This is the first post in my Ecclesiastes series. Next Post (2:1-11)
Had a great talk with a friend yesterday, and we decided it could be beneficial for me to work my way through the book of Ecclesiastes, a book not often studied. In fact, I can’t even remember if I’ve ever read through the entire book, so I am excited to see what is inside. Without consulting commentaries, articles, or anything other than the Bible, I am going to read through and explore what it has to say, commenting on my thoughts and what I find most interesting. And so we begin at chapter 1:
Conclusions First: All Is Vanity
In verse 2, the author (who I’m assuming is Solomon, though supposedly there is debate around that) quickly lays the cornerstone for which to build the rest of the chapter by stating:
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
This is a very bold way to start a book. But, I found that knowing the author’s conclusion at the beginning was helpful in understanding the rest of the chapter.
Now jump ahead to parts of verses 13 and 14 to give a better understanding for his observations in 3-11 where he says:
And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven… I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun…
This helps to validate his observations in verses 3-11. He sought to find out more about life, and he must have thought hard and witnessed much, because he claims to “have seen all the works which have been done.” I don’t think we are to understand this in terms of him having literally seen every little detail of everything that everyone had ever done, but rather to understand that he labored vigorously to think about all aspects of life. Clearly, he believes he saw enough to declare that “all is vanity”, and, as we’ll see later, how even the process of learning about wisdom and folly is “striving after wind.”
The interesting thing about verse 3 is that it is a question, and it is the only question asked in the chapter:
What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?
If we were to take this question at face value, we could come up with numerous answers. One example: The work we do provides us means to care for our families. No work, no food. However, I don’t think this is what he is getting at with this question. I think this question comes loaded with the answer already, namely, that there ultimately is no everlasting advantage, because all is vanity.
Verses 4-7 talk about the seeming never ending cycle of life and happenings on this earth. It continues to move forward, generation after generation, the sun rising and setting, streams don’t stop running. Nothing we do or do not do effects the cycles. Then in verse 8 he states:
All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it
This is an interesting shift. All things are wearisome. By that, he is essentially saying that all things are tired or worn out due to continuously working. This was written potentially 3000 year ago, and yet the Earth still functions without missing a beat. I’ve never thought of it as looking wearisome, but perhaps he had a picture of the new Earth in mind, and what it might be like for everything to be perfected. That, in fact, may be a big influence as to why he considers all things vanity.
What then does “Man is not able to tell it” mean? What does the “it” refer to? If I had to guess, I think he is stating that the breadth of what he is trying to describe is not only beyond him, it is beyond anybody’s capability to describe it. But why “tell it” instead of understand it? Maybe it’s one in the same. In order to tell something or describe something well, you must understand it first.
Verses 9-11 continue to drive home that there is nothing new.
The Grievous Task
The author sets up an interesting and a discouraging paradox. He set his mind “to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” and he claims to have “seen all the works which have been done under the sun.” It was a task that he set forth to do that he must believe that he accomplished, as there is a tone of finality not only in his saying that he saw “all the works”, but also in his confidence to claim that “all is vanity.” But after all his searching, he describes even the process of seeking to be “striving after wind.”
There is no positive outlook that the author gives from the process of seeking knowledge and wisdom, or from the end result of having more of each. In fact, there are some harsh repercussions that he discovered, which he states in verse 18:
Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and in creasing knowledge results in increasing pain.
This is some serious motivation to evade wisdom and knowledge. But I don’t think anything in this life will ever be motivation enough to avoid it. It’s a requirement for life. You can’t not know anything or not try to make wise decisions. Even our nature is cursed with it back from the creation of man when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3).
It is also a task that’s been given to us by God. There’s purpose to it, but at the same time, the author says it is an affliction to us! He says this in verse 13:
It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
That is the paradox. We are to continue seeking knowledge and wisdom, which helps us in certain ways, and is a task given to us by God, but yet it is one that is grievous, afflicting us with increasing grief and pain.
Other Things to Consider From Chapter 1
I think it important not to make a full theology of wisdom and knowledge based on Ecclesiastes 1. There are some very interesting observations in here that are important to include and to be mindful of. But there are still 11 chapters to go in this book, and we do not know how the author intended for the reader to understand this, so we must approach it carefully.
We also don’t know if the author’s current state had anything to do with the seemingly negative outlook. I’ve certainly written some more discouraging and negative things when life felt hard or if I was in a darker place. Could that have effected this book?
There is nothing optimistic in this chapter. “All is vanity” and we are afflicted with a task that we must do which causes grief and pain. However, there is more to this book, and I hope the author better explains all of this and puts the sandpaper to the jagged, splinter-filled plank he just handed us. Though that is my hope at this point, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the book will make this any more comfortable. So, we will read on.