“Everything an Indian does is in a circle,” said Black Elk, a Sioux religious leader. “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood….” (Warren Wiersbe)
You would think Black Elk had been reading the first chapter of Ecclesiastes!
Eastern religions have this same concept, that life repeats itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle,” or “wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are joining Black Elk, Solomon and a host of others in taking a cyclical view of life. Here is how Solomon puts it.
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
We are studying the book of Ecclesiastes because it is very honest about the troubles of life—so honest that the American novelist Herman Melville once called it “the truest of all books.”
Ecclesiastes captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world. It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life — “the treadmill of our existence” that we see in this first passage.
Verse 2 is David’s motto, which he will spend the remainder of the book explaining, proving and illustrating. It functions much like Proverbs 1:7 in the book of Proverbs.
Solomon begins with a motto about life, a fairly pessimistic one:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Talk about a Debbie Downer! With these encapsulating superlatives, Qoheleth takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless.
The repetition “vanity of vanities,” like “King of kings and Lord of lords” and “holy of holies” indicates that Solomon is speaking of vanity in the nth degree, an ultimate and unsurpassed vanity. And it is not “a mere flicker on the surface of things, where it might even had have a certain charm. It is the sum total.”
Solomon is claiming that life is pointless—all of life, that it has no meaning, no purpose.
To him, the place that was once called “very good” has been reduced to nothing, totally empty of meaning and satisfaction.
While we as Christians might object, Solomon is not quick to run to a possible fullness of life that comes with God and Jesus Christ.
In Derek Kidner’s words:
“He wants us to look very closely at the world we can see and at the answers it seems to give, before he will do more than drop hints of his own standpoint.”
Solomon wants us to face our own discomfort and disappointment with this world. He wants us to take an honest look at the things we don’t like about life…and death.
As Zack Eswine says…
“What God created and purposed was legitimate and good. To lose this good is pain. There are things worth crying about. To learn such tears for the Eden that once was is to learn how to cry like the wise we are meant to become.” (Recovering Eden, pp. 28-29).
Again, this word vanity occurs 38 times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes and 35 times elsewhere. In 13 of those cases it refers to idols.
It comes from the Hebrew word hebel. It can refer to a mist or vapor. “Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind and does not satisfy is hevel. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as ‘whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.’” (Warren Wiersbe, 1109.) No matter what Solomon experiences and examines, it all comes up hevel. This is his constant refrain until chapter 12.
Taken literally, the Hebrew word hevel refers to a breath or vapor, like a puff of smoke rising from a fire or the cloud of steam that comes from warm breath on a frosty morning. Life is like that. It is elusive, ephemeral, and enigmatic. Life is so insubstantial that when we try to get our hands on it, it slips right through our fingers.
Life is also transitory. It disappears as suddenly as it comes. Now you see it, now you don’t! We are here today and gone tomorrow. Thus the Bible often compares our mortal existence to a vapor. According to the psalmist, we are “mere breath” (Psalm 39:5); our days will “vanish like a breath” (Psalm 78:33; cf. Job 7:7). The Apostle James said something similar when he described life as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). So too when the Preacher says “vanity of vanities,” he is partly making a comment on the transience of life. Breathe in; now breathe out. Life will pass by just that quickly.
But life is not merely transient, it has no meaning. It is “smoke and mirrors.” Laurin (p. 586 says)…
“It appears to imply here both (1) that which is transitory, and (2) that which is futile. It emphasizes how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one has them (cf. Jas 4:14).”
God had told Adam…
for out of [the ground] you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
Tommy Nelson summarizes:
“Materially speaking, life is short and then you die. You will lose everything you own to the next generation. Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance. Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal” (The Problem of Life Without God, p. 11).
Kidner believes that Solomon’s method here is to embody the most radical thoughts of people, unbelievers in particular, and he follows their train of thought “further than they would care to take them. Path after path will be relentlessly explored to the very point at which it comes to nothing. In the end, only one way will be left” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 23).
Fortunately, we know from this side of the cross that Jesus came to make empty lives full. He came, he said “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Verses 3-11 is Solomon’s first illustration of the utter vanity of life—the cyclical nature of life here on earth.
Rather than saying, “All work is vanity,” Solomon made the same point by asking this rhetorical question that expects a negative response. He will use this literary device often throughout the book (cf. 2:2; 3:9; 6:8, 11-12; et al.).
3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
The same question will come up again in chapter 3: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v. 9). The idea of gaining some profit will come up repeatedly as well; it appears nearly a dozen times in the book of Ecclesiastes (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:9).
The word “man” here in verse 3 is the word adam in Hebrew, which echoes Genesis and reminds us that the Fall of Adam is never far from Solomon’s mind. Ecclesiastes certainly reflect a post-Genesis-3 viewpoint.
The word “gain” is a commercial term. It can also be translated “profit.” This is the goal toward which anyone in business is working. The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one’s labor. Gain is the return on investment for hard work.
What profit do you have at the end of a day of work? What profit do you have in a lifetime of work? When you die and your life is over, what do you profit? Am I really accomplishing anything?
Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Maybe we should.
Solomon’s repetition in “all the toil at which he toils” also reminds us of Adam’s curse. God had told Adam:
cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun”, which will pop up 29 times in this book, to indicate a perspective that is earthbound and temporal. It does not take heaven or eternity in view. In the metanarrative of Scripture, it does not take up creation or redemption, but only the fall.
The book clearly states at the outset that it limits itself primarily to things that are apparent to the natural mind. One of its key phrases is the continual repetition, under the sun. (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 9)
Ecclesiastes, then, is a summation of what man is able to discern under the sun–that is, in the visible world. The book does consider revelation that comes from beyond man’s powers of observation and reason, but only as a contrast to what the natural mind observes. (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 10)
Believe me, Solomon is not the only person to think this way. Many philosophers, and especially moderns, having eliminated God out of the picture, have lost any sense of meaning and purpose in life.
If you discount eternity, and the reward we receive there, it can certainly seem like you end up life with a big fat zero. From this viewpoint, you spend your life working and laboring and what do you end up with? Nothing.
So Solomon expresses dissatisfaction with life. He sees it as empty and ephemeral, tragic and transient.
David Augsburger, in his book When Enough is Enough, writes:
Emptiness is the center of our humanness. To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and the Creator. To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love. To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self. Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.
This is similar to Augustine’s cry at the beginning of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
Like Solomon, Augustine went through a succession of desperate searches for fulfillment: excessive pleasures, false religions, philosophy, dissipation and distractions—futilities that left him so weary of himself he could only cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Solomon looks at life and sees endless cycles that, for now, lead to no meaning or satisfaction.
“Ah, but one hopes to make the world a better place, or at least to leave something for those who follow. As though expecting that reply Qoheleth points to the ceaseless making and unmaking that goes on in human history: the wave after wave of generations with their rise and fall, their coming men who are soon forgotten men; all this against the impassive background of the earth, which sees each generation out and goes on for ever. No doubt it will see the last of us off the scene, and what will man amount to then?” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 25.)
To prove his point — that we have nothing to show for all our effort — the Preacher lists a series of things that never seem to go anywhere or gain anything. The first half of his introductory poem gives examples from creation — the natural world (vv. 4–7). The second half gives examples from human experience (vv. 8–11). But whether we look at the world around us or consider our own life experience, the point is the same: there is nothing to gain. People like to talk about progress — economic development, technological advances, evolutionary improvements — but it is all a myth. There is never any progress: just the same old, same old.
According to Ecclesiastes, the evolutionary chart in school fooled us into believing that history is a straight line going up and we are more advanced than those primitive people who came before us. The truth is that history is really a circle, a cul-de-sac to be more exact. One generation after another drives around and around that cul-de-sac worshiping their idol and trying to outdo their neighbor with more sex, more stuff, more power, more information, and more fame. As fools often do, we mistake movement for progress. With brutal honesty about this fact, Ecclesiastes feels more like a punch in the gut than a kiss on the lips.
Like an overcritical building inspector, in Ecclesiastes 1:4–11 Pastor Solomon shows us what is wrong with our work. Later, he will point out what I call “minor problems”—that our willingness to work often comes from impure motives such as envy (4:4); that our work, if profitable, often leads to sleepless nights (5:12; cf. 2:23); and that all the wealth from our work must be bequeathed to someone who doesn’t deserve it and might foolishly squander it (2:18–19). The two major problems in our construct, however, he addresses in verses 4–11.
The first major problem is that our work adds nothing new to this world.
From the human point of view, nothing seems more permanent and durable than the planet on which we live; nothing seems more ephemeral and meaningless as our lives.
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
Nature is permanent, but man is transient, a mere pilgrim on earth. His pilgrimage is a brief one, for death finally claims him….Individuals and families come and go, nations and empires rise and fall, but nothing changes, for the world remains the same.
We think we make a difference, leave a mark, Solomon says, but we don’t.
Start with nature — earth, wind, fire, and water. Qoheleth says, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).
When people think about the next generation, they usually think in terms of progress. Our children are our future; they will be able to accomplish things that go beyond anything we could ever dream. Whether it is generation X, generation Y, or generation Z, there is always another generation to give us hope for the future. We imagine and hope for progress.
But Ecclesiastes take an “under the sun” perspective and makes us realize that one generation may be rising but another is dying off. Soon that generation will die off too. Generations come, generations go. And you don’t even have to be dead and gone before the younger generation refuses to listen to you anymore.
This is the perspective Solomon wants us to wrestle with, a perspective “under the sun.”