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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 1

 

 

Verses 1-3

Chapter 1 The Vainness and Meaninglessness of Life.

All Is Vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3).

Ecclesiastes 1:1

‘The words of the preacher (Qoheleth - assembly leader), the son of David, king in Jerusalem.’

The word ‘qoheleth’ is a feminine singular participial form connected with the root ‘qahal’ which means ‘to assemble’. Thus it signified one connected with an assembly either as speaker, leader or member, possibly of a group that met in the royal court to consider wisdom. So here Qoheleth is possibly to be seen as ‘the preacher’ or ‘the speaker’ or ‘the appointed leader’ of a recognised group of seekers after wisdom.

He identifies himself as ‘the son of David and king in Jerusalem’. ‘Son of David’ simply identifies him as being of the Davidic royal house. It does not mean that it was his direct heir. While Solomon is favoured by tradition, no doubt because of his fame as a wisdom teacher and because of his grand lifestyle, there are in fact a number of arguments which make this unlikely (see below). Alternatives would include the ‘good’ kings’ such as Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah or Josiah, or some other king, even one who ruled in Jerusalem after the Exile (this last would tie in with the apparently ‘late’ grammar). But we know nothing else about the writer, except what was in his heart. He clearly does not want to be openly recognised. He rather wants to be known as ‘a wise man’.

The identity of the author is somewhat restricted by the following facts:

· 1). The author’s name is nowhere mentioned. This militates against Solomon because he was so well known and so influential that had he written it his name would surely have been attached to it, as it was to other writings connected with him, such as the Song of Solomon and part of Proverbs.

· 2). The official title ‘king in Jerusalem’ in Ecclesiastes 1:1 (see context) fits strangely with Solomon who is usually called ‘king of Israel’. It is true that in Ecclesiastes 1:12 the title is extended to ‘king over Israel in Jerusalem’ but this only tends to emphasise the point. The ‘in Jerusalem’ is clearly the main emphasis. It may indicate that there were rival kings (or a prince-regent who was also called king) at the time so that there was a king ‘in somewhere else’, or that he was an under-king under an Overlord, but it does not indicate the all powerful, despotic ruler of a large empire like Solomon.

· 3). In Ecclesiastes 1:16 the author says that he ‘had increased in knowledge over all who were before him in Jerusalem’. If this refers to ‘all kings’ then the writer could clearly not have been Solomon, for it is very unlikely that previous Canaanite kings were in mind. It is feasible that it refers to a group of wisdom teachers gathered by David. On the other hand we might well feel that the impression given is that the author was looking back on a longish tradition of wise men or wise kings.

· 4). In Ecclesiastes 1:12 the writer says, ‘I Qoheleth WAS (hayithi) king in Jerusalem.’ That seems to suggest that he no longer was so. That is one reason why Uzziah has been mooted, for he became a leper and could therefore have been seen as ceasing to be king in Jerusalem as a result of his isolation. And his isolation could well have turned him to an expression of religious philosophy. It could also be seen as true of Manasseh for a period when he was carried off to Babylon. No doubt other kings could have fitted into the pattern. Alternatively it may simply indicate a period of retirement in old age when his son had been left to hold the reins of the kingdom, in which case the king is unidentifiable due to insufficient historical evidence. But it would appear to exclude Solomon, for there is no suggestion that his son was ever co-regent.

On the other hand it may simply mean that he did what he did while he was king, without necessarily signifying that he had now ceased to be king, with what had ceased being his search for truth, not his reign. In other words he had done it while he was king in Jerusalem, but had now ceased to do it.

· 5). More importantly the background of the book does not fit into the age of Solomon. It appears to have been written in a time of misery and vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11) when the splendour that was Solomon’s had departed (Ecclesiastes 1:12 to Ecclesiastes 2:26). It appears to have in mind a dark period for Israel (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15), when injustice and violence were common and nothing was being done about it (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3). That seems to exclude the magnificence of the time of Solomon.

· 6). The Hebrew in which the book is written does not, in the view of many scholars, appear to favour the time of Solomon for it is seen to be of a later style, although the presence of Aramaisms is not to be seen as indicating a late date, as Aramaisms were present at Ugarit. The grammar would appear to be of a much later period than Solomon, and many examples are cited. Arguments from style are, however, notoriously equivocal and should be treated cautiously because of the limited material at our disposal.

All these reasons, and especially 3) and 5), appear to militate against Solomonic authorship. But it does not affect the importance and truth of what follows in the slightest.

The Meaninglessness Of What Man Seeks To Accomplish (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3).

Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

‘Vanity of vanity,’ says the preacher, ‘all is vanity. What profit does a man have of all his labour with which he labours under the sun?’

The writer begins his words with an eye-catching statement, (and ends them with the same in Ecclesiastes 12:8). All man’s labour and toil is ‘vanity’, indeed it is ‘vanity of vanities’, total vanity (compare Ecclesiastes 12:8). The word for ‘vanity’ (hebel) can mean a fleeting breath, a puff of wind. What he means by vanity is that it is spiritually and rationally profitless and meaningless, of no permanent worth, not worth the trouble except as a means of survival, not having deep significance and ultimate meaning, not contributing to the essence of life, not having lasting value. All that is connected with man’s labour is transient and passing. See Psalms 39:5-6; Psalms 39:11; Psalms 94:11; Psalms 144:4; Isaiah 49:4; Jeremiah 16:19. For six days he labours, and on the seventh he rests. And then he begins to labour all over again. But it is all part of the earthly pattern ‘under the sun’. Apart from enabling him to survive it takes him nowhere. (Later we will learn that it is his attitude in his labouring, whether he does it before God, that is in fact important - Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10; compare Ecclesiastes 8:13).

It is not without significance that the same phrase ends the main section of the work (Ecclesiastes 12:8), thus encapsulating the whole of his argument about the futility of things. But we must not overlook the fact that within that argument he constantly introduces flashes of inspiration which reach outside it, when he introduces God into the situation (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:10-17; Ecclesiastes 5:1-7; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13; Ecclesiastes 9:1; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Ecclesiastes 12:7). And the whole is then capped off by the final conclusion in which awesome reverence and obedience towards God is required, followed by the warning of final judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

The phrase ‘under the sun’ is repeated throughout the book and is found elsewhere in Elamite and Phoenician inscriptions. Its main meaning is undoubtedly a reference to ‘everything that exists and functions on earth’. But we might also see in it a reference to the fact that it is the ‘greater light’ of God’s creative work (Genesis 1:14-17), which controls the earth system which He has created. This might be seen as confirmed by the fact that the writer unquestionably has Genesis 1 in mind elsewhere (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12). Furthermore its constant repetition in this book possibly also acts as a polemic against the idea of a sun-god. In those days, in a context like this, its constant repetition could hardly fail to be seen as an indictment of the sun, which could add no meaning to life. Other nations and people worshipped the sun, it was extremely prominent in Egyptian thought, (which had almost certainly influenced the writer) and everywhere popular, but under the sun (Shemesh), he stresses, was only long term uselessness and a failure to find anything meaningful. The noun was thus two-pronged. The sun was to be seen as being as transient and passing and as lacking in other-worldly influence as everything else.


Verses 4-11

The Meaninglessness of What Men Seek To Accomplish Comes Out In The Fact That Life Simply Follows A Continual Unchanging Repetition. It Is Purposeless and Boring and Unenlightening And Accomplishes Nothing Of Value. It Simply Repeats the Same Old Thing (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11).

Ecclesiastes 1:4

‘One generation goes, and another generation comes, and the earth goes on for ever.’

Here we discover the essence of his thinking. Men may labour but nothing really changes. Nothing permanent is accomplished. One generation after another goes on in the same way as the previous generation, labouring on seemingly endlessly. Life just goes on pointlessly, on and on as man struggles to survive.

This is then illustrated by a number of examples of the endless repetition of life. (Later he will point out that the one way of escape from this endless meaninglessness of life is to live before God and find comfort in His presence. It is that alone which can bring permanent worthwhileness to life - Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 ).

Ecclesiastes 1:5-6

‘The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where he arises. The wind goes towards the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually in its course, and the wind returns again to its rounds.’

Both sun and wind continue their daily and nightly activities in the same old way. The sun follows a continual pattern, rising, setting, and then racing round to rise again. There is possibly here a hint of Egyptian influence, although the idea of the sun speeding underneath in order to rise again must have been a common one, for men saw it go down in one place at night, and in the morning come up at the opposite side from which it went down. The wind varies slightly more in its course, first going south, and then north, and so on, but even then only in order to continually follow a similar course time and again. It is continually coming and going in the same old way, continually following its regular courses.

The description of the sun is reminiscent of ideas in Egypt about Ra, who makes his daily journey over the earth, and his nightly journey under the earth. But here it the idea is demythologised. Ra is degraded to a thing. However, the writer must have been conscious of the ideas of others. Thus ‘under the sun’ must be seen as containing at least some stress on the sun’s meaninglessness, however seen, as well as on its long term uselessness. It is simply seen by him as a part of the pattern of nature.

Ecclesiastes 1:7

‘All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers go, there they go again.’

The rivers also follow the round of life. They go into the sea, evaporate, rise as clouds, fall again in rain, and again go into the sea. They follow the same continual process. And the sea never fills up. All their effort seems in vain. So the process is meaningless, it has no final purpose.

The point behind all this is not to criticise nature. It is to point out that these things, like man’s labour, have no achievable final end in view. They are not leading anywhere, but just going on and on in an endless round.

Ecclesiastes 1:8-9

‘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 has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done, is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.’

Man too is caught up with this continual process. All things are simply continually boring and frustrating, not worth talking about, not satisfying the watching eye, nor the hearing ear, for it is nothing new. What has happened will happen again and again. What is done by man will be done again and again. There is nothing new anywhere, wherever we look under the sun. Man’s knowledge of, and from, life gets him nowhere.

This is the view of life of the thinking man. Unless we simply go on without thinking this must be our conclusion. There is nothing on earth finally worth living and striving for, or discovering. It may be of advantage in the short term, but it passes. It is not permanent. It does not reach to the very basis of life.

Ecclesiastes 1:10

‘Is there anything of which men say, “This is new”? It has already been in the ages which preceded us.’

He then challenges his hearers to tell him whether anyone can point to anything that is really new. He concludes that they cannot, although those with short memories may think that they can. But they are wrong. Nothing happens now which has not happened a hundred times before through past ages. It has all happened again and again in the ages that preceded us. Man by searching never really finds out anything new. Life is just endless repetition.

Ecclesiastes 1:11

‘There is no remembrance of the former things, nor will there be any remembrance of the latter things which are to come, among those who will come after.’

Man never learns. Each generation ignores what previous generations have learned. They do not think it important enough to remember. And what they themselves do and learn will then in its turn also be forgotten by future generations. And thus they may sometimes think that they have come up with a new wisdom. But in the end, if they only knew it, if they searched, they would discover that it is but the same old wisdom that men have always known, possibly wrapped up in a different way.


Verses 12-18

The Intellectual Search (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).

Ecclesiastes 1:12-13

‘I the preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom about all that is done under heaven. It is a painful effort (a sore travail, an unhappy business) that God has given to the sons of men to be exercised with.’

The Preacher reminds us that he was king in Jerusalem, and gave himself to use his wisdom to discover knowledge, but declares that the search for such wisdom and understanding turned out to be a useless and painful effort because of the difficulty of finding anything out. Although all that is under heaven is looked into, the effort only turns out to be effort spent in vain (compare Ecclesiastes 12:12). One is reminded here especially of the study of modern philosophy, where men seemed to be getting somewhere and finished up arguing about the meaning of words and mathematical formulae. Learned, yes, but not getting anywhere.

‘Was king in Jerusalem.’ Some see this as meaning that he was no longer king in anything but name, but had relinquished his throne to his son who in practise ruled for him. But it may simply mean that he did it while he was king, without necessarily signifying that he had now ceased to be king. What had ceased was his search, not his reign. He had done it while he was king, but had ceased to do it.

Ecclesiastes 1:14

‘I have seen all the works which are done under the sun, and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind.’

He had searched out everywhere what men did, but whatever they did, it was in the end fruitless and profitless, both spiritually and rationally. It was simply temporal and material. Seeking to find meaning to life was like striving after the wind. It was impossible to grasp and lay hold of what they were looking for, some extra meaning and lasting significance in life. All they had was the works that man continually did and which were in the end without any really final important significance. (Although of course being necessary to survive. It is kings in Jerusalem who can afford to think like this).

Ecclesiastes 1:15

‘What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be accounted for (numbered).’

This simply means that everything in life is basically marred and lacking in meaningful content. Everything is lacking in some way. It is ‘unstraight (crooked)’. And whatever we do it is not possible to make it ‘straight’. Whatever we do to it, it remains unstraight. We cannot give it a perfection that it does not have (the perfection he was looking for). It is not possible to obtain something complete from something else which is incomplete and thus diametrically opposite to it and totally unlike it. Nor is it possible make something of account which is in fact not so. All in life is to be seen as like things that are in essence crooked (marred in some way and incomplete). All are the same essentially. And perfection cannot be obtained from imperfection. Thus it is impossible to look behind such things and find anything that is essentially meaningful, i.e. something that is straight. Nothing can be transformed into something different, for all is essentially the same. What he was actually looking for, something that was essentially different from everything else and had an element of perfection, appeared in fact to be lacking. Thus it was impossible to give any account of it. It was all a part of his vain search into the meaning of life.

Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

‘I communed with my own heart, saying, “Lo, I have obtained for myself great wisdom, above all who were before me in Jerusalem. Yes, my heart has 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 a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow.’

The Preacher had convinced himself that he had accumulated a wisdom and understanding above any who had been before him in Jerusalem, whether king, priest, wise man or prophet. He was convinced that he had great resources within himself of wisdom and knowledge, which had come through his meditation on truth as he saw it, and through his experience of life. None had quite achieved what he had achieved.

But when he then applied himself to examine all that was to be known, whether it was wisdom, or what others thought was wisdom (but turned out to be madness and folly, frivolous knowledge), it was in vain. He had left nothing uninvestigated, however foolish it had seemed. But all his searching out of man’s supposed knowledge, whether wise or foolish, had achieved nothing. He had come to the conclusion that the search for ultimate wisdom, for an ultimate reality, was the searching out of something that could not be comprehended or grasped. It was like searching for the wind.

Thus all his wisdom and increase in knowledge had simply left him flattened and even grief stricken. It appeared that wisdom only resulted in grief, and knowledge in sorrow, because what was being sought could not be found in that way. It was out of reach of intellectual ability. We are here reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:20, ‘where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ The Preacher agrees with him. No solution was to be found in that way.


Verses 12-26

The Preacher Has Made His Enquiries and Comes Up With Nothing (Ecclesiastes 1:12 - Ecclesiastes 2:26).

The Preacher now brings out that he has made further enquiries and has come up with nothing. He first considers the search for intellectual knowledge (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18), and then he considers the search for pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26), but he concludes that both lead nowhere.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ecclesiastes-1.html. 2013.

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