Ecclesiastes: The Prologue

Ecclesiastes 1:1-12

And so dear reader, we begin our most excellent adventure through the book of Ecclesiastes. After identifying Solomon as the “Teacher” of this lesson, the theme of the entire book is set forth in verses 2-3: The works of men are meaningless. The latest NIV uses the word “meaningless” here where other translations, certainly the older ones, have used the English word “vanity,” and I must admit that I’ve had some difficulty getting used to the change. The Hebrew word is hebel which literally means vapor or breath. Used as it is in this book, what it really refers to is something that is fleeting and empty; without meaning. “Vain” or “vanity” would be the traditional words for this, as in “they shall not have died in vain” meaning “for no reason.” So, I must admit that the new Niv’s “meaningless” is spot on in modern usage.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

 

We need to note the expression “under the sun” and understand that it tells us the point of view from which the author is speaking: life “under the sun,” here on earth, the natural state of things without God. As you will see, he writes differently when he changes his viewpoint to include God. Thus, the whole theme of the book is that all of human striving and energy in this world has no meaning whatsoever.

Verses 4-8 give four examples from nature to back up the author’s thesis:

First, in verse 4, he mentions succeeding generations as coming and going, verse 5 mentions the rising and setting of the sun over and over, then verse 6 speaks of the wind that blows and blows. Verse 7 mentions the rivers and streams that flow and flow; time marches forward and what is accomplished? Verse 8 seems to sum this up as simply wearisome, as though there is all of this natural activity… and so what?

Verses 9-11 amplify this unceasing action of nature and brings it into human terms: “There is nothing new under the sun.” The generations have always come and gone, the sun has always risen and set, the wind has always blown and the rivers and streams have always flowed; none of this is new. Nobody remembers the former generations of people, and nobody will remember us. In all of these generations, people have worked and striven to accomplish great things, and who even remembers their names or what they were about?

Who cares?

Nobody!

The Christian faith is essentially an optimistic faith, we speak of victory, and redemption, hope, assurance and an eternal future… see any of that here? Of course this is the Old Testament, but Judaism is also an optimistic faith for the most part; where is this dude coming from?

That’s why this is a tricky book.

As we continue our adventure, we will see that the Teacher has searched for human wisdom, that he has received it, and that he has discovered that human life “under the sun” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Without God, it is meaningless… but then I’m getting ahead of myself.

Solomon, through all of his striving for wisdom has discovered to his surprise that putting this world into its proper perspective is a process that calls all of our natural inclinations into question, and that without an alternative; the quest for wisdom would best be avoided. To put this another way, reading this might cause us to wonder if the day-to-day struggles of this life are really all that important.

Verse 12 is transitional, and leads to the main body of the book, which we will throw ourselves into next time!

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19 thoughts on “Ecclesiastes: The Prologue”

  1. Wow taking on this is a monumental task. But, I must admit although Eccl is a stretch to understand it became one of my favorite books in a time of real struggle and I benefited from its ‘wisdom or lack thereof’ than any other book with the exception of Proverbs. May the Lord guide you in this endeavor for it takes resolve to stick with it and find the positives rather than focus on the negatives. But, if there is anyone who can do it , I know you can. Blessings ..looking forward to “our journey.” What an adventure lies ahead if we have open minds to receive it.

  2. I have seen that in my own life many times, because what was “important” 30 years ago, lies in “ruins” because of changing government priorities. Facilities were “moth-balled”, programs were cancelled, and a whole department was eliminated. In a way, it is sad to see all that talent and hard-work go to waste. But, I have a higher-calling to help build-up that which is eternal, the Kingdom of God. Sola Deo Gloria.

    Steve

  3. Nobody remembers the former generations of people, and nobody will remember us.

    This is so true, as a consultant I sometimes revisit old clients, sometimes years later. Few people remember that I was ever there, and the faces change so often that, sometimes, there is no one there that I had previously worked with.

    The American Indian religion, don’t recall if it is Navjo or Cheyenne, belief in the afterlife is that you exist so long as you are remembered. When no one is left who remembers your name then you disappear from the afterlife. Obviously there are those, such as Geronimo and Tecumsa, who will live on forever, but the majority would cease to exist after a few generations.

  4. Hi everyone, hi Don, I am looking forward to a succinct exegeses of this book since it has been years since I have studied it and we have not as yet done it with our own congregation.

  5. My background is science and engineering. One of the funnier things to observe is that even innovation has a certain boredom. New idea! New gizmo! Been there. Done that.

    Innovation has in fact become painful. My jobs have often involved helping folks transition to a new system. Since new government systems are often no better than the old ones (until they work out the bugs), many people fight such changes.

    Myself? I still use an old flip phone. The Internet is a bad enough addiction. What is the point in carrying it around with me?

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