Notes on Ecclesiastes 1, verses 12-18
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Ecclesiastes 1:12, KJV: I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
This proves that Solomon was the author; if not, someone used his name as a way to grab attention. Some literature suggests that Ecclesiastes was written about Solomon, rather than by him. That doesn’t seem to make much sense, if a known forgery was added to the canon or accepted books of the Bible.
13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all (things) that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
When Solomon began this “quest” is nowhere stated. David had instructed Solomon to do away with Joab because of Joab’s murders (Amasa, Absalom, and Abner to name three men; see 1 Kings 2:32) according to Solomon’s “wisdom”. Clearly that “wisdom” was not from God, and James, centuries later, would speak of the two kinds of wisdom (James 3). One wonders if Solomon ever got over this mini-purge during the early days of his reign. Had he not, however, the situation may have become much worse.
One idea is that he began this “quest” soon after God appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream (1 Kings 3). God asked Solomon, “What would you like from Me?” and Solomon’s reply was “wisdom”, which was an excellent choice! This was confirmed (1 Kings 4:29) by the reputation of Solomon (people came from far away to hear his wisdom) and by his research (1 Kings 4:33-34).
And yet, he looks back now and says it was “sore travail”, which may be another way of saying “it was nothing but hard work”. Someone observed that he started out joyful and wound up jaded. How sad.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all (is) vanity and vexation of spirit.
This may be a one-sentence summary of Solomon’s findings. He would know about animal husbandry (the raising and care of animals); the plants, trees, etc.; even the various crafts and trades of his era. He had no doubt supervised the construction of various houses: his own house, and the one for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 7:8). Why he married a foreign woman is unknown, and mystifying.
This is the second verse to contain the word “vanity” or “meaninglessness” in this book. Perhaps Solomon would use this word to summarize his (by now, probably cynical) observations and memoirs.
15 (That which is) crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
It is difficult to know what Solomon means by this observation. Certainly, in nature, a tree that grows bent or at an angle would be very hard to straighten; the same is true for waterways. The Jordan River is a very crooked river as a look at any map or atlas would verify. If he meant something else, we have no indication of what he meant.
The other statement, about what is “wanting cannot be numbered” is again difficult to analyze or even to comprehend. “Wanting” meant “lacking” in the era when the KJV was translated but Solomon does not even summarize what he found that was “wanting”. No further analysis is possible.
16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all (they) that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
This may have been one of Solomon’s earliest mistakes, by speaking to himself and not to God about his new status, condition, etc. Note he said, “I got more wisdom than anybody else (paraphrased)” and in this verse does not acknowledge God in any way.
Besides, he had been awarded or given the kingdom—David had several older sons who were more eligible than Solomon to be named king. Adonijah tried to become king, as he seems to have been the oldest surviving son, but David chose Solomon (1 Kings 1).
Solomon seems to be boasting here, further, as there were other wise men in the not-too-long-ago period when David was still king, and even before, in the days of Saul. David had an advisor named Ahithophel who was so wise that his counsel was considered “as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God (2 Samuel 16:23)”; Saul had Samuel for at least part of his reign; he may have had others. Solomon did indeed have “great experience of wisdom and knowledge” but that didn’t give him the right to boast.
17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
Again Solomon reveals that he not only “gave his heart to know wisdom”—which is good—but also “madness and folly” which seems to profit nobody! He will speak more of this later in this book but closes this comment by saying this “research” resulted in vexation of spirit. Hebrew scholars could give even more interpretation of that phrase, as it is sometimes related to the oft-repeated word “vanity”,
18 For in much wisdom (is) much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
Solomon may again be summarizing his search or quest to investigate not only wisdom but madness and folly, as stated in the previous verse. Sadly, instead of seeking or finding the wisdom of the Lord as he examined things, he seems to have become more and more disappointed or “morose”. He will reveal more and more of this as the book continues.
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)