Ecclesiastes 1:1-26.
The Futility of Worldly Pursuits

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Ecclesiastes 1:1.  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most unique books in the Bible, and because of its contrasting messages of seeming frustration and depression, its inclusion into the canon of biblical scripture has not been without controversy.  However, internal evidence of King Solomon as its author, its traditional acceptance as scripture, and its theological consistency with the Biblical text provides a strong defense for its inclusion.  The authorship is first indicated in the very first chapter as the son of David, and King in Jerusalem.  Actually, the Davidic Kingdom lasted in Judah for about 400 years until the dynasty was destroyed by the Babylonian conquest, making any of these kings eligible candidates for authorship.  “Son of David” is often a moniker that identifies anyone who traces his (or her) lineage back to David.  If we accept the statement “king in Jerusalem” as a literal identification of the author, then the eligible authors are limited to the kings in the Davidic dynasty in Judah.  However, if we apply the same scrutiny to the identification presented in 1:12 as the “king over Israel in Jerusalem,” the candidates fall quickly.  Since the kingdom was divided under the short reign of Jereboam, the son of Solomon, Solomon remains the only candidate since the kings of the northern nation of Israel were not of the Davidic line.  The personal testimonies given in the book are consistent with what we know about Solomon, and many are attributable to him alone.  Because of this, the traditional author of the book is King Solomon, the son of King David who succeeded David’s throne and reigned around 970 – 931 B.C.  He served as the King of Israel in Jerusalem until his death.

The negative tenor of the book has given some question as to the improbability that one as wise as Solomon could pen such statements of desperation as he “searches for meaning,” preferring an amanuensis or another writer using Solomon’s name.  However, it is this very characteristic of the text that convinces this author that Solomon is the best candidate for authorship.  It is the position of the following commentary that Solomon was not caught up in a desperate search for meaning, purpose, and value.  Solomon knew much about meaning, purpose, and value, a position that is defensible simply because of his solid reputation as one of the wisest men who lived during his contemporary years.  Solomon is not searching for truth:  Solomon knows well the chasm that exists between the nature of one’s life in the LORD and the nature of one’s life outside of the LORD’s influence.  We will find that Solomon is using a literary vehicle to illustrate that contrast as he shows the futility of the search when done without a saving relationship with God. 

The word, “Ecclesiastes” is simply the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word, Qōheleth, meaning “member of the assembly.”  Though no title is implied by the word such as teacher or preacher, the context of the work clearly is the work of a teacher/preacher, making the translation to English as one of these titles quite relevant.  As a wise teacher, the author is going to guide his readers to understand the tremendous blessing that comes from placing one’s faith and trust in God, and the devastating consequences that come from one’s refusal to do so.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-3.  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

As one who is godly wise, and who understands the dilemma facing one who does not have a relationship with the LORD, Solomon introduces us to that dilemma.  Being created in God’s image, all humans have the capacity to know God, a characteristic that separates them from all other life on earth, a characteristic that gives them a spiritual nature as well as a physical nature.  That capacity leaves everyone seeking to fill their need to fulfill that spiritual nature, and most search to fill that need in the acquisition of things that the world provides. 

The word that is translated “vanity” does not refer to the personal vanity of pride (though there is a place for this in the context of the definition), but rather to the idea of absolute powerlessness to accomplish a task.  If we were to state “his efforts were in vain,” we get the idea that those efforts brought him no further to the work that was intended.  To take the name of the LORD in vain is to use His name in a manner that realizes none of its saving power.  The word is often translated as “futile” or “futility,” and in today’s vocabulary this may be the better word.

The need for significance is basic to human nature, a need that finds its foundation in the spiritual nature of man. People desire to be significant and to accomplish significant things.  People want to be part of a greater purpose, to ascend to a higher level in those areas of their life that they think important.  One simple example of the futility of this search when attempted outside a relationship of the LORD is the idea that great riches will provide that significance.  During Solomon’s reign, he gathered for himself a basis of riches greater than what was imaginable for those who lived in his era.  Solomon is in the unique position to contrast the true personal reward that is found in those riches with the true personal reward that is found in his relationship with God. 

Solomon states simply that there is no true or meaningful profit found in these riches.  The word that is translated profit, is an accounting term that refers to that which remains in one’s hand after the accounts are closed.  The idea is that all of the possessions, all of the accomplishments, all of the worldly power, and all that this world has to offer has no capacity to bring one the true profit they are looking for.  Jesus stated this same truth: 

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”[1]  Solomon has gained the whole world, and having done so, knows that it has no capacity to bring him anything that is real and lasting.  All that is gathered in this world will be left behind when we die, and if we reach that point depending only upon that which the world values, all is lost.  All of those efforts are futile; representing a vain attempt that gains nothing. 

Ecclesiastes 1:4-7.  One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

Solomon, as the King of Israel, sought to accomplish great things.  Solomon is well-known for building the Temple in Jerusalem, but may be lesser known for his obsession with continued building.  He spent tremendous energy rebuilding Jerusalem and its surrounding cities.  He then moved on to the rebuilding of the pagan worship centers around the nation, borrowing money and resources to do so.  He also conscripted labor from the Judean people for his workforce, effectively placing them in bondage.  It was his son Reheboam’s promise to place the people into even greater bondage that caused the secession of the other tribes, leaving Reheboam only with Judah and part of the tribe of Benjamin when the other tribes formed the northern nation of Israel under Jereboam, previously a rebellious leader in King David’s administration. 

Just like Solomon knew what it was like to be excessively rich, he also knew what it was to accomplish “great things.”  However, when he considers the truth of God’s purpose for mankind, even those accomplishments are found to be futile.  We as humans tend to think that we have a great influence in this cosmos, acting like little gods as we assume the LORD’s authority as our own.  Yet, Solomon notes that we actually have no real influence in that which we think we have the most.  Solomon notes what they understood as the immutability of the earth and heavens; its inability to be changed by man.  We have no influence over the rotation of the earth; hence the rising and setting of the sun.  We have no influence over the winds that occasionally remind us of our weakness when their speed increases a little.  We have no real influence over the rivers and the oceans as they play their part in the ecosystem.  All the work, and all of the labor that is accomplished by anyone accomplishes little or nothing when we look at the greater cosmos.  One might disagree with Solomon when we consider the impact that human society has on the environment, but the time of man is short compared to the age of the cosmos, and it will take only a few years after the end of man for the earth to return to its previous natural state.

Ecclesiastes 1:8.  All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The amount of energy that people put into their search for meaning and purpose is unfathomable.  Their life is “full of labor” as they work their way towards a goal that they cannot describe, see, or hear.  The work done in the life of a person of faith is much like a game of darts:  the target is clearly seen, and a reasonable effort is made to hit the target, but the bull’s-eye is still elusive.  People of faith continually “miss the mark,” but the faith that draws them to seek obedience realizes the full and unconditional forgiveness that God offers.  For those who do not have faith in God, there is no perception of the presence of any dart board.  Their efforts are intense and sincere, but fly aimlessly as they toss darts in every direction, hoping to hit something, not having any idea of what that “something” is. 

Ecclesiastes 1:9-11.  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. 10Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

What is the long-term gain of such fruitless effort?  What is really accomplished when we put all of our collective efforts in to worldly pursuits?  Solomon describes the unfolding of human history as having literally no effect on the world, or on the “great scheme of things.”  We can observe Solomon’s thoughts with an additional three thousand years of history to consider.  What has changed in these three thousand years?  Human nature has not changed, and our contemporary self-centered quest for gain is identical to that of Solomon’s era.  About the only thing in this world and cosmos that has changed is the elegance of the toys that we have progressively built.  However, technology has nothing to do with Solomon’s point.  If we remove the advances in technology from the observation of the people of the world, we find that Solomon is quite accurate.  Things are the same now as they were then.  Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.  We are simply so focused upon ourselves that we fail to learn from our past.  Solomon prophesies that those who will live in the future will not have leaned from the futility experienced in his own generation: a worthy prophecy since nothing has changed.  Solomon is describing the existentialism of man:  “Man exists in a series of experiences and cannot discover any onward meaning to them.”[2]  The great majority of the world’s population is still experiencing the same futility.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-13.  I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And 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.

Known for his wisdom, even as the King of Israel he dedicated his thoughts and desires towards the exercise of that wisdom as he considered the meaning of life, including an intense search out every activity that man has engaged in his effort to determine that meaning.  The book of Ecclesiastes is a treatise on what he found.  The desire for, and the ability to pursue this search is given by God to man, alone.  This is a part of the “image of God” that the LORD imparted into mankind that He did not impart into animals or plants.  Solomon describes this search as a “sore travail,” and for those who do not have the resource of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the search is indeed troublesome. 

Why did the LORD give to all mankind the unique desire to seek that which is greater than himself?  Quite simply it is the LORD’s plan that people would turn to Him in faith, and this decision is the culmination of that search.  However, even though God reveals Himself to mankind in many different ways, most fail to recognize Him because they are not prepared to give themselves to Him.  Human pride drives man to assume the throne of his own little universe, so the search for meaning that God inspires is misdirected.

Ecclesiastes 1:14-15.  I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 15That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.

Even people of faith, like Solomon, do not know everything.  Compared with the wisdom of God, man’s wisdom is folly.  Though we may have made life more comfortable for most people, we have not solved the very basic problems that face mankind.  Man is still violent and self-centered.  We may have found the cure for many of the world’s physical diseases, but we are still vexed by hatred, bigotry, greed, and any of a myriad of sins that bring devastating consequences upon individuals and upon society as a whole.  The quest to end these injustices is futile, and when pursued by sinful man, there is no hope.  That which has been made crooked by the sinfulness of man cannot be straightened out by that same sinful man.  Solomon describes these injustices as innumerable.  It may be reasonable to state that none of the sins that Solomon characterizes as the nature of man have been “cured.”  The innumerable sins that characterize worldly man still define his basic nature.

Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.  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. 17And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

Solomon has given a great deal of meditation and study of these issues.  When he observes his own state, he recognizes that the LORD has given him a gift of wisdom.  Any study of Solomon’s early life, as described in scripture, reveals him as very wise.  His desire for wisdom grew out of the wisdom by which he was already characterized in his youth.  This life-long pursuit of knowledge resulted in his being set apart from his peers.  It was the wisdom that was present in Solomon’s heart that led him to ask God for wisdom.[3]  Even three thousand years later, if one is asked what they know about King Solomon, many will respond with their knowledge of his wisdom.  In his own life Solomon had experienced moments of wisdom as well as minutes of “madness and folly.”  The more Solomon learned, the more he came to realize that greater body of that which he did not know.  By contrast, Solomon almost states that there may be some blessing found in ignorance because there is so much grief and sorrow found in a greater knowledge.  

What Solomon learned was the disheartening truth that all worldly efforts are futile, bringing about only grief and sorrow.  We can feel the hopelessness that is woven through these verses like a thread that holds it together and gives it shape. 

Ecclesiastes 2:1.  I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.

In his observation of the futility of mankind’s search for significance, he found many areas where people attempt to find fulfillment.  Rather than defend his arguments using logic, reasoning, or by the authority that he owned as the wise king, Solomon chose to put his theories to the test.  The first example Solomon illustrates is the pursuit of personal pleasure.  Taken to the extreme, hedonism is an ethical theory that personal pleasure is the greatest pursuit of the human experience.  The ancient Greeks documented this theory well, though hedonism is found in every society of man.  Consequently, Solomon’s pursuit in answering this question was quite relevant as ancient near-eastern culture had those who adamantly held to this view and practiced hedonistic behaviors with abandon.  Even today, hedonism sells.  We can observe the tenets of hedonism in the entertainment media as many of the images and plots we are immersed in are based in the pursuit of personal pleasure. 

As the King of Israel, Solomon had the resources to fully immerse himself in hedonistic experience, and according to this testimony, he chose to do so in his study of his culture.  What Solomon found echoes the testimony of all others who have tried to find true and fulfilling meaning and purpose in the pursuit of personal pleasure:  it fails.  Personal pleasure is realized only in the moments when one’s base desires are being exercised.  As soon as that exercise ends, the pleasure ends, and oftentimes with enduring negative consequences.  The pursuit of pleasure can be like an addictive drug that requires an ever-increasing dose in order to obtain some level of accomplishment, only to continue until the point where an overdose serves to maim or kill.  The pursuit of hedonism is totally self-centered, caring little or nothing about how the consequences of one’s pursuit affect others.  Leading one away from faith in God it is a one-way path to eternal separation from God. 

Ecclesiastes 2:2.  I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?

Though a less intense behavior than hedonism, Solomon refers to the practice of pursuing those activities that would keep him amused.  The meaning here goes beyond the simple pursuit of jokes, but rather refers to the pursuit of personal entertainment.  Entertainment and amusement is an extremely large and lucrative business even in today’s culture.  Certainly, there is value in entertainment and amusement.  One who works hard needs rest and distraction to help them to make sense of the myriad of stressors of this life.  Taken in moderation, amusement is healthy.  However, like all experiences that serve to bring personal pleasure, the pursuit of amusement can be overdone.  The LORD does not intend for us to live in Disneyland.  Solomon notes the futility of such a pursuit, as nothing of true, eternal value is obtained in this way.

Ecclesiastes 2:3.  I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.

A large part of human culture is given to the consumption of intoxicants as a means of finding pleasure.  As Solomon observed the world around him, he saw a society that was deeply immersed in a wine culture.  Becoming drunk was a normative behavior, practiced by many.  Solomon does not need to dwell on the futility of this pursuit as he initially refers to his “giving myself” over to the wine.  Submitting to the effects of any intoxicant is inconsistent with any behavior that seeks to live a life that is obedient to the LORD.  We might be reminded of Paul’s admonition, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.”[4]  The abstinence from intoxicants was an important part of the vow of the Nazirite,[5] a vow that was intended as a public testimony of one’s faith in God.  Solomon states that, having been given the gift of godly wisdom, he can without experiencing drunkenness know without any doubt that such behavior is contrary to that wisdom.  

Ecclesiastes 2:4-6.  I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: 5I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: 6I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:

As an ancient near-eastern king, Solomon realized many of the personal benefits of that position.  All of the resources of the nation were at his disposal to be used for any purpose that he would decree.  Many people seek to find meaning and purpose in the building of “great” things.  Virtually no person had ever built as much as Solomon did.  There is nothing that can be made by the hands of man that will last.  The greatest buildings will outlive their usefulness and fall into decay.  All trees and plants eventually wither and die.  If anyone would have been able to find meaning and purpose in the building of great things it would have been Solomon.

Ecclesiastes 2:7-10.  I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: 8I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. 9So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. 10And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.

Solomon goes on to list several of the other worldly pursuits that people think will bring them meaning and purpose.  He lists his great possessions, probably greater than any other individual in his known world, and certainly greater than anyone he was aware of.  His treasures went beyond that of any typical individual and was consistent with that of a king.  He held the position of authority and influence over everyone in the kingdom, and all in the nation would approach him with submission.  People around him sought to serve him.  Finally, Solomon allowed himself to experience “whatsoever mine eyes desired,” withholding nothing that might serve to bring him joy.

There are few worldly endeavors that one can number that people use to find meaning and purpose that Solomon did not experience to the full.  People think they will find satiating meaning and purpose in great treasures, great power, or great accomplishments. Solomon had experienced all of these, and unlike most who are corrupted by these things, Solomon retained his wisdom.  Solomon was able to observe the true value of these things in a way that the pagan world could never understand.  Certainly he was coveted for his riches and power.  However …

Ecclesiastes 2:11.  Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.

Solomon has fully experienced virtually all of the worldly pursuits that people think will bring them meaning and purpose; things that will finally bring them peace and joy.  However, filled with godly wisdom, Solomon testifies that there is no profit in any of these things.  None of these things can provide anything that is of lasting value.  If one seeks peace in any of these endeavors, they will find only turmoil.  If they seek to find meaning in any of these things, they will find them to be ultimately meaningless.  If they seek to find purpose in any of these things, they will find themselves at a meaningless dead-end.  

Ecclesiastes 2:12-16.  And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done. 13Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. 14The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. 15Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. 16For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.

It may be instructive at this point to contrast worldly wisdom with godly wisdom.   It is the former that Solomon refers to in this passage.  Many in the world think that they will find peace, meaning, and purpose through the pursuit of knowledge and worldly, common wisdom.  To understand this form of wisdom we need to simply consider one who seeks wisdom but does not seek God.  Solomon is quite aware that he was given a measure of wisdom by the LORD that exceeded those around him.  He could observe that even worldly wisdom is far more valuable than worldly folly, as he contrasts the difference as that between light and darkness.  It is the light that has power, as it chases away an impotent darkness.  Likewise, wisdom has power that folly lacks.   Just like the great things that can be built that will eventually decay and be gone, even the wisest of the wise men will still die, and ultimately their wisdom will be forgotten.  Solomon states that one who dies having gained only worldly wisdom and knowledge dies a fool.  Paul writes of the futility of worldly wisdom and knowledge when he states, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not agape love, I am nothing.”

Ecclesiastes 2:17-25.  Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 18Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. 19And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. 20Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. 21For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? 23For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity. 24There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. 25For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?

Solomon summarizes his writing in a relatively simple, yet developed statement.  When he looks at all of the worldly pursuits that he has made over the years, he finds them to have no eternal value, no power to affect anything that is really important when it comes to the true purposes of life.  Solomon uses a word that is translated “hate” to contrast what he thinks of worldly pursuits with that which is actually true and meaningful.  Of course, one cannot draw such a contrast without knowing both properties being compared.  Though Solomon accomplished all of these worldly pursuits, he did so while also having the godly wisdom to be able to make the contrast between worldly pursuits and godly pursuits.  He clearly recognizes that even his success in worldly pursuits came at the hand of God for an eternal purpose: to teach him their futility.  When he compares the two, he simply cannot give any authority to those worldly pursuits, hence the word, “hate.” 

Ecclesiastes 2:26.  For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit. 

Finally, Solomon provides us with the source of his understanding:  it is godly wisdom that exposes the folly of worldly pursuits, and it is only in the blessings of the LORD that true meaning, purpose, wisdom, and joy can be found.  These things are not found in worldly pursuits, but rather in the pursuit of a faith relationship with the LORD.  Solomon states that those who do not place their faith and trust in the LORD receive only “travail” from the LORD, consequences that gather and heap up, consequences that serve as a testimony of their rebellion against God when their last opportunity for repentance comes at the time of death. 

However, to the person of faith, the LORD gives true wisdom, knowledge, and joy.  This is the true source of peace that all people seek, but few find because of the rebellion against God that they hold in their hearts as they refuse to place their faith and trust in Him.

Solomon has lived both lives:  he has fully experienced the worldly benefits of pagan living, and he has fully experienced the godly blessings of faithful living.  When comparing the two, he wholly rejects the pagan approach to life.  The purpose of Solomon’s writing of this book is to bring this truth like a light into the darkness, proclaiming the grace of God in a dark world.  Recognizing this, we can each look into our own lives to determine where we have set our priorities.  Are we depending upon the rewards of this pagan world as faithless people do, or are we experiencing the blessings given by the LORD to those who are faithful to Him?  Worldly pursuits are futile, but in the gospel we find the true power of God unto salvation:[6]  a worthy pursuit.

[1] Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36.

[2] Wright, p. 1154.

[3] 2 Chronicles 1.

[4] Ephesians 5:18.

[5] Numbers 6:1-21.

[6] Romans 1:16.