“Futility” – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

September 15th, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11


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Bible Memory Verse for the Week:  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.— Hebrews 11:6


Background Information:

  • Ecclesiastes seems to deal not with the issue of blessing but with the problem of curse.  The world is closed to human investigation.  Death, not life, is the trademark of the world.  Wisdom is inaccessible, meaninglessness pervasive.  Clearly, there is a world of curse represented by this stream of wisdom literature, and there are numerous linguistic echoes of early chapters of Genesis.  The world can be an evil place.  Many times the wicked seem blessed and the righteous cursed.  Death renders everything pointless–hebel (a word that echoes Abel’s name forcefully).  But ultimately the way out of this riddled existence is not agnosticism, scepticism or trying to acquire a forbidden wisdom (cf. Gn 3); it is through the fear of the Lord.  The way out of the death of exile, where wisdom seems lost, is given through the line of David: fear God and keep his commandments; this is the whole duty of humanity (Ecc 12:13).  (Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 207)
  • Ecclesiastes is the best news around for such baffled modern men.  It is the book for men who want to live again–now.  It is the working man’s book: it answers his boredom with the routine of joylessly eating, drinking, and earning a paycheck.

Ecclesiastes is also the thinking man’s book.  Its author knew that the thinking man is haunted by the questions Who am I?  What is the meaning of life?  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 8)

  • There was no doubt that Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, was to be included in that canon which the Jews received as inspired (the Mishnah uses the expression to “pollute the hands” to indicate its inspiration).  And there was no doubt, according to the evidence of the third century B.C. Greek translation called the Septuagint, the argument of Josephus, the translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Tehodotion in the first two Christian centuries, and the catalog of Melito, bishop of Sardis about A.D. 170, that it belonged to the canon of OT Scripture.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 37)
  • A further notable feature of Ecclesiastes is its striking omissions.  It makes no mention of Yahweh, the LORD, the name of the God of Israel’s covenant faith.  It scarcely refers to the law of God, the only possible reference being 12:13.  It scarcely refers to the nation of Israel (only in 1:12).  Why these omissions?  The answer seems to be that the Preacher’s argument stands on its own feet and does not depend on Israel’s covenant faith to be valid.  He is appealing to universally observable facts, not restricted to OT revelation.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 46)
  • “Under the Sun.”  (How often modern translations of the Bible rob us of great and memorable images, of poetic grandeur!  I hope your Bible has preserved this great phrase.)  It means simply the observed nature of the world, the way things are, “just the facts, ma’am.”  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 35-36)
  • The word emptiness is often misunderstood as denoting a state of being that is worthless, meaningless, valueless, useless, and unreal.  Reflecting that misunderstanding, many translations of this passage refer to vanity or futility.  Reading Ecclesiastes with that interpretation would lead us to the conclusion that Solomon’s view of life is depressive, nihilistic, and worth studying.  After all, most of us are looking for a perspective that is uplifting–one that values life and teaches us how to live it with dignity, joy, and inner peace.  If Solomon is telling us from the start that life is worthless, there is no need for us to proceed further.  (Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon, 95)
  • This, then, is unique material, information that apart from God’s providence would not be available to the biblical counselor.  Doubtless Ecclesiastes could never have been written unless by that same providence Solomon had fallen into gross sin and then repented, and out of those experiences wrote the book.  In all likelihood, Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s last literary work.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 2)
  • Perhaps we could subtitle this study, “The Things That Won’t Work.”  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 12)



  • The author . . . identifies himself as a “son of David” (1:1), a “king in Jerusalem” (v. 1), and a “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (v. 12).  He adds that he was the wisest person who had ever ruled Jerusalem (v. 16); a builder of great projects (2:4-6); an owner of many slaves, sheep, and cattle (v. 7); a man of much wealth (v. 8); and a possessor of a large harem (v. 8).  He sums up his self-description in this way: “I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.  My wisdom also stood by me” (v. 9).  No one who reigned in Jerusalem during the OT era fits this portrait better than Solomon.  Indeed, so impressive was this man and his kingdom that foreign dignitaries of his day stood in awe of him and sought his counsel (cf. 1 Kgs 10).  His empire became a synonym for unparalleled greatness.  Solomon had the intellectual prowess, the financial resources, and the political power to pursue whatever he desired.  And that he did.  The Book of Ecclesiastes is a record of his pursuits and the lessons he learned.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 2)
  • Nor was the work of the author of Ecclesiastes the result of mere experience and experimentalism, for the “sayings of the wise,” in which category he placed his own work in 12:9, were “given by one Shepherd” (12:11).  It hardly seems possible to equate this reference to “one Shepherd” to anyone other than Jehovah, that is, Yahweh, the Shepherd of Israel.  That title of our Lord is found in almost every period of Israel’s long history in Scripture (Gn 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11-12).  Therefore, Ecclesiastes has its source in divine revelation just as surely as does any other book of the Bible that claims to be the result of “thus saith the Lord.”  The claim to divine inspiration could not be plainer or more boldly stated.  Ecclesiastes came from the Lord and not human experience.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 15)
  • It seems best to understand “Qoheleth” as describing the act of gathering the people together.  That definition matches the use of qāhal in numerous other biblical passages, where it is invariably used for assembling people, especially for spiritual purposes.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 25)
  • Nevertheless, even C. D. Ginsburg recognized that Solomonic authorship is “fully corroborated by the unequivocal allusions made throughout this book to particular circumstances connected with the life of this great monarch.”  Ginsburg invited us to compare, for instance:

Eccl 1:16 with 1 Kgs 3:12 (showing Solomon’s unrivaled wisdom);

Eccl 2:4-10 with 1 Kgs 5:27-32;

Eccl 2:4-10 with 1 Kgs 7:1-8 (showing Solomon’s unsurpassed wealth);

Eccl 2:4-10 with 1 Kgs 9:17-19 (showing Solomon’s huge retinue of servants);

Eccl 2:4-10 with 1 Kgs 10:14-29 (showing Solomon’s extensive building operations);

Eccl 7:20 with 1 Kgs 8:46 (“There is no man who does not sin.”);

Eccl 7:28 with 1 Kgs 11:1-8 (not a God-fearing woman among a thousand); and

Eccl 12:9 with 1 Kgs 4:32 (showing Solomon to be weighing, studying, and arranging proverbs).  (Robert Gordis, Koheleth, 5)

  • Solomon wisest man on the planet (2 Chr 1:7-12; 1 Kgs 4:29-34)
  • Solomon was looking back on his life, much of which was lived apart from God. (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1133)
  • Ecclesiastes is best placed after his apostasy, when both his recent turmoil and repentance were still fresh in his mind.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 31)
  • Ecclesiastes was written to help rational men realize that life without God leads only to vanity and emptiness.  The writer presents several personal examples of his own vain attempts to find happiness in life apart from God.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 3)
  • Solomon is concerned to describe himself primarily as a teacher/preacher: Coheleth.  Yet he also wants you to know that he is David’s son, king in Jerusalem.  The latter designation stems not from pride but from a desire to let you know that he had the resources and the scope of a great king which made it possible to investigate his subject thoroughly enough to reach valid conclusions.  He is stating his qualifications.  The value of much that he says depends upon this fact.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 1)
  • Son of David, king in Jerusalem refers to Solomon, but the artificial name “Mr. Preacher” (for so it might be paraphrased) shows that the writer is not seriously claiming to be Solomon.  The book is a write-up of Solomon’s story; later we shall be told that the originator of the material was a careful writer, a wise man, a collector of proverbs (12:9-12).  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 55)
  • We may conclude that the author is a pseudo-editor, and editor-author, writing in defense of faith in the God of Israel.  He is an admirer of Solomon, writing up the lessons of Solomon’s life in the tradition of the wisdom for which Solomon was famous.  Yet Ecclesiastes is not pseudonymous, and the writer avoids using Solomon’s name.  Instead he portrays his material as coming from “Mr. Preacher,” who has all the characteristics of Solomon except his name.  The epilogue portraying Qoheleth has all the appearances of referring to an actual historical character:  a wise man, a collector of proverbs, a teacher and writer.  Who else but Solomon?  Avoidance of the name must stem from the fact that the editor-author puts things in his own way and declines to foist a work directly on Solomon.  Yet he thinks of the material as Solomon’s; it is what Solomon would have said had he addressed himself to the subject of pessimism.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 23-24)
  • At times he appears to overthrow everything Israel stood for; at other points we see the traditional views of God as sustainer and judge of all things, who gives life to men and who may be worshiped at Israel’s focal point, the temple.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 36)



  • To spare future generations the bitterness of learning through their own experience that life is meaningless apart from God.  (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1133)
  • Solomon had a purpose for writing skeptically and pessimistically.  Near the end of his life, he looked back over everything he had done, and most of it seemed meaningless.  A common belief was that only good people prospered and that only the wicked suffered, but that hadn’t proven true in his experience.  Solomon wrote this book after he had tried everything and achieved much, only to find that nothing apart from God made him happy.  He wanted his readers to avoid these same senseless pursuits.  If we try to find meaning in our accomplishments rather than in God we will never be satisfied, and everything we pursue will become wearisome.  (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1135)
  • Solomon may have intentionally written Ecclesiastes with an eye to a wider circle of readers than just the Hebrews–perhaps those Aramaean and other Semitic nations that were then subject to his government and those nations that had caused a good deal of his spiritual downfall through his attempt to placate the numerous wives who hailed from them.  Such a “cosmopolitan tendency” would be most appropriate for Wisdom Literature of the Bible, which had the aim of raising a voice to “the sons of men” at large so that all might hear (Prv 8:4).  The book would then have a missionary flavor as it attempted to use a sort of what we now call “cultural apologetics” to call Gentiles at large to straighten out their thinking, acting, values, and preparation for their eternal destiny.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 32)  
  • Had not the Queen of Sheba heard of the famed wisdom of Solomon and his ability to answer difficult questions (1 Kgs 10:1)?  It may be surmised that requests such as hers provided the reason for making a discussion like Ecclesiastes available to a wider audience.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 32)


The book seems to ramble, to go nowhere, to have no tightly argued deductions, only bits of wisdom sprinkled over a desert landscape like a few raindrops, quickly absorbed by the dry soil, or like a collage of photos taken through the porthole of a sinking ship.

Yet the book’s rambling is deliberate, for this form perfectly expresses its content, its message:  that life rambles to nowhere.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 23)


Whatever rabbis first decided to include Ecclesiastes in the canon of sacred Scripture were both wise and courageous–wise because we appreciate a thing only by contrast, and Ecclesiastes is the contrast, the alternative, to the rest of the Bible, the question to which the rest of the Bible is the answer.  There is nothing more meaningless than an answer without its question.  That is why we need Ecclesiastes.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 19)


As “Song of Songs” means the finest song, and as “king of kings” points to the greatest king, so “vanity of vanities” means that the full meaning of life is totally beyond our reach; our quest for understanding is marked by the worst sort of futility.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 44)


How could a book about meaninglessness be so meaningful?  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 15)


The form of Ecclesiastes is simple, direct, and artless.  But the content, as we shall see, is the greatest thing that philosophy can ever say.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 15)


Most men would rather die, than think. Most men do.  —Bertrand Russell


That God does not exist, I cannot deny; That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget.  — Jean-Paul Sartre


Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. — Jean-Paul Sartre


Everything has been figured out, except how to live — Jean-Paul Sartre


Life has no meaning a priori.  Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose — Jean-Paul Sartre


No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point — Jean-Paul Sartre


Man is a useless passion. — Jean-Paul Sartre


I love sleep.  My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know? — Ernest Hemingway


Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know. — Ernest Hemingway


But man is not made for defeat.  A man can be destroyed but not defeated. —  Ernest Hemingway


I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. — Ernest Hemingway


More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.  The other, to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. — Woody Allen


The question to be answered is . . . Why does Solomon promote such a futile, meaningless and empty perspective of life while writing the book of Ecclesiastes?


Answer: I believe Solomon is merely telling us what he himself concluded when God became absent from his life.  That life without God is futile, meaningless and empty.   As a wise man, inspired by God, Solomon is attempting to get us to think about what life would be like without God in our lives.   Because most of us enjoy an awareness of the God-image which all humans possess, our thinking tends to default in terms of the eternal, life above the sun, or with eternity in our hearts.   I believe Solomon is attempting to get us to think about life without an overwhelming God-presence so we might be more grateful and motivated to enjoy life under the Son and follow God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength.


The Word for the Day is . . . Futile


What is Solomon trying to get us to see in the prologue of Ecclesiastes?:

I.  The materialistic, naturalistic, secularist world-view of life under the sun is futile.  (Eccl 1:2-11)


Life on planet Earth is not a bowl full of cherries; it’s the pits.  Instead of enrichment and joy, we find emptiness and sorrow.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 7)


We must see one thing right from the beginning: this book is an examination of secular wisdom and knowledge.  The book clearly states at the outset that it limits itself primarily to things that are apparent to the natural mind.  One of its key phrases is the continual repetition, under the sun.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 9)


Ecclesiastes, then, is a summation of what man is able to discern under the sun–that is, in the visible world.  The book does consider revelation that comes from beyond man’s powers of observation and reason, but only as a contrast to what the natural mind observes.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 10)


Vanity characterizes all human activity (1:14; 2:11): joy (2:1) and frustration (4:4, 7-8; 5:10) alike, life (2:17; 6:12; 9:9), youth (2:15, 19), diligent and idle (2:21, 23, 26).

All is literally “the whole.”  All earthly experience, seen as a unit, is “subject to vanity” (cf. Rom 8:20).  The same expression occurs in the Hebrew of 1:14; 2:11, 17; 3:1, 19; 12:8.  A qualification is found in v. 3 (“under the sun”), repeated in 1:14; 2:11, 17; and, with variation, 3:1.  It is only to one seeking satisfaction in disregard of God that the Preacher’s message stops at “All is vanity.”  For any who adopt his total world-view he has a note of encouragement.  When a perspective of faith is introduced “All is vanity” is still true, but it is not the whole picture; “under the sun” it is the whole truth.  When, in 2:24-3:22 and intermittently thereafter, new factors are brought in (the generosity of God, divine providence, divine judgment), the “vanity” of life is not obliterated or forgotten; but the new factors transform the perspective and turn pessimism into faith.  This prefigures the NT perspective in which the believer is “outwardly…wasting away” (2 Cor 4:16), is “subjected to vanity” and “groans” with creation “right up to the present time” (Rom 8:20-22).  Yet he “knows’ what is happening (Rom 8:22), “gazes” at a different perspective (2 Cor 4:18), “waits” for something different (Rom 8:25).  The new perspective does not cancel out the old, the believer is living in an overlap.  But the new perspective revolutionizes his outlook.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 56-57)


If his resources are entirely this-worldly, “No profit” is the motto over all he does.  There is another realm altogether, the Preacher will contend later (5:2), when he will speak of God who may be approached and worshiped (5:1-7).  Meanwhile the abyss of pessimism has to be explored.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 58)


Ecclesiastes is a testament to the spiritual insights of its author, Solomon.  It comes from his deep seeing into the nature of reality.  Solomon looked and saw that all is empty of permanence; he also saw that human energies are largely invested in a pursuit of permanence–a pursuit that is doomed from the start.  Ecclesiastes is his report of his journey to the heart of reality and his insights into how we should live, given the fact of life’s impermanence.  (Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon, 2)


–      The passing of generations  (Eccl 1:4)


If Solomon were living today, he would find the world far more complicated than the ancient world he inhabited, yet no more complex.  The complexity of life is generated not by the tools we use but by the illusions we cultivate and live by.  And the illusions of our day are no different than the illusions of Solomon’s time–the illusions of permanence, separateness, and control.  (Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon, 3)


Life is like nature: everything constantly changes while the fact of change does not.  The one changeless fact about life under the sun is impermanence.  Like the generations that keep rolling along one after another, there is perpetual change; while like the earth, there is one constant in life: sameness in the attitudes and the behavior of men.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 6)


–       Cycles of nature  (Eccl 1:5-7)


Scripture confirms this racial uneasiness.  The Bible tells us that man was created to be the crown of creation.  He is the one who is to be in dominion over all things.  Men and women should last forever and nature should be changing–but it is the other way around.  We protest this in our spirits.  We have all felt it.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 14)


Life just doesn’t have any natural reward of itself.  It doesn’t automatically head to a climactic point of happiness, meaning, and fruition.  It just grinds on with the sun rising and setting.  Nature never rewards you; instead, it smashes you into pulp, then you die and go into the ground.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 4)


His observation of nature first led him to say that the universe is a closed system, and that everything keeps on going without ever getting anywhere.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 16)


Nature is not benevolent.  It has no sense of righteousness.  If you’re good, nature doesn’t reward you.  You don’t start to grow hair in your bald spots when you repent.  Nice things don’t always happen to you if you are nice to people.  Nature is an impersonal machine that consumes you.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 15)


This “under the sun” viewpoint again contrasts with that of the Old Covenant believer, who loved creation and saw in it the majesty of God’s name (Ps 8:1, 9; 19:1; 89:9-12; 96:11-12), looked with admiration at the skies (Ps 8:3; 19:1, 4-6), pondered the lessons taught by animals, wind, grass and trees (Ps 32:9; 34:10; 35:5; 37:2, 35; 42:1; 50:10-11; 55:6-7; 58:4-8; 59:6; 74:12-17; 77:16-19; 84:3; 93:3-4; 102:4, 6-7), and sang to the glory of God because of what he saw and heard (Ps 8; 19; 29; 65; 104).  He saw nature sing for joy (Ps 65:12-13), and knew that God’s control of creation was part of his redemption at the time of the exodus (Ps 78).  Taking their cue from Solomon (1 Kgs 4:33), the wise men also gloried in creation and used its object-lessons for their own purposes (Jb 28:7-8; 39:1-30; 41:1-34; Prv 1:27; 5:19; 6:5-8; 7:22-23; 25:13; 27:8; 28:1, 15; 30:15, 19, 31).  The Preacher’s point is that all this is lost in an “under the sun” viewpoint; all that is left is nature in a state of exhaustion.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 59)


The sun rises and the sun sets.  The cyclical movement of day and night is taken as prime evidence in nature of the repetitive cyclical character of reality.  This notion is a radical challenge to the conception of time and sequence inscribed in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, where things are imagined to progress meaningfully (as in the seven days of creation) toward a fulfillment.  The next two verses, invoking the cyclical motion of the wind and the rivers, continue this vision of pointless movement round and round.  (Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, 346)


The great novelist Ernest Hemingway went to this verse of Ecclesiastes for the title of one of his books, The Sun Also Rises.  Like most modern literature, this first novel of Hemingway depicts heroes and heroines who are disillusioned and wearied with life.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 12)


As prologue, this poem announces the changeless nature of the creation which is immune to all efforts to interfere with its fixed cycles and relentless dependability.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 49)


Its meaning is blunt and simple: you will not be able to induce significant change in the course of life because creation itself is stamped with an indelible pattern that brooks no human alterations.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 49)


Solomon had just before beautifully described the process of evaporation–the waters of the sea forming clouds, which empty themselves upon the earth, and fill the rivers, which again carry them into the sea (6, 7).  But here is no new creation of waters; only the successive reproduction of the clouds, vapors, and rivers.  In the wondrous economy of nature there is, therefore, no new thing under the sun.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 14)


–       Curiosity of man  (Eccl 1:8)


Isn’t it remarkable that the Man who for all ages has been the personification of wisdom is also the one who is called “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”? (Isa 53:3).  Yet this Searcher kept on, despite the increasing frustration that the more he knew the more he knew he did not know.  At the close of his life, Isaac Newton said, “I have but been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.”  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 21)


Solomon examines the best thoughts of men and, for every one of them, shows us why they won’t work.  He proves that in and of themselves these ideas cannot satisfy; they are unable to bring ultimate happiness and meaning to man in his human condition.

Solomon tells us that there is nothing in man that is good.  By definition man will have to go outside of himself to find something infinite and whole.  In the end, man has to look to God.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 5-6)


–        Absence of something new  (Eccl 1:9-10)


Throughout the Prologue Solomon describes the fallen world.  It is the bleak picture of a creation under the curse of sin, completely unable to introduce anything “new” for its own salvation.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 14)


Without God there is nothing new out there that can give significance to our existence.   To know if you are good implies purpose.  Purpose implies a goal or aim to be achieved that must first be designated by a goal-setter (Creator).  Therefore, if there is no God what good are you? — Tim Keller


He is talking about the person who is living without God.  This individual is constantly looking and listening, but never satisfied.  New styles of dress continually appear, only to be discarded for a different “look.”  The popular music charts are constantly fluctuating, as people want a new sound.  Why?  Because the old so quickly becomes wearisome.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 14)


No doubt our modern materialistic age would like to take issue with Solomon’s words.  Look at all the new accomplishments of technology.  Aren’t spaceships, television, micro-wave ovens and computers new?  It seems that Solomon’s statement invites contradiction.  Yet this is the case only after a superficial reading.  Solomon’s concern here is not with “things.”  Nor at this point is he talking about Christ and the gospel.  He is relating the human condition: “The eye never has enough of seeing, or the ear its fill of hearing.”  The desperate state of human restlessness does not change from one generation to the next.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 14)


In verses 9-11, Solomon does not refer to discoveries like atomic power or to technological advances like the invention of computers, but to the socio-religious sphere of life.  It is in this area that nothing is new.  Human beings, generation after generation, do the same vain things in relation to God, the world, and one another.  “New” philosophies or “new” heresies are rarely new.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 9)


Man’s active intellect, assisted by the experience of former ages, is indeed always at work.  But the most that he can boast of is little more than an enlarged discovery of the properties of matter, and a more accurate application of what has been from the beginning.  And may we not class the vast discoveries, mechanical and scientific–the power of steam and electricity–as developments of natural principles–therefore nothing new?  “For novelty,” said the great Bacon, “no man that wadeth in learning or contemplation thoroughly, but will find that printed on his heart–nothing new upon the earth.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 14)


–        Even great movers and shakers are soon forgotten  (Eccl 1:11)


Alexander the Great is said to have directed that he be buried with his naked arm hanging out of his coffin, with his hand empty, to show the world that the man who conquered the world left it as he entered it: naked.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I return.”  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 47)


In the 20th century, Stephen Hawking, the British physicist considered the greatest mind since Albert Einstein, said, “Scientists will continue to climb the mountain of human understanding until they reach the peak.  When they finally reach the apex and look over the other side, they will see that theologians have been there for centuries.”  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 5)


Solomon’s kingdom, Israel, was in its golden age, but Solomon wanted the people to understand that success and prosperity don’t last long (Ps 103:14-16; Isa 40:6-8; Jas 4:14).  All human accomplishments will one day disappear, and we must keep this in mind in order to live wisely.  If we don’t, we will become either proud and self-sufficient when we succeed or sorely disappointed when we fail.  Solomon’s goal was to show that earthly possessions and accomplishments are ultimately meaningless.  Only the pursuit of God brings real satisfaction.  We should honor God in all we say, think, and do.  (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1135)


CONCLUSION/APPLICATION: What does this message have to do with Christ and me?:

A-  Christ has come to redeem and make new as well as give purpose and meaning to this empty, meaningless, futile world that exists post Fall.  (Mt 19:28; Jn 1:1-14; Jn 5:39-40; 6:35-63; 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; Acts 3:21; Rom 6:23; Col 2:2-5; 3:4; Rv 21:1-5)


He was not trying to destroy all hope, but to direct our hopes to the only One who can truly fulfill them.  Solomon affirms the value of knowledge, relationships, work, and pleasure, but only in their proper place.  All of these temporal things in life must be seen in light of the eternal.  (Tyndale House Publishers, Life Application Study Bible, 1133)


When Solomon says, “Man is not able to tell it,” he means that–by himself–man can’t figure out life.  Man doesn’t naturally step back and realize that it’s impossible for a finite man in a finite world to have infinite meaning.  Man will not say the sum cannot be greater than the parts.

But if the parts are finite and perishable, it should be obvious that life cannot give ultimate meaning in and of itself.  If there is any meaning to life, there must be someone outside the system who is infinite and eternal, providing that meaning.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 16)


“All things are wearisome.”  According to Solomon, everything is so tiresome that one can’t even describe it.

What a contrast this verse makes with St. John’s words concerning Jesus: “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written”! (Jn 21:25).  This is the exclamation of a man whose soul has found rest in Christ and his promise, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).  In Christ everything is new and fresh beyond description.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 13-14)


Is it possible to believe in God and still despair, still not know why you are living?  Certainly, Solomon does.  For his God is like the moon: there, but not here, controlling the tides of his life but not entering into any personal relationship with him, no face-to-face encounter as with Job.  Solomon’s God has no face; he is only Being, only Am, not I AM.  For Solomon’s epistemology is purely naturalistic, and nature is only God’s back.  But Scripture is God’s mouth, and Jesus is God’s face.  Ecclesiastes is a perfect silhouette of Jesus, the stark outline of the darkness that the face of Jesus fills.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 51)


We are the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are the answer to Solomon.  But this answer does not come clear until hundreds of years after Solomon, through the most outrageous paradox, which Kierkegaard calls “the absolute paradox,” of the event of eternity entering time, God’s becoming a man, sharing the life of man so that man could share the life of God.  Ecclesiastes is the question to which Christ is the answer.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 55-56)


. . . where did you ever get the idea that there would be lasting or even satisfying benefits to what you do here?”  Life under the sun is life in a world cursed by God and plagued by sin and misery.  What enables one to move through it in a reasonably contented manner is to live this life not merely under the sun but also UNDER THE SON.  He alone can turn this present life into a life that affords joy and happiness in the midst of sin and the curse.  But even then, because of imperfect sanctification, no Christian can avoid entirely the disappointments and pitfalls of this world.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 5-6)


It is only in and through Christ that there is ultimately any “newness” that is worth speaking of in terms of creation–whether the newness of all things as they will appear in the future, when the kingdom of God fully breaks into our present age, or the newness of life that is lived in the present in anticipation of this amazing future (2 Cor 5:16; Gal 6:15; 2 Pt 3:13; Rv 21:1).  (Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 61)


He (Jesus) urged his hearers to engage in this same spiritual work: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life…” (Jn 6:27).  And more positively, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (Jn 6:29).

To trust Jesus for rescue from our sins, to trust Jesus for guidance for our lives, to trust Jesus for power in our service–that is the work of God, the work beyond work, the true work in which all our work becomes profitable.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 54)


Nada, Spanish for “nothing,” is the word Saint John of the Cross, greatest of mystics, used to describe God, the sheer abyss of pure Being, beyond all finite beings, beyond somethings.  He called God todo y nada, “everything and nothing.”  For the great mystics, God is so full of Being that he is no-thing; for the modern nihilist, being is so empty of God that it is Nothing.  For the theistic mystic, nothingness is only a name for Being; for the nihilist, being is only a name for Nothingness.

The point is simply this: without God–no, not just without God, for the author of Ecclesiastes speaks frequently of God–without faith in God–no, not even that, for the author has faith in God, in fact, an unquestioning faith: never does he doubt God’s existence–rather, without the kind of faith in God that is larger than life and therefore worth dying for and therefore worth living for, without a faith that means trust and hope and love, without a lived love affair with God, life is vanity of vanities, the shadow of a shadow, a dream within a dream.

Let me put the point in a single word.  It is a word that I guarantee will shock and offend you, though it comes from Saint Paul.  Paul used this word to describe his life without Christ, his life full of worldly successes, education, wealth, power, prestige, and privilege.  Paul was “a Pharisee of the Pharisees”, a Roman citizen, educated by Gamaliel, “the light of Israel.”  But before Christ put him into the post-Ecclesiastes relationship with God, what was his life?  Shit.  “Dung”–that was his word for it, not mine.  Look up Phil 3:8 in the bold old King James version.  Compare with the all-excelling knowledge of God in Christ Jesus, all of the greatest things in this world, according to Paul are skubala–shit.  Dung.  Job’s dung heap.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 27-28)


B-  Faith in Christ allows us entrance into the new heaven and earth where life is truly life. (Isa 11:6-9; 65:17-25; Jn 3:16; 4:13-14; 6:35; 10:10; Rom 6:23; 8:17-25; 2 Cor 4:16-18; 1 Tm 6:16-19)

The Preacher wishes to deliver us from a rosy-colored, self-confident godless life, with its inevitable cynicism and bitterness, and from trusting in wisdom, pleasure, wealth, and human justice or integrity.  He wishes to drive us to see that God is there, that he is good and generous, and that only such an outlook makes life coherent and fulfilling.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 48)


The word that answers Ecclesiastes’ quest and gives the true answer to the question of the meaning of life is known only by faith: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

Ecclesiastes has intellectual faith; he believes God exists.  But that is not enough.  “The demons also believe, and tremble” (Jas 2:19).  Ecclesiastes proves the need for real faith, true faith, lived faith, saving faith, by showing the consequences of its absence, even in the presence of intellectual faith.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 11)


C-  Under the sun (Outside of God’s existence) you must never think that you can ever have any kind of real life or value.  (Mk 10:28-31; Jn 3:16-21; 8:12; Rom 1:18-25; 1 Cor 1:20-2:15)


Life, in and of itself, even God’s good world with all its good, God-given gifts, is unable to deliver meaning and joy when it is appropriated in a piecemeal fashion.  This, as will be argued later on, is the meaning of the prologue: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”; namely, that no single part of God’s good world can unlock the meaning to life.  Life, in and of itself, is unable to supply the key to the questions of identity, meaning, purpose, value, enjoyment, and destiny.  Only in coming to know God can one begin to find answers to these questions.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 17)


We must conclude that even the most mundane and earthly things of life do not lie within man’s grasp to donate to himself.  The source of all good, contrary to the expectations of most systems of humanism and idealism, cannot be located in man.  “He doesn’t have it,” as the saying goes.  It is all beyond him.  Rather, it must come from God.  Man must get accustomed to realizing that if he is to receive satisfaction from his food and drink, that satisfaction, like all satisfaction, will have to come from the hand of God.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 45)


Man, for all his empty and vexatious toil in accumulating as much as he can in as brief a time as possible, does so only to see it afterward converted to the uses of the good.  If only the sinner would come to know God, and if only he would then receive from God the ability to enjoy the possession of all things.  In his hopes of finding joy in the security of owning what he has carefully stored up around himself, the final stroke of irony is and always will be that the sinner will be forever cut off from that one possession dearer than all others, joy itself.  Solomon’s experience is conclusive on this point; few men have exceeded the bounds of his possessions; yet he, too, lacked happiness, wisdom, and knowledge when he began “living in sin.”  So argues the conclusion to the first section of Ecclesiastes.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 47)


Evolution has such a powerful pull on the secular mind because it provides some (albeit unflattering) answers.  Evolution answers these philosophical questions by dehumanizing man, proposing that man is nothing but a cosmic accident–a random by-product of the workings of the universe.  Hence, man’s struggles are caused by his mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as personhood.  If man wonders, Who am I? evolution answers by eliminating the question altogether: You are nothing.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 15)


Treating life and existence here as having lasting value is the colossal mistake (and sin) of those who live as if the world, together with its human achievements, is of permanent worth.  This belief is the very essence of worldliness.  To toil and worry over those matters that pertain to the present order of things, as if they were permanent, giving one’s life to their pursuit, is the supreme folly.  It is the “Gentile” [pagan] philosophy of life Jesus spoke against in Mt 6:19-34).  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 4)


The idea that there can be security or satisfaction in the things of this world is an illusion.  To devote one’s life and energy (energy is a significant matter in Ecclesiastes) to an illusion is a tragic mistake.  That error, incidentally, is important precisely because it does have eternal consequences!  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 5)


Vanity cannot detect itself, just as folly cannot detect itself.  Only the wise know folly; fools know neither wisdom nor folly.  Just as it takes wisdom to know folly, light to know darkness, it takes profundity to know vanity, meaning to know meaninglessness.  Pascal says, “Anyone who does not see the vanity of life must be very vain indeed.”  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 15)


Of the 21 great civilizations that have existed on our planet, according to Toynbee’s reckoning, ours, the modern West, is the first that does not have or teach its citizens any answer to the question why they exist.  A euphemistic way of saying this is that our society is pluralistic and leaves us free to choose or create our own ultimate values.  A more candid way of saying the same thing is that our society has nothing but its own ignorance to give us on this, the most important of all questions.  As society grows, it knows more and more about less and less.  It knows more about the little things and less about the big things.  It knows more about every thing and less about Everything.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 20-21)


Philosophy is man’s search for God; the Bible is the story of God’s search for man.  Philosophy is words flying up; the Bible is the Word sent down.  Ecclesiastes is the only book in the Bible in which God is totally silent.  The author appeals to no divine revelation, only to natural human reason and sense observation.  God is only the object of his quest, not the subject; the questee, not the quester, the Hound of Heaven.

In Job, God is also silent, except for the beginning and the ending.  But these two passages make the difference between Job and Ecclesiastes.  Because God speaks, Job has everything even though he has nothing.  Because God is silent, Ecclesiastes has nothing even though he has everything.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 22)


All of the Bible is divine revelation, divine speech.  But God never speaks directly in Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes is all monologue, not dialogue.  How is it divine revelation?

It is inspired monologue.  God in his providence has arranged for this one book of mere rational philosophy to be included in the canon of Scripture because this too is divine revelation.  It is divine revelation precisely in being the absence of divine revelation.  It is like the silhouette of the rest of the Bible.  It is what Fulton Sheen calls “black grace” instead of “white grace”; revelation by darkness rather than by light.  In this book God reveals to us exactly what life is when God does not reveal to us what life is.  Ecclesiastes frames the Bible as death frames life.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 23)


The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life — Albert Einstein


Without him, riches are poverty, power is impotence, happiness is misery, glory is despised.

This is life’s greatest paradox.  Solomon does not know its positive half, but he knows its negative half better than anyone.

Surprisingly, this is also the message of the most famous and adamant atheist in 20th century literature, especially in his first and greatest work.  The writer is Sartre, and the work is Nausea (La Nausēe), and the title tells it all.  We cannot be too thankful to the great atheists; they show us the shape of God by his absence more clearly and starkly than believers do by his presence–like a silhouette.  They show us what difference God makes as death shows us what difference life makes.  You never fully appreciate a thing until it is taken away from you.

Sartre says, in “Existentialism and Humanism”,

God does not exist and…we have to face all the consequences of this.  The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense…The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a haven of ideas disappears with Him; there can be no a priori Good since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.  Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is, we are on a plane where there are only men.  Dostoyevski said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permissible.”  That is the very starting point of existentialism…and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to…If God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 28-29)


Short-range meanings, long-range meaninglessness; present purposes, future purposelessness; hope about things, hopelessness about Everything–such is Ecclesiastes’ picture of our lives.  We are like the little black boxes you buy in joke shops.  Their purpose is simply to light up, blink, make funny little noises, and shake until the batteries wear out (death).  Another version has a lid; when you turn the “off/on” lever on, the box shakes, whines, blinks, and opens its lid; a little green hand comes out, shuts the box off, and falls back inside.  (Same thing.)  Each part of the box is meaningful; each rivet, cog, and wire is there for a purpose.  But the whole thing is utterly meaningless.  That is an exact image of human life according to the wisest man in the world.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 29-30)


Ecclesiastes is a terror to modern man because when he looks into its mirror he sees the ultimate nightmare: The Man With No Face.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 32)


If your origin is from chaos and non-order

and if your destiny is to chaos and non-order

Have the guts enough to admit that your present life is nothing but chaos and non-order.  But, then again, you couldn’t even be understanding my rebuke of your worldview of God had not God ordained for you to possess rational capabilities because you are made in HIS IMAGE!


D-  Recognize the times in your life you are living like a practical atheist (When you worry, despair, feel unloved, have no hope, feel useless and insignificant, lacking joy, and we put our faith in money, people, sports teams, celebrities, etc.) and recognize your need to look to Jesus.  (Mt 6; Lk 12; Phil 4:4-6; Heb 12:1-2)


Ecclesiastes was intended to be a book in celebration of “joy” and God’s “good” creation.  In Judaism, this book was read on the third day of the Feast of Tabernacles.  It is most unlikely, as O. S. Rankin suggested, that this reading was done to bring some sobering thoughts about the brevity and seriousness of life into the midst of all the levity and cheerfulness of that festival.  Had not Nehemiah rebuked the people of his day for mixing weeping and mourning with the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh 8:9)?  His advice was that they should “Go on, eat the rich food and drink sweet wine and send gifts to those who cannot provide for themselves, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Neh 8:10).

Constantly, Solomon likewise advocated joy and rejoicing, because life is a gift from God.  Very few commentators have seen this emphasis on śimhāh (joy); among the few who have are Robert Gordis, Edwin Good, Norton Lohfink, and Robert Johnston.  In fact, this Hebrew root śimhāh, meaning “to be glad, rejoice in,” appears seventeen times in Ecclesiastes.  Johnston pointed out that in the OT, sāmah may refer to communal jubilation for a festival, a gathering for religious and ritual purposes (see Ps 45:15), or the individual mood of joy (see Prv 14:13).

So, the mood of Ecclesiastes is one of delight, with the prospect of living and enjoying all the goods of life once man has come to fear God and keep His commandments.  (Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Everyman’s Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 41-42)


If logic tells you that life is a meaningless accident, don’t give up on life.  Give up on logic.  —Shira Milgrom


Worship point:  Come to appreciate what most of us take for granted:  That life has meaning, purpose, and can be rich, full and satisfying.  Then worship as you recognize just how blessed you are.


I choose to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–in Christ, my lord and my God.  Christianity has the ring, the feel, of unique truth.  Of essential truth.  By it, life is made full instead of empty, meaningful instead of meaningless.  Cosmos becomes beautiful at the Centre, instead of chillingly ugly beneath the lovely pathos of spring.  But the emptiness, the meaninglessness, and the ugliness can only be seen, I think, when one has glimpsed the fullness, the meaning, and the beauty.  It is when heaven and hell have both been glimpsed that going back is impossible.  But to go on seemed impossible, also.  A glimpse is not a vision.  A choice was necessary: and there is no certainty.  One can only choose a side.  So I–I now choose my side: I choose beauty; I choose what I love.  But choosing to believe is believing.  It’s all I can do: choose.  I confess my doubts and ask my Lord Christ to enter my life.  I do not know God is, I do but say:  Be it unto me according to Thy will.  I do not affirm that I am without doubt, I do but ask for help, having chosen, to overcome it.  I do but say:  Lord, I believe–help Thou mine unbelief.  ”  (Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, 96)


Our search for God will be most meaningful when we realize the utter barrenness of a soul separated from Him.  (James P. Gills, M.D., The Dynamics of Worship, 8)


Spiritual Challenge: Think!  Solomon is inspired by God to write Ecclesiastes so you will think about what life would be like if in fact there were no God.  As we begin to see the life that so many in our world claim to live in (the life of an atheist), we will begin to be much more compassionate for unbelievers and we will also be much more prepared to meet them on their own turf and show them the purpose, meaning and life that comes by trusting in Christ.  We also will appreciate what it means to live life under the Son rather than life under the sun!


In its own unique way, Ecclesiastes is ultimately an introduction to the One who “came that we might have life abundantly”–Jesus Christ himself.  (Bill & Teresa Syrios, Ecclesiastes, Chasing after Meaning, 9)


But Ecclesiastes is more than a critique of secularism and secularized religion.  Ecclesiastes helps believers enter vicariously into the empty lives of the unsaved–their vain pursuits, their broken dreams, their frustrations, their confusion.  The believer’s heart, often cold and critical toward the unsaved, is warmed to overflowing with a spontaneous compassion for the lost.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 3)


What, then, is the purpose of Ecclesiastes?  It is an essay in apologetics.  It defends the life of faith in a generous God by pointing to the grimness of the alternative.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 44)


It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.  –John Stuart Mill


It is better to encounter one’s own existence in despair than never to encounter it at all.  –William Barrett


Ecclesiastes asks questions to try and force us to find purpose and meaning in our existence.  Ecclesiastes refers to three philosophical positions and asks the question of each.  Why are you here?  Ecclesiastes responds to the humanist position by saying we are here to make the world a better place.  The hedonist says we try to find day in and day out pleasure in play and work.  The existentialist says yes, the world is meaningless, but I’m going to have courage and meaning in spite of a meaningless world.  I’m going to bravely go ahead and have purpose and meaning even though life is cruel and meaningless.

What we need to come to terms with, though, if our origin is insignificant, and if our destiny is insignificant, have the courage and guts to admit that your life is insignificant.  If your origin and destiny are both insignificant, you just don’t matter.  -Tim Keller,


Interestingly, many of the all-time biggest unbelievers—such atheists as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bertrad Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrick Nietxsche, and Albert Camus, among others—had their father die or abandon them when they were young, or had serious conflict with him.  (Lee Strobel;  God’s OUTrageous Claims, 111)



Futility Slayer




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