We begin our study of Ecclesiastes in chapter 1. The writer of Ecclesiastes is King Solomon. Even though he does not identify himself by name, the evidence points to him. For example he calls himself “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as an old man reflecting on his life. In the first section of Ecclesiastes (1:1-11), Solomon presents his thesis of this book: “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). Vanity of vanities is a Hebrew idiom which means “greatest of vanities”. This idiom can take on many forms. For example, it is also used for Song of Songs (greatest of Songs), Holy of Holies (greatest of holies), and King of Kings (greatest of kings).” When the writer of Ecclesiastes uses the word vanity, he means “fleeting and frustrating.” Therefore, vanity of vanity captures the magnitude of the meaninglessness of life.
The Futility of the Natural Order
Solomon reflects on the fleeting and frustrating nature of man’s toil under the sun. He wrote: “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” (1:3-4). Sure, humans are busy doing various things but what is actually accomplished? All life is fleeting and a vapor. Solomon uses two examples to show the futility/vanity of life. He speaks of the vanity of the natural world and the vanity of the natural man.
The Vanity of the Natural World
Solomon first mentions the Sun. He said, “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises” (1:5). Everyday the sun goes up and comes down. Up and down, up and down. He then mentions wind: “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” (1:6). Jesus said it this way, “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). Next, Solomon mentions water: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (1:7). What is Solomon’s point? He is showing the vanity of the world around us in the endless repetition of natural seasons and cycles. For us in Scott City, our year starts cold and then it gets hotter and then it gets colder. April and May have a lot of rain. The natural world just keeps going on and on and on without any stop.
The Vanity of the Natural Man
Solomon next turns his attention away from the vanity of what is going on around us to the vanity of what is happening in us. He speaks of the mouth. He says, “All things are full of weariness, the mouth cannot speak of it.” He next talks about the vanity of our eyes and ears. He wrote: “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Life is fleeting and frustrating because the eye is never satisfied with what it sees and the ear is not satisfied with what it hears. Listen to Solomon’s pronouncements: “A generation goes, and a generation comes”, “all things are full of weariness”, “there is nothing new under the sun”, “there is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Man just continues on unsatisfied.
The Fruitfulness of the Natural Order
Solomon reflected on the fleeting and frustrating nature of man’s toil under the sun. Jesus is redeeming the natural order and will fully remake it at His second coming. While we are on this earth, Christians are given work to do that accomplishes God’s will and mission of redemption. Let’s see how this works in the natural world and in the natural man.
The Glory of God in the Natural World
The heavens declare the futility of life by revealing that it is not self-fulfilling. In order for life to have meaning it must be lived in a right relationship with God. Therefore, by declaring the futility of life, the heavens also declare the glory of God. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” The sun, which rises and sets everyday, serves as a reminder of God’s power in creation (Gen 1). It also serves to remind us of God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah prophesied the Lord’s message: “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar–the Lord of hosts is His name. If this fixed order departs from before Me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before Me forever” (Jer 31:35-36).
The sun’s light testifies about Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Water testifies about Jesus. Jesus said, “If any man thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37). The wind testifies about Jesus. Jesus used the wind to illustrate the Spirit of God which regenerates a person causing them to be born again (John 3:3).
The Glory of God in the Natural Man
The natural man continues unsatisfied and needs to die and be born again. You must “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24). Each generation comes and goes because God knew that it was not good for man to have a sinful nature and live forever. The brevity of life serves to restrain sin and remind us of our need to be reconciled to God. The natural man’s mouth, ears, and eyes need to be redeemed so that they can find satisfaction in Jesus Christ.
Life should not be expected to be self-fulfilling because life only has meaning when it is lived in a right relationship with God. Wisdom, pleasure, work, relationships, and wealth are unable to satisfy us because God designed us to find our satisfaction in Him. Augustine said of God, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” J. Vernon McGee wrote, “Man has tried to be happy without God; it is being tried every day by millions of people. This book shows the absurdity of the attempt.”