Introduction to Ecclesiastes
The name “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek Septuagint word equivalent to the Hebrew word translated “The Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). The writer claims to be “the son of David, king in Jerusalem”—hence Solomon, and this is the traditional view of both Jews and Christians. However, many scholars, including a number of conservatives, have argued that, while the purported speaker is Solomon, it was actually written long after his day. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that Solomon wrote it himself, probably in his old age, as he was looking back on the happy early years of his reign and regretting his tragic failures in his later years. He could give wise counsel if anyone ever could, concerning the “vanity” of a life centered “under the sun,” in contrast to a life dedicated to the spiritual realm “above the sun.”
The deeper purpose of Ecclesiastes seems to be to convince younger people of the futility of worldly learning, riches and pleasures, as ends in themselves, with the goal of exhorting them to “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
The book contains a number of striking scientific insights (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7; 3:14,15; 11:5), as well as powerful theological truths (Ecclesiastes 3:11; 4:13; 7:20; 11:1). There are numerous individual wise sayings, similar in style to the book of Proverbs. Indeed, the Preacher claims to have “sought out, and set in order many proverbs” (Ecclesiastes 12:9).
Despite the book’s enigmatic questioning of a future life, the Preacher never doubts the existence of God or a future judgment (note the final verses of the book—Ecclesiastes 12:13,14). In sum, the book of Ecclesiastes, despite its superficial pessimism, is actually a fascinating treasure of deeper spiritual insights and faith.
1:2 Vanity. The words “vanity,” “vanities,” and “vain” (all the same Hebrew word) occur no less than thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes, almost as much as in all the rest of the Bible put together.
1:3 under the sun. This phrase, “under the sun” occurs twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes. If one’s thoughts and motives are all “under the sun,” then indeed everything is vanity. Each believer is exhorted to “set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2).
1:4 earth abideth for ever. This is one of many biblical affirmations that God created the earth to last forever. Like our mortal bodies, it must be made new again, but once renewed, it will abide forever.
1:5 sun goeth down. Just as modern astronomers, in their everyday speech, talk of the sun rising and sun setting, so the Biblical writers, following the principle of relative motion, use similar terminology. This is scientifically pragmatic, not “unscientific.”
1:6 whirleth about continually. This is a remarkable anticipation of the modern discovery of the world’s great wind circuits, in the global circulation of the atmosphere.
1:7 thither they return. Similarly, this is an excellent summary of the earth’s amazing hydrologic cycle, as confirmed scientifically only in modern times.
1:7 from whence they come. For a long time it was believed that rain waters came by evaporation from local lakes and rivers. Meteorologists have now proved by extensive upper-air research that they come from oceanic evaporation, just as this passage indicates.
1:9 no new thing. There is no new thing under the sun, since God has completed His creation (Genesis 2:1-3). But God is above the sun, and He can still create “new things” by miracles (e.g., Numbers 16:30; Jeremiah 31:22).
1:14 all the works. King Solomon, the Preacher, had the greatest wealth, the greatest wisdom, the greatest power, and the greatest sensual pleasures and comforts of just about any man who ever lived. Yet when these works were done only “under the sun” (and this is the recurring theme of Ecclesiastes), it was soon found by him all to be done in vain, and merely vexed his spirit, rather than satisfying it.
1:14 all is vanity. “Vanity” in this book, does not mean foolish pride, of course (although Solomon surely had much he could boast about), but rather the emptiness of life when lived outside the will of God.
1:18 is much grief. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon extolled wisdom and knowledge; in Ecclesiastes, he says it only brings trouble. The difference is that in the one he is speaking of true wisdom and knowledge, as founded on “the fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). In the other, he is lamenting the futility of the pseudo-wisdom and knowledge falsely so called of those who build on humanistic or pantheistic foundations.