fame’ through a particular achievement, but that ‘eternal fame’ is of no use to those who have accomplished it. His achievement survives him, but what use is it to him when others remember him after his death? Can that give him any cooling if he is in the place of the torment? Can all of those after whom streets or cities have been named (Psalms 49:11-2 Kings :), draw any comfort from it in hell? If anyone knew anything about it, what satisfaction would it offer in that world where other standards of judgment are applied?
Future generations make the same mistake that all previous generations have made, namely that they learn nothing from past things, from the past. They do not remember the lessons history teaches. It is simply forgotten that all technological progress does not mean progress or improvement of human nature.
The Preacher Introduces Himself Again
In the previous verses, Solomon already announced the results of his research and his general observations. In the next section, which runs from Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, he will tell us what he has tried to do to obtain the full, undisturbed and unceasing happiness of life. He will describe his search for happiness and the methods he has used. Now they are not only observations, but also personal experiences.
Before he does so, he recalls his ‘credentials’. In doing so, he emphasizes once again in what capacity and in what position he carried out his research and what was available to him for that purpose. What such a man has to say deserves full attention. He first points out again, as in Ecclesiastes 1:1, that he, and no one else, is “I, Preacher”, Qohelet, the man who addresses a gathering of people, in this case to inform them of the results of his research.
He then refers to the position he had during his investigation. He says he “has been” king. By this he does not mean to say that he is no longer king when presenting the results of his research, but that as king he has gained the experiences he describes in this book. In this way he underlines his abilities, his almost unlimited possibilities and his position. He reigns over an undivided Israel in Jerusalem, the city of God’s choice, the center of religion and the reception location of all the world’s dignitaries.
As king, he used all means at his disposal to carry out his research. He has royal power and wisdom of Divine origin. It also indicates the character of the research: it is a royal activity. He wanted to examine and test whether the world has anything of lasting value and meaning to offer to someone who is a brilliant thinker and immeasurably rich.
Wisdom Gives No Satisfaction
Solomon is now going to tell about his personal experiences. He also tells about the method he used for his research into everything under the sun: he has devoted himself with all of his heart to seek and explore everything by wisdom. He has tried a few ways to see if one of them would lead to the fervently desired happiness. He tried the way of “wisdom”, but it ended in “much grief” and “pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). He describes this way in Ecclesiastes 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:13-Job :). Then he followed the way of “pleasure,” but that way also ended very unsatisfactorily. He had to conclude that “all is vanity and striving after wind”. He describes this way in Ecclesiastes 2 (Ecclesiastes 2:1-1 Kings :).
His heart was sincere and serious (Ecclesiastes 1:13). The heart is opposite the outer appearance. It is the inner life, the center of all intellectual, emotional and spiritual abilities. He has devoted himself with all of his heart to his seeking, making use of the special wisdom given to him by God (1 Kings 4:29). It shows that he was not a cold seeker who rationally explored the different ways of life of his days. On the contrary, he was really interested in man and society and tried to understand “everything that has been done under heaven” and to weigh its value.
What he has done is seeking and exploring. Seeking is focused on the depth of a case, while exploring has more focus on the breadth or size of a case. Both activities together show that it was not a superficial, but a thorough and extensive research. The field of his seeking and exploring was “everything that has been done under heaven”. This shows that he did not exclude anything from his research and that his research was limited to the earth. He did not involve God in his research.
Solomon wanted to know if he was able to understand and explain the world by his wisdom in order to discover a higher meaning of earthly life. To this end, he started several investigations, in which he examined the most diverse aspects of life. He came to the conclusion that this was “a grievous task” because not one of his investigations led to truly satisfactory results.
It has become clear to him that God “has given this task to the sons of men to be afflicted with”. People may live on earth without any thought of God, but the problems they encounter are the result of sin. God has not taken away those consequences, but lets them exist. There is a curse on creation through sin that causes us to do a lot of work before we can reap any result, which actually gives no real satisfaction (Genesis 3:17).
The heart of man is hungry and thirsty. This drives him to look for something that satisfies his hunger and quenches his thirst. If he cannot get to seek it ‘higher’, he will always seek refuge in the things of the earth that never give satisfaction. This will result in him having an unquenchable thirst forever. He will beg for a drop of water to cool his tongue, but no one will be able to give it to him because he has let the appointed time pass by (Luke 16:24; Jeremiah 46:17). He has rejected the invitation that sounds on the last page of the Bible: “Let he who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes, take the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17).
Solomon was neither superficial nor did he operate on a random basis (Ecclesiastes 1:14). He did not take a sample from the big picture, but “he saw all the works which have been done under the sun”. The highest insight which he has reached after all his research and exploring is that “everything is vanity and striving after wind”, and that it always remains so. Striving after wind is a useless undertaking. The ambition to seize the elusive can only result in frustration.
The Preacher observed regularity and order in creation (Ecclesiastes 1:4-Judges :), but he also observed a disorder caused by sin. There are crooked things and things are lacking (Ecclesiastes 1:15). That goes for the thinking of man and for his ways and works, and also for nature. Whatever the thinker thinks, he is not able to explain the twists in life, let alone to eliminate them. He simply lacks too much knowledge about life. The Only One Who is able to straighten the crooked man and what has caused him to be crooked, is the Lord Jesus (Isaiah 42:16; Luke 3:5).
All science about how man should be is incapable of changing man. We never find out the cause of the crookedness of the human race if the most important information is missing. That information has to come from God. If He is kept out of observations, the crooked remains crooked and what is missing can never be counted. He cannot straighten the crookedness, he lacks the ability to do so; and he does not notice what is lacking, because he lacks the insight to do so. Whatever a thinker thinks, he can never think of a system in which life can be fathomed. The philosopher can sometimes give some help with his wisdom, but he can never solve the fundamental problem of life, because he keeps scribbling on the outside.
He who, like the Preacher, has his eyes open, sees that man is crooked, while he should be noble, helpful and good. But nothing can enable him to be so. For he is part of “a crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). Despite all the teaching to make man right, he remains crooked. All education courses are not able to change the character of man and to ennoble him. The most essential factor lacking to find out the meaning of life is enlightenment through the Spirit of God.
“I said to myself” (Ecclesiastes 1:16) means ‘I consulted with myself’. That is the level of the book. Only he and his own heart are discussing. This shows that the source of his research, the level of it, lies in himself, a human being. He draws from his own heart. Therein dwells the most conceivable wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-Nahum :) which is also “magnified and increased” by all his research and investigations, but it remains human wisdom. There is no other light shining around him than that of nature, there is no light from above.
With “all who were over Jerusalem before me”, Solomon refers not only to David but probably also to the Canaanite kings who lived in Jerusalem before David captured the city. We can think of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) and Adoni-Zedek (Joshua 10:1). We can add that also all philosophers after him – for example Aristotle (384-322 BC), Socrates (469-399 BC) and Plato (428-348 BC), who are considered the greatest philosophers of the ancient world – cannot be compared to him.
After all his investigations and research, he can say that his heart has “observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge”. He has been deeply engaged in all that is worthwhile to be involved with and has absorbed that into his heart and mind. What he has discovered is not a global impression, but has given him knowledge of the smallest details.
The Preacher says that he set his mind “to know wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 1:17). All effort is a laudable striving after results, but is the same as trying to strive after wind. He also wanted “to know madness and folly” in order to learn about their deception and deceit and to preserve the knowledge to be kept from it. To see wisdom in those who do not use wisdom and to see folly in those who do not fight against deception and deceit is a torment for the mind.
The only thing wisdom leads to is the discovery that “in much wisdom there is much grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). True wisdom acknowledges that the true satisfaction sought through wisdom is unattainable. The same goes for the knowledge we acquire. The more we know, the more we know that we know nothing. Our knowing is always only partial (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The expression ‘knowledge is power’ is an expression that only short-sighted people use. Real knowledge does not give someone power, but sadness. Real knowledge is more than factual knowledge. It is about understanding, about insight, about discovering the connection between certain things or events.
We sense our incapacity and powerlessness better, and become sad as we discover more of the laws of nature and how God in His providence rules the world. Each discovery leads us to the conviction that much more remains hidden than we have never suspected before. Knowledge or science does not guarantee happiness. Attempts to fathom the meaning of life through wisdom and knowledge, and then acquire ultimate happiness, in fact increase the conviction of the meaninglessness of life.
For those who know Christ, this is completely different. He who increases knowledge of Christ increases joy. Thus there is “knowledge of [the] salvation” (Luke 1:77), knowledge “of the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:19), “the knowledge of His [God’s] will” (Colossians 1:9) and “the knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33). One day “the earth … will be full of the knowledge of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:9). That will be when Christ reigns on earth.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 1". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29