v. 1. The words of the Preacher, in the sense of one who, from the rich stock of his knowledge, gives wise and profitable instruction, the reference being to Solomon, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, the capital of the entire kingdom of Israel and Judah at that time. The fact that Solomon does not mention his given name is easily accounted for by the fact that the entire book breathes the spirit of repentance, together with admonitions and warnings, such as are to be expected from an aged and experienced man rather than from a king.
v. 2. Vanity of vanities, the most utter vanity, saith the Preacher, thereby announcing the theme of his entire book, vanity of vanities; all is vanity, that is, all earthly nature and everything pertaining to temporal things has been perverted, in consequence of sin, so that it no longer serves the original purpose of God, but the vain objects of sin.
v. 3. What profit, what lasting value, what enduring advantage, hath a man of all his labor, the toil and exertion with which he fatigues himself, which he taketh under the sun? The author does not say that man's labor is useless, but that, in itself, it has no enduring, eternal value. While the sun runs his course with unfailing regularity, the doings of men seem altogether changeable and variable. The work of their hands is good, if done in the Lord's service, but the misery and the hardships connected with it set the imprint of vanity upon their entire life.
v. 4. One generation passeth away, sinking down into the dust of death, and another generation cometh, replacing those who are laid in the grave; there is a continual going and coming; but the earth abideth forever, it stands the same, as long as the Lord so decrees, in the midst of the turmoil of changing centuries, calmly remaining while generations come and go.
v. 5. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, steadily pursuing his course, and hasteth to his place where he arose, to come up again in the east, governing time as the Lord ordered, Gen_1:16.
v. 6. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north, following certain fixed laws of the universe; it whirleth about continually, in an ever-returning change, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits, in courses whose general regularity has been learned even by human observers.
v. 7. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full, it does not overflow on account of the immense masses of water which it constantly receives; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again, in a constant evaporation and condensation, the cycle of ocean, clouds and fog, rain and dew, springs, creeks, and rivers continuing without intermission.
v. 8. All things are full of labor, full of trouble, weariness, fatigue on account of the curse following sin, Gen_3:19; man cannot utter it, the endlessness and burden of human troubles cannot be told by human tongue, it is beyond man's ability to express it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing, the senses become wearied in trying to master the endless succession of impressions and phenomena which press upon them from all sides in the course of this sinful existence.
v. 9. The thing that hath been, that which has happened time and again in the past, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done, occurring over and over again in human experience; and there is no new thing under the sun, no matter how men may change their environment and place the newest achievements of science and invention into their service, the misery and the toil of life is ever the same, and the abuse of God's gifts and the transgression and the dissatisfaction of man's heart are ever the same.
v. 10. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? Has human nature and the misery of human life changed since the fall of man? It hath been already of old time, which was before us, always, within the memory of man.
v. 11. There is no remembrance of former things, men forget the lessons which the insufficient records of the past teach them; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after, for the impressive warnings of even the greatest cataclysms in the history of the world have gone unheeded. Cf Mat_24:37-39.
The Unreliability of Earthly Wisdom
v. 12. I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, over the entire nation, as Solomon states in looking back over his long reign.
v. 13. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom, applying the wisdom given him by the Lord with all zeal, concerning all things that are done under heaven, the motives, acts, and lives of men everywhere; this sore travail, namely, the zealous searching, the steady and ceaseless endeavor to inquire into the works of men, hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith, it is a part of the labor laid upon mankind by the Lord, the acquiring of knowledge is a difficult task. Now Solomon states the result of his studies;
v. 14. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, in a careful observation of the ways of men; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit, efforts which bring about no lasting good, for all the affliction of mind with which men strive to go forward cannot bring them lasting good fortune and true happiness. What this world only has to offer will always fall short of the mark.
v. 15. That which is crooked cannot be made straight, human beings cannot alter what has been determined by God, even as they cannot, by their own reason and strength, change their sinful hearts to such as are well-pleasing to God; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered, if it is missing, it cannot be accounted for, what is wholly defective cannot be supplied.
v. 16. I communed with mine own heart, in a careful contemplation or consideration of the difficulty presented, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, being possessed of incalculable wealth, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem, for the Lord had conferred upon Solomon a most extraordinary amount of wisdom, 2Ch_1:12; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge, he not only possessed a great measure of wisdom from the beginning, but he also grew in circumspection and caution from day to day and from year to year.
v. 17. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, on its positive side, and to know madness and folly, the error and foolishness of men, to estimate it properly; I perceived that this also, namely, the activity of striving after such knowledge, is vexation of spirit, a miserable and troublesome exertion.
v. 18. For in much wisdom is much grief, lack of knowledge or deliberate ignorance saving a person many a disagreeable meditation on the weakness and meanness of human nature; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, for he will have an understanding of conditions as they actually exist, he will be able to judge things as they are, and the realities of this world, due to sin, are always disagreeable and vexatious. It takes much trust in the Lord to overcome the offense of this world.
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Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Easter