Ecclesiastes 1 – Overview and Vanity

Discussion question:

What have you found yourself wasting your time on this year?


A little background information about the book.

The Title: Ecclesiastes. This comes from the Greek word for assembly or church and is used because the Greek version of the Old Testament uses this word in the first verse where we see the word ‘teacher’. See notes on ‘teacher’.

‘The Teacher’: The NIV and NRSV use the word teacher. Here are what other translations have used for the same Hebrew word: “The Speaker” (NEB); “The Preacher” (KJV, RSV, NASB, ESV); “The Leader of the Assembly” (NIV footnote); “The Assembler” (NJPS footnote). Rabbinic texts have associated the word with Solomon’s ‘surname’ or position. What’s important to grasp in all of this is that the instruction in this book is from a leader to an assembly. The identity of the Preacher is not conclusive although Solomon fits strikingly well (1:1, 12, 16).

There are two voices in the book. While the content of the book is from the teacher, he is referred to at points in the third person (1:1; 7:27; 12:9). The book begins and ends by this second narrator.

Meaningless! This word is used quite a lot in the book so we’ll talk about it at the beginning. Using synonyms will help us to capture the array of its meanings: breath, vapour, mist, vanity, transient, ephemeral, profitless, meaningless, rootless, unstable, subject to continuous change. The Teacher will take us on an exploration of life and use this word to sweep away all our illusions.

Now let’s read it!

Read Ecclesiastes Chapter 1



  • 1:1-2 Title and main point
  • 3-11 Poetry
    • 3-4 People come and go like vapour
      • 5-7 Nature is a cycle never ending
        • 8a Everything is wearisome
      • 8b-10 Human toil is endless
    • 11 Past generations are forgotten
  • 12-18 The Teacher’s testimony

1:1-2 Title and main point

“The words of the Teacher…” See the context above. The book is intended for the people of Israel. But who will listen?

“…son of David, king in Jerusalem…” Historically we can claim this person to be Solomon. He fits the description here and in Verse 12 and 16. But theologically, being unnamed can be helpful since his title is both King and Teacher. He has authority and wisdom. The Son of David may also be Jesus. Not pretending that Jesus wrote these words but we sit under the authority of this king and teacher of the church.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” A very depressing start to a sermon! See the Context above on this word. The word is used 4 times in Verse 2. It’s the opening statement to the book and is the conclusion in 12:8. And so, the whole message from the teacher is bracketed by this statement. NB: it’s helpful to use the range of meaning. Everything is vapour – transient – like mist on a mountain. The phrase is not to be depressing but realistic. We’ll learn that everything we set our minds and actions to are all part of a forgettable, recyclable, unending chain of vapour. The poem that follows illustrates his point.

3-11 Poetry

It’s possible to see a mirror image in this structure (see the structure above) which puts Verse 8a at the centre.

“What do people gain…? Verses 3-4 ask us to consider what is the outcome of all the effort that goes into life. Notice that life is described as toil and labor. But our existence is just for one generation. The world that we do all our toiling upon outlasts all of us. We share the soil with people who have gone before us and others who will come after us. But what does it get us? And how does our work add to the earth? Verse 11 adds to this lament with the fact that we don’t remember who has come before and we will not be remembered either.

“The sun… the wind… the streams…” Verses 5-7 describe the ways of nature and that everything goes round and round – everything recycled, repeated. This earth that outlives all of us also maintains itself! Mankind doesn’t contribute to the productivity of the earth. Yes, we garden and we manage (or mismanage) the resources of this world, but we don’t create the rain. We don’t start or stop the wind. The sun doesn’t follow our orders. The point of these verses is not that the world is meaningless but that our part upon it is meaningless.

“All things are wearisome, more than one can say.” Our existence is constant input, process and output. As for the earth, it is a non-stop processing organism. Day-night-day, weather movement and the water cycle. Where does it end? This verse brings Verses 5-7 to a conclusion as well as opening up Verses 9-10.

“The eye… the ear…” Can you ever imagine deciding to close your eyes and never use them again? The eyes are an endless data collecting instrument. So are the ears. To what end? What’s the point? They absorb and learn but we will be gone from this earth and leave it all behind.

“What has been will be again…” events and experiences repeat. Isn’t everything you experience a repeat of what has already been done or seen?

“…nothing new under the sun.” This doesn’t mean that computers and iphones have always existed. But we can’t create something out of nothing. The toil of humanity is the reference point. We can manipulate all that is, but we cannot produce a brand new thing. The Teacher is telling us every reason not to boast. Imagine standing on a podium and pronouncing all of your achievements only to hear back from the voice of the Teacher: ‘Big deal! So what!?’

12-18 The Teacher’s testimony

“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel…” The Teacher must apply his logic to himself. If everything is meaningless, then displaying the status of king over Israel is nothing but vapour either. Is it? In his position of great king over Jerusalem, anointed and chosen by God to rule over the people of God, he has the right to draw these conclusions. He is not speaking from bitterness or envy of others. He has a good seat to observe and conclude these things.

“What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!” A key point to make in this book is that the Teacher does not teach us to ignore God or become atheists. But man is not God. The toil of man is meaningless. We are limited. He makes this point further…

“What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” Our efforts have limits. If there’s nothing there, we can’t count it. If it is bent, that’s it. This is in the form of a proverb. We are not like God. For us, life is a burden and frustrating. But for God, he can straighten and create. Perhaps the first lesson to learn is to note down that we are not God!

“…wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me…” See 1 Kings 3:12.

“I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly.” The rest of the book will take up his lessons in both and one of his conclusions that both the wise and the foolish have the same end.

“…the more knowledge, the more grief.” If everything is meaningless, then much meditation on it may increase the sorrow. But don’t lose heart! We will be needing to see his teaching through to the end and find the ultimate wisdom in the true King of Israel who is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Suggested questions for running this study.

Q1. Look at Verses 1, 12 and 16. Who do you think the Teacher might be? What effect does it have that he is not named?

Q2. Compare Verse 2 with 12:8. These verses bracket the main teaching of the book. Discuss what ‘meaningless’ means. What do other translations use instead?

Q3. According to Verses 3-7, what value do people add to this world? Take time, as a good poetry reader, to enjoy the imagery used.

Q4. Now look at Verses 8-11. How are all things wearisome? Perhaps Verses 3, 4 and 11 can help.

Q5.  The Teacher prepares us for how the rest of the book will follow in Verses 12-18. Are there any clues here about how he might teach us? What can God do that we cannot?


Get ready to listen to a Teacher who has examined this life and wishes to remove the illusion that what we do is making any difference. There is one God who created this world and the people in it. Nothing is impossible for him but we are not like him. We cannot create, or grow, or expand but only live and labour, die and be forgotten. This seems very sad and depressing. But we do know God. And we are not him. This is our first lesson.


Challenge#1 Let us not boast

2 Corinthians 10:17-18 reads, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” Sober thinking is what the Teacher wants us to have. Nobody on the earth can stand up and say that they have changed the world. Only God can do that. See also 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5

Challenge#2 Straightening what is crooked

While we cannot straighten what is crooked, nor stop the wind, nor tell the sun what to do, God is able to do that. In fact, this is exactly the purpose of sending His Son into the world: the King. The King of the Jews who died to straighten our souls. No effort of our own can improve this world beyond band-aid treatments. What we need, is not a church who will get depressed at this teaching but a church who will acknowledge their futility and turn to Christ and be healed.

Challenge#3 Listen to the Teacher

Jesus Christ is our Great Teacher. There is nobody wiser than him. Even Solomon, in all his wisdom, fell prey to sin. In all of our attempts at wisdom, we will never get anywhere without first listening to Him. Even more so today than any other day, we need a church who will listen to him. With 24/7 social media broadcasting, self-ordained couch experts, we need to hear the voice and wisdom of our Lord who says, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” That is an invitation to stop all of our toil and labour and to come to him and find rest and relief (Matthew 11:28)

Mark 8:1-26 – Do you still not understand?

Discussion question:

Have you ever experienced Dejavu?


How good is your eye-sight?

Read Mark 8:1-26


Jesus fed a crowd of 5000+ people with just 2 fish and 5 loaves in Chapter 6. He then ignored the question of the Pharisees in Chapter 7 and, instead, called out their hypocrisy. Then, in the same chapter, he opened the ears and mouth of a man. For 7 chapters, Jesus has been preaching with signs and authority. He has had his 12 disciples watching him and learning from him all this time. They have asked themselves, “Who is this man?” And Jesus has asked them, “Are you so dull?”



  • 1-10 Jesus feeds a large crowd (again)
  • 11-13 Jesus brushes off the Pharisees (again)
  • 14-21 The disciples do not understand (again)
  • 22-26 Jesus heals a blind man in two stages

1-10 Jesus feeds a large crowd (again)

“…large crowd…nothing to eat…” John’s gospel is recorded as saying that if all the things that Jesus did were recorded then he supposes the whole world would not be big enough to fit all the books! So, for Mark to record a miracle so similar to the one recorded only a chapter ago is a little overkill. Unless, there is a point to him doing this.

“I have compassion for these people…” The last time this happened, it was the disciples approaching Jesus to suggest the people needed feeding. Jesus shows his compassion and invites his disciples in for consultation on how to resolve the issue. We would hope that the disciples get excited and ask Jesus if he would feed the crowd again. But they are dull and have not understood who they are with and how this is supposed to work!

“They had a few small fish as well…” Reading these verses is like playing “Spot the Difference” to see what is the same and what is new. The account is so strikingly similar to the last feeding that it’s hard to understand where the disciple’s heads are at. The differences convince us that this is a new event and not a mistake in the writing. 

11-13 Jesus brushes off the Pharisees (again)

“The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.” Reading this straight after the feeding miracle is ironic. But they are in a different location so we need to give the Pharisees a small break. Except that Jesus has been doing miracles for ages now. It feels like they have come quite late to the party. Jesus has had a public ministry for quite a while, enough to gather crowds of thousands to him, and the Pharisees are only now taking interest. And they want Jesus to perform magic tricks for them.

“He sighed deeply…” See also Mark 7:34. Looking at the ESV you’ll see “he sighed deeply in his spirit and said…” This is a better translation. It is difficult to conclude how these two ‘sighs’ are connected or not. There are enough differences in the sentences (in the Greek) to interpret them based on context. That is, the meaning behind the sigh can be different for each instance. The question that comes out with the sigh is the context to read:

“Why does this generation seek a sign?” Jesus is not going to humour the Pharisees. He is not willing to cast pearls before swine. In God’s foreknowledge, he knows their hearts and they have more than enough to go on by now. It is a lesson for us to not always answer people’s questions. That’s not a rule.

“…no sign will be given to this generation.” This does sound peculiar doesn’t it? That generation has been given plenty of signs! I take it that Jesus announces that if they have not seen them then they will not be given them! Matthew 12:38ff gives a similar account where Jesus proceeds to tell them that only the sign of Jonah will be given them. I’m reminded of the answer to the rich man who found himself in hell and asked if God would send someone back from the dead to warn people and the reply is given: even if someone were to be raised from the dead, they would still not believe.

14-21 The disciples do not understand (again)

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread…” The story of the feeding of 4000 and the Pharisees asking for a sign comes to a crunch here when we see the disciples thinking about bread while Jesus warns them of hard heartedness.

“…the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”  1Cor5:6-8 gives the same analogy of yeast that spreads throughout if it is not removed. Luke 12:1 expands on Jesus’ words here to say that the yeast of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. Lastly, Mark 12:13 accounts the Pharisees along with the Herodians coming to Jesus to trap him. Jesus warns the disciples to be on their guard against such a mindset that can spread. They are not for Jesus but against him. And their views will eventually get Jesus to the cross.

“Why are you talking about having no bread?” We know why they were, because they are dense and not paying attention. 

“Do you still not see or understand?” Jesus accuses them of being blind, stupid, hard hearted and deaf. He then quizzes them to help them to see and understand. He is leading them to water but he needs them to take the drink. He ends with the question for the disciples and for us readers: do you still not understand?

NB: The number 12 and the number 7 can simply mean that they had more left over than they did at the beginning. It was a miracle. However, some will feel compelled to highlight that 12 is the number of tribes of Israel and the number of disciples and the number 7 is the complete number. Therefore, Jesus is able to feed completely all the people of God with nobody missing out and everybody satisfied. It does sound very nice and it may be important too. I’m just blown away by the abundance of God’s generosity. He had compassion on the crowd and he provided liberally.

22-26 Jesus heals a blind man (again?)

“Do you see anything?” Jesus is given opportunity for another healing but Mark puts this healing here in the narrative for good reason. The disciples had just been asked, ‘Do you still not see?’ It is not a coincidence that this man is asked if he can see and then we find that he is not quite healed.

“I see people, they look like trees walking around.” The miracle is that he can now see! He sees people where he couldn’t before. But they are fuzzy, like the leaves of a tree. Is Jesus losing his touch?

“Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his…sign was restored.” This healing came in two stages. Jesus had interacted with this blind man and he could somewhat see, but then Jesus worked again and he could finally see and see completely. We need to stay tuned and see if the disciples’ eyes will be fully opened.

Suggested questions for running this study.

Q1. What things in this passage have we seen before? (feeding, Pharisees and blind healing)

Q2. What things are new? (hint, look at some minor details in each story)

Q3. What does Jesus discuss with the disciples in the boat? What does Jesus want his disciples to do?

Q4. What does the healing of the blind man in Verses 22-26 teach us? 


The disciples are with Jesus but they are not seeing who he is. They didn’t seem too impressed by the first crowd feeding and the second time was no different! They seem too focused on taking bread inventory to notice what it all means. While Jesus has written off the Pharisees and Herodians as hopelessly lost in their hypocrisy, he has hopes that the disciples will eventually see. The two stage healing of the blind man is a little metaphor for the disciples who have not yet fully seen Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.


Challenge#1 Jesus’ compassion is matched by his generosity

Look at these verses which remind us of how generous God has been on us whom he had compassion on:

  • Titus 3:4-7
  • 1 Timothy 1:12-15
  • Romans 5:5-6
  • Ephesians 1:3-10

Challenge#2 Do you still not see?

This is the obvious question. It is completely possible, and common, for church members to have their eyes only partially open. The knowledge of sins forgiven, of Jesus the Saviour and Lord and of eternal life are understood. But the teaching of the New Testament – the teaching which our dull and slow learning disciples wrote – teaches us to go further. To know Christ, to be filled with the knowledge and wisdom that comes by the Spirit of God through the word of God. Some Christians will still be wondering if they’ve packed enough bread instead of noticing that the creator of all things is with them in the boat!

Challenge#3 Beware the yeast of the Pharisee

Hard hearted hypocrisy is seen when it’s not Jesus Christ that we are preaching and worshiping but our own lives established on self-righteousness and greed. It doesn’t spread by evangelism or conspiracy, but through blindedness to Christ. Taking our eyes off the kingdom of God and drifting with the masses who only see benefits in this world – in a worldly way – that spreads like a catchy tune.