Notes on Ecclesiastes 1, verses 1-11
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Ecclesiastes 1:1, KJV: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
This “preacher” is most likely Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:24). He was given a rare privilege, being asked by God Himself what he would like to have, and Solomon asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:4-10). Solomon wrote Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and this book. Israel’s capital was Jerusalem, and had been since the days of his father David (2 Sam 5).
The use of the word “preacher” has puzzled some: in the days of Solomon, Israel had the Tabernacle, along with altar and sacrifices based on the Law of Moses; as well as seers, prophets, and “men of God” who brought God’s messages. Nathan, Gad, Iddo, and Samuel himself all were in this category.
It could be that Solomon is “preaching” or broadcasting the results of his rather in-depth research about life “under the sun”, which is an often repeated term in this book. He provides details and examples about what he had seen, done, and experienced; then, he gives other examples of, perhaps, everyday life in his time. This book is placed among the “Wisdom” literature of the Bible and may well serve as a contrast or antithesis to Proverbs and the various emotions in the Psalms. One might well say this work is Solomon’s memoirs or warning to not let what happened to him happen to anyone else.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all (is) vanity.
Here, “vanity” does not have the modern, most often used definition of the word meaning “excessive pride” or “conceit” but rather a lesser-used definition: “lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/vanity#)
Solomon’s thesis seems to be, incredibly, everything done on this earth is worthless! Proverbs had any number of thoughts to the contrary, too many to list here (the reader is encouraged to read Proverbs and make notes on verses that show life is NOT worthless, after all). Something to remember is that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes most likely in his senior years, after the foreign women he had married had turned his heart away from God. Or, this may be his “manifesto” that he had tried everything, including religion, and was walking away from all of it.
3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
Solomon begins his analysis of life with a question. He asks, what is the profit for a man because of his labor under the sun? Later in this book he will expand and expound on these concepts: labor, or a man’s work; profit; and the reality of life “under the sun”. This is the first time he uses this phrase in this book.
Oddly, he doesn’t answer this question directly until much later, if at all!
4 (One) generation passeth away, and (another) generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
This appears to be a strange contrast between the cycle of birth, children, death time after time. Solomon had seen his father and others of a previous and his own generation die, and another generation take their places. The earth will not last forever: God said there would be new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3 and Isaiah 66:22) but Solomon would not have known about this in his days. Isaiah prophesied decades after Solomon and Peter lived almost 1000 years later.
5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
Very poetic language to describe sunrise and sunset. Solomon may have observed many of these events during his lifetime.
“Hast(ing) to the “place where (the sun) arose” may refer to the relative speed of a sunset at different times of the year. Jerusalem is located about 31 degrees north of the equator; about the same as Brunswick, GA (between Savannah, GA and Jacksonville, FL).
6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
Solomon now makes an observation about weather or meteorology. Although he had few, if any, instruments to describe the movements of winds and air currents scientifically, he knew about wind currents and the ever changing but cyclical nature of the winds.
7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea (is) not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
In Israel, the Jordan River ran into the Dead Sea but others flowed into the Mediterranean. Solomon’s Egyptian wife or wives would have known that the Nile also emptied into the Mediterranean. Regardless, water from either sea would evaporate and fall back to the earth as rain. This cycle of rain, falling into the rivers, flowing into the sea, and evaporating to fall again as rain, had existed since at least the time of the Flood of Noah’s Day (Genesis 7).
8 All things (are) full of labour; man cannot utter (it): the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
This verse is difficult to interpret as translated in the KJV. Solomon may be saying that nothing is easy, that anything and everything requires labor (compare the curse laid on Adam and Eve after the Fall, Genesis 3); or, he may be saying that, in the context, that even labor is apparent in nature. The exact meaning of this concept may never be known.
He also observed that “the eye is not satisfied with seeing.” Certainly that was true of many people: Achan (Joshua 7) saw, then coveted, then took a few things from Jericho—and paid with his life for this sin. David, Solomon’s father, had several wives and concubines but still lusted after Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother—the rest of that story is in 2 Samuel 11-12). The Scriptures have numerous other examples of this.
And Solomon also stated that the “ear is (never) filled with hearing”. Again, he would know: he had seen the Temple built, dedicated, and used for the Glory of God, especially with the Levites and other singers who constantly praised the LORD. He no doubt knew many of the Psalms, and his own Book of Proverbs was probably told and retold. Many years later Luke would write of the people of Athens, Greece, who only wanted to discuss the newest things (Acts 17:21, paraphrased).
At any rate, Solomon seems to show us his cynical outlook, perhaps implying all of this was vanity, too.
9 The thing that hath been, it (is that) which shall be; and that which is done (is) that which shall be done: and (there is) no new (thing) under the sun.
Solomon now makes an observation that was current, and factual, in the time when he lived. True, some technology, as we call it, existed: people had learned to make things from wood and minerals. The Tabernacle and later the Temple had an amazing amount of lumber, plus gold, silver, and bronze for the structures; precious stones for the high priest and his breastplate. Descriptions for these are found in the last 20 or so chapters of Exodus.
Besides the Tabernacle and Temple, some peoples had learned to use iron. During the period of Saul’s reign, the Philistines denied the Hebrews the use of any iron implements, including swords and spears. The Philistines were also charging the Hebrews what seems to be a very high price to even sharpen tools (1 Sam. 13:19-22)!
10 Is there (any) thing whereof it may be said, See, this (is) new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
This was true of Solomon’s time. Even the Proverbs he had published years before had little, if anything, that was new—i.e., there was no new inspiration or theology, rather an affirmation that was true in the past was still true; and lies were still lies. But Solomon seems to be taking a more cynical view here, stating the obvious in terms like “nothing has changed, nothing will change, and there’s not much you can do about it”.
11 (There is) no remembrance of former (things); neither shall there be (any) remembrance of (things) that are to come with (those) that shall come after.
This statement is not exactly true but not entirely false, either. Historical records remind one of what had happened in the past, for this very reason: “lest we forget”. He may be observing that people were so concerned in his day with getting ahead that they forgot to remember what got them to this point. Someone observed that if you forget God, He will remind you—and not always in a pleasant manner!
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)