Vanity of Vanities – Ecclesiastes 1:1-18


How many Christians, do you suppose, have really studied this book? I wonder how many have even read this book more than a time or two. We are going to try to remedy that oversight beginning this evening.

One reason why Ecclesiastes isn’t read more than once is due to it’s strange presentation. Most people haven’t got the slightest idea on how to read this book. First, unlike most of the Bible, it can be depressing. The Jews were not even sure they wanted it in their scriptures. And at times it seems to teach exactly the opposite of the rest of the Bible. Verse 4 is an example – “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Generations succeed one another – I get that. But, the earth abideth for ever? Doesn’t the Book of Revelation say that the world as we know it will be burned up and cast away?

The key to the understanding of this book is found in the biography of Solomon. The penman of Ecclesiastes is David’s royal son. Verse 1 – “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Most of your Bibles have a subtitle under “Ecclesiastes” which says, “The Preacher.” The title “Ecclesiastes” is a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word which is traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher.” Haven’t we been hearing a lot of Solomon’s meddling, I mean “preaching,” in his Book of Proverbs? Ecclesiastes might be looked upon as a sequel to Proverbs – or is it more accurately a prequel?

When we grasp the direction of Solomon’s life, we can understand these statements from the “preacher.” Like Jonah, Solomon fled from the presence of the Lord for a period of his life, and this book is a part of process of his return. The Lord doesn’t want any of His people in the gutter, whether physically or spiritually. Sometimes He loves us out of that gutter, sometimes He beats us out and sometimes He humiliates us out. And in Solomon we see a gradual ascension until he says: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into Judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

Because Solomon’s life parallels so many in the 21st Century, Solomon’s ascension is worth our study. We shall not look at every verse in the book. In fact we may go through it rapidly – I haven’t decided. But we shall begin by looking at chapter 1 as representing all 12 chapters.

Let’s start with a brief exposition.

Verse 1 – Some “scholars” mistakenly say that this preacher was not Solomon, but they are obviously wrong. Assuming we didn’t know already, whoever this preacher was, he was very rich and of above average intelligence. And he tells us he is the son of David, so that narrows the list down to a couple of dozen possibilities. I think the verse declares that this preacher was Jerusalem’s king, although some say it refers to David.

But why does he call himself “the preacher?” I suppose he does so, for the same reason some people call me “preacher.” He calls himself the preacher because he is scattering the knowledge which he has gathered. He is teaching in a special, authoritative sort of way. We know that Solomon had several names: He was “Solomon” to David and Bathsheba. But he was “Jedidiah” as named by the Lord. He was also “Lemuel” as found in the Book of Proverbs. And the Jews say that he was also: “Agur,” “Ithiel” and “Koheleth.” And “Koheleth” can be translated “preacher.”

Solomon, we know, married idolatrous wives and through them was dragged into idolatry and indulgence. After his intellectual and spiritual experimentation, he repented of his sin and began to proclaim the truth. In this he was much like Nebuchadnezar, but much closer to home. It appears that after the return of his sanity, he chose to use the name “Koheleth.” He now has a new life which he wants to commemorate with a different name. Now he can give us the Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes. For whatever the reason, he is now a preacher of righteousness.

And like a many sermons, his message begins with an ear-catching statement “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Verse 2 – The proposition he lays down is that life is an empty void – vanity. The preacher declares the emptiness of earthly things – based upon the experiments he has run. In comparison to the depths of the Creator, this now-corrupted creation is soul-less. Based upon life’s fickle, fluid, transitory nature, all is vanity. Pride is vain, wealth is vain, even health is temporary.

And, he says, “I’ve found nothing in this world to make men truly and eternally happy” verse 3. The word “labour” opens up a separate cupboard of thought. It implies that the world of business and labor does not provide much real satisfaction. The money we earn is eaten up by inflation and taxes. The new widget that we invent and manufacture will be improved and replaced by someone else. Under the hot sun we labor, and by the sweat of our face we earn our bread, but then tomorrow we’ll be hungry again and have to repeat the process. “Labour” could also be applied to various kinds of recreation that some of us have. Some people work really hard to have fun. Does our fun today, give us joy next week? It all has to be repeated if not actually improved.

Verse 4 If by the sweat of our brow we gather a few things together before we die… When we depart, there is someone else to enjoy the fruit of our labors. Hopefully, it will be someone we have loved – perhaps our children, but that is not always the case. And certainly, our lives are only “a vapour that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away.” It seems that only the earth itself carries on after us.

Verse 5 – The sun goes through its motions daily and just starts all over again. The wind repeats its seasonal trips around the earth – verse 6. All the water in the seas and rivers just trade places over and over again – verse 7. And like these things, the desires of man just go around and around and around. We cannot even take pleasure in our inventions. “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” Verse 11 – and again – the things we do today will all be forgotten tomorrow or next year. Talk about a sad and gloomy position.

How did wise Solomon ever get into a melancholy frame of mind like this?

Of course, there are times when everyone gets a little defeated and depressed. I think it comes with being human and having emotions which we sometimes inappropriately apply. Maybe we’ve made big plans and something upsets those plans. Like tons of rain during the week that you planned to be tenting. Or a bad cold which comes up on our vacation. Maybe we’ve gone out of our way to make friends, but now they turn on us and attack us. Perhaps its nothing major, but just a thousand little things that go wrong all at once. And that last straw was too much for the old camel. Or perhaps as the cliche says, we’ve just gotten out of the wrong side of the bed.

In Solomon’s case having too many THINGS got him into trouble. His money enabled him to try every pleasure that his society had to offer. I have read that one humanity’s most miserable people, Caligula, often spent $400,000 for a meal. Xerxes had armies, fleets, victories and wealth, but said that he’d reward the man who could bring him ne good pleasure. A famous comedian said that he had often laughed until he wished he’d never laugh again. He had made others laugh until he hated them for being such fools. He had been with men of genius, but they said nothing that he wanted to hear. Vanity, it is all vanity in my life. Goethe (Gurta) said, “They call me a child of fortune, but in all my 75 years I’ve not had 4 weeks of true comfort.”

Maybe people’s depression comes from a single, especially painful, experience. Look at Israel in the wilderness and see their ups and downs. Study Israel under the Judges. Look at the lives of good people – saints like Elijah or David.

This statement of Solomon could be the product of intellectual, philosophical reflection. And that points out one of the problems of philosophy –they are made of fallible human logic. There has been more than one civilization characterized by pessimism. Some people feel that they can do anything, but they actually do nothing. And Solomon, as he begins his restoration, is in a “nothing” mood.

On the other hand this could be the cry of his conscience. Have you ever wilfully disobeyed the Lord, or your boss, or some other person of authority? And after the glow of the excitement died down, you found yourself really miserable? How many suicides leave a note that sounds vaguely like Solomon’s? Often it is guilt which wrote the note and took the life.

And there is one other possible explanation for Solomon’s problem. These could be the words of Holy Spirit conviction – recognized or unrecognized. Students of science look at a set of facts and make a certain conclusions. The student of the Spirit looks at the same facts and says, “but this isn’t enough.” Is the Spirit is telling Solomon, “This is nothing”?

The things of this earth may be vanity, but….

What saith the scriptures? “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…” What does Jesus say in Matthew 6:19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth….” Solomon is simply giving to more fuel to those fires. Solomon’s father said, “Teach us, Lord, to number our days upon this earth.” Jesus said, “We must work the works of God while it is yet day.” “Let not the rich man glory in his riches, neither let the mighty man glory in his might…”

If what Solomon says is true, and we believe that in its proper perspective, it is… It means that all the more, our wills must be brought into harmony with the Lord. We can do His will even in all the secularlities of daily life. There is the difference between work that shrivels up and work that lasts. There is a little chorus which says, “Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

One important application is that Solomon knew what he was saying. So, there is no reason for us to make the same experiments and mistakes that this man made. When the label on the bottle says “Poison” believe that word and don’t drink it. You don’t have to die testing the experiment another has thoroughly tested.

Let us take Solomon at his word; let us “seek first the kingdom of God.” “How vain is all beneath the skies; how transient every earthly bliss. How slender all the fondest ties; that bind us to a world like this. The evening cloud, the morning dew; the writhing grass, the fading flower, Of earthly hopes are emblems true; the glory of a passing hour, But though earth’s fairest blossoms die, and all beneath the skies is vain. There is a brighter world on high, beyond the reach of care and pain; Then let the hope of joys to come, dispel our cares and chase our fears; If God be ours were traveling home, though passing through a vale of tears.”