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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Ecclesiastes 1

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The Vanity Of Life

A. Introduction: The Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes.

1. (Ecc 1:1a) The Preacher.

The words of the Preacher,

a. The words of the Preacher: The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most unusual and perhaps most difficult to understand books of the Bible. It has a spirit of hopeless despair; it has no praise or peace; it seems to promote questionable conduct. Yet these words of the Preacher show us the futility and foolishness of a life lived without an eternal perspective.

i. The question in Ecclesiastes isn’t about the existence of God; the author is no atheist, and God is always there. The question is whether or not God matters. The answer to that question is vitally connected to a responsibility to God that goes beyond this earthly life.

ii. “He does believe in ‘God,’ but, very significantly, he never uses the sacred name ‘Lord.’ He has shaken himself free, or wishes to represent a character who has shaken himself free from Revelation, and is fighting the problem of life, its meaning and worth, without any help from Law, or Prophet, or Psalm.” (Maclaren)

iii. In the search for this answer, the Preacher searched the depths of human experience, including despair. He thoroughly examined the emptiness and futility of life lived without eternity before coming to the conclusion of the necessity of eternity.

iv. “We face the appalling inference that nothing has meaning, nothing matters under the sun. It is then that we can hear, as the good news which it is, that everything matters – ‘for God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.'” (Kidner)

v. “What, then, is the purpose of Ecclesiastes? It is an essay in apologetics. It defends the life of faith in a generous God by pointing to the grimness of the alternative.” (Eaton)

vi. “He does not come as a formal philosopher; it is a word from God he has to share, despite his reflective low-key approach. He does not present half-a-dozen arguments for the existence of God. Instead he picks up our own questions. Can you cope with life without having any idea where you are going? You don’t have all the answers to life’s enigmas, do you? Your neo-pagan view of life doesn’t give you any hope of achieving very much, does it? Nature will not answer your questions, and you are bored by it anyway. History baffles your attempts to understand it. You don’t like to think about your own death; yet it is the most certain fact about your existence.” (Eaton)

vii. “Ecclesiastes does not pretend to preach the Gospel. Rather, it encourages the reader to a God-centered worldview rather than falling victim to frustrations and unanswered questions. None of its contents has to be rejected in the light of the New Testament.” (Wright)

b. The Preacher: In Hebrew, this translates the word Koheleth (or, Kobellet). The idea is of someone who might gather, lead, or speak to a group of people – a congregation.

i. “The word is connected with the Hebrew for assembling, and its form suggests some kind of office-bearer.... The many attempts at translating this title include: ‘Ecclesiastes’, ‘The Preacher’, ‘The Speaker’, ‘The President’, ‘The Spokesman’, ‘The Philosopher’. We might almost add, ‘The Professor’!” (Kidner)

ii. These are definitely the words of the Preacher, but in this apologetically oriented sermon his focus on God is indirect. “It makes no mention of Yahweh, the Lord, the name of the God of Israel’s covenant faith. It scarcely refers to the law of God, the only possible reference being in Ecc 12:13. It scarcely refers to the nation of Israel (only in Ecc 1:12). Why these omissions? The answer seems to be that the Preacher’s argument stands on its own feet and does not depend on Israel’s covenant faith to be valid. He is appealing to universally observable facts.” (Eaton)

2. (Ecc 1:1b) The identity of the Preacher.

The son of David, king in Jerusalem.

a. The son of David: This identifies the Preacher as David’s son, Solomon. Some believe that another wrote it in Solomon’s name, but there is no compelling reason to say that anyone other than Solomon wrote it.

i. “In view of the traditions concerning Solomon (1 Kings 2-12; 2 Chronicles 1-9), without any further definition the title would certainly lead any reader to suppose that the allusion is to him. Also the account in Ecc 2:1-11 is strongly reminiscent of Solomon; almost every phrase has its parallel in the narratives concerning Solomon.” (Eaton)

ii. “There will come another enigmatic note in verse 16, with its claim to a wisdom ‘surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me’. This rules out any successor to the matchless Solomon.” (Kidner)

b. King in Jerusalem: From his royal standing, Solomon had the wisdom, freedom, resources, and standing to write this work.

i. In a sense, only Solomon could write this book. He had both the wisdom and the resources to work through these problems. “With Qoheleth we put on the mantle of a Solomon, that most brilliant and least limited of men, to set out on the search. With every gift and power at our command, it would be strange if we should come back empty-handed.” (Kidner)

ii. When Solomon wrote this, he did so in a style understood and appreciated in his day. “The particular brand of wisdom that characterizes Ecclesiastes is well attested in the ancient world. We may call it ‘pessimism literature’. Ecclesiastes is the only biblical example of this old literary tradition.” (Eaton)

iii. “In an Egyptian work, The Man Who Was Tired of Life, written between 2300 and 2100 bc, a man disputed with his soul whether life was worth living or whether suicide was the only logical act. ‘Life is a transitory state,’ he complained to himself; ‘you are alive but what profit do you get? Yet you yearn for life like a man of wealth.’ Death is ‘a bringer of weeping’; never again afterwards will a man ‘see the sun’. Little can be done. ‘Follow the happy day and forget care.'” (Eaton)

iv. The Puritan commentator John Trapp wrote what some other also believe, that Ecclesiastes was Solomon’s statement of error and penance, and evidence that he turned back to God at the end of his life – despite the absence of such assurance in 1 Kings 11. “He penned this penitential sermon, grown an old man, he had experimented all this that he here affirmeth, so that he might better begin his speech to his scholars.” (Trapp)

B. The problem presented: the meaninglessness of life.

1. (Ecc 1:2) The Preacher’s summary: Life is vanity, without meaning.

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

a. Vanity of vanities: The Preacher begins his sermon with his first conclusion (though not his ultimate conclusion). Looking at life all around, he judges it to be vanity – nothing, useless, meaningless.

i. “A wisp of vapour, a puff of wind, a mere breath – nothing you could get your hands on; the nearest thing to zero. That is the ‘vanity’ this book is about.” (Kidner)

ii. “Vanity (hebel) includes (i) brevity and unsubstantiality, emptiness... (ii) unreliability, frailty... (iii) futility, as in Job 9:29 (Hebrew), where ‘in vanity’ means ‘to no effect’; (iv) deceit (cf. Jeremiah 16:19; Zechariah 10:2).” (Eaton)

b. Vanity of vanities: To strengthen his point, the Preacher judged life to be the ultimate vanity, the vanity of vanities. This Hebrew phrasing is used to express intensity or the ultimate of something, as in the phrase holy of holies.

i. This phrase (or something quite like it) will be used about 30 times in this short book. It is one of the major themes of Ecclesiastes.

c. All is vanity: To further strengthen the point, Solomon noted not only that life is vanity, but that all is vanity. It seemed that every part of life suffered from this emptiness.

i. We see from the first two verses that Solomon wrote this from a certain perspective, a perspective that through the book he will expose as inadequate and wrong. Most all of Ecclesiastes is written from this perspective, through the eyes of a man who thinks and lives as if God doesn’t matter.

ii. “It is an absolutely accurate statement of life when it is lived under certain conditions; but it is not true as a statement of what life must necessarily be.” (Morgan) If you say, “My life isn’t vanity; it isn’t meaningless. My life is filled with meaning and purpose.” That’s wonderful; but you can’t ignore the premise of the Preacher – the premise of life under the sun.

iii. Therefore Ecclesiastes is filled with what we might call true lies. Given the perspective “God does not matter,” it is true that all is vanity. Since that perspective is wrong, it is not true that all is vanity. Yet Solomon makes us think through this wrong perspective thoroughly through Ecclesiastes.

iv. Solomon thinks through this perspective, but he wasn’t the first nor the last to see life this way. Many moderns judge life to be equally futile.

“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” (Playwright Tennessee Williams)

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” (Author George Orwell)

“Life is rather like a can of sardines, we’re all of us looking for the key.” (Playwright Alan Bennett)

2. (Ecc 1:3) Life and work under the sun.

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?

a. What profit has a man from all his labor: Using the language from the world of business, the Preacher asked a worthy question. He knew that life was filled with labor – but what is it worth? What does it profit?

i. Profit: “A commercial term; life ‘pays no dividends’.” (Eaton)

ii. Jesus expressed a similar thought in Mark 8:36: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?

iii. “All things are sweeter in the ambition than in the fruition. There is a singular vanity in this splendid misery.” (Trapp)

b. In which he toils under the sun: This is the first stating of an essential theme through Ecclesiastes. This phrase will be repeated more than 25 times through the book. The idea isn’t “on a sunny day” or something having to do with the weather. The idea is “in this world that we can see; the material world.” It is life considered without an eternal perspective.

i. “If our view of life goes no further than ‘under the sun’, all our endeavours will have an undertone of misery.” (Eaton)

ii. The use of the phrase under the sun “shows that the writer’s interest was universal and not limited to only his own people and land.” (Wright)

3. (Ecc 1:4-7) The unending cycle of creation.

One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.

a. One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever: Using several examples, the Preacher observes that nothing seems to change very much in the seemingly unending cycle of nature.

i. “He looks out upon humanity, and sees that in one aspect the world is full of births, and in another full of deaths. Coffins and cradles seem the main furniture, and he hears the tramp, tramp, tramp of the generations passing over a soil honeycombed with tombs.” (Maclaren)

b. The sun also rises... The wind goes toward the south... the rivers run into the sea: From what Solomon could observe under the sun, these unchanging cycles expressed the unchanging monotony of life, leading to its vanity and meaninglessness.

i. “For Old Testament orthodoxy, creation rings with the praises of the Lord. Creation is his.... But, says the Preacher, take away its God, and creation no longer reflects his glory; it illustrates the weariness of mankind.” (Eaton)

ii. “All the rivers of earthly joy may be flowing into your heart, but they will never fill it. They may recede, or dry up, or ebb; but if not, still they will never satisfy.... But in Christ there is perennial interest.... We need not go outside of Him for new delights; and to know Him is to possess a secret which makes all things new.” (Meyer)

4. (Ecc 1:8-11) The unending cycle of man’s labor.

All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.

a. All things are full of labor; man cannot express it: Solomon then observed that the meaninglessness of life wasn’t only reflected in nature. This frustration is also evident in human effort and endeavor. Despite all man’s working (labor), seeing, and hearing, he is still not satisfied.

i. “It is impossible to calculate how much anxiety, pain, labour, and fatigue are necessary in order to carry on the common operations of life. But an endless desire of gain, and an endless curiosity to witness a variety of results, cause men to, labour on.” (Clarke)

ii. “What is the difference between a squirrel in a cage who only makes his prison go round the faster by his swift race, and the man who lives toilsome days for transitory objects which he may never attain?” (Maclaren)

b. That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun: Despite all man’s work and progress, life seems monotonously the same. Things that seem new get old very quickly, so it could be said “there is nothing new under the sun.”

i. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. “In their new guise the old ways go on. As a race, we never learn.” (Kidner)

ii. There may be nothing new under the sun; but thankfully the followers of Jesus – those born again by God’s Spirit – don’t live under the sun in that sense. Their life is filled with new things.

· A new name (Isaiah 62:2, Revelation 2:17)
· A new community (Ephesians 2:14)
· A new help from angels (Psalm 91:11)
· A new commandment (John 13:34)
· A new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33, Matthew 26:28)
· A new and living way to heaven (Hebrews 10:20)
· A new purity (1 Corinthians 5:7)
· A new nature (Ephesians 4:24)
· A new creation in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)
· All things become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:5)

c. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are come: The futility of life seems to extend in both directions, both into the past and into the future. Man works hard, yet it never seems to make a lasting difference and all is simply forgotten.

i. “How many memorable matters were never recorded! How many ancient records long since perished!” (Trapp)

C. The failure of wisdom to satisfy.

1. (Ecc 1:12-15) Searching by wisdom.

I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
And what is lacking cannot be numbered.

a. I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem: Solomon was internationally famous for his great wisdom. If the answers to the seeming emptiness of life could be found by wisdom, Solomon was the one to find them.

i. Solomon’s great wisdom was a gift of God. When God offered him whatever he pleased, he asked for wisdom, especially the wisdom to lead the people of God (1 Kings 3:5-28). Therefore God made Solomon so wise that he wrote thousands of proverbs, and he was considered to be wiser than all the men of his day (1 Kings 4:29-34).

b. I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: With the unique ability to make such a search, Solomon looked for the answers in wisdom – by which he meant human wisdom that excluded answers in the light of eternity.

i. I set my heart to seek and search out: “The two words are not synonymous. The former verb implies penetrating into the depth of an object before one; the other word taking a comprehensive survey of matters further away; so that two methods and scopes of investigation are signified.” (Deane)

ii. This is the wisdom of those who guide us to a better life in the here-and-now; how to live a healthier, happier, more prosperous life. This wisdom certainly has value, and many lives would be better for following it. Yet if it excludes a true appreciation of eternity and our responsibilities in the world to come, this wisdom has no true answer to the meaninglessness of life. It only shows us how to live our meaningless lives better.

iii. In other places in Ecclesiastes, wisdom is thought of as a blessing – as it is; even wisdom that excludes eternity (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, 19). Yet this kind of under the sun wisdom cannot shed light upon the problem of the vanity and meaninglessness of life.

c. All that is done under heaven: God’s heaven and eternity are not in view here, only the day and night skies. This is another way of saying, “under the sun.” All man’s work, accomplishment, and searching for wisdom seems to amount to nothing.

i. “All that is done under heaven shows that the total resources of a limited world-view are the object of study; the vertical aspect is not yet in view.” (Eaton)

d. This burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised: The seeming futility of life comes from God; He has given it to man. God has deliberately built a system where life seems meaningless and empty without the understanding of a living, active God to whom we must give account.

i. It may seem cruel of God to devise such a system, but it is actually evidence of His great love and mercy. He built within us the desire and need for that which brings meaning and fulfillment to life. As Augustine wrote, the Creator made a God-shaped space in each of us, which can only be filled with Him.

ii. This desire is found not only in us as people, but also in creation itself. God also subjected creation to this futility until He one day brings the promised fulfillment. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope (Romans 8:20).

iii. At the same time, this is a burdensome task. It isn’t always easy to find these answers, because our pride, self-reliance, and self-love work against finding them.

e. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered: The Preacher’s initial search for the answers in wisdom (under the sun) brought him only despair.

i. “With his usual devastating candour Qoheleth is quick to tell us the worst. The search has come to nothing.” (Kidner)

ii. “The third conclusion explains why the ‘under the sun’ thinker is so frustrated. It is because there are twists (what is crooked) and gaps (what is lacking) in all thinking. No matter how the thinker ponders, he cannot straighten out life’s anomalies, nor reduce all he sees to a neat system.” (Eaton)

2. (Ecc 1:16-18) The failure of wisdom confirmed.

I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind.

For in much wisdom is much grief,
And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

a. I communed with my heart: This approach is natural for anyone who looks for the answers under the sun, apart from an eternal perspective. They look inward for wisdom and answers, instead of to the God who rules eternity.

b. I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind: The repeated and intensified search for wisdom brought no ultimate meaning. The solution wasn’t to think harder and search better; it was all grasping for the wind.

c. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow: The more the Preacher understood life under the sun, the greater his despair. The more he learned, the more he realized what he didn’t know. The more he knew, the more he knew life’s sorrows.

i. “So long as wisdom is restricted to the realm ‘under the sun’, it sees the throbbing tumult of creation, life scurrying round its ever-repetitive circuits, and nothing more. ‘The more you understand, the more you ache’ (Moffatt).” (Eaton)

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

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