September 13, 2016

Vanity, Vanity: Ecclesistes 1:1-11

I have taught through Ecclesiastes a couple of times over the past few years. This book stuns me over and over with its devastating appraisal of the human condition. So, I thought I might go back through some of my notes and share them with you here. I can't promise how frequently I'll have them up for you, but hopefully someday I'll have the whole book finished. My hope is that you will be as encouraged, convicted, and challenged by this book as I have been.


Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.


Introduction to Ecclesiastes: What is the theme of Ecclesiastes?
True joy in a vain world under the reign on a Sovereign Judge. 

Joy- the kind of joy that finds satisfaction in life without being dependent upon a particular set of circumstances to bring that joy about. A joy in life as God has given it.  (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 3:22, 5:18-20, 9:7-10, 12:9, 12:13) 

Vain- the words vain or vanity occur in (I think) 37 verses in Ecclesiastes. It is, though not the most frequent, certainly the most dominant word in the book; we will look at it in more detail when we start into verse two. But for starters I want to give you the "literal" (I watched a Douglas Moo video in which he shredded the idea that Hebrew and Greek words have "literal "meanings, and he knows a lot more than I do...) meaning of the Hebrew word (hebel), which is the idea of a breath or a vapor. A mist. Something that is here and gone, of little actual substance, something which does not last. (1:2, 2:11, 3:19, 4:4, 5:10, 6:11, 7:6, 8:10, 9:9 [vain], [chapter 10 does not contain the words vain or vanity, but the idea is pervasive through this set of proverbs], 11:8, 12:8) 

Incidentally, this idea of life being vapor like is not unique to Ecclesiastes. See also, James 4:14, Job  7:7 

Judge- we will see throughout Ecclesiastes the picture of God as judge. We see Him also as Creator (7:29) and the Giver of joy (3:13), but I think the dominant way God is portrayed throughout this book is as the One who will judge our lives (3:17, 5:6-7, 11:9, 12:14) 

Tying these together- some commentators, or even just readers, of this book may look at these seemingly paradoxical strains of truth, that we should enjoy life, that we should view life as passing, and that we should live in light of the judgement to come; and rather than attempt to resolve how these puzzling components fit together, instead try to explain them away or ignore some of them.  
So for example, there are scholars who believe that there are multiple authors or narrators to this book. They don't see how the same guy who said "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved of what you do." (9:7) could be the one who says, "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement." (12:13-14) 

This, I believe, is folly. The author is certainly arguing from a logic that confronts our conventional ways of interpreting reality, but he is not in error. While we may not make the mistake of the unstable commentator, we as readers we can make the more casual, but equally serious, error of minimizing one aspect of the book in order to highlight the part that we like. For example, I used to consider "all is vanity" a pretty good mantra, while ignoring the plead to look towards God's judgement, and the encouragement to enjoy one's labor. 

But as believers in the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit ( 2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16), we need to acknowledge that not only is all of Ecclesiastes true, but that it all fits together. Instead of trying to minimize or explain away the hard or confusing things we will encounter, we must pursue an understanding which takes all of the truth presented into account. Doing so will prove to be a richly rewarding endeavor. 

Introduction to 1:1-11
Verse 1

The book begins with an introduction to the author, Solomon. An overview of Solomon's life can be seen in 1 Kings 2-11, and we will examine it more closely in following weeks. Suffice it to say here that Solomon was a man who enjoyed great renown for his wisdom, wealth, and splendor. 

Term "preacher" here means one who convenes, or gathers together for the purpose of addressing. You may notice the similarity between "Ecclesiastes" and the word "ecclesia" which is the NT word for church. An ecclesia is a gathering together of people, Ecclesiastes was written by one who gathered together.

Point 1- main thesis "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" 
Verse 2

Hebel , the Hebrew word translated into English usually as "vanity" (ESV, NKJV, NASB) or "meaningless" (NIV) carries three primary meaning in the Hebrew:
a) mist, vapor, breath 
b) meaningless, futile, pointless 
c) puzzling, beyond understanding, perplexing 
While there of course are different emphasis at different points, I think it is a bit dangerous to totally separate the three meanings from one another. Solomon uses the same word throughout the book, indeed, it is his primary argument. Thus, we should be quick to look for connections in the uses, unifiers, rather than divisions. That is not to deny the differences that can take place from verse to verse or chapter to chapter, but ultimately we aren't looking to break the book into pieces and say "in this place it means this, in this place that"; we are trying to follow his argument on the whole. 

Point 2- demonstrations of the unchanging nature of life under the sun, and our lack of effect or bearing on it. 
Verses 3-11

Verse 3 gives the rhetorical question which guides the next six verses as they reply to it. 
What does man gain by all his toil under the sun? What do we get from it? 

As we look at these verses, what is the emotion that is brought about?...despair, perhaps? Remember, Scripture doesn't speak merely on an intellectual level. 

Verse 8, "all things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it." 
V 10 another rhetorical question which Solomon answers for added effect.  

Point 3- conclusion of the first section, there is no remembrance of the former things.
Verse 11
Nothing we do will be remembered by those who come after us. This rubs us the wrong way, doesn't it?

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I love Jesus, my wife, and my kids. Writing and teaching are two things I have a passion for. Gardening and fishing are cool, too. I blog @ willdole.com, you can reach me @ contact@willdole.com