Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
Good morning! Please find your seat. I am very excited to be diving into the actual text of Ecclesiastes this week. Let’s begin by reading 1:1-11.
This morning, we’re going to discuss a very important part of Ecclesiastes known as the prologue. In this section, Solomon raises the most important questions considered throughout the rest of the book.
First, in v. 1, we have the introductory title. The formula, “the words of so and so” is also used to introduce the books of Jeremiah and Amos, as well as Proverbs 30 and 31. The purpose of the phrase is to introduce the author, who, in this case, is identified using the Hebrew word qohelet.
The word qohelet literally means, “assembler,” or “one who assembles.” It could be a reference to the fact that the author has gathered together an assembly in order to teach them—thus the translation “the Preacher” or “the Teacher” found in most English versions. However, it could also be a reference to process of assembling proverbs or ideas into a finished work, like the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s even possible that the word is intended to carry both meanings.
But the real question is: “Who is this Qohelet, this assembler of people or of proverbs?” We talked about a number of possible answers to that question two weeks ago, but we concluded that Qohelet is Solomon. That identification has been the typical view throughout most of church history. It’s also the most natural way to interpret phrases like, “the Son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) and “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12). Finally, the story of Qohelet’s quest for meaning in life supports this identification. What other figure from Israel’s history could possibly have had such a broad range of experiences? In fact, even many of those who disagree that Qohelet is Solomon maintain that the real Qohelet purposely identified with Solomon in order to advance his argument!
So, if Qohelet is Solomon, why does he use a sort of pseudonym, rather that stating his name? It’s hard to know for sure, but probably Solomon wanted to write the book primarily from the perspective of wise sage, rather than that of a king, although he makes no bones about that fact that he was also a king, as well.
Another conclusion that we reached two weeks ago was that Solomon wrote the entire book of Ecclesiastes, and not just part of it. (I can get you my notes on that if you’d like to see my argumentation.) However, it’s also important to recognize that there are three perspectives in book. And so, let’s take a minute to talk about this. In verses 1-2, the author refers to “the preacher” in the third person (1:1-2). Then, in v. 12, the preacher speaks for himself (v. 12). So, what are we to make of these two perspectives? The best explanation is that the use of multiple perspectives is a rhetorical device. In the prologue and epilogue, Solomon steps into the role of narrator for dramatic effect. Does that make sense? So, that makes two perspectives: the narrator and Qohelet. But I said there were three! Where do we get that third perspective? Interestingly enough, besides there being a distinct perspective in the prologue and epilogue, there are also two perspectives within the main body of the book! That’s because sometimes, Solomon tells the story of his quest for satisfaction that took place years ago, and sometimes he steps away from the story to relay a bit of wisdom. For instance, notice the different perspectives in the first and last verses of chapter 2 (2:1, 26). So, you have basically three perspectives: the narrator, young Solomon, and old Solomon, and differentiating those perspectives is pretty important when it comes to interpreting the book, even though we believe that Solomon wrote the whole thing. Does that make sense?
Now, there is another possible explanation in regards to authorship, and that is that perhaps someone else, like maybe one of Solomon’s scribes, added the prologue and epilogue to what Solomon had already written. But I don’t really like that explanation, because it doesn’t seem to make sense that Solomon would write most of the book and then someone else write the two most-important passages. However, I certainly wouldn’t take as much issue with that view as I would with some of the other views we talked about last week and the week before. Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments about that?
TRANSITION: Okay, we are done talking about questions of authorship, I promise you! Let’s move on to what Solomon has to say. I’d like to use three images to help propel us through the prologue. You won’t these find these three terms in the text itself, but I think they pretty well summarize what Solomon has to say. The first of these three words is “vapor.”
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, vapor is “diffused matter (such as smoke or fog) suspended floating in the air and impairing its transparency.” It’s also the literal definition of the Hebrew word hebel, which appears 5 times in v. 2 and 33 additional times throughout the rest of the book! Unfortunately, the word hebel is notoriously difficult to translate in the context of Ecclesiastes. The most classic translation is “vanity,” but other translations also use words like “meaningless” or “futile.” Some versions even translate this word differently throughout the book, depending on the context. You say, “Where do they get all of those meanings?” Well, each of them come from the metaphor itself. In fact, throughout the entire Old Testament, the word hebel is only used literally 3 times! Every other usage is figurative.
So, what does vapor symbolize?
First, in some passages, it symbolizes that which is transient or fleeting. When you walk outside on a cold desert morning and go “huh,” for how long can you see your breath? Not very long. Vapor is famously short-lived. That’s why Psalm 144:4 says, “Man is like a breath; His days are like a passing shadow.” So, in some cases, vapor symbolizes that which is transient.
Second, in other passages, vapor symbolizes that which is futile, empty, or valueless, in the sense that it is unable to make good on implicit promises. If you try to grasp onto a puff of smoke, you’ll find that it doesn’t really have any substance. It may be alluring, but it won’t really do you any good. In the same way, the Old Testament often uses the word hebel to refer to empty words or false sources of trust. For instance, the prophet Isaiah says in regards to the futility of confidence in Egypt, “For the Egyptians shall help in vain and to no purpose” (Isa 30:7). In Isaiah 49:4, Israel says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain.” And in Zechariah 10:2, idols are said to comfort in vain, since they have no real comfort to offer. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, the word hebel is so closely connected with idolatry that the word itself is sometimes translated “idol”! Israel often looked to idols and foreign nations to improve their lot in life. They thought that if they sacrificed to Baal, then the rains would come, or that if they paid tribute to foreign kings, they would be saved from their enemies. But time and time again, they found these false sources of trust to be nothing more than vapor. So, besides symbolizing that which is transient, vapor can also symbolize that which is futile.
Finally, based on its unique usage in the book of Ecclesiastes, some commentators have suggested that in this book, hebel should be translated “mysterious” or “enigmatic.” And it’s easy to see how the metaphor would lend itself to this meaning as well. Just think of the way that fog obscures your vision while driving. Or, alternatively, imagine trying to bottle it up! Talk about an exercise in futility! That image could potentially symbolize mankind’s attempt to understand the world around him. You can work up a sweat trying to figure it all out, but just when you think you’ve almost “got it,” understanding alludes you.
That leads us to the million-dollar question: “Which meaning does Solomon intend? Is he saying that everything is transient, that it is (at least, in some sense) empty or futile, or that it is frustrating and enigmatic? And some of you may not like me for doing this, but I am going to wait to answer that question, the reason being that Solomon himself does not answer that question yet! At this point, I think it is important to note the nature of Solomon’s approach. Solomon’s approach is very inductive, rather than deductive. If Solomon were to take a deductive approach, verse 2 would read, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” And then Solomon would go on to state his main points—reason #1, reason #2, etc. But to take that approach would be to give up the most distinctive aspects of his book; and to be honest, it would make Ecclesiastes a whole lot less interesting. The very reason that we’re drawn to Ecclesiastes is that Solomon doesn’t settle for pat answers and that he really wrestles with the alternatives. All that to say that if we try to solve all of these riddles before reading the rest of the book, we will be doing Solomon a grave disservice. The prologue is not really meant to answer any questions. It’s simply intended to draw us in. “Vanity of vanities? Everything is ultimate vapor? That doesn’t sound very optimistic! Solomon what do you mean by that?” To this, Solomon would reply, “Keep reading, and you’ll find out.”
TRANSITION: So that’s image #1: vapor. Everything is vapor. I hope that your interest in piqued. Now, the second image I’d like you to consider comes from the business world. It is, “net profit.”
III. “Net profit”
com defines “net profit” as “the number of sales dollars remaining after all operating expenses, interest, taxes and preferred stock dividends… have been deducted from a company's total revenue.” You say, “This is Sunday school. Why use business terminology?” Because that is exactly the terminology that Solomon uses! The Hebrew word for “profit” in v. 3 is a commercial term that literally means “net profit.” Solomon uses this word with reference to mankind’s innate desire to do more than just subsist.
I’ll talk about that more in a minute, but first, notice that Solomon assumes that mankind will work. This is just what we do. We labor under the sun. And ultimately, that understanding goes back to Genesis 1-3, in which we find that God clearly intended mankind to work, both before and after the fall. A person will do all sorts of work in his lifetime. He’ll study, he’ll work with his hands, he’ll solve problems, he’ll work on relationships—our whole lives are filled with work! The question Solomon very starkly asks is, “Why do we do it?” You say, “Well, we work so that we can eat.” Solomon says, “That’s not good enough! I don’t just want to just subsist! I’m not interested in working my whole life so that I die from some other cause than starvation! I’m looking for net profit—what’s in it for me after all of my expenses have been paid! There’s got to be something more to this life than simply staying alive and reproducing. Aren’t we any better than the animals!?”
If you think about it, the desire for “net profit,” as Solomon puts it, drives much of human activity. It’s why people write books. It’s why presidents strive to preserve a legacy. It’s why artists paint or compose for pennies. This past week in my studies, I came across this quote from Langdon Gilkey, in his book, Shauntung Compound, which describes life in a Japanese internment camp in WWII. I’ve never read the book; I have no idea if it’s any good. But this quote grabbed my attention. Gilkey says, “Work and life have a strange reciprocal relationship; only if man works can he live, but only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible.” That quote could have come from Solomon himself.
And so, with this question in v. 3, Solomon invites us to come with him on an intellectual journey to explore the meaning and purpose of life, a journey that is destined to be fraught with conflict at every turn because “everything is vanity.”
TRANSITION: That brings us to the end of our second image. The third image is arguably the most disturbing of the three. That’s because in vv. 4-7, Solomon recites a poem that makes our stomachs churn because it graphically illustrates the problem he (and we) are up against. Solomon doesn’t want us to take the problem lightly, so he inserts this poem at the end of the prologue in order to haunt us with some sobering realities and to make us keep reading. Now, it doesn’t sound like a poem to us, but that’s just because we’re reading it in English and not in Hebrew. Someone reading vv. 4-7 in Hebrew would recognize some of the marks of Hebrew poetry. But that aside, the term that I would use to summarize this poem is “rat race.”
IV. “Rat race”
Wikipedia defines “rat race” as “an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit.” It goes on to say that the term “conjures up the image of lab rats racing through a maze to get the "cheese" much like society racing to get ahead financially.” Finally, it says, “The term is commonly associated with an exhausting, repetitive lifestyle that leaves no time for relaxation or enjoyment.” No one wants to be trapped in a rat race. However, the scary thing for Solomon is that the whole universe seems to be trapped in one.
That means, first of all, that the universe is characterized by endless motion. Generations come, and generations go. The sun rises, and the sun sets, like a runner, who keeps going around and around the track without ever stopping. The wind whirls about continually. The rivers pour constantly into the seas. And yet, for all that motion, nothing is really every accomplished! The earth remains the same. The sun and the wind never really arrive anywhere; they just keep going around in circles. And although the rivers constantly dump water into the seas, the seas are never filled.
You say, “Solomon, don’t be so pessimistic! That all has to do with nature, not with mankind!” “Not so,” says Solomon. “Human beings aren’t any different. In fact, we fit right in with the rest of the universe.” Our eyes are never satisfied with seeing and our ears are never satiated with hearing. We are constantly doing more things; and yet, the truth is that much of our work is pointless! For instance, we never actually do anything new! Oh, it may be new to us, but to claim that is truly original is to air our own lack of intelligence. If we were versed in the history of the past, we would know that people have been doing the very same types of things we’re doing for thousands of years! In fact, the irony of the situation is that we think what we’re doing is new precisely because we have forgotten the past! And just like that, the next generation will forget us and what we’ve accomplished! So, we’re all like little hamsters in a wheel running around and around and around to no purpose.
That’s the main point of this poem, but now let’s take a minute to look at a few interpretational questions. First, some translations of v. 7b make it sound like Solomon is talking about the cycle of evaporation and rain. But he’s probably not. Instead, a better translation would be, “To the place where the rivers go, there they return again.” In other words, it’s just about the constant flow of the rivers. Second, some interpreters take vv. 9-10 as a reference to a cyclical view of history—that is, that some cultures, particularly in the east, view history as a circle instead of a line. And honestly, I’m not well-versed that stuff, but I would say this: that we should be careful not to read too much into these verses. Solomon’s background is Judaism and thus a biblical view of history. And I don’t think he’s necessarily speaking to a theory of history in vv. 9-10; he’s just pointing out the well-attested fact that history tends to repeat itself. Not that we never do anything new in a woodenly-literal sense, but that we do the same types of things that every generation before us has done. Does that make sense? The same logic can be applied to v. 11. It’s not that we don’t remember anything about the past, but that in general, most of the past is forgotten. I think that’s a perfectly appropriate way to understand Solomon’s words. Are there any questions about that?
The last detail I want to point out about this poem is that its central point is probably found right in the middle. Verse 8 is the most difficult to interpret, but it’s also the most important. And I would say that the central idea is found in v. 8a— “All things are full of labor, Man cannot express it.” Line 2 of that verse can literally be translated, “Man is unable to speak.” The incessant, seemingly purposeless movement of the universe leaves mankind speechless. When the philosopher steps back and observes it, he doesn’t know what to say.
TRANSITION: And so, the question in v. 3 remains unanswered, at least for now. But that doesn’t mean that Solomon didn’t know the answer, or that he was resigned to nihilism. Rather, he’s just drawing us in, so that the lessons he wishes to impart will become all the more meaningful when he gets to them.
But for now, I want to call you to take note of the meaningless repetition in your own life. It’s one thing to feel as if you are trapped in a rat race, grasping for answers. It’s another thing entirely to have those answers right in front of you, and yet to submit yourself to the rat race, as if you were one day going to magically immerge from that hamster wheel and discover “net profit.” Your life is short. Soon, your generation will pass away and another generation will come. Experiences will never satisfy you. “They eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing.” You can’t really do anything new in the ultimate sense. It’s all been done already. And no matter what you do, the history books probably won’t remember you! They’ve reduced the lives of great kings to one sentence! Do you really think they’ll remember you? Most of us probably can’t even name all of the U.S. presidents, not to mention dead celebrities, inventors, or athletes. “Oh, but my family will remember me.” Perhaps. But then again, how many of us could even recite the names of all of our own great-grandparents! These are harsh realities that all of us must face. It’s silliness to think that we can work hard enough to “earn a profit” through experiences or accomplishments. And yet so often we fritter away time, our most valuable resource, in exchange for false hopes.
I’d like to go back to v. 2 for a minute and observe a connection between it and the New Testament. Romans 8:18 says that God subjected this world to “futility.” That’s the same Greek word that’s translated “vanity” in the Septuagint! God subjected creation to vanity, but He did not leave it without hope. That hope is called “redemption”; and it’s based on Christ’s work. One day, the curse will be lifted, we will be glorified, and creation will function the way it was always supposed to work. One day, the frustrations spelled out in the book Ecclesiastes will no longer be our experience, and our all of our labor for God will prove not be in vain. It is this eternal perspective that gives our labor meaning and purpose. As missionary C.T. Studd put it, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
A commentator by the name of Duane A. Garrett wrote an excellent response to this section. He said, “This passage is not a contradiction to the gospel but a call for it. The world is in bondage; and humanity is unable to explain, find satisfaction in, or alter it. Only the Word, who came into the world from above, can open the way of understanding and escape (John 8:23, 31–32). He has done a new thing: he has created a new covenant, given the new birth, new life, and a new commandment (Jer 31:31–34). He gives a new name that will last forever. Everything else is old and passing away.”