The Incessant Dilemma
After the statement of authorship in verse 1, the next two introductory verses spell out the problem of the book. “Vanity of vanities” in verse 2, a superlative expression, seems to denote “utter emptiness.” As noted earlier, the Hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel, which literally means “breath” or “vapor.” The idea is that there is nothing there to hold—which is why we see the word seven times paired with the phrase “grasping for the wind.” Some take hebel to imply “meaninglessness,” “pointlessness” or “senselessness”—the world seemingly being without rhyme or reason. Others opt for the sense of “worthlessness,” especially with the declaration of hebel being followed by the asking in verse 3 of “what profit” there is in this life. Still others take hebel here to mean “fleeting” or “quickly passing.” There could be this transitory sense in some of the occurrences of the word (particularly in Ecclesiastes 9:9, where “emptiness” or “meaningless” or “worthlessness” seems contrary to the point). But neither “fleeting” nor “meaningless” fits the occurrence of the word in lamenting unfair circumstances (e.g., Ecclesiastes 8:14). Perhaps “elusive” or “beyond grasping” (i.e., “incomprehensible” or “inscrutable”) fits better there—but this meaning does not apply in the concluding statement in Ecclesiastes 12:8, which is parallel to Ecclesiastes 1:2, as much has been resolved by the end. So there may be different shades of meaning for hebel in the book. However, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary takes hebel throughout the book to indicate “frustration”—not in the mere sense of minor dissatisfaction at hindrances but of having all attempts to understand or to find lasting success or meaning coming to naught, being always out of reach. That does appear to fit the various occurrences. And it also aligns with the meaning of vanity—futility—being seemingly all for nothing.
The phrase “all is vanity” in verse 2 cannot include God or His Word, so the “all” here is limited— apparently to life “under the sun” (verse 3). This expression, used also in other ancient texts, occurs 28 times in the book, along with the variant form “under heaven,” which appears three times. Considering the context of these occurrences, the phrase refers to the limitations of physical life on this earth in the here and now—that is, while God and men dwell separately, with God in heaven and men under heaven. (Man’s eternal destiny includes life on the earth, ultimately in the New Jerusalem, but we will then be with God and not confined to the earth, as we will inherit the whole of creation, including the heavens. Moreover, the earth itself will be renewed, and life upon it will be positive in every way, as God ultimately intended.)
The frustration of life in this world as described in Ecclesiastes may well be what the apostle Paul had in mind in Romans 8:20: “For the creation was subjected to futility.” The Greek word translated “futility” here in the New King James Version (“vanity” in the earlier King James Version, “frustration” in the New International Version) is mataiotes, the same word used throughout the Greek Septuagint version of Ecclesiastes. Vanity or frustration in the created realm is the consequence of sin early on—first that of Satan and the angels who followed him and later that of man just after his creation in giving in to Satan. It was Adam and Eve’s wrong choice in the Garden of Eden that subjugated humanity to the resultant problems of the world, with all since following in their footsteps.
As mentioned, the dilemma of Ecclesiastes 1:2, with hebel perhaps including a sense of seeming worthlessness or pointlessness, leads into the key question of verse 3: “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” In his Preaching the Word commentary volume Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (2010), Philip Ryken notes: “The same question will come up again in chapter 3: ‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’ (v[erse] 9) The idea of gaining some profit will come up repeatedly as well; it appears nearly a dozen times in the book of Ecclesiastes (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:9). The word ‘gain’ [or profit] (Hebrew yitron) is a commercial term ordinarily used in the context of business . . . The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one’s labor. Gain is the return on investment for hard work. So [the Preacher] asks the question that people have about every job: Is it worth it? Am I really accomplishing anything? What will I have to show for all my toil” (p. 24). Solomon is essentially asking, what good is this life? What’s the point?
As mentioned in our introduction, to see what Solomon is aiming at throughout this first section (1:1–2:26) we can look ahead to the section conclusion (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26). We will consider it more when we come to it, but in Ecclesiastes 2:24, the first occurrence of the book’s refrain, we are informed that there is indeed good in our labor or efforts that we are to enjoy from God’s hand. Verse 26 tells us that this blessing is ultimately for those who are good or righteous in His sight—denoting His followers. But that fact is not yet in sight for the reader in chapter 1.
Following the three-verse introduction or prologue, we see that Solomon in the first subsection presents in poetic form a bleak perspective of life in this world (verses 4-11). His observations about the natural order impress on the reader the sensation of futility. First, a person’s time upon the earth is fleeting and seems to make no impact. People come and go, but the earth and its processes continue on and on—seemingly indifferent to man’s presence. Second, these processes themselves can seem monotonous and meaningless, accomplishing nothing—such as the river constantly flowing to the sea but never filling it. If characteristic of nature, where does that leave fleeting human life? Man deems himself important on the earth—and God even decreed man’s dominion over it (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8). So what’s going on? “Man cannot express it” in Ecclesiastes 1:8 means that people have nothing meaningful to say in response—they can’t explain it. The rest of the verse seems to say that despite all they see and hear, it is never enough to satisfy their desire to comprehend it. The benefit sought in verse 3 is not to be found in this incessant restlessness.
Verses 9-10 increase the sense of despair by saying there is nothing new under the sun. It should be recognized that this is not speaking of particular tangible items, such as new inventions. We of course have many electronic gadgets today that did not exist in the past. The statement, rather, is a general one about the ways of the world. Just as nature’s processes continue unabated, so do the ways of people on the earth—fleeting though they are. The New American Commentary explains: “The fundamental events of life (birth, marriage, work, death, etc.) remain unchanged. The desire for something new is the desire for something that alters the nature of life in the world. Cars, computers, and jet airplanes may have made some things easier and faster. For us, however, as for our predecessors, the sun rises and sets; the rivers run their courses; and people continue their endless quest for fame, power, and happiness even as they move steadily toward death” (Garrett, note on verses 9-11).
Verse 11 seems most likely to refer to not remembering people (as in the NIV) rather than not remembering things. The Bible in Basic English renders it, “There is no memory of those who have gone before, and of those who come after….” Considering the passing away of generations in verse 4, we should understand this to mean after some time has gone by. We may know various facts about some famous people in history—but we don’t remember them as we do people we know today. “Their names may or may not be remembered in the school books, but they are thought of as little more than characters of fiction, cut off from the new generations who have their own lives to live” (Expositor’s, Wright, note on Ecclesiastes 2:12-16). Moreover, “the vast majority of people never achieve lasting fame, while those who do gain nothing by it” (NAC, note on Ecclesiastes 1:11).
Solomon is highlighting man’s plight to show the need for a solution—and he will present that in due course, explaining that the answer lies in a proper relationship with God. This means living according to the whole Bible. The Preaching the Word commentary states: “To see things ‘under the sun’... is to look at them from ground level. It is to take an earthly point of view, leaving God out of it for the moment. But of course this is not the only way to look at things, or even the right way to look at them. There is a God in Heaven who rules over the sun. Therefore, we are not limited to the terrestrial [in our perspective or in help in living]…. This does not mean that if we believe in God all our troubles will be over or that we will never again feel the weariness and vanity of life under the sun. For one thing, believers often forget to remember God, and when we do, we are right back ‘under the sun’ again. But Ecclesiastes does open up the possibility of an ‘above the sun’ perspective that can bring joy and refreshment to life as we learn everything matters” (Ecclesiastes, p. 31).
Indeed, the full biblical revelation shows that there is a way out of the monotony to experience something truly new that will last. The New American Commentary further points out on Ecclesiastes 1:11: “This passage is not a contradiction to the gospel but a call for it. The world is in bondage; and humanity is unable to explain, find satisfaction in, or alter it. Only the Word, who came into the world from above, can open the way of understanding and escape (John 8:23, John 8:31-32). He has done a new thing: he has created a new covenant, given the new birth, new life, and a new commandment (Jer[emiah] 31:31-34). He gives a new name that will last forever. Everything else is old and passing away.”
When we are changed to immortal, glorified beings at the return of Jesus Christ, “our restless ears and roving eyes will be fully and finally satisfied…. Our senses will be saturated with the glory of God. This is something to remember whenever we are frustrated or angry or sad or disappointed with everything in life that is getting broken, falling apart, or going wrong. Remember that this life is not our final existence. We were made for a better world. The very fact that we are weary of life is pointing us to the only God who can satisfy our souls” (PTW, pp. 32-33).