Ecclesiastes 1–2. All Is Vanity?

Key Notes: Six-seven big things that do not satisfy. Life as a vapor. Live in the day. The Christian life is not in vain.

Ecclesiastes is the fourth of the five OT books of wisdom. Job, the first, works through the problem of unexplained suffering. The Psalms address most aspects of human existence in prayer to God as well as teaching Israel's history to the people. Proverbs is a book of instruction addressed to the young. Ecclesiastes is teaching for the mature. The Song of Songs opens the door to marital joy, a couple in love,  quite the opposite of Job.

1:1 “The words of the Preacher,  the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”

The Preacher is assumed to be Solomon. Much of what  he says in 2:1–11 fits with Solomon’s life in I Kings. However, since he is not named, we do not know for certain who he was, or the time in which he wrote. A later king of David’s line, such as Uzziah, who was also creative and very successful could be considered. (IIChron.26:1–21). Since Uzziah spent his later years in quarantine for leprosy while his son was regent, this could also explain a seeming lack of power to right injustice (3:16; 4:1; 5:8–9) and a detachment from royal etiquette. (8:2–9; 10:4). However, he says that he surpassed all who were before him in Jerusalem (2:9), and that is unlikely to be true of Uzziah. When he says “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem” we also wonder if it could be Solomon, since only Saul and David preceded him as kings and only David reigned in Jerusalem.

I love the NIV,   but in Ecclesiastes, there are two words which are not well-translated. The first one is “Teacher.”  The Hebrew word is Qohelet and this is the only book where it is used in the whole OT. The root verb means to gather or assemble. So apparently the NIV decided that this was a person who lectured to a gathering or an assembly. And 12:9 does mention that Qohelet did some teaching. However, it makes a lot more sense to see Qohelet as a gatherer of wisdom, an assembler of knowledge, because his whole goal is to try to identify order and purpose in the universe from what he observes under the sun. Kings of Israel (except Sollomon, IK.4:32–34) rarely preached or taught, but they were certainly involved in collecting wise sayings. For this reason, I would much prefer the translation suggested in class: “the Scholar.”  He wants to build a taxonomy of human behavior, a cause and effect chart for the everyday choices we make. Of course, he is frustrated by this task, as he constantly exclaims.

Vainty. This is the second word that needs a better translation. The Hebrew is" hebel", and there are many translations. “Meaningless!” Meaningless is too strong a judgment of what goes on under the sun. Our Scholar is not a nihilist. He is merely proclaiming that he cannot make sense out of it. His observations are not lining up with his expectations. It reminds me of Vizzini in "The Princess Bride". Everything is “inconceivable!” Vanity. Futility. Hebel is also the name “Abel,” the victim of the first injustice inflicted by a fellow human. Gen.4:8

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does a man gain for all the toil at which he toils under the sun?"

In a couple of sentences the Preacher blasts away any importance or meaning to human labor. He uses the word five times in one sentence, lest we miss the message. Further, “vanity of vanities” raises the concept to the maximum. The same kind of expression is used in other settings to maximize significance: “Lord of Lords”, “Holy of holies”, “Song of songs” “Heaven of heavens.”

He tells us that all is vanity. The word “all “ is repeated many times (90x),  and in 41% of the verses in this book. The word “vanity” occurs in this book at least 37x. He uses the word “toil” 22x; “under the sun” 29x, ”striving after wind” 7x, and “wisdom” 26x.

1:4–11 He defends his thesis that all is vanity with general observations about life.

Generations come and go while the earth remains the same.
The sun, the wind and the water run their unceasing cycles.
Humans are chronically unsatisfied; they need to be filled up again and again..
The same “new” things come back over and over—new hats, and soaps, and houses and murders. Memory is short and people quickly forget past generations--and past mistakes.

1:12–18 The preacher tried to understand what happens on earth. He concluded that human efforts are futile.
            The crooked cannot be straightened. [Try to fix a bent fan blade.]
            The deficiencies are endless. About a third of the world goes to bed hungry.

In the rest of this passage, he considers the many things he tried before he came to his conclusion.

Wisdom. He acquired great wisdom.
“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east (Babylon) and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all other men…{a list is given} and his fame was in all the nations round about. He spoke of trees from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts and of birds, and of reptiles and of fish. And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.” (IK.4:29–34)
He found that much wisdom  leads to vexation and sorrow, and striving after wind.

2:1–3 Madness and folly and wine.
He does not elaborate because there is not much to say about madness. (1:17, 2:12). We know that wine and other alcoholic beverages lead to folly and madness. This too was vanity.

2;4–7 The Pleasure of work.
He kept his heart from no pleasure.
He made houses  and vineyards, gardens and parks, flocks and herds, forests and ponds.
He had male and female slaves to carry out his creative ideas.

2:8 Riches.
 He collected “silver and gold and the special treasures of kings”.
The crown jewels of the British Empire or the robes and carriages of the Russian Czars give us an idea of the special treasures kings have.

He had 500 shields covered with  gold.
“The king also made a great ivory throne and overlaid it with the finest gold. The throne had six steps, and at the back of the throne was a calf’s head, and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests while twelve lions stood there, one on each end of a step on the six steps. All king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks. “ (IK.10:18–24).
 Solomon was given gold, precious stones, and rare woods. (IK.10:11). He made silver as common as stone in Jerusalem. IK.10:27

“When the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servant, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings which he offered…there was no more spirit in her.” (IK.10:44–5)

He had choral groups.
There were many concubines—hundreds of them—“man’s delight”. (IK.11:3)
He kept his heart from no pleasure.
And it was all vanity and striving after wind.

2:12–17 Death.
Death will surely come. The wise man has eyes in his head while the fool is in the dark, yet the wise and the fool both die. When he realized that the wise and the fool both die in the same way, without remembrance, he hated life.

2:18–23 Succession.
Perhaps he could live on in the lives of the next generation. But he realized that he could not control his successor, who might be a fool. He will have to give up all his work to someone who did nothing to earn it. Work leads to pain and vexation and restlessness. All vanity.

He is at the point of despair—and no doubt with good reason. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son and successor, was weak and foolish. During Rehoboam's reign, David’s empire split in two and the kingdoms became poor  and vulnerable.
2:24–26 A tentative resolution.
The man who pleases God is given wisdom and knowledge and joy. For the first time, he introduces God. The one who pleases God should eat and drink and enjoy his work.

The preacher is a very rich, wise, old, and experienced man. Having tried every pleasure, he also has done a lot of sin. But he is not blasé and world-weary. He is passionate to persuade, talking to rich people much like himself. We surmise that the city was full of prosperous, self-centered materialists. The book is addressed to people who think they have it all.

His task is to persuade his own people of the foolishness and emptiness of materialism. Ecclesiastes is a tract for a secular age. He has tried everything and is in a position to tell his people  that it doesn’t work. He does not bring God into the picture until he has exhausted his other options. Ecclesiastes does not tell the Good News, but proclaims the bad news which we must hear first. It is pre-evangelistic.

While Ecclesiastes was not written to us, it was written for us. Our age is much like his. Selfish materialism and pursuit of pleasure characterize our society. We live on a scale no one has ever experienced before. Benjamin  Franklin or Jonathan Edwards would be absolutely speechless. “Anything goes.” We try everything--every way to drug the mind, every sexual possibility, extreme sports, multimillionaire athletes, and thousand dollar a night hotel rooms. Magazines like Vanity Fair, Self, US, Shape, Time, People, Glamour, Playboy, Hustler, Bon Appetit, and Money shape our thinking. And it is all vanity and vexation of spirit, a striving after wind.

This is strong medicine, a great book to read to students, who believe that  money and prestige are the key to their future happiness.It is addressed to the young (12:1) and should be on every thougthful student's reading list.[When international graduate students read these chapters in a discussion group, they become agitated and beg to change the subject.]

But we are not necessarily his audience. The Christian life is not in vain. Coming from studies in the Gospels, we are shocked that he would suggest that all is vanity. We have the  big picture of the past (Genesis) and the future (Revelation). We are disciples of Christ. We are confident of life after death.
"You know that you were redeemed from the futile ways of your fathers...with the precious blood of Christ...."(IPet.1:18)
"...knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord..." (ICor.15:58)
":...let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken...." (Heb.12:28)

But in the microcosm of daily life, we are not sure of anything. Our lives are a vapor and we do not know what will happen tomorrow—and Jesus told us not to fret about it. Matt.6:34

Are our lives really nothing more than a vapor?

"Come now, you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such town and spend a year there and  trade and get gain', whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.’ As it is you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (Jm.4:13–16)

“All flesh is grass and all its beauty like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass.” (Isa.40:6–7)

And what of our daily work? Do we really think that staring at a computer screen, or house-cleaning, lawn-mowing and practicing our golf-strokes is anything but vanity? What gain is there from all our toil? You paint the garage and in three years you will have to paint it again. Vanity, vanity.

Yet, “…to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy….”
( 2:26)
God has “richly furnished us with everything to enjoy.” (ITim.6:17)
“Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice." (Phil.4:4)

Enjoy your day. It is God’s gift to you.

P.S. Ecclesiastes. Why Everything Matters. P.G.Ryken; Crossway, 2010 is an excellent resource for the serious student.