Part 1 of 5. Find the rest of the studies here.
While the authorship of this book is frequently debated, the central action can be easily picked out through the first two chapters. The Preacher, otherwise known as Qohelth, was on a search for meaning. If Qoheleth were King Solomon, he would have had access to every opportunity needed to uncover the meaning of life. 1 Kings 10 tells us of the immense wealth and power he enjoyed, as well as his unparalleled wisdom that enamored the Queen of Sheba. So what exactly did Qoheleth discover? Read on to find out!
(A) Searching in circles (Ecc 1:1-11)
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Thus spoke Qohelth. The Hebrew root word for “vanity” is “hebel”, which refers to a “mist” or a “vapour” – something that is fleeting, something that is empty, and something that is ultimately meaningless. It is with this indictment of all things that Qoheleth begins to tell of his findings.
Ecc 1:1-7 elaborates on this idea by telling us how there is an inherent emptiness in nature itself! Phenomena like the rising of the sun, the patterns of the wind, and the flowing of streams are all cyclical. There is no real meaning in them. This leads man to be exhausted by all things (Ecc 1:8). The tedium and the vanity of everything leave us unsatisfied and unfilled. Even things out of nature are cyclical! The works of our hands are but a reflection of things past (Ecc 1:9-10). “There is nothing new under the sun”. To make things worse, there seems to be no permanence to the things that we do! (Ecc 1:11)
Pause for a moment and consider something as simple and fundamental as a name. Names are important - our identities would be incomplete without our names. Now think about your parent’s names. Do you know them? What about your grandparent’s names? Still going strong? And what about your great-grandparent’s names? The fact of the matter is that most of us know close to nothing about our ancestors 3 generations past. We do not remember who they were, what they did, and how they lived! We do not remember their successes and failures or their joys and their sorrow. We do not remember.
It must be noted that this outcry of utter frustration in not written in prose. It takes the form of a poem, and poetry is the language of the heart. The fact that these thoughts are represented in poetic form calls us to remember that this is not mere intellectual discourse, or cold empirical observations made by Qoheleth. This is an expression of immense emotion. This is very personal, and very, very real.
(B) Searching with the heart (Ecc 1:12-2:23)
Ecc 1:13 gives us further confirmation that Qoheleth had intense feelings about this matter. Qoheleth tells us that he “applied (his) heart” to this endeavor. Although the word “heart” is commonly understood to represent feelings, it means so much more in this context. To the Hebrew speaker, the “heart” represents the center of one’s inner life – his mind, his will, and his emotions. This speaks to the degree of investment that Qoheleth had. He was pursuing it as the center of his inner life!
We go on to see that Qoheleth search was done by wisdom for all that is done under heaven. An important distinction must be made here. Qoheleth often speaks of what is under the sun, and what is under heaven. This tells us that Qoheleth was acutely aware that there is a larger reality beyond life as it is commonly known. Life under heaven seems to be what should be considered, but life under the sun seems to be what we only consider.
Genesis 1 tells us that God’s grand design for the world was never for us to live life under the sun. It was for us to live under heaven! It was for us to live under His Headship, and in His presence! But the fall left us estranged from life under heaven. Adam and Eve’s separation from God was the turning point when all of mankind transitioned to life under the sun. We feel the ripples of the Fall in Genesis 3 here in Ecclesiastes where all of life under the sun is understood as vanity and emptiness.
Qoheleth proceeds to breakdown how wisdom, pleasure, living, and toil are all futile endeavors:
- Wisdom is vanity because it brings “much vexation” (Ecc 1:18). Wisdom that helps you understand just how powerless you are in the face of all that the world presents as problems. The most astute acumen of the greatest thinkers of our age cannot present a solution to the inherent corruption of our fallen world. While wisdom brings frustration, knowledge increases sorrow (Ecc 1:18). Have you ever known something that you really did not want to know? Seen something that opened your eyes to the evils of our age, and felt heartbroken by it? Such is life under the sun.
- The pleasure that is derived from self-indulgence is also vanity! Qoheleth runs through a long list of indulgences that he enjoyed from Ecc 2:3-10. He partook in every category of enjoyment known to man, but that too, became known to him as vanity. This is because such enjoyment is intrinsically impermanent – who can hold on to the pleasures of this world after he passes on from this world?
- Even the discipline of wise living is vanity, for the world looks at the fool and at the wise man, and perceives that they both end up at the same place (v14). Death makes a mockery of wise living under the sun.
- We also see a shift in Qoheleth’s attitude towards work. He delighted in it in Ecc 2:10, but hated it when he realized that it is also vanity (Ecc 2:18). The fact that all the good work one has built up can be handed over to someone who does not deserve it at all makes it sheer vanity!
These 4 areas present us with a comprehensive coverage of what life under the sun looks like. And Qoheleth pronounces it all as vanity.
(C) Searching for something better (Ecc 2:24-26)
However, Qoheleth concedes that seeing the good in your toil and work is the best thing under the sun (Ecc 2:24). It is desirable for man to receive pleasure and a just reward from his efforts. He also acknowledges that all things come from God (Ecc 2:25). Thus, we can conclude that toil is meant to be a good thing, and God is the source of all things.
It was mentioned earlier that Qoheleth grapples with life under heaven, and life under the sun. Ecc 2:26 gives us a glimpse of life under heaven. We see a glimmer of hope – the promise that the one who pleases God receives “wisdom, and knowledge, and joy”, as well as what the sinner has gathered and collected (Ecc 2:26). This idea finds a parallel in Hebrews 11:5-6, which tells us of Enoch, a man who pleased God. How did Enoch manage to please God? Through faith! Enoch possessed a belief in God, and a belief that God rewards. To find happiness and hope, you have to go above the sun and look to God.
But that is not all! There is something better. We know that there has only been one person who truly pleased God. And we know that He came down to save us from our sin. John 3:9-15 explains this idea clearly. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, he referred to Himself as“the one who came down from heaven” (Ecc 2:13). But that’s not all! Ecc 2:15 tells us that He did not merely come down from heaven for a gander at fallen man, he came down so that He would be lifted up for fallen man!
Jesus is the something better. Life under heaven came down for us, that we might be freed from the vanity of life under the sun. The one and only Person to have truly pleased God was lifted up for our sake, that everyone who believes may come to know life under heaven in Him.
This builds a complete understanding of Ecc 2:26 for us. While the sinner might do his best in gathering and collecting, it is no more than vanity and a striving after wind, for all that he collects and gathers will be handed over to the one who pleases God! Only in life above the sun – a life in Christ – will we find wholeness. So let us strive to live lives constantly aware of our greater reality - lives constantly aware of our something better.
This post was written by Joshua Tay. Find the rest of the studies here.