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Ecclesiastes 1

PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS*

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
The Futility of All Endeavour The Vanity of Life Title and Thesis Life is Useless Prologue
1:1-2 1:1-11 1:1-11 1:1 1:1-8
  (1)      
  (2)      
  (3-8)      
      1:2-11  
1:3-11        
  (9-11)     1:9-11
The Futility of Wisdom The Grief of Wisdom The Search for Wisdom The Philosopher's Experience
(1:12-2:26)
Solomon
(1:12-2:26)
1:12-18 1:12-15 1:12-18 1:12-13a 1:12-15
  (12-14)      
      1:13b-15  
  (15)      
  1:16-18   1:16-18 1:16-18
  (16-17)      
  (18)      

* Although they are not inspired, paragraph divisions are the key to understanding and following the original author's intent. Each modern translation has divided and summarized the paragraphs. Every paragraph has one central topic, truth, or thought. Each version encapsulates that topic in its own distinct way. As you read the text, ask yourself which translation fits your understanding of the subject and verse divisions.
 In every chapter we must read the Bible first and try to identify its subjects (paragraphs), then compare our understanding with the modern versions. Only when we understand the original author's intent by following his logic and presentation can we truly understand the Bible. Only the original author is inspired—readers have no right to change or modify the message. Bible readers do have the responsibility of applying the inspired truth to their day and their lives.
  Note that all technical terms and abbreviations are explained fully in the following documents: Brief Definitions of Greek Grammatical StructureTextual Criticism, and Glossary.

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentarywhich means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

 

BACKGROUND

A. Ecclesiastes is a part of the literary genre known as "Wisdom Literature" (see Introductory Articles).

 

B. It is characterized by a practical orientation to daily life without reference to the historical acts of God or the cultus of Israel.

 

C. I personally do not believe Solomon is the author (see Introduction, Authorship), although I think he is used in Chapter 1 and 2 as a literary foil (cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes, pp. 8-17), someone who had it all but was not happy!

 

D. This is one book that must be taken as a whole. It is a sustained argument through chapter 12. It must not be prooftexted or great theological contradictions occur.

 

E. The key to interpreting the book is the phrase "under the sun." The author is going to analyze life with and without God. He is challenging traditional religious philosophy.

 

F. The author uses natural revelation (i.e., Ps. 19:1-6), not special revelation (i.e., Ps. 19:7-14; 119), to examine life. The name YHWH does not appear at all in this book, but the general name for God, Elohim (see Special Topic: Names for God at Eccl. 1:13). This is true of most Biblical wisdom books.

 

G. This teacher does not provide answers so much as he asks the right questions, the tough questions about mankind's existence. He is not afraid to challenge traditional thoughts and traditions.

 

H. Chapters 1-2 can be seen as a list of things that humans seek which they think will give them joy and contentment, but without God life cannot be full!

1. wisdom, 1:13-18

2.pleasure, 2:1-3

3. possessions, 2:4-8a

4. sex, 2:8b

5. summary, 2:9-11

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 1:1-2
 1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
 2"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher,
 "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

1:1 "the Preacher" There is no Definite Article here, although it does appear in Eccl. 7:27; 12:8. This is a function more than a title. The best translation would be "professor" or "teacher" (BDB 875). See Introduction, Name of the Book, C and Authorship, F.

▣ "the son of David" This verse and verse 12 imply that this is speaking of Solomon, but other references throughout the book do not fit Solomon. I believe that an unknown wisdom teacher(s) used Solomon's wisdom, wealth, power, and position as a literary foil to critique life. See Introduction, Authorship, C.

1:2 "vanity of vanities" This is a Hebrew superlative (cf. Eccl. 1:2 and 12:8). The word means "vapor," "breath," or "mist" (BDB 210 I, cf. James 4:14). Its emphasis is either (1) nothingness or (2) the transitoriness of human life. The context supports the latter (cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes, p. 41).

This is a key term and recurrent phrase in this book (cf. Eccl. 1:2,14; 2:1,11,15,17,19,21,23,26; 3:19; 4:4,7,8,16; 5:7,10; 6:2,4,9,11,12; 7:6,15; 8:10,14; 9:9; 11:8,10; 12:8). The term is used sparingly in other wisdom books; Job, 5 times; Psalms, 9 times; and Proverbs, 3 times.

For different theories about how it views the strong statements in this book, see Introduction, Authorship, H. I prefer option #1. This theological presupposition will be the grid through which I interpret the book.

▣ "all is vanity" Notice the root, "vanity" (BDB 210 I), is used five times in this one verse! The Handbook on Ecclesiastes by UBS, says the term should be understood as

1. incomprehensible

2. enigmatic

3. mysterious

4. impossible to understand

Therefore, it communicates the reality that life is full of unanswerable questions (p. 4). The person knowledgeable in wisdom will know this, but will continue to trust God and keep His commandments.

This refers to the uncertain and unpredictable activities of life. These are a result of fallen humanity trying to live life in his own strength, independent from God. This is the condition left by the Fall (cf. Genesis 3)!

The Hebrew term "all" (BDB 481), often translated "everything," is a common word, but is used unusually often in Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccl. 9 times in chapter 1; 17 times in chapter 2; 13 times in chapter 3, etc.). Qoheleth uses this inclusive language to express his theological emphasis on

1. God's control and sovereignty

2. human ineffectiveness and transitoriness

 

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT 1:3-11
 3What advantage does man have in all his work
 Which he does under the sun?
 4A generation goes and a generation comes,
 But the earth remains forever.
 5Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
 And hastening to its place it rises there again.
 6Blowing toward the south,
 Then turning toward the north,
 The wind continues swirling along;
 And on its circular courses the wind returns.
 7All the rivers flow into the sea,
 Yet the sea is not full.
 To the place where the rivers flow,
 There they flow again.
 8All things are wearisome;
 Man is not able to tell it.
 The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
 Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
 9That which has been is that which will be,
 And that which has been done is that which will be done.
 So there is nothing new under the sun.
 10Is there anything of which one might say,
 "See this, it is new"?
 Already it has existed for ages  
 Which were before us.
  11There is no remembrance of earlier things;
 And also of the later things which will occur,
 There will be for them no remembrance
 Among those who will come later still.

1:3 "what advantage does man have in all his works" All human work and all other things are meaningless if there is no God (atheistic humanism). We are the chance result of physical forces. There is no purpose, no meaning, no afterlife, no god, just the physical universe (atheistic naturalism).

NASB"advantage"
NKJV, NJB"profit"
NRSV"gain"
TEV"what do you have to show for it"

This root (BDB 451-452) has several meanings:

1. I - reminder, excess, pre-eminence

2. II - cord, rope, bowstring

3. III - abundance

The form here is found only in Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccl. 1:3; 2:11,13[twice]; 3:9; 5:8,15; 7:12; 10:11,11; another form of the term is a substantive from the Qal participle, cf. Eccl. 6:11; 7:11,16; 12:9,12). It is obviously a key term because it describes the goal of mankind's search! The Handbook on Ecclesiastes by UBS, suggests it refers to eternity or the afterlife, possibly "a lasting benefit" (pp. 5-6).

The word "toil" (BDB 765), used twice, has several connotations. The root can mean

1. trouble, sorrow

2. trouble, mischief

3. toil, labor

In this context #3 fits best, but one feels the presence of the other connotations in the root (there are several verses where the root is used twice (1:3; 2:10,11,18,19,20,21,22; 4:8; 5:18; 9:9).

1:3, 9, 13, 14 "under the sun" This is the key phrase (Preposition, DBD 1065; Definite Article and Noun, DBD 1039) in interpreting the entire book. It is used twenty-five times. It reflects mankind's efforts without God. Qoheleth examines physical life (by observation, i.e. natural revelation) and comes to the conclusion that it is vanity (cf. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 228).

1:4ff This begins a poetic stanza:

1. NASB - vv. 3-11

2. NKJV - vv. 3-11

3. NRSV - vv.1-11

4. TEV - prose

5. NJB - prose

6. JPSOA - vv. 2-9

7. NIV - vv. 3-11

8. REB - prose

It is obvious that the genre and structure are not easy to identify and outline.

1:4 The phrase "remains forever" is used in a relative sense (cf. Exod. 21:6).

This verse is expressing the fleetingness of conscious life (cf. Job 14:2; Ps. 90:5-6; 103:15-16; Isa. 40:6-7) versus the stability of the spiritual creation (as an aspect of YHWH's permanence, cf. Ps. 104:5; 119:90).

SPECIAL TOPIC: FOREVER ('OLAM)

1:5 Psalm 19:6 presents this same truth in great poetic majesty, but here the sun's daily task is seen as vain, meaningless, wearisome repetition.

▣ "hastening" This can mean "panting" (BDB 983 I, Qal active participle), as in weariness or desire (i.e., Ps. 119:131). This is the first in a series of eleven Qal active participles reflecting nature (cf. Eccl. 1:5-7).

1:6 The Septuagint and Vulgate relate the first part of this verse to the sun, but in context it refers to the wind (a word play with "vanity") as another meaningless activity (as is the flowing of rivers to the sea).

1:8 "All things are wearisome" Physical creation is in a repetitive, mysterious routine (i.e., Eccl. 1:9):

1. human life, Eccl. 1:4

2. heavenly bodies, Eccl. 1:5

3. wind, Eccl. 1:6

4. rivers, Eccl. 1:7

This premise is the author's first and primary presupposition about earthly existence (i.e., "there is nothing new or significant in an endless cycle of physical creation"). The principle is begun in Eccl. 1:8a and followed by three explanatory phrases:

1. man cannot tell it

2. eye is not satisfied in seeing it

3. ear is not filled with hearing it

These describe the generations that come and go (cf. Eccl. 1:4a). They all experience

1. the cycles in nature

2. frustrations at the mysteries of fallen existence

3. seeking answers but not finding them (another cycle)

 

NASB"man is not able to tell it"
NKJV"man cannot express it"
NRSV"more than one can express"
TEV"a weariness too great for words"
REB"no one can describe them all"
LXX"a man will not be able to speak of them"

The author's list of meaningless repetition in nature could be multiplied endlessly. The implication is not only fallen human's inability to state clearly the meaninglessness and hopelessness brought about by the cycles of nature, but also the sense of purposelessness it brings to human existence!

Humans cannot tell because they do not know (apart from divine revelation).

1:9 "That which has been is that which will be" This refers to meaningless repetition with no apparent purpose or attainable goal (this is sarcasm of humanity without God. Compare Isa. 55:6-13!). This describes humanistic atheism and, for that matter, eastern religious philosophy (i.e., wheel of karma).

▣ "there is nothing new under the sun" This repeated theme is the key to interpreting the book. The author is showing the meaninglessness and hopelessness of life without God; without purpose; without eternity! The readers are forced to contemplate human existence, earthly life, if there is no God!

This is where the modern issue over origins takes on its sharpest focus. Is the universe, in all its size, power, and violence all there was, all there is, and all there will be? Is human life an accident, a passing purposeless evolution of constant change? Is change the only absolute? This is the ultimate question of human worth, dignity, and divine image!

1:10 "See this, it is new" "See" (BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal imperative) is from a supposed objector. He is answered by his faulty remembrance of history (cf. Eccl. 1:10- 11). The only constant is the empty repetition (both physical and existential).

1:11

NASB"earlier things"
NKJV"former things"
NRSV"people of long ago"
TEV"what happened in the past"
NJB"of the past"

This masculine plural adjective (BDB 911) refers to people, Lev. 26:45; Deut. 19; Ps. 79:8, while the feminine plural refers to events, Isa. 41:22; 42:9; 43:9; 46:9; 48:3; and possibly 61:4. Therefore, the NRSV has the better translation.

This verse is characterized well by Robert Gordis, Koheleth, the Man and His World, a Study of Ecclesiastes, p. 208, as "This verse gives the reason for Eccl. 1:10. Things appear new only because the past is forgotten (Levy) - an additional element in the vanity of human existence; not only can nothing be accomplished, but the memory of the effort is wiped out (Hertz)."

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT1:12-15
 12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 14I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. 15What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

1:12 "the preacher" See note at Eccl. 1:1.

▣ "have been king" This is the first of several reasons why Solomon was not the author, but a literary foil (see Introduction, IV. Authorship, C).

The verb "was" (BDB 224, KB 243, Qal perfect) is used often in the previous paragraph (Eccl. 1:9 [twice], Eccl. 1:10 [six times]). Time implications in Hebrew verbs must be determined from the context. The perfect tense implies a past condition, not a current one. Was there ever a time when Solomon was not king after once becoming king? The rabbis felt this problem and surmised that Solomon experienced a judgment similar to Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Daniel 4) and was removed from active leadership over Israel for a period of time (Targum on Eccl. 1:12; J. Sanhedrin 20c). This is just supposition and imagination trying to explain away the grammatical features of this text.

1:13 "mind" This is literally "heart."

SPECIAL TOPIC: THE HEART

▣ "seek" This word means "seek with application" (BDB 205, KB 233, Qal infinitive construct, cf. Ps. 111:2; 119:45).

▣ "explore" This word means "to investigate" or "to go to the root of a matter" (BDB 1064, KB 1707, Qal infinitive construct, cf. Eccl. 7:25). It was used often of exploring the land of Canaan (cf. Numbers 13).

▣ "wisdom" There are two words used in Wisdom Literature related to knowing. A good example is Prov. 1:7:

1. knowledge (BDB 395)

2. wisdom (BDB 315)

They form a complementary pair. One focuses on practical living and the other on academic knowledge. They are both needed to live life well. They should not be contrasted, but sought (cf. Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10; 15:33).

▣ "concerning all that has been done under heaven" See note at Eccl. 1:3. This is a key concept, crucial for a proper interpretation of the book. It is parallel to the phrase "under the sun."

▣ "God" This is the Hebrew name Elohim. This is the only name used for deity in the book.

SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY

NASB"It is a grievous task"
NKJV"this grievous task"
NRSV"it is an unhappy business"
TEV"a miserable fate"
NJB"what a wearisome task"
LXX"an evil trouble" 

The word "task" (BDB 775) is used several times in the book (cf. Eccl. 2:26; 3:10; 5:3; 8:16). God has given humans, made in His image (i.e., Gen. 1:26-27), a desire to know and understand their place and purpose in creation, but sin has destroyed our ability to find the answer.

The adjective (BDB 948) basically means "evil" or "bad." It is used several times in the book (cf. Eccl. 1:13; 2:17; 4:3,8; 5:1,14; 6:2; 8:3,5,9,11,12; 9:2,3[twice],12; 10:13; 12:14) to describe life!

God has given humans who are made in His image an insatiable desire to know, to understand, but it cannot be satisfied in this fallen world. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a disaster, not a blessing! We know evil and ignorance, but not God or ultimate questions. Life is a mystery!

1:14 "under the sun" See note at Eccl. 1:3. Notice the number of times this phrase or a parallel phrase is used (cf. Eccl. 1:3,9,13,14; 2:11,17,18,19,20,22; 3:16; 4:1,3,7,15; 5:13,18; 6:1,5,12; 7:11; 8:15[twice],17; 9:3,9[twice],11,13; 10:5). This is "the" key theological phrase to understanding the book!

▣ "all is vanity and striving after wind" This is another repeated phrase (and parallel) which characterizes this book (cf. Eccl. 1:2,14; 2:1,11,15,17,19,21,23,26; 3:19; 4:4,6,8,16; 5:7,16; 6:2,4,9,11; 7:6,15; 8:10,14[twice]; 9:9; 11:8,10; 12:8). See word study at Eccl. 1:17. It characterizes human's search for meaning, happiness, and purpose without God. Life without God in a fallen world is frustrating and empty! Life with God in a fallen world is mysterious and unexplainable! Our hope is in the unseen God of revelation (Scripture). He has revealed Himself, but we still live in a fallen world and reap its chaos and evil!

1:15 "crooked. . .straightened" "Crooked" (BDB 736) and "straight" (BDB 1075, KB 1784, Qal infinitive construct) are often used in moral senses. They form the basis for the Hebrew concepts of righteousness and sin. This may be an oft quoted proverb (cf. NIV).

Not only can fallen mankind (even covenant humanity) not "know" or "find," but they cannot "fix." Life is a mystery and it cannot be understood or changed by those walking through it. In historical context, this may be a slap at divination or simply a realistic statement of mankind's inability to correct the human condition (but God can, cf. Eccl. 7:13; Job 12:14; Isa. 14:27). Wisdom knows some things cannot be changed and goes on with life, but it also knows some things can be changed by godly living, godly choices. The problem is knowing which is which!

SPECIAL TOPIC: RIGHTEOUSNESS

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT1:16-18
 16I said to myself, "Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge." 17And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. 18Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

1:16 "I said to myself" This statement reflects the ego problem in the human search for wisdom and happiness. The essence of the Fall (i.e. Gen. 3) was "self-centered independence from God." This characterizes our fallen world. A life turned inward toward "me," "mine" can never find God's wisdom and God's peace (even a Davidic king)!

1:16; 2:7,12 "more than all who were over Jerusalem" This is another example of how Solomon will not historically fit as author. Only David preceded him. See Introduction, Authorship, C.

1:17

NASB, NRSV"I applied my mind"
NKJV"I set my heart"
TEV"I was determined"
NJB"I have applied myself"

This theme of sincere, dedicated, aggressive human effort (cf. Eccl. 1:13,17; 8:9,16) is not enough to find wisdom or purpose in an ever-changing, yet always the same, physical creation.

▣ "to know" This verb (BDB 393, KB 390) is used three times in this context (two are Qal infinitive constructs and one is a Qal perfect verb).

SPECIAL TOPIC: KNOW (using mostly Deuteronomy as a paradigm)

▣ "wisdom. . .madness and folly" These contrasting pairs:

1. wisdom - BDB 315

2. madness- BDB 239 (cf. Eccl. 9:3)

3. folly - BDB 698

show the futility of mankind's search for ultimate answers about the mysteries of human existence (cf. Eccl. 2:12). Biblical faith is not a human search, but a divine revelation. God wants His special creatures to know Him, but without faith and revelation, it is impossible (i.e., "striving after the wind")!

NASB"striving after the wind"
NKJV"grasping for the wind"
NRSV, NJB"chasing after wind"
TEV"chasing the wind"

This construct (BDB 946 [KB 1265 II] and 924) can mean:

1. search for pleasure

2. pasturing (i.e., controlling, cf. A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, p. 4), which is an impossible task

From 1:14 it is obvious that "vanity" (BDB 210 I) and "wind" (BDB 924) are synonymous/parallel.

1:18 "in much wisdom there is much grief" This, like Eccl. 1:15, may be a well known proverb from the sages. The search for meaning and happiness cannot be accomplished without God (cf. Eccl. 2:23; 12:12; 1 Cor. 13:2). As a matter of fact, it becomes maddening!

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Who is the author?

2. What was his purpose in writing this book?

3. Is he a pessimist or cynic?

4. What is the key phrase in interpreting this book? Why?