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.
says the Teacher.
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?
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 it 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!