In the Israelite’s historical books of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, the documents claim that Solomon, King of Israel was granted one request by God himself. Solomon asked for wisdom rather than riches, power, or glory. God responded to Solomon, that because he asked for wisdom, he would not only become the wisest man on earth, but would also be given greater riches than any King of Israel had ever known. The book of Ecclesiastes was written by this very King Solomon, the wise. Therefore, for those who believe that these chronologies are accurate descriptions of historical events, this poetic book holds great value, for in it, the wisest man who has ever lived asks some of life’s most difficult questions.
Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 Analysis
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
In the opening of this poetical book, the speaker begins by making the claim that all things are “vanity”. The writer of this book, King Solomon, was King David’s successor. And the speaker claims that “the preacher” is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Thus, he refers to himself as the preacher, and he proclaims to all of Jerusalem that everything done, is done in vain. This a bold claim, and the speaker makes it with full intention of describing the ways in which every detail of this life is all meaningless. In verse three, the speaker asks a question, one that every man and woman has likely asked at some point during his or her life. All people want to know if all the work of their lives is worth it, and the speaker in this verse asks the question that has crossed every person’s mind since the beginning of time. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” The implication here, is that man gains nothing from all his toil.
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
In this section, the speaker mentions the cycles of the earth. He recognizes that people come and go in generations, even as the sun rises and sets. He describes the wind, and the way it blows around and around. With the descriptions of the cycles of the earth, the speaker reveals that things happen again and again, the same way they always have, and nothing changes. These descriptions reflect the speaker’s original claim that everything is vanity.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
In this section, the speaker continues to describe why he claims that all is vanity. Just as the generations have come and gone, and the sun has risen and set in unending cycles, so the streams run endlessly, but never fill the sea. He concludes that “all things are full of weariness”. In fact, the speaker claims that everything that he has seen is so fully of weariness that there are no words to express just how utterly meaningless it all is. He claims that the world is so full of vanity that “a man cannot utter it”. He then goes on to explain the lack of satisfaction he has experienced upon the earth. He has never seen or heard enough to make him feel satisfied.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
In these two verses, the speaker begins to give some depth of understanding to his claims that the world is full of meaningless things. He explains that nothing truly new has ever been done on earth. Each generation may think it is something unique and new, but this speaker declares that nothing is really new. He asks the rhetorical question, “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘see, this is new’?”. He then answers his own question in the negative by again declaring, “it has been already in the ages before us”.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
To end this section, the speaker claims that no one remembers past generations, and therefore concludes that future generations will not remember his present generation. And all of these realizations cause the speaker to feel that all he has done in life has been hopelessly futile, and will be remembered by no one.
The Vanity of Wisdom
I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
In these two verses, the speaker gives his audience a reason to trust his judgement. He claims that he has every reason to claim that everything is meaningless because he claims to have experienced everything necessary to make that claim. He insists that because he is “king over Isreal” and has “applied [his] heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” that he has the knowledge, wisdom, and experience to conclude that there is nothing but vanity in the world.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
With this verse, the speaker concludes that the wrongs in the world cannot be fixed, and what seems to be missing cannot be made to appear. Therefore, he implies that he has seen all that is wrong in the world, and there is nothing to be done about it.
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
Again, the speaker gives his audience reason to believe him. He asserts his own credibility by claiming that he has “acquired great wisdom” even such that it “surpass[ed] all who were over Jerusalem before [him].” He then claims that he worked very hard to acquire all the wisdom he had gained. He studied wisdom, and madness, and folly. And after having given time and thought to all of these, he concludes that “this also is but a striving after the wind.”
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
In the final verse of this chapter, the speaker seems to regret the wisdom that he has, and claims that it has not brought him any joy, but only sorrow. He seems to warn his hearers that if they seek to increase in knowledge, they will also increase their sorrows.
- Books, Crossway. Esv Study Bible: English Standard Version Bonded Leather Black. S.l.: Crossway, 2008. Print.