Ecclesiastes 1 – Overview and Vanity

Discussion question:

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

Context

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

Observation

Structure

  • 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?

Meaning

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.

Application

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)