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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 1

Old & New Testament Restoration CommentaryRestoration Commentary

Verses 1-11

Ecc 1:1-11

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

"The words of the Preacher the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man in all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is the thing that shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing, whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been done long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after."

"Words of the Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:1). These words identify Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. This verse is supplemented by Ecclesiastes 1:12 in the words, "over Israel," a word which includes all of the Chosen People; and this limits the identification to Solomon, because he is the only "son of David" that ever ruled over the entire Israel in Jerusalem. If anything else had been intended as the meaning here, the words would have read, "Over Judah in Jerusalem." Many scholars, of course, deny that Solomon is the author here; but in the light of the obvious fact that not any of such `scholars’ even pretends to know who did write it, it is clear that none of them has any significant contribution to add to what is written here. We take it for what it says.

"Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This is the theme of Ecclesiastes. Is it the truth? Certainly! Especially, if it is construed as an accurate and tragic evaluation of all human life as perpetually circumscribed and condemned under the Divine sentence that fell upon humanity following the debacle in Eden. Is there any future for humanity? Apart from the redemption in Christ Jesus, our race has no future whatever. Augustine referred to Ecclesiastes as, "Setting forth the vanity of this life, only that we may desire that life wherein, instead of vanity beneath the sun, there is truth (and eternal joy) under Him who made the sun"!

"What profit hath a man of all his labor ... under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:3). As should have been expected of a man like Solomon, he was thinking only in terms of temporal, earthly, and materialistic `profit.’ He who was "Greater than Solomon" asked a much more important question, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul" (Matthew 16:26, KJV)? There is a true evaluation here of the tragedy of all human life.

"One generation goeth ... another cometh ... the earth abideth forever" (Ecclesiastes 1:4). Solomon was wrong about the permanence of the earth. "No one must think of the earth as something permanent.” That is the same foolish error of today’s frenzied "Environmentalists." Hebrews 12:26-27,2 Peter 3:8-10 stress the ultimate `removal’ of the earth itself. It is primarily this earth-centered concern of Solomon which the Book of Ecclesiastes is designed to correct.

"The sun ... the wind ... the rivers" (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7). The argument here is somewhat humorous. The sun just goes round and around and never goes anywhere; the wind can’t make up its mind; it blows one way today, and the opposite way tomorrow; and the rivers work at it all the time but never fill up the ocean. This, of course, is also exactly what is happening with the generations of men. In pitiful and endless succession, they rise and fade away. In view of the magnificent conclusion of Ecclesiastes in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, we accept the extreme pessimism of these verses as the false viewpoint which Ecclesiastes was designed to refute. "What we have here is a glance at life within the mundane limits which are the same for all men.”

"The eye is not satisfied with seeing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8). This is exactly the same as Solomon’s proverb (Proverbs 27:20). See our comment there.

"There is no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is the equivalent of the modern truism that history repeats itself. The reference here is not to such things as discoveries and inventions. The prophet Daniel foretold that, "knowledge would be increased," in the time of the end (Daniel 12:4). Despite this, the verse here is profoundly true. Emotionally, man is exactly the same as he always has been. The sins of America today are exactly the sins of ancient Babylon. Man rationalizes his sinful behavior and yields to seductive temptations in exactly the same patterns as always. In this sector, there is indeed "nothing new under the sun." Man’s basic spiritual need is the same as that of Adam and Eve after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Ecclesiastes 1:11 may be translated differently, as in the RSV. "There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after."

One of the mysteries of Ecclesiastes regards the terrible pessimism that marks many of the isolated statements. Are these the actual belief of the writer, or is he merely presenting what he regards as a false view which he will forcefully deny and correct in his conclusion? To this writer, the second explanation is the proper one.

Regarding the negative declaration here that there is no profit whatever in this life, regardless of the concerns and labors of any person whomsoever, "Such pessimism is unacceptable to Christians who hold that Christ constitutes the meaning of all human history and who hold that labor done in His service is not meaningless." Indeed, even he who gives so small a thing as a cup of cold water in the service of Jesus Christ, "Shall in no wise lose his reward" (Matthew 10:42).

However, the author of Ecclesiastes was writing without any knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; and, in that context, the picture given here of the pitiful uselessness and futility of human life on earth is profoundly and tragically accurate. To every non-Christian who might see these lines, read here the summary of your life as it will inevitably develop apart from service of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastes 1:1 This verse identifies the author of Ecclesiastes as “the Preacher,” and “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Views vary sharply concerning the actual author of Ecclesiastes, but there is little doubt that Solomon fits this description. The name “Solomon” never appears in the book. This does not mean, however, that he is thus discounted as the author. The Jewish tradition held to the Solomonic authorship as did most non-Jewish writers until Hugo Grotius argued against this possibility in 1644 A.D. Since that time modern critics have woven fanciful theories concerning possible authors. Even among conservative writers, there is an uncertainty as to whom the book should be ascribed. Recent tendencies, however, on the part of conservative scholars fashion a return to the more traditional view that Solomon wrote the book.

An overwhelming amount of evidence within Ecclesiastes sustains the contention for Solomonic authorship. The following list of internal evidence, consistent with Solomon and his day, is offered as worthy of serious consideration: (1) Verse one identified Solomon precisely; (2) The statement in Ecclesiastes 1:12 requires that the author be identified as a king in Jerusalem over Israel; (3) The extensive and elaborate experiments recorded in chapters one and two required wealth and opportunity available only to one of Solomon’s greatness; (4) References such as Ecclesiastes 1:16 necessitate an authoritative position and identifies Jerusalem as the base of activity; (5) Collaborating evidence from I Kings, Song of Solomon, Nehemiah, and I Chronicles complements the information of Ecclesiastes 2:1-9 and thus confirms our contention; (6) The inequities identified with the close of Solomon’s reign along with the social conditions created by his desire for self enjoyment are in harmony with the descriptions of Ecclesiastes 4:1-6 and Ecclesiastes 5:8; (7) The allusion in Ecclesiastes 4:13 to an old and foolish king (Solomon) and one who has come out of prison (Jeroboam’s return from his exile in Egypt) to replace the king, fits the closing days of Solomon’s reign explicitly; (8) A final reference noted is found in Ecclesiastes 12:9 where the author of Ecclesiastes has searched out and arranged many proverbs. This is in harmony with 1 Kings 4:32 where it is recorded that Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs.

Solomon is undoubtedly the one to whom we are indebted for this marvelous book. Read also 2 Samuel 12:24 and 1 Kings 1:39 to identify “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes 1:1.

“The” words of the Preacher implies that a definite message is in the mind of the author and he intends to proclaim it to all who will hear. We are aware immediately that the Preacher is a proclaimer of truth. From the very first line in the book we note the purpose of his writing. The definite article “the” suggests a specific message. The content and direction of thought are not revealed at this time. It is the discovery of that message and its practical application to life that shall be the reward for the diligent student of Ecclesiastes.

The goal of the Preacher’s words is clearly stated in Ecclesiastes 12:10 : “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.” It is like a breath of fresh air to discover his intention so refreshingly isolated for all to see. There can be little doubt about his purpose. He wants to “find delightful words,” and “write words of truth correctly.” He clarified his purpose further by stating that a Preacher uses his words as “goads” to prod and drive toward a goal (Ecclesiastes 12:11). He wants the truth of his message to be secured in the minds of his readers as surely as well-driven nails hold fast the carpenter’s masterpiece. Although the lessons he teaches us may arise from his own experience, or out of the cultural situation of historic Israel as she struggled under her oft-times foolish king, the Preacher does not want us to miss the fact that it is God who gives us the book! He declares that the words “are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Once we see that, regardless of the myriad approaches to the interpretation of the book, we must admit that there is a single well-defined purpose for its writing. Solomon eliminates the possibility of debate over this issue when he writes: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Any pathway taken to unlock the mystery of the book of Ecclesiastes has at least one inescapable criterion: it must lead to Solomon’s stated conclusion.

Solomon arrives at an exciting, positive conclusion. His thorough examination of all things, and his extensive experimentations with greatness, work, and pleasure, led him to the frustration of dead-end streets and blind alleys. His conclusion in reality is a fresh, new beginning. The entanglements of the world of vanity are behind him and a clear new horizon looms before him. He draws his reader to the inescapable doorway to the new life. A burst of heavenly sunlight drives all the meaningless experiments and observations of the past deeper into the ever darkening shadows of the outer periphery of little concern. His grip now is on his new found truth. He clings to it and to it alone. He has finally managed his priority list in such a way that life becomes worth living and filled with purpose and enjoyment. He has managed to bring into focus, in the center of his existence, the central truth alone worth knowing, and most importantly worth believing. He declares this single truth with a note of triumph: “Fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

It is a long, difficult journey from Solomon’s opening statement that “all is vanity,” and his final conclusion to “fear God,” but at least the reader knows from the beginning the road Solomon intends to travel.

Ecclesiastes 1:2 The Preacher’s first declaration, “All is vanity,” is not one of despair but one which simply states the truth concerning the nature of his world and everything in it. The Lord has cursed the earth (Genesis 5:29) as a result of Adam’s sin. Therefore, Paul writes, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” The fact that the earth and all that it contains has felt the curse of death, is in harmony with the message of the Bible. Study Genesis 3:17-19; Psalms 39:5-6; Genesis 5:29; Hebrews 1:10-12 and James 1:10-11; James 4:13-17.

We often ascribe the idea of vainness of false pride to the term vanity, but this is not the meaning to be given the term as it is interwoven throughout the Preacher’s message. It is evident that it conveys the idea of a short life, as the proper noun “Abel” comes from the same Hebrew word that is here translated “vanity.” The Hebrew term “hebel” is used thirty-seven times in Ecclesiastes. Such extensive application of one idea, discussed in each chapter except the tenth, demands a thorough understanding of its use.

The term is rich in meaning and usage as it appears over and over again in the book. No one term could possibly convey the meaning of each situation. The New English Bible has replaced the word “vanity” with “emptiness,” while the Anchor Bible replaces “vanity” with “vapor.” Listed here are terms which serve as synonyms or corresponding ideas. They are: vanity, futile, empty, meaningless, fleeting, pointless, incomprehensible, breath, vapor, unfulfilling, striving after wind, short-lived, Abel, transitory, temporary, sublunary, under the sun, under heaven and upon the earth.

Many lessons in the book are based on the conclusion that “All is vanity.” It is vital, therefore, that one see the numerous possibilities contained in the word “vanity.” When all of life and its hopes are qualified by sublunary restrictions and limitations, when everything a man has to remember, enjoy today, and look forward to, is limited to and qualified by experience in this life only, then one begins to sense the impact of the term. The term vanity, therefore, is applicable to everything that falls beneath the curse of sin. When man sinned, he began the process of death. As noted in Genesis 3:17-19, the process was passed on to man’s world. Therefore, the “All” of Solomon’s declaration is comprehensive enough to include both man and his world. There is a genuine pity associated with this truth. As the Apostle Paul has said, “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Or again, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).

At the beginning of the book, we are confronted with the most basic question man can possibly ask: Is this life, in its toil, pleasures, possessions, challenges, and ambitions all there is to living, or is there a Word from God to give hope to man in the midst of his activities? It is in the face of this question that the Preacher embarks on his quest.

It is with deep gratitude to God that we study Ecclesiastes with the wisdom of His final revelation. On numerous occasions Jesus pointed to the transitory nature of man and his world and always directed his hearers to a higher calling. It was indeed Solomon that Jesus had in mind, clothed in all his glory, when he drove home the lesson that “. . . not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). It is in the light of this truth that he challenges us, “But seek for His kingdom, and these things shall be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also” (Luke 12:31-34).

Solomon’s use of “vanity” does not convey the idea of “fatalism” because God is always present in the sense that He is the acknowledged Creator of this world (Ecclesiastes 12:1), and in His providence He controls the ultimate outcome of all events.

Ecclesiastes 1:3 This first question in the book gets to the heart of the Preacher’s pursuit. It is not a question directed toward a lazy person. He is a worker! He has dreams and ambitions. He envisions great wealth and power. It is the advantage or profit that he is concerned with. This same proposition is close to Jesus’ heart as he, too, raises the question, but is quick to offer an incentive to make our work worthwhile. He says, “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds” (Matthew 16:26-27).

The term “advantage” or “profit” is only used in Ecclesiastes. It does not appear in any other Old Testament book. It is used several times by Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:9; Ecclesiastes 5:16; Ecclesiastes 7:11). It means preeminence or gain. It may also mean “to remain or be left.” The meaning here is that of a collected materialistic gain. The Preacher’s contention is that man does not have an advantage or profit. He cannot hold on to anything. He toils, labors, plans, but it is like grasping the wind (Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 5:15).

This first question of the book offers a key to the reader. It is obvious that man will be engaged in making his living by the sweat of his brow (Genesis 3:19). Man and labor are not equal but they are inseparable. But what will be man’s profit? This question must be held against the interpretation of the entire book. Even when there is a temporary profit (Ecclesiastes 5:9; Ecclesiastes 7:11) it is short lived and unfulfilling.

Modern man, too, grows weary of facing the labor of each day, realizing nothing more than the financial compensation at the end of the week. The monotonous grind of daily routine of the Preacher’s day resulted in the declaration, “I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor” (Ecclesiastes 2:20).

What a vastly different question is “What advantage does the Christian man have in all his labor?” Cf. Colossians 1:29; Hebrews 13:21; Revelation 14:13.

Solomon’s question and answer are qualified by the phrase “under the sun.” This restricts both his question and his answer. Just what restrictions the phrase places upon the inquiry and the place and meaning of the phrase in the book of Ecclesiastes now draws our attention.

The phrase “under the sun” implies a necessary restriction. What is to be included, and what is to be excluded? Since Solomon does not define the meaning for us, we are left to discover the meaning from the use of the idea in the context of the book. One cannot go outside Ecclesiastes for his answer as the phrase is no where else employed in the Bible.

Two other phrases used in the book apparently carry the same meaning. They are “under heaven,” and “upon the earth.” It is Solomon’s purpose, through the use of these restricting phrases, to make his observations and conclusions believable. On occasion he expresses the futility of life “under the sun” with such, words as, “who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life” (Ecclesiastes 6:12)? Yet, he never qualifies his toil “upon the earth” by contrasting it to any after life or hope of eternal blessing. It is as if he is saying, if on this earth we find our complete experience and reason for existing—if this life is all there is, then “a live dog is better than a dead lion . . . for whoever is joined with the living, there is hope” (Ecclesiastes 9:4. Life “under the sun” may not afford man the opportunity for enjoyment, but one must be alive in order to take advantage of such opportunity if it does come.

The restriction “under the sun” appears to be a self-imposed framework of interpreting the meaning of life as it is lived apart from the “verbal revelation” from God. Without the benefit of “words” from God, man is caught in a futile struggle to unravel and interpret the complexities of our transitory world. Thus, the phrase “under the sun” includes that which has to do with purely earthly things. The Preacher purposely closes off the influence of Heaven for the sake of his higher purpose: i.e. the vanity of all earthly things.

In a very real sense the “sun” can move about heaven mocking man, disappearing only to return again tomorrow, smiling upon the futile efforts of those who are so identified with sublunary affairs. Yet, for some, a new day dawns and as Malachi predicted, “For you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). The Preacher is not ready to take us to the “new day” but intends to fully demonstrate that upon the earth, under heaven, and beneath the earthly sun, man toils and dreams but for little profit!

Ecclesiastes 1:4 Both man and earth share in the gloomy, monotonous routine of activities. Both man and earth are transitory. The tragedy manifests itself when men, the highest of all God’s creatures and made from the earth, continually pass away while the earth remains. Solomon pictures the world as the stage upon which the tragic drama occurs. One generation enters as the former generation exits. The events that take place within each generation are described in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They encompass one’s life from the time of birth to the time of death. The Preacher does not see beyond the tent which God pitched for the sun and earth. From his observations he concludes that the earth remains forever. When he has reviewed how man spends his short span of life, with its numerous activities involving the “appointed time for everything,” he raises the same question with which he opens his book: “What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?” (Ecclesiastes 3:9). Man doesn’t seem to have any advantage, and the only advantage the earth has over man is in its duration. But even here, the word “forever” does not mean eternal. In Exodus 21:6, instruction is given whereby a servant is to serve his master “forever.” It simply means “a good long time.” Old Testament evidence of the transitory nature of the earth is found in Psalms 102:24-28.

Metaphorically, James implies that it is indeed the sun which destroys us. He says, speaking of man, “because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with the burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and its flower falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth; so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways” (James 1:10-11). It is in this same context that James reminds us that our life is but a vapor, and like the vapor will quickly vanish away.

Ecclesiastes 1:5-7 The lesson of man’s transitory nature and the futility of earthly endeavor is the purpose of this section. To look for more than this is to cloud the issue and perhaps miss the impact of the book.

The sun, the wind, and the rivers disappear, but unlike man, they are there again tomorrow! In our modern day we see and hear man’s protest that the earth outlasts him. Such plaintive cries as “That lazy old sun ain’t got nothin’ to do, but roll around heaven all day,” or, “Old man river, he don’t say nothin’, he just keeps rolling, he just keeps rolling along,” demonstrates man’s frustration and resentment in the light of his own transitory existence. The sun stays within its own appointed limits but as it pants along it appears to actually mock as man works in endless endeavor to discover the profit of his labor. Likewise, the wind is confined to circular courses, and although it appears to pass on never to return, it inevitably finds its way back in its trek about the earth.

The streams, which once flowed freely and often furiously to the sea, may at times beg for water and appear to have lost their intended purpose, but in time they fill their banks and rush toward the sea again. Thus, they demonstrate, that unlike man they continue on forever!

Even though the sun, wind and streams continue on beyond the duration of any generation, they demonstrate the unwearied sameness of the procedure of the repetition of all things. Everything the sun shines upon is transitory by nature, even the sun itself. Man comes and goes, the sun comes and goes, the wind comes and goes, and the streams come and go.

Just as there is a sameness in the backdrop of nature, and a sameness in the “props” which appear upon the stage of life, so there is an identifying characteristic of sameness to be found in man. Since the fall, man and his world have at least one thing in common: “they have been made subject to vanity” (Romans 8:20). Solomon is sharing with us the conclusion of his initial observation. He remarks that man, like his world, is in ceaseless, monotonous, regular motion. Both are on a treadmill, it is just sad that man exits first.

Ecclesiastes 1:8 Two ideas are possible in translating verse eight. One suggests that all things are more wearisome than words can tell. The other suggests that it is wearisome to try and discover all things. The final thought in the verse is saying that man is unable to discover everything that should be seen or heard and thus the latter idea would be the most tenable. He does not intend to say that man cannot discover some truth or draw reasonable conclusions. Ecclesiastes is filled with numerous discoveries made under the sun. He is stating that when one pursues earthly knowledge, the eye cannot see it all nor the ear hear it all. But, even if he did, he would not discover the meaning of it all. He knows enough to at least reach this conclusion.

Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 These three verses constitute his final arguments in this section. He has declared that everything has fallen beneath the curse of impermanent futility. Rhetorically he has questioned if man has any profit at all in all his work. He has illustrated that not only man, but man’s world are caught in a routine sameness that is characteristic of every generation’s experience. Man cannot tell everything, he cannot bear everything, and he cannot see everything. What he does perceive he concludes isn’t new, but if man thinks it is, it is only because he does not remember what has gone before. History repeats itself. His further observation is that since human nature and nature itself never change, not only are his peers guilty of forgetting what has gone before, but those who are to come will not remember the things of today.

Solomon is really saying, “He that has seen the present, has seen all things.” Things are considered novel or new only because they have been forgotten. So intent is the Preacher on this point that he repeats himself in verses nine and ten.

Much of what Solomon writes throughout the book is based on this premise. For example, he speaks of how easily men are forgotten (Ecclesiastes 9:6-7; Ecclesiastes 9:15). He instructs us to enjoy today and not to fret over a tomorrow which none is able to see (Ecclesiastes 7:14; Ecclesiastes 9:7). He suggests that he sought to know wisdom, madness, and folly, and that each of these will be sought by the one who succeeds the king (Ecclesiastes 2:12). There is no lasting memory of either a wise man or a fool (Ecclesiastes 2:16). God knows that human nature is always the same and seeks to deal with man on that basis (Ecclesiastes 3:15; Ecclesiastes 6:10).

There is dispute as to whether the term “things” in verse eleven refers to “former generations” and “later generations” or “former things” and “later things.” The original terms could have either meaning. If one looks at the Preacher’s writings in Ecclesiastes 9:6-7 and Ecclesiastes 9:15, he will discover that “generations” do fail to remember that which happened long ago. However, the context seems to be weakened by this interpretation. His “all” of verse two and his “earlier things” and “later things” of this verse encompass all the activities of each generation. This appears to be more in harmony with the question he seeks to answer: “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3).

His message is simple. If one keeps his eyes upon this world alone, then his labor is worth very little. He discovers that all his labor becomes entangled in the gray maze of monotonous, endless activities of not only his own life and generation, but of every generation that “goes” and “comes.” It all fades into a similar backdrop of routine acts of nature which he so vividly describes through the activities of the sun, wind and rivers.

His toil and effort on earth profit little. He discovers that he is caught in a purposeless web, a staircase to nowhere, the proverbial treadmill. His observations grow out of a life of one who has lived through the optimum of the excitement of youth as well as the experience of fulfilled dreams which he entertained in young manhood. Now, on the edge of departure from this world, with his eyes focused on earthly values alone, he wants to know what advantage, or profit, he can claim as his own in all his labor.

When man elects to face life and interpret its mystery apart from God’s help, he inevitably will come to the same conclusion. Solomon has established an inescapable principle that a wise man works in harmony with the will of God, and God alone. The first half of his book illustrates the premise set forth in chapter one verses one through eleven. Many have asked, “What does the writer know of life?” Almost as if Solomon anticipated the question, he takes up the challenge and turns to the task before him. He is now determined to demonstrate the wisdom of his conclusion.

Verses 12-18

Ecc 1:12-18

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18


"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: it is a sore travail that God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."

"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:12). "The word from which `Preacher’ is translated is a Hebrew term, [~Qoheleth], pronounced `Koheleth’ or `Kohelet.’ Many attempts to translate this have given us: `Ecclesiastes,’ `The Preacher,’ `The Speaker,’ `The President,’ `The Spokesman,’ `The Philosopher,’; and we might add, `The Professor.’"

Along with Ecclesiastes 1:1, this virtually names Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. Some scholars think that the words, all that were before me in Jerusalem, denies that Solomon was the author, but there is no such denial in it. All that were before me, should not be read as if it said, "All the kings that were before me." Even if it meant `kings’, the words all that were before me would apply to the two kings who preceded Solomon as well as it would apply to twenty-five or thirty. Scott noted also that, "If the passage is construed as a reference to `kings’ who preceded Solomon `in Jerusalem,’ then it might include pre-Davidic kings such as Melchizedek.”

Also, the Revised Standard Version renders Ecclesiastes 1:12; "I, the Preacher, have been king, etc.;" and many scholars understand this as an assertion that the writer, at the time of his writing, was not king. We do not accept that as a necessary conclusion. F. C. Cook, a very dependable scholar, stated flatly that, "This does not imply that Solomon had ceased to be king when this was written.”

"In much wisdom is much grief" (Ecclesiastes 1:18). This is the message of the whole paragraph. Even the pursuit of wisdom, like everything else, is vanity and a striving after wind. In all of these negative and pessimistic statements, one should understand that their primary application is to every life that is without the blessed hope in Christ Jesus. This is the message that should be thundered in the ears of all mankind: You are never going to arrive at any worthwhile place without the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. You will never chase anything except "the wind" unless you receive and obey Christ.

"It is a sore travail that God hath given unto the sons of men" (Ecclesiastes 1:13). This is a very significant line. The author is not an infidel. He believes in God and is able to see in the universal frustrations of our fallen race the will of God. Why is this so? Because the human family, in the person of our progenitors, by reason of their choosing to serve Satan in Eden, have brought all their posterity under condemnation.

Yes indeed, it is God’s will that man’s activities should end in frustration and defeat (until they might turn to God and obey Him). Did he not curse the earth itself for Adam’s sake (Genesis 3:17-19)? "The conclusion reached here is that man is destined by God to ceaseless effort without results.”

"That which is crooked cannot be made straight" (Ecclesiastes 1:15). "Nothing that man can do can remedy the anomalies with which he is surrounded.” The inadequacy of all systems of government, economics, education, etc., are utterly beyond his power to improve or correct them. In a word, "He is stuck with the situation into which he was born."

"I have gotten me great wisdom" (Ecclesiastes 1:16). If Solomon indeed is the author here, his thoughts have already departed from the way of the Lord, because here he claimed that, "I have gotten me, etc.," whereas, as a matter of truth, God had given Solomon his great wisdom in answer to prayer." Here he was already well on the road to the apostasy that wrecked his life, his administration, and the kingdom of Israel. Solomon’s wisdom was nothing whatever that he searched out. It was a loving gift from God.

In this context, Cook pointed out that even in those thirty-nine times that the author used the term God in the Book of Ecclesiastes, he never once used the sacred covenant name Jehovah by which God was known to the Chosen People. All of the references use the term [~’Elohiym]. This might indicate that Solomon no longer, when this was written, considered himself obligated by the sacred covenant.

Some recurring phrases in Ecclesiastes should be noted. "Under the sun," "on earth," "under heaven," and "those who see the sun" " - All of these indicate the sphere of vision that prevails in Ecclesiastes, MAN’S LIFE ON EARTH.” Furthermore, it is a view of man’s life on earth without any knowledge whatever of the Redemption in Christ Jesus. The profound tragedy is that this description fits millions of people this very day. A proper understanding of the seventh chapter of Romans gives us another picture of these Christless millions "without Christ." See our comment on that chapter.

Ecclesiastes 1:12 This verse is in harmony with Ecclesiastes 1:1 and restates the Preacher’s position as king over Israel in Jerusalem. The experiments which immediately follow this verse, required great wealth and resources. A close study of 1 Kings 1-11 is sufficient to establish the credibility of Solomon’s claim to wealth and capabilities. He was in a position to propose and follow through on the ambitious goals of Ecclesiastes 1:13 and Ecclesiastes 2:1.

One major problem of this verse centers on the use of the past tense in reference to his reign over Israel.

The verb rendered “have been” could as easily mean “become,” and thus the sentence would carry the idea that Solomon “became king” in Israel (note the Paraphrase). However, the purport of the verse does not hinge on the tense of the verb, but rather on the question as to whether the one who is to make the experiments has sufficient wealth and resources to carry them through. He may be saying, “I have been king, and still am!” At any rate, as king he has the authority and financial affluence to pursue his objectives.

Those who would argue for a non-Solomonic authorship interpret the past tense in this verse as implying that the author personified Solomon, as Solomon would not have used the past tense at a time when he was still the king.

The Berleburger Bible conveys the meaning of the verb as a description of the past that stretches into the future, “I the preacher have been king thus far, and am one still." There is a sense in which the past tense could be used in the latter part of Solomon’s reign. The Lord took the kingdom from Saul while he still “looked” like a king. Samuel declared unto Saul, “I will not return with thee; for thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” (Read 1 Samuel 15:24-35.) Even in Solomon’s day the kingdom shook beneath him with unrest and discontent. Sacrifice to foreign deities took place on the sacred ground of Israel. Jeroboam and Rehoboam stood waiting to claim their respective sections of the kingdom when it divided. Indeed, the “handwriting was on the wall.” It is reasonable, therefore, that Solomon could think of himself and the glory of the past as something that would never be reclaimed and thus in the last days of his reign to realize his control over Israel was indeed a thing of the past.

Another view concerning the tense of the verb is called the “citizen-king” concept. It maintains that Solomon speaks through two voices in the book. One voice is as king over Israel, and the other voice is that of a citizen who views “from afar” the happenings in Israel. It is believed that such a view explains the use of past tense in the verse.

Perhaps there is some basis for each of the views under consideration. At any rate, history records that Solomon reigned over Israel until his death. Perhaps the simplest explanation is to accept the possibility that Solomon is saying “I, the Preacher became king over Israel in Jerusalem.”

Ecclesiastes 1:13-18 Solomon’s purpose is clearly defined. He wants to explore all that is done under heaven. He will do it with his mind guided by wisdom. He sees it as a grievous task, vain and futile.

The term “mind” in Ecclesiastes 1:3 is a much better translation than “heart” which appears in the King James Version. Almost without exception the use of “heart” in the Old Testament should be thought of as the mental faculties. The idea here is to convey the fact that it is to be a mental procedure. He restates his determination to study and to know in Ecclesiastes 1:17 when he says, “I set my mind.” He does not bring a bias to his work. Neither is he interested in simply accumulating facts. He desires to see the nature of “why” and “how” things work.

“Seek” and “explore” are not synonymous. “Seek” carries the idea of studying that which is near at hand while “explore” suggests taking a comprehensive overview of something at a greater distance. Or, as Barton has stated it: “‘Search’ means to investigate the roots of a matter; ‘explore’ to explore the subject on all sides." He does not leave a stone unturned in his quest to discover all that has been done under heaven. He is dealing, however, with that which has felt the blow of Adam’s fall. He explores everything that comes within his power to see or hear. He is faced with endless observations but his conclusion is that all of it is afflicted with the mark of the vanity of this world. He calls it a “grievous” task and “striving after wind.”

Since the task is grievous and drives one to despair, why say that God has given this task to man?

That is just the point! God has not given it to other than man. Nothing in all of God’s creation, except man, concerns itself with the “why” of the activities of our world. Man, however, is restless until he discovers the why. Augustine’s admission to God was that men are restless until they find their rest in Him. This quest for God in all the things around us is a futile pursuit. The reason it is unfulfilling is that it is directed toward God’s creation, and not toward the mind of God which interprets God’s creation. In Jesus’ day the mind of God was revealed to man in the fullest sense. It was under these circumstances that Jesus said, privately to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see, for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and did not hear them” (Luke 10:23-24).

False gods are worshipped throughout the world. False idols are established in every land. Why? Because these are expressions of man’s frustrations and despair. He is searching in harmony with the grievous task in his mind, yet his results are inconsistent and unrewarding. His ultimate frustration is depicted by the Athenians in their erecting an altar to an unknown god! We hear Solomon say that God “has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is an “affliction” because man is honest enough to admit that God is only longed for, not discovered. He must also admit, as Solomon does, that the mark of sin is so heavy upon both man and his world that nothing can really be changed, and that which is lacking in man and nature is still lacking. Man is not capable of remaking his world or himself. Cracks can be plastered, and cosmetically treated, but not healed. On our own, we can be pretenders and mask wearers, but we really can’t make the crooked straight or add to man’s account in order to make him acceptable before God.

Man is crooked and lacking, but God is not responsible for this. It was man who violated God’s order, and thus suffers the consequences of sin. He and his world stand out of joint and in debt before God. God placed the curse upon both man and the world because of sin. In a sense it can be said that God bends things and people out of shape. But it is only in the sense that God made the righteous rules which were violated by men, and God placed the subsequent punishments upon that which violates the rules. It is in the light of this truth that Solomon admonishes us, “consider the work of God. Who is able to straighten what he has bent?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Man is in debt to God. Solomon in all his wisdom cannot help. Paul goes a step further and declares that even the world cannot help. “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through wisdom did not come to know God, God was well pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe . . . we preach Christ crucified . . . because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

Another reason why the task is grievous has to do with the accomplishment of the very thing he started out to do. He wanted to explore all that had been done on the earth. He wanted to increase his wisdom and knowledge. He states that he accomplished this task to the degree that he (1) magnified and increased his wisdom more than any who had ruled over Jerusalem before him, and (2) his mind had observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge. It is grievous because he admits that the more he learns, the greater his pain and grief. The deeper one penetrates the true nature of man, and the more knowledge one has concerning the inequities of life’s struggle, the more disappointed he is with what he learns. His grief is actually compounded when he discovers that although he is a wise man, in this case greater than any who have lived before him, that he is still helpless and unable to bring justice to his own affairs. In addition, he is unable to correct the anomalies in the affairs of those about him.

In Ecclesiastes 1:17, he decides that he will also observe all he can concerning “madness” and “folly.” These words are usually associated with wickedness and improprieties. He contrasts these with “wisdom” which he actually employs in his pursuit. One example of Solomon’s observation of madness and folly is found in Ecclesiastes 10:12-13 where it is stated, “the lips of the fool consume him; the beginning of his talking is folly, and the end of it is wicked madness.” He associates folly and madness with the fool not the wise man. It is one thing to share in something, and something else to know of it through observation. It appears that Solomon is observing it rather than experiencing it. We read Ecclesiastes 7:25, “I directed my mind to know . . . the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness.” Cf. Ecclesiastes 2:12.

Solomon’s experiment was a success. That is, if he wanted merely to seek and explore by wisdom all that has been done under heaven. It was not successful if its objective was to bring him peace and satisfaction. His observations concerning it are (1) it is grievous, (2) it is an affliction, (3) it is vanity and striving after wind, (4) it increased my grief and my pain.

Everything Is Meaningless - Ecclesiastes 1:1-18

Open It

1. What would you say is the purpose of life?

2. What is one thing that makes life worth living?

3. What sort of mindless activities do you enjoy? Why?

Explore It

4. Who wrote this chapter? (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

5. What are some of the themes in these verses? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18)

6. What sweeping statement did Solomon make about life? (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

7. What question did Solomon ask? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)

8. How did Solomon illustrate his statement that the earth remains the same? (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)

9. What’s new? (Ecclesiastes 1:8-10)

10. Who will be forgotten? (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

11. To what did Solomon devote himself? (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13)

12. What conclusion did Solomon reach about everything he had seen and done? (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14)

13. To what had Solomon committed himself? (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17)

14. What conclusion did Solomon reach concerning wisdom and folly? (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)

Get It

15. Why was Solomon so dissatisfied with life?

16. When have you found the pursuit of knowledge to be burdensome?

17. When have you felt as if you were just chasing after the wind?

18. To what sort of meaningless activities do people commit their life?

19. What about life do you find meaningless?

20. In what way does increased wisdom and knowledge bring increased sorrow and grief?

21. If we cannot find meaning in the pursuit of knowledge, in what can we find meaning and satisfaction in life?

Apply It

22. When can you take time this week to rethink your purpose and direction in life?

23. What is one meaningless activity you need either to totally eliminate from your life or reduce the amount of time you spend doing?

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1". "Old & New Testament Restoration Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/onr/ecclesiastes-1.html.
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