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All Is VanityClick for Audio

Ecclesiastes 1

No part of the Bible has been as misused and abused as Ecclesiastes.  Once divided into chapter and verse, it’s a favorite of those who pull quotations out of context.  Let’s understand the context, therefore:  this is Solomon’s search for meaning in life.  It is therefore still relevant today; Solomon, the man who had everything, had nothing without God.  It’s just that it took him twelve chapters to get there.



Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 NASB  (1)  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.  (2)  "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."  (3)  What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?


Except for those liberal scholars who start with the assumption that the Bible must be wrong, everyone agrees that this is the work of Solomon, son of David.  He introduces himself:

  • First, he calls himself the “Preacher.”  The word in Hebrew, koheleth, actually means “gatherer,” as in one who gathers a crowd together.  It’s appropriate in another way, for Solomon has gathered wisdom and knowledge, as we shall see.
  • He is the son of David – a favorite title of our Lord – the heir to the greatness of that line.  Unlike his father, however, he is a man of peace.  In effect, he reaped the benefits of his father’s wars.  Thus, he was not forced to do anything, nor to explain why the pressure of war compelled a particular action.
  • He is the king.  He has wealth, he has power, he has social status – he can have, in fact, all the desires of the human heart.  The rest of us can say, “If only I had…”  Solomon went out and got it. 

All is vanity

Solomon begins with the prime observation:  all is vanity.  The word “vanity” does not mean self-admiration in this context.  It means “useless.”  It’s not a new answer, either.  You’ll find it in Job and the Psalms, too.  But this is the ultimate expression of it.

Solomon seeks the answer to a great question:  what is the purpose of man?

  • The evolutionist tells us that there is no purpose to man – you happened by chance, there is no meaning to the universe.  But the one reason you’re here is that your ancestors were very good at one thing:  reproducing.  Therefore, it’s survival of the fittest – may the strongest kids win.  Interestingly, this accompanies a falling birth rate.  Hmm. 
  • The existentialist tells us that there is no purpose, but to exist.  All is meaningless – and often in this work Solomon will agree.  But we are not at the end of his search, yet.
  • And those of the emergent church, post-modernism in action?  Since this question would require knowing an absolute truth, and there is no such thing, your guess is as good as mine.

Under the sun

The phrase, “under the sun,” as used here means the things of this world, but not the things of heaven.  Solomon will ask just what good these things are – a question not at all out of place today.

The Nature of Nature

Ecclesiastes 1:4-8 NASB  (4)  A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever.  (5)  Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there again.  (6)  Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns.  (7)  All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.  (8)  All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing.


The reader will recall the nature of Hebrew poetry:  it rhymes in thought.  Here is a thought rhyme.  There is one other aspect, however, of Hebrew poetry that needs to be mentioned.  When you get to the end of a particular rhyme, you are supposed to contemplate.  In the Psalms you will often see the musical notation, “Selah,” which may mean, “Think about that.”  So we shall think about it.

Constancy in cycles

Please distinguish between “change” and “rhythm.”  Solomon’s point is that all around us we see things going on in a constant cycle.  Sun rise, sunset – swiftly flow the years.  This is true of nature.

And it is true of men too.  Over and again each generation discovers the same things (grandchildren, good.  Taxes, bad.)  We see the same in the natural world in the cycle of days, the cycle of winds and the cycle of water.  It is a pattern of the natural world; it applies to men as well.

Vanity of Man

How does it appear to man?  It is weariness. 

            “Tote that barge, lift that bale,

                        Get a little drunk, you’ll land in jail.”

But it’s more than that.  The other aspect of it is that man doesn’t get it.  Over and again man chases that which seems good.  He’s always looking for fulfillment – and the things of this earth do not fulfill.  Worse, we usually find this out after trying them all.  One of the constant things of life is that we do things the hard way.

Nothing New

Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 NASB  (9)  That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.  (10)  Is there anything of which one might say, "See this, it is new"? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us.  (11)  There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance Among those who will come later still.


When moderns hear this passage, the usual reaction is that Solomon didn’t live in an age of technology, where things change all the time.  On the contrary, he did.  He lived in the era when iron was superseding bronze, a time of immense technical change – especially as viewed in that civilization.  From that fact, we may conclude that Solomon is not talking about technology – he’s talking about people.  He is speaking of the common experience of human beings;  one aspect of which is that technology is always changing.  We are constantly tempted to believe that because we are so modern, the old ways do not apply to us.  That temptation is as old as Solomon.

Of things human

What kind of things might Solomon be speaking of?  Let’s take something we think of as a new scourge:  pedophilia.  It is scandalous to us because, for most of us, it is a new concept.  It’s not new.  We’re just missing our history books.  Don’t think so?  Caesar Nero was a pedophile.  He liked to swim nude in a heated pool, with very young slave boys licking at his testicles.  There is nothing new under the sun.  And there is nothing new about sinners defending their particular pet sin as being righteous in a modern, enlightened way.

Solomon’s Search

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 NASB  (12)  I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  (13)  And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.  (14)  I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.  (15)  What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.  (16)  I said to myself, "Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge."  (17)  And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.  (18)  Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

His qualifications

Most of us do not have the qualifications of a Solomon.  He was ideally suited to the question because of this.  How often have you said something like, “if only I were really rich, I would…”  Consider, then, Solomon:

·         Wisdom?  The wisest man who ever lived, according to the Scripture.  There is no lack of qualification to tackle this greatest of philosophical thinkers.

·         Wealth?  He had money beyond our dreams.  His annual gold tribute was 666 talents of gold.  A talent, at the time, was about seventy pounds.  At this writing gold is about $1,200 per ounce.  Works out to be about 500 billion dollars – a year.

·         Accomplishment?  This is the man who built the Temple, and much of Jerusalem.  His public works were legendary.

·         Knowledge – he was noted for his scientific knowledge of the day.[1]

·         Family matters?  He had 300 wives and 700 concubines.  To be more specific, he could sleep with a different woman every night for three years and never the same one twice.

It goes on and on.  What we imagine and chase, he could have.

His conclusion

After trying all the alternatives, Solomon concluded that all these things were just – vanity.  Useless.  A “striving after the wind.”  These things are attractive, but ultimately they don’t serve as man’s purpose.  They are a distraction. 

 Not only that, he concludes that it can’t be fixed.  The world just can’t be fixed, no matter what we do. 

He’s right.  This is a fallen world, and until the Lord returns, it cannot be fixed.  Of our own efforts we cannot fix the place.  This is important for us to note because the dominant evangelical theology of our day, the emerging church, holds to exactly the opposite idea.  We are to “build community” so that we might build a heaven on earth.[2]

The pain of wisdom

Worse yet, Solomon tells us, is the fact that wisdom is a painful thing.  Wisdom itself, alone, is a striving after the wind.  It is a very practical observation. 

We must make a distinction here.  When I was a young student my geometry teacher told me that it is impossible to trisect an angle using only a compass and ruler.  That can be understood in two ways:

·         I took it as a challenge.  I played with the idea for a couple of hours, then concluded she was right.  I sure couldn’t do it.

·         But it is also the case that the experts on the subject, the mathematicians, have proven that it can’t be done. 

One is the thought of a new student; the other the thought of an old master.  Solomon is speaking to us as an old master, even if we understand his words as new students. 

 So Solomon begins his exploration of the meaning of life, the purpose of things and where the things of this world lead.  His purpose is to warn us that we need not make the same experiment, and pay the same pain.  Like the new geometry student, we need to listen to the old master explain – and avoid the same mistakes.

[1] 1 Kings 4:33

[2] This is related to the idea that the return of Christ is not to be taken as a literal event.  A similar position happens with post-millennialism, which holds that Christ comes after the millennium, during which time we have established a heaven on earth.  The two ideas should be distinguished.

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