1The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:
2“Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”;
3What does man gain by all his labor at which he works under the sun?
4A generation comes, and a generation goes, yet the earth remains forever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down, and it hurries to the place at which it rises.
6The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns again.
7All streams flow the sea, and yet the sea is not full; to the place where streams flow, there they flow again.
8All things are tiresome; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been will be, and what has been done will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there a thing about which it is said, “Look! This is new!”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things; nor will there be any remembrance of things to come among those who come after.
The Teacher begins a search for meaning, and quickly observes that life and labor are but a vapor. They seem insignificant next to the eternality of the setting. Though we seem to experience new things, there are no real new things. It’s all happened before, and will happen again, and we’ll be just as dumb that time around too and won’t remember it.
Tradition holds that the author of Ecclesiastes is Solomon, known elsewhere in scripture as the “Teacher.” The author here is identified as the “son of David” in verse 1, for example. However, this does not necessarily mean that it’s literally Solomon; signing a Big Shot’s name to your writings was a common occurrence in ancient times. This author further identifies himself as קֹהֶ֣לֶת (“qoheleth”), which means “speaker in the assembly.” This is why he’s known as “The Teacher,” similar to the author of the Proverbs. This book, which is actually titled “Qoheleth” in Hebrew, is an example of “Wisdom Literature” in the Bible. This a special type of literature that focuses on the writer’s observations of humanity, God, existence, and everyday living. It is not meant to always be a “strict application to your life” type of literature, and should not be read that way. As we make our way through Ecclesiastes together, try to put yourself in the Teacher’s shoes and notice life the way he does. Don’t get hung up on your emotional reaction to his observations, and don’t be in too big a hurry to find a cheap and easy “meaning” that fits nicely in your back pocket to apply to your life that day. Rather, consider what life really is—what human beings are really like, who God really is, how history works. Observe it with the Teacher, and let God enrich your life accordingly as time progresses. Remember that Jesus not only quoted from Jewish Wisdom literature like this—but more importantly, taught in this manner quite a bit. It has been theorized, even, that the rabbi of his village in Nazareth when he was a child must have been an expert in Wisdom literature, given how similar his teaching style is (and that of his brother, James).
In this first section, the Teacher sets out to find meaning in life. He observes that mankind spends an awful lot of time working, and wonders if meaning can be found in that labor. But the Teacher describes it all as “vanity.” The Hebrew word for vanity can literally be translated “vapor or breath.” So the Teacher notices that all of life, including man’s labor, is vaporous. It doesn’t last long at all, particularly in comparison to the setting of the story (the earth). The sun, the streams, the wind—all of nature continues unabated as it always has, and seems to continue eternally from his perspective. But humanity is a breath; life is a vapor. The Teacher further notes that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything is cyclical; all of humanity’s “progress” has been accomplished before, and has proven to be a vapor or a vanity. We think, for example, that pornography is a “new” phenomenon that ancient people didn’t know about. But pornography has been around since ancient times, and it’s not new. The “sexual revolution” of 1965 seemed like a new thing—even like “progress” to its adherents—but the Greeks and Romans had done all of this in ancient times. We invent new toys and gadgets, but mostly they are just for satisfying some strange longing deep within ourselves, rather than any actual “progress.” Everything that is happening now has happened before; the stuff you’re living through now will happen again the future.
When I was a teenager, the threat from the Soviet Union was palpable. We all lived in a dangerous world in which there was a serious enemy who wanted us destroyed, and his favored system of government was communism—where the government is in charge, and takes people’s property and redistributes it as it sees fit. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1991 and communism was finally defeated, most of us observing it thought, “Wow! That’s awesome! Now the world can be safe again!” But much of the American voting public has forgotten what those nuclear bomb drills were like in the 70s and 80s. They’ve forgotten how dangerous it is to place the government in charge of anything. They’ve forgotten the connection between safety and private property. And they are prepared at all times to vote for the same type of government that the Soviet Union championed. It’s disheartening to watch the whole country have to learn the hard way why this was a mistake. Or, as the Teacher puts it in verse 8, it’s “tiresome.” We repeat history. We can’t help it. Our ideas, our lives, our labors—they’re just vapors.
If we look for meaning in ourselves—in our government ideas, our longings, our appetites, our experiences—we will be as disappointed as the Teacher was when he finally observed the vaporous nature of existence. True meaning TRANSCENDS us. It is above us. It is not found IN us, but rather outside of us. As Christians, we would understand that true meaning is found in Christ.
Are you looking for meaning in all the wrong places today? Or are you looking for meaning in the One who predates you, is transcendent and above you? You and all of the rest of humanity will surely disappoint you if you look for meaning there.