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Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary

Ecclesiastes 1:2

"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
New American Standard Version

Bible Study Resources

Concordances:
Nave's Topical Bible - Covetousness;   Experience;   Vanity;   Thompson Chain Reference - Emptiness;   Emptiness-Fulness;   Vanity;  
Dictionaries:
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary - Vanity;   Fausset Bible Dictionary - Ecclesiastes, the Book of;   Holman Bible Dictionary - Ecclesiastes, Book of;   Israel, History of;   Poetry;   Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible - Vanity;  
Encyclopedias:
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher;   Vanity;   The Jewish Encyclopedia - æsop's Fables among the Jews;   Ages of Man in Jewish Literature, the Seven;   Apes;   Funeral Rites;   Ḳohelet (Ecclesiastes) Rabbah;  
Devotionals:
Daily Light on the Daily Path - Devotion for May 10;   Every Day Light - Devotion for October 5;  

Adam Clarke Commentary

Verse Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanity of vanities — As the words are an exclamation, it would be better to translate, O vanity of vanities! Emptiness of emptinesses. True, substantial good is not to be found in any thing liable to change and corruption.

The author referred to in the introduction begins his paraphrase thus: -


"O vain deluding world! whose largest gifts

Thine emptiness betray, like painted clouds,

Or watery bubbles: as the vapour flies,

Dispersed by lightest blast, so fleet thy joys,

And leave no trace behind. This serious truth

The royal preacher loud proclaims, convinced

By sad experience; with a sigh repeats

The mournful theme, that nothing here below

Can solid comfort yield: 'tis all a scene.

Of vanity, beyond the power of words

To express, or thought conceive. Let every man

Survey himself, then ask, what fruit remains

Of all his fond pursuits? What has he gain'd,

By toiling thus for more than nature's wants

Require? Why thus with endless projects rack'd

His heated brain, and to the labouring mind,

Repose denied? Why such expense of time,

That steals away so fast, and ne'er looks back?

Could man his wish obtain, how short the space

For his enjoyment! No less transient here

The time of his duration, than the things

Thus anxiously pursued. For, as the mind,

In search of bliss, fix'd on no solid point,

For ever fluctuates; so our little frames,

In which we glory, haste to their decline,

Nor permanence can find. The human race

Drop like autumnal leaves, by spring revived:

One generation from the stage of life

Withdraws, another comes, and thus makes room

For that which follows. Mightiest realms decay,

Sink by degrees; and lo! new form'd estates

Rise from their ruins. Even the earth itself,

Sole object of our hopes and fears,

Shall have its period, though to man unknown."

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1832.

Bridgeway Bible Commentary


1:1-4:16 ACCEPT THE LIFE GOD GIVES AND ENJOY IT

Is there a purpose to life? (1:1-11)

At times life does not appear to have much meaning. People have to work to keep themselves alive, but in the end they lose everything they have worked for. Generation after generation passes, but the same things still happen (1:1-4). The sun rises and sets, then the next day the cycle is repeated. The wind blows and circles around, coming back to begin its course all over again. Rivers flow unceasingly into the sea, but the sea is never full and the rivers never dry up (5-7). Life is wearisome; nothing satisfies; history will go on repeating itself; past generations die and are forgotten, and the same will happen to future generations (8-11).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Brideway Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bbc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2005.

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Vanity - This word הבל hebel, or, when used as a proper name, in Genesis 4:2, “Abel”, occurs no less than 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and has been called the key of the book. Primarily it means “breath,” “light wind;” and denotes what:

(1) passes away more or less quickly and completely;

(2) leaves either no result or no adequate result behind, and therefore

(3) fails to satisfy the mind of man, which naturally craves for something permanent and progressive: it is also applied to:

(4) idols, as contrasted with the Living, Eternal, and Almighty God, and, thus, in the Hebrew mind, it is connected with sin.

In this book it is applied to all works on earth, to pleasure, grandeur, wisdom, the life of man, childhood, youth, and length of days, the oblivion of the grave, wandering and unsatisfied desires, unenjoyed possessions, and anomalies in the moral government of the world.

Solomon speaks of the world-wide existence of “vanity,” not with bitterness or scorn, but as a fact, which forced itself on him as he advanced in knowledge of men and things, and which he regards with sorrow and perplexity. From such feelings he finds refuge by contrasting this with another fact, which he holds with equal firmness, namely, that the whole universe is made and is governed by a God of justice, goodness, and power. The place of vanity in the order of Divine Providence - unknown to Solomon, unless the answer be indicated in Ecclesiastes 7:29 - is explained to us by Paul, Romans 8:0, where its origin is traced to the subjugation and corruption of creation by sin as a consequence of the fall of man; and its extinction is declared to be reserved until after the Resurrection in the glory and liberty of the children of God.

Vanity of vanities - A well-known Hebrew idiom signifying vanity in the highest degree. Compare the phrase, “holy of holies.”

All - Solomon includes both the courses of nature and the works of man Ecclesiastes 1:4-11. Compare Romans 8:22.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1870.

Chuck Smith Bible Commentary

Book of Ecclesiastes begins,

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem ( Ecclesiastes 1:1 ).

So that identifies the author as Solomon. The Hebrew word that is translated preacher is a word that can mean one of the assembly or a debater. And it is determined that the translation preacher is not necessarily a good translation of this Hebrew qoheleth, that it might be better translated the debater. "The words of the Debater, the son of David, the king of Jerusalem." He refers to this, and in Ecclesiastes is the only time this Hebrew word is used, and it is in the feminine form. And it is used seven times here as Solomon is referring to himself. And really a debater or one who is searching, the searcher. The son of David, the king of Jerusalem. And the book of Ecclesiastes is indeed a search.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Searcher [or the Debater], vanity of vanities; all is vanity ( Ecclesiastes 1:2 ).

Now he starts out with the conclusion of his search. After searching through everything, this is his conclusion of life. Now it is important that we note that the book of Ecclesiastes is a book that deals with the natural man searching for meaning in life. The word Jehovah is not used in this book. He does refer to God, the Elohim. But not unto Jehovah God in the personal sense that a person can know God. But God as a worldly man speaks of God, just a force, a power, a title--the Elohim.

Those who truly know God in a personal way know God as Yahweh or as Jesus Christ. But this is that worldly, impersonal concept of God. As he is searching for the meaning of life, he searches through all kinds of natural experiences. But there is throughout the book the denial of the spiritual. It is putting man on the level of animals. It is looking at man as an animal. And it is trying to find the reason or the purpose for life on the animal plane and it must follow that life on the animal plane is totally empty. It is totally frustrating. Looking at life on the animal plane sees man as an animal possessing a consciousness and a body, but the spirit is not related to God. So man as an animal is aware and conscious of his body needs. And he is living to seek to satisfy his body needs. And a person who lives on the body level seeking to only satisfy his body needs, denying the spiritual aspect of his nature, is going to end up ultimately with this feeling of emptiness and frustration.

The word vanity literally means that which vanishes. It's nothing. You go to get it and it vanishes. It's not there. It's an emptiness. The vexation of spirit is that frustration of the spirit. Now, man is a three-fold being, and one of the problems of our whole educational system today is the denial of the spiritual nature of man. Our whole humanistic evolutional, our whole humanistic educational system embracing the Evolutionary theory sees man as a highly-developed form of animal existence. So it sees man as a highly-developed animal living in a body, possessing a consciousness. And the denial of the spirit is the basic flaw in the educational system. For unless you see man as a three-fold being, unless you see man with his spiritual nature, then you are going to only have life on the human level, a life that is filled with emptiness and frustration.

So we have today men who make excellent livelihoods trying to help people deal with their frustrations. Because people feel that life is worthless. Life is not worthwhile. Life is empty. Life is meaningless. And they just feel despairing and discouraged and despondent. They go to someone who just talks to them about life. And they pay money to try to understand why it is that I feel like life is just not worth living and all, you know. Well, that's because you haven't come into the third dimension of life--life on the spiritual plane. There is where life takes meaning. It all comes back to the three-fold nature of man.

Living in a body I have certain body needs. God created the body. Marvelous instrument. Fantastically designed. With my little hypothalamus and my pituitary, the various glands that are excreting the different chemicals into my system that give me my different feelings, numbing my pains or telling me that I'm thirsty as it is monitoring my blood system. Telling me that I need oxygen and all of these functions that are going on in the body. Keeping the balance, the homeostasis. For the body balance is important. Important that I have enough sugar. It's important that I have enough oxygen. It's important that I have all of these things within the body, so this body balance. My body drives. My air drive. My thirst drive. My hunger drive. My bowel and bladder drive. My sex drive. All of these have been created by God, a part of the body in which I live.

But I also have a consciousness. And in the area of my consciousness, there are also needs, drives. I have a need for security. I have a need for love. I have a need to be needed. These sociological drives. Now that's about as far as your psychologist and sociologist take you. But what they are denying in the denial of the spiritual nature of man, they're denying the fact that there is deep down inside of me, in my spirit, in this part of my nature, a drive that also exists and this drive in my spirit is for God. "My spirit thirsts after Thee, O God," David said. "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God" ( Psalms 42:1 ).

There is within man that desire to know God. That desire to have fellowship with God. There is within man a vacuum that only God can fill. And if you deny the spiritual nature of man, then man can never be satisfied because this deep-down spiritual thirst will always be haunting him, telling him there's something more. There's something more. There's something more. And I feel this dissatisfaction with life. I have a thirst that I can't define. I know it's there. I know that life hasn't yet brought me fulfillment. I know there's got to be more than to life than what I've yet experienced. And I have this frustration and this is what Solomon went through. That's what he is describing. "Emptiness, emptiness, all is empty and frustrating." He's talking and the phrase is used some nine times, "Life under the sun, it is a frustrating existence."

Now according to the psychologist, frustration leads to inferiority complex, which is the rationale by which I explain to myself why I still feel unfulfilled and empty. Why is it that I'm not satisfied? Why is it that I'm not been able to achieve and attain that which I feel? There must be. And I say, "Well, if I only had a better education, then. If I only had more money. If I only were better looking. If I only had hair." And I am explaining to myself why I haven't been able to achieve this some intangible something that I know must be there in life, that somehow it's passing me by and I can't quite grasp. And so I feel this emptiness because I can't quite get hold of it. And I am explaining to myself in the inferiority complex the shortcoming that causes me not to be able to grasp that which I know must be there.

Now, this in turn leads to escapes. I feel the emptiness. I feel this dissatisfaction. I feel that there must be more to life than what I've yet experienced. I can't seem to find it, and so I'm going to escape. And I can escape overtly or invertly. In the inverted escapes I escape within myself. I start building walls around myself. I get to where I don't want to open up to people. I start closing off myself from people. I don't want them to know the truth about me that I know about myself. So I make this facade and I project this image and they see this out here but they don't know the real me. I'm not going to let them get through to know the real me. And more and more I get within myself. More and more I begin to disassociate myself from people. In its final form, it's manifested as a hermit, a man who just goes out and lives in the desert by himself so he doesn't have to see people, talk to people. Nothing to do with people. That's the extreme form of escapism in the inverted way.

Or if I go to overt escape mechanisms, I may go to compulsive eating behavior patterns. Start eating all the time and escaping. Or I might become a compulsive gambler. Or I might turn to drinking. Or I might turn to drugs. Or I might look to a variety of sex experiences. All escaping. Or Nomadism, start moving from job to job or from place to place. "Oh, if I were just in San Francisco, that's where I'd be happy. Oh, if I just lived in Hawaii." It's interesting, more suicides in Hawaii than almost any place else, because you get over there and where can you go? You know, this is it. This is paradise. This is heaven on earth. But the problem is, you had to take yourself. And the same emptinesses that you feel here you'll feel there. And you find out that Hawaii didn't do it. It didn't satisfy. It didn't meet that deep cry that is within you. If it's not here, it's nowhere. Emptiness. Emptiness.

Now when a person gets into these escape patterns, it develops a guilt complex, because I know I shouldn't be eating like this. Why do I eat like this? I hate myself looking so fat. Why do I eat these chocolates? You know, I can't stop. But yet, I'm escaping and I get guilty. I start feeling guilty over the things that I'm doing. I know it's not right. I know it's not helping. I know it's destroying me. I know it's destroying my family or my relationships, but I can't seem to quit. It has a hold on me. And so I'm feeling guilty. And the guilt complex then leads to a subconscious desire for punishment. It goes inward then and underground. And I can't follow it at this point from the conscious level, but subconsciously I get a desire for punishment and I start a neurotic behavior pattern that will bring punishment to me.

And neurotic behavior patterns usually stem from a subconscious desire for punishment. I'm feeling guilty over what I've been doing. I want someone to punish me so that I can feel like I'm not guilty anymore. Now, when you were a child, your parents took care of your neurotic behavior patterns. And they took you in and spanked you, the healthiest thing in the world for you psychologically, because it made you feel free of your guilt. I've been punished. There's something about the guilt that I desire punishment in order that I might be freed from that feeling of guilt. Once I've been punished, then I feel, "Oh, I'm innocent now." I'm free from the guilt feelings because I've been punished. I'm free to go back to my frustration and start the cycle over again. To my inferiority complex. To my escape. To my guilt. To my punishment. To my frustration. And so life moves in a cycle, and Solomon will point out here in a little bit the cycles.

As we get in the first part of the chapter here, they're just... life seems to move in cycles, and this, according to psychologists, is the cycle of life. And you think, "My God, is this all there is? Stop this crazy merry-go-round. I want off. I'm tired of it." And that's what Solomon came to. "Vanity, vanity; all is vanity." And frustrating. And it all comes from the denial of the spiritual nature of man. It is living life on the human plane apart from God. For the gospel of Jesus Christ comes into this cycle. And the gospel of Jesus Christ comes to me. Now, when I'm in the neurotic behavior pattern it is so often that people say, "Hey, man, you better go see a shrink. You're crazy. You're doing nutty things. You better get some help."

And so I go to a head shrink and he sits me on the couch and he gives me a series of tests and he seeks to determine what I'm feeling guilty about. And then he starts to talk to me. "Now, when you were a little boy, did your mother tell you that you shouldn't tell lies? And did she teach you that it was wrong to cheat? Well, you see, these are a part of the old Puritan ethic. They're part of the old Victorian system and everything is really relative. You've got to face the fact that there are certain situations in which it is perfectly proper to tell a lie. You shouldn't feel guilty about this, you see." And he tries to remove your guilt by telling you that it's not wrong. It's not guilty. Everybody's doing it so you've just got to join the crowd and realize that the part of that old Puritan ethic by which you were trained is the thing that's your hang-up today.

But Jesus Christ comes to me and says, "Hey man, you are guilty. That's bad news. That's wrong. But I love you. And I took your guilt and bore your guilt when I died on the cross. I took all of your sins, all of your guilt, and I paid the penalty for it. Now, if you'll just believe in Me and trust in Me, I'll forgive you." Hey, that's something no psychologist can do, is totally erase that guilt feeling. Take away this haunting feeling of guilt. But Jesus Christ and the gospel does. It's the greatest thing in the world for removing the guilt complex. If that's all the gospel did, it would be fantastic. But it does much more than that.

It comes back to the very beginning. Frustration, where it all started. And we hear Jesus on the last day of the great day of the feast as He is standing there on the Temple Mount crying to the crowds, "If any man thirsts, let him come unto Me, and drink. For he who drinks of the water that I give, out of his innermost being there will flow rivers of living water. And John said, 'This spake He of the Spirit'" ( John 7:37-39 ). That third dimension of man that man in his educational processes today is seeking to deny, and by his denial has created all of this confusion in our society today.

All of the frustration that people experience results from the denial of the Spirit. And Jesus is saying, "You have a thirst for God in your spirit. Come to Me, come to Me and drink." And so this frustration where the whole thing started, Jesus comes to me and not only does He fill my life, does He fill that spiritual void, but He keeps pouring in until it begins to pour out from me. And my life is no longer just a sponge, thirsty, seeking to grasp for the draw, but my life now begins to flow out with that love and that grace of God's goodness that He has bestowed upon me. And now as David said, "My cup runneth over" ( Psalms 23:5 ). My life is an overflowing cup. No longer going around with this cry and thirst and frustration within, but now the fulfillment and the fullness of God within my life as my life overflows God's goodness and grace.

So you look at life on just the human level as Solomon is looking at it, you look at man like an animal as Solomon does, you deny the spiritual dimension of man, that which places him apart from animals and above the animal kingdom, and you're opening Pandora's box to all kinds of psychological ills. You're opening to a life that can never be filled, a life of vanity and vexation of spirit. And so we are looking now through the eyes of Solomon at the world under the sun, apart from God. Man on the animal plane. And man at the highest on the animal plane is hopeless. It is not until you interject the spiritual plane and bring man into the divine plane that man can have any hope for a fulfilling, enriching, complete life.

So, verse Ecclesiastes 1:3 :

What profit hath a man ( Ecclesiastes 1:3 )

And I promise we won't take so much time on the rest of the verses.

What profit hath a man in all of the labor which he taketh under the sun? ( Ecclesiastes 1:3 )

Looking at a man and all of the things he's doing, all of the pursuits, all of the labor, what profit is there? And now he turns into the cycles of life. It seems that life just moves in cycles, monotonous cycles. You can't escape it. You're in the cycle and someday you're just going to pass out of the cycle.

One generation passes away, another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever. The sun rises, the sun goes down, and it comes back around to the place where it rose from. The wind goes toward the south, turns about, comes to the north; it whirls about continually, the wind returns again in its circuits. All of the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot [understand it or] utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: there is no new thing under the sun ( Ecclesiastes 1:4-9 ).

Life just moves in cycles. History repeats itself and the cycles of life go on. The cycle of one generation following another. The sun or the earth actually in its orbit and spinning on its axis, and its relationship to the sun. The wind, the rivers, life just moves in monotonous cycles.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, Look, this is new? Hey, it's already been from old time, which was before us ( Ecclesiastes 1:10 ).

There's nothing really more discouraging than to think that you've got some new inspiration and revelation from God. "Oh, this is great. No one's ever seen this before. Oh, what an understanding." And then you pick up some old commentary written by one of the saints back in 1849 and he says the same thing that you just discovered. There's nothing new. Life moves in cycles.

There is no remembrance of the former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of the things that shall come with those that shall come after ( Ecclesiastes 1:11 ).

Life just moves in cycles.

Now I the Preacher [the Debater] was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek out and to search out by wisdom concerning all of the things that were done under heaven: and this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. And I have seen all the works that are done under the sun ( Ecclesiastes 1:12-14 );

That's one of your key phrases now. Life on the human plane, not on the divine, on the human plane under the sun.

and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered ( Ecclesiastes 1:14-15 ).

Now, this is life on the human plane. If it's crooked, if a man's life is crooked, it can't be made straight. It is interesting that the Greek philosophers concluded that redemption of man was impossible. That once a man had gone wrong, gone bad, that there was no way of changing him. That which is crooked cannot be made straight.

It is also very interesting to read of Jesus Christ in Luke's gospel, chapter 3, as He is proclaiming the new kingdom, or actually it is the words of the prophet proclaiming the things of the kingdom as Simeon or as John the Baptist was declaring concerning the ministry of Jesus that was to come, he said, "Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and every hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough made smooth." The redemption through Jesus Christ, Luke 3:5 . But on the human level, no. On the divine level, you bet.

I communed with my own heart ( Ecclesiastes 1:16 ),

I wasn't communing with God. I wasn't seeking God. I was communing with my own heart. I was using now and exercising now earthly wisdom. He was in TM.

saying, Lo, I am come to a great estate, I have gotten more wisdom than all of they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yes, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is [frustrating or] vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow ( Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 ).

Now, it is very interesting to me today as we study the evolutionary processes of the philosophical systems of man, a history of philosophy is an interesting course to take, because as you follow the history of philosophy and see the development of the philosophical thought, we come finally to this present state of the philosophical thought expressed in existentialism. That there is no universal base of good or evil. Every man must experience truth for himself, but there is no universal truth. The philosophers have concluded with all of their study that in reality is only despair. And reality will lead you to despair. Thus, the philosophers, being brought to despair by their philosophy, declare that it is necessary for each man to take his own leap of faith into unreality in order to escape the despair that only exists in reality.

So you have to take a leap of faith hoping to have some kind of an experience that there is no way of rationalizing or explaining. That's why TM is so popular today. It's the leap of faith into a non-reasoned religious experience. That's why your eastern religions are so popular today and gaining popularity, because they are a leap of faith into non-reason religious experience which philosophy has taught us is necessary because with much knowledge is much sorrow. They've come to the same conclusion that Solomon came to years ago. Years ago before the whole history of philosophy ever began, Solomon had gone through the whole system of thought that has brought philosophy through its whole history to this final conclusion that Solomon reached thousands, three thousand years ago: that in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Now as kids we used to understand a certain aspect of the futility of education. We used to write in our textbooks, "The more you study, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So what's the use of studying?" But Solomon said, "Hey, with much understanding, increasing your knowledge is only going to increase your sorrow."

"





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Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Chuck Smith Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/csc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2014.

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

A. Title and Theme 1:1-2

The first two verses contain the title of the book and its theme.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2012.

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

I. THE INTRODUCTORY AFFIRMATION 1:1-11

The first 11 verses of the book introduce the writer, the theme of the book, and a general defense of the assertion that Solomon made in the theme statement (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2012.

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

2. The theme 1:2

"Solomon has put the key to Ecclesiastes right at the front door: ’Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Just in case we missed it, he put the same key at the back door (Ecclesiastes 12:8)." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, "Ecclesiastes," in The Bible Exposition Commentary/Wisdom and Poetry, p. 478.]

"Vanity" (Heb. hebel) probably does not mean "meaningless." As Solomon used this word in Ecclesiastes he meant lacking real substance, value, permanence, or significance. [Note: Hebel appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes and only 35 other times elsewhere in the Old Testament. In 13 of these passages the word describes idols.] "Vapor," "breath-like," or "ephemeral" captures the idea (cf. Proverbs 21:6; Isaiah 57:13). [Note: See Kathleen A. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good? A Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, pp. 142-46; Graham S. Ogden, Qoheleth, pp. 17-22; and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, p. 219.] One writer favored the words "absurd" or "absurdity." [Note: See Michael V. Fox, "The Meaning of Hebel for Qoheleth," Journal of Biblical Literature 105:3 (September 1986):409-27.]

"It appears to imply here both (1) that which is transitory, and (2) that which is futile. It emphasizes how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one has them (cf. James 4:14)." [Note: Laurin, p. 586.]

"You think you have all the dishes washed and from a bedroom or a bathroom there appears, as from a ghost, another dirty glass. And even when all the dishes are washed, it is only a few hours until they demand washing again. So much of our work is cyclical, and so much of it futile." [Note: David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, p. 48.]

"All" in the context of what he proceeded to describe refers to all human endeavors (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:3). David Hubbard understood it in a slightly different way.

"Hebel stands more for human inability to grasp the meaning of God’s way than for an ultimate emptiness in life. It speaks of human limitation and frustration caused by the vast gap between God’s knowledge and power and our relative ignorance and impotence. The deepest issues of lasting profit, of enlightening wisdom, of ability to change life’s workings, of confidence that we have grasped the highest happiness-all these are beyond our reach in Koheleth’s view." [Note: Ibid., pp. 21-22.]

The phrase "is vanity" is the most popular one in Ecclesiastes (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:1; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:15; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:19; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:7-8; Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 6:2; Ecclesiastes 6:4; Ecclesiastes 6:9; Ecclesiastes 6:11-12; Ecclesiastes 7:6; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Ecclesiastes 11:8; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Ecclesiastes 12:8. [Note: See H. Carl Shank, "Qoheleth’s World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases," Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974):65-67.] It forms an inclusio with Ecclesiastes 12:8 surrounding the evidence that Solomon offered to prove that all is vanity.

This verse contains Solomon’s "big idea" or proposition. It is the point he proceeded to support, prove, and apply in the chapters that follow. Some writers, however, believed there is no logical development in the writer’s thought. [Note: E.g., Svend Holm-Nielsen, "The Book of Ecclesiastes and the Interpretation of It in Jewish and Christian Theology," Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute 10 (1976):48.] Proverbs 1:7 is such a statement in that book. This is the first hint that Solomon’s viewpoint includes "exclusively the world we can observe, and that our observation point is at ground level." [Note: Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, p. 23. See also Edwin M. Good, "The Unfilled Sea: Style and Meaning in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11," in Israelite Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, pp. 59-73.]

"Because it apparently contradicts other portions of Scripture and presents a pessimistic outlook on life, in a mood of existential despair, many have viewed Ecclesiastes as running counter to the rest of Scripture or have concluded that is [sic] presents only man’s reasoning apart from divine revelation." [Note: Roy B. Zuck, "A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 243. This essay also contains studies of the doctrines of God (pp. 246-47) and man (pp. 248-51) in Ecclesiastes. See also idem, "God and Man in Ecclesiastes," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:589 (January-March 1991):46-56, which is an adaptation of the former essay.]

". . . it is no exaggeration to say that there may be less agreement about the interpretation of Koheleth than there is about any other biblical book, even the Revelation of John!" [Note: Hubbard, p. 23.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2012.

John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher,.... This is the preacher's text; the theme and subject he after enlarges upon, and proves by an induction of particulars; it is the sum of the whole book;

vanity of vanities, all [is] vanity; most extremely vain, exceedingly so, the height of vanity: this is repeated, both for the confirmation of it, men being hard of belief of it; and to show how much the preacher was affected with it himself, and to affect others with the same. The Targum reads, "vanity of vanities [in] this world"; which is right as to the sense of the passage; for though the world, and all things in it, were made by God, and are very good; yet, in comparison of him, are less than nothing, and vanity; and especially as become subject to it through sin, a curse being brought upon the earth by it; and all the creatures made for the use of men liable to be abused, and are abused, through luxury, intemperance, and cruelty; and the whole world usurped by Satan, as the god of it. Nor is there anything in it, and put it all together, that can give satisfaction and contentment; and all is fickle, fluid, transitory, and vanishing, and in a short time will come to an end: the riches of the world afford no real happiness, having no substance in them, and being of no long continuance; nor can a man procure happiness for himself or others, or avert wrath to come, and secure from it; and especially these are vanity, when compared with the true riches, the riches of grace and glory, which are solid, substantial, satisfying, and are for ever: the honours of this world are empty things, last a very short time; and are nothing in comparison of the honour that comes from God, and all the saints have, in the enjoyment of grace here, and glory hereafter: the sinful pleasures of life are imaginary things, short lived ones; and not to be mentioned with spiritual pleasures, enjoyed in the house of God, under the word and ordinances; and especially with those pleasures, for evermore, at the right hand of God. Natural wisdom and knowledge, the best thing in the world; yet much of it is only in opinion; a great deal of it false; and none saving, and of any worth, in comparison of the knowledge of Christ, and of God in Christ; all the forms of religion and external righteousness, where there is not the true fear and grace of God, are all vain and empty things. Man, the principal creature in the world, is "vain man"; that is his proper character in nature and religion, destitute of grace: every than is vain, nay, vanity itself; high and low, rich and poor, learned or unlearned; nay, man at his best estate, as worldly and natural, is so; as even Adam was in his state of innocence, being fickle and mutable, and hence he fell, Psalms 39:5; and especially his fallen posterity, whose bodies are tenements of clay; their beauty vain and deceitful; their circumstances changeable; their minds empty of all that is good; their thoughts and imaginations vain; their words, and works, and actions, and their whole life and conversation; they are not at all to be trusted in for help, by themselves or others. The Targum is,

"when Solomon, king of Israel, saw, by the spirit of prophecy, that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son would be divided with Jeroboam, the son of Nebat; and that Jerusalem, and the house of the sanctuary, would be destroyed, and the people of the children of Israel would be carried captive; he said, by his word, Vanity of vanities in this world, vanity of vanities; all that I and my father David have laboured for, all is vanity!''

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The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Bibliographical Information
Gill, John. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1999.

Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary on the Bible

The Vanity of the World.

      1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.   2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.   3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

      Here is, I. An account of the penman of this book; it was Solomon, for no other son of David was king of Jerusalem; but he conceals his name Solomon, peaceable, because by his sin he had brought trouble upon himself and his kingdom, had broken his peace with God and lost the peace of his conscience, and therefore was no more worthy of that name. Call me not Solomon, call me Marah, for, behold, for peace I had great bitterness. But he calls himself,

      1. The preacher, which intimates his present character. He is Koheleth, which comes from a word which signifies to gather; but it is of a feminine termination, by which perhaps Solomon intends to upbraid himself with his effeminacy, which contributed more than any thing to his apostasy; for it was to please his wives that he set up idols, Nehemiah 13:26. Or the word soul must be understood, and so Koheleth is,

      (1.) A penitent soul, or one gathered, one that had rambled and gone astray like a lost sheep, but was now reduced, gathered in from his wanderings, gathered home to his duty, and come at length to himself. The spirit that was dissipated after a thousand vanities is now collected and made to centre in God. Divine grace can make great sinners great converts, and renew even those to repentance who, after they had known the way of righteousness, turned aside from it, and heal their backslidings, though it is a difficult case. It is only the penitent soul that God will accept, the heart that is broken, not the head that is bowed down like a bulrush only for a day, David's repentance, not Ahab's. And it is only the gathered soul that is the penitent soul, that comes back from its by-paths, that no longer scatters its way to the strangers (Jeremiah 3:13), but is united to fear God's name. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak, and therefore we have here the words of the penitent, and those published. If eminent professors of religion fall into gross sin, they are concerned, for the honour of God and the repairing of the damage they have done to his kingdom, openly to testify their repentance, that the antidote may be administered as extensively as the poison.

      (2.) A preaching soul, or one gathering. Being himself gathered to the congregation of saints, out of which he had by his sin thrown himself, and being reconciled to the church, he endeavours to gather others to it that had gone astray like him, and perhaps were led astray by his example. He that has done any thing to seduce his brother ought to do all he can to restore him. Perhaps Solomon called together a congregation of his people, as he had done at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:2), so now at the rededicating of himself. In that assembly he presided as the people's mouth to God in prayer (Ecclesiastes 1:12; Ecclesiastes 1:12); in this as God's mouth to them in preaching. God by his Spirit made him a preacher, in token of his being reconciled to him; a commission is a tacit pardon. Christ sufficiently testifies his forgiving Peter by committing his lambs and sheep to his trust. Observe, Penitents should be preachers; those that have taken warning themselves to turn and live should give warning to others not to go on and die. When thou art converted strengthen thy brethren. Preachers must be preaching souls, for that only is likely to reach to the heart that comes from the heart. Paul served God with his spirit in the gospel of his Son,Romans 1:9.

      2. The son of David. His taking this title intimates, (1.) That he looked upon it as a great honour to be the son of so good a man, and valued himself very much upon it. (2.) That he also looked upon it as a great aggravation of his sin that he had such a father, who had given him a good education and put up many a good prayer for him; it cuts him to the heart to think that he should be a blemish and disgrace to the name and family of such a one as David. It aggravated the sin of Jehoiakim that he was the son of Josiah, Jeremiah 22:15-17. (3.) That his being the son of David encouraged him to repent and hope for mercy, for David had fallen into sin, by which he should have been warned not to sin, but was not; but David repented, and therein he took example from him and found mercy as he did. Yet this was not all; he was that son of David concerning whom God had said that though he would chasten his transgression with the rod, yet he would not break his covenant with him, Psalms 89:34. Christ, the great preacher, was the Son of David.

      3. King of Jerusalem. This he mentions, (1.) As that which was a very great aggravation of his sin. He was a king. God had done much for him, in raising him to the throne, and yet he had so ill requited him; his dignity made the bad example and influence of his sin the more dangerous, and many would follow his pernicious ways; especially as he was king of Jerusalem, the holy city, where God's temple was, and of his own building too, where the priests, the Lord's ministers, were, and his prophets who had taught him better things. (2.) As that which might give some advantage to what he wrote, for where the word of a king is there is power. He thought it no disparagement to him, as a king, to be a preacher; but the people would regard him the more as a preacher because he was a king. If men of honour would lay out themselves to do good, what a great deal of good might they do! Solomon looked as great in the pulpit, preaching the vanity of the world, as in his throne of ivory, judging.

      The Chaldee-paraphrase (which, in this book, makes very large additions to the text, or comments upon it, all along) gives this account of Solomon's writing this book, That by the spirit of prophecy he foresaw the revolt of the ten tribes from his son, and, in process of time, the destruction of Jerusalem and the house of the sanctuary, and the captivity of the people, in the foresight of which he said, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity; and to that he applies many passages in this book.

      II. The general scope and design of the book. What is it that this royal preacher has to say? That which he aims at is, for the making of us truly religious, to take down our esteem of and expectation from the things of this world. In order to this, he shows,

      1. That they are all vanity,Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 1:2. This is the proposition he lays down and undertakes to prove: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. It was no new text; his father David had more than once spoken to the same purport. The truth itself here asserted is, that all is vanity, all besides God and considered as abstract from him, the all of this world, all worldly employments and enjoyments, the all that is in the world (1 John 2:16), all that which is agreeable to our senses and to our fancies in this present state, which gains pleasure to ourselves or reputation with others. It is all vanity, not only in the abuse of it, when it is perverted by the sin of man, but even in the use of it. Man, considered with reference to these things, is vanity (Psalms 39:5; Psalms 39:6), and, if there were not another life after this, were made in vain (Psalms 89:47); and those things, considered in reference to man (whatever they are in themselves), are vanity. They are impertinent to the soul, foreign, and add nothing to it; they do not answer the end, nor yield any true satisfaction; they are uncertain in their continuance, are fading, and perishing, and passing away, and will certainly deceive and disappoint those that put a confidence in them. Let us not therefore love vanity (Psalms 4:2), nor lift up our souls to it (Psalms 24:4), for we shall but weary ourselves for it, Hebrews 2:13. It is expressed here very emphatically; not only, All is vain, but in the abstract, All is vanity; as if vanity were the proprium quarto modo--property in the fourth mode, of the things of this world, that which enters into the nature of them. The are not only vanity, but vanity of vanities, the vainest vanity, vanity in the highest degree, nothing but vanity, such a vanity as is the cause of a great deal of vanity. And this is redoubled, because the thing is certain and past dispute, it is vanity of vanities. This intimates that the wise man had his own heart fully convinced of and much affected with this truth, and that he was very desirous that others should be convinced of it and affected with it, as he was, but that he found the generality of men very loth to believe it and consider it (Job 33:14); it intimates likewise that we cannot comprehend and express the vanity of this world. But who is it that speaks thus slightly of the world? Is it one that will stand to what he says? Yes, he puts his name to it--saith the preacher. Is it one that was a competent judge? Yes, as much as ever any man was. Many speak contemptuously of the world because they are hermits, and know it not, or beggars, and have it not; but Solomon knew it. He had dived into nature's depths (1 Kings 4:33), and he had it, more of it perhaps than ever any man had, his head filled with its notions and his belly with its hidden treasures (Psalms 17:14), and he passes this judgment on it. But did he speak as one having authority? Yes, not only that of a king, but that of a prophet, a preacher; he spoke in God's name, and was divinely inspired to say it. But did he not say it in his haste, or in a passion, upon occasion of some particular disappointment? No; he said it deliberately, said it and proved it, laid it down as a fundamental principle, on which he grounded the necessity of being religious. And, as some think, one main thing he designed was to show that the everlasting throne and kingdom which God had by Nathan promised to David and his seed must be of another world; for all things in this world are subject to vanity, and therefore have not in them sufficient to answer the extent of that promise. If Solomon find all to be vanity, then the kingdom of the Messiah must come, in which we shall inherit substance.

      2. That they are insufficient to make us happy. And for this he appeals to men's consciences: What profit has a man of all the pains he takes?Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 1:3. Observe here, (1.) The business of this world described. It is labour; the word signifies both care and toil. It is work that wearies men. There is a constant fatigue in worldly business. It is labour under the sun; that is a phrase peculiar to this book, where we meet with it twenty-eight times. There is a world above the sun, a world which needs not the sun, for the glory of God is its light, where there is work without labour and with great profit, the work of angels; but he speaks of the work under the sun, the pains of which are great and the gains little. It is under the sun, under the influence of the sun, by its light and in its heat; as we have the benefit of the light of the day, so we have sometimes the burden and heat of the day (Matthew 20:12), and therefore in the sweat of our face we eat bread. In the dark and cold grave the weary are at rest. (2.) The benefit of that business enquired into: What profit has a man of all that labour? Solomon says (Proverbs 14:23), In all labour there is profit; and yet here he denies that there is any profit. As to our present condition in the world, it is true that by labour we get that which we call profit; we eat the labour of our hands; but as the wealth of the world is commonly called substance, and yet it is that which is not (Proverbs 22:5), so it is called profit, but the question is whether it be really so or no. And here he determines that it is not, that it is not a real benefit, that it is not a remaining benefit. In short, the wealth and pleasure of this world, if we had ever so much of them, are not sufficient to make us happy, nor will they be a portion for us. [1.] As to the body, and the life that now is, What profit has a man of all his labour? A man's life consists not in an abundance,Luke 12:15. As goods are increased care about them is increased, and those are increased that eat of them, and a little thing will embitter all the comfort of them; and then what profit has a man of all his labour? Early up, and never the nearer. [2.] As to the soul, and the life that is to come, we may much more truly say, What profit has a man of all his labour? All he gets by it will not supply the wants of the soul, nor satisfy its desires, will not atone for the sin of the soul, nor cure its diseases, nor contervail the loss of it; what profit will they be of to the soul in death, in judgment, or in the everlasting state? The fruit of our labour in heavenly things is meat that endures to eternal life, but the fruit of our labour for the world is only meat that perishes.

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These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Bibliographical Information
Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2". "Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/ecclesiastes-1.html. 1706.