A Disappointing Discovery

From experience, the Preacher learned that man is powerless (1:1-2:26), Part 1

Discouragement, despair, and disappointment. It brings to mind the words of an American folk song:

Gloom, despair, and agony on me;

Deep dark depression, excessive misery;

If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all...

Discouragement, despair, and disappointment. 'When Solomon was old,... his wives turned his heart away after other gods' (1 Kings 11:4). Intriguingly, the Old Testament writers refer to idols ('other gods') as 'vanities' (or, 'empty things,' 'nothings;' Deut. 32:21; 1 Kings 16:13, 26). The Preacher employs the same Hebrew word for 'vanities' in the Book of Ecclesiastes. As an old man, the wisest, most accomplished and wealthy king of Israel discovers that life no longer possesses meaning. All satisfaction vanishes (Eccles. 1:8; 4:8; 5:10; 6:7; 12:1). Solomon, Israel's most powerful king, feels powerless - unable to control his life, unable to control what happens to his work and wealth after his death (2:18-19), and unable to prevent his death (9:12).

Surrounded by more success, opulence, and pleasure than any person could ever desire, Solomon hits rock bottom in his miserable existence. Then he begins a spiritual odyssey to return from the quagmire of nothingness in which he flounders a search for meaning in life. It begins with admitting his empty condition. Solomon concedes that his view of life is bleak and dismal.

Could it be that Solomon had never truly believed? Could it be that Ecclesiastes records his spiritual odyssey as a journey to faith in the Lord God of heaven and earth? Shortly after Solomon became king upon the death of his father David, the Scripture records that 'Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places' (1 Kings 3:3). That seems to indicate that Solomon had not yet placed his trust completely in God, or that he had but had not matured in his faith. When the Lord appears to Solomon for the first time in a dream (vv. 4-5), the young king confesses his immaturity ('I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in,' v. 7). Responding to the Lord's invitation to ask for what he wants (v. 5), the king requests that he be given 'an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?' (v. 9). Only after Solomon's reception of that discernment (equivalent to spiritual maturity) did he proceed with the building of the Temple.

At the dedication ceremony for the Temple, Solomon manifests his spiritual leadership and maturity repeatedly (1 Kings 8:1-66). Clearly, he understands fully the depraved nature of sin, the grace of God, and the importance of prayers of confession and praise. Solomon speaks of the Word of God as that which God will fulfill and by which His people must live (vv. 24-26, 56, 58, 61). Following the dedication of the Temple, God appears to Solomon a second time (9:1-9), revealing that He hears the king's prayer and that He approves the completion of the Temple.

Would the Lord allow any book of Scripture to be written by an unbeliever? Solomon not only authored most of the Book of Proverbs, he also authored the Song of Solomon, Psalms 72 and 127, and, as argued in the 'Introduction' to this commentary, Ecclesiastes. If he were actually an unbeliever during his penning of these portions of Scripture, how could we believe that those writings were inspired (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16) and the writer of them borne along by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21)?

If Solomon had not been a believer, how could the Scripture say that his wives were the cause of his turning his heart away from the Lord in his old age (1 Kings 11:1-6)? The very declaration of the king's departure from serving God advances proof that he had once rightly served God (cf. Neh. 13:26). He did not always indulge in idolatry. The sins of his youth raised their ugly head again in his old age. The spiritual journey that the Book of Ecclesiastes chronicles depicts the journey of a believer, not an unbeliever. A declaration in 2 Chronicles 11:16-17 seems to confirm the ultimate spiritual condition of Solomon when it speaks of those 'who set their hearts on seeking the Lord God of Israel' (v. 16) and then says, 'they walked in the way of David and Solomon' (v. 17).

Vanishing Vapors (1:2)

Following the superscription of verse 1, this quote from the Preacher serves as an envelope for the entire book. It commences the book here in verse 2 and it concludes the book at 12:8 ahead of the closing postscript (12:9-14). In different contexts the Hebrew word translated 'vanity' in Ecclesiastes 1:2 has different meanings. The following chart reveals the variety of translations employed in the New American Standard Updated version:

Meaning Reference (nasu)
vain 2 Kings 17:15
foolishly Job 27:12
emptily Job 35:16
nothing Psalm 39:6
futility Psalm 78:33
a mere breath Psalm 94:11
vapor Proverbs 21:6
fleeting Ecclesiastes 9:9; 11:10
idols Jeremiah 10:8
worthless Jeremiah 10:15
useless Lamentations 4:17

Other suggested meanings include the following:

Meaning Reference and English Version
worthless idols Deuteronomy 32:21 (NIV, REB)
worthless Isaiah 30:7 (REB)
useless Isaiah 30:7 (NIV)
no purpose Isaiah 49:4 (REB)
nothing Isaiah 49:4 (NIV)
a puff of air Isaiah 57:13 (REB)
a mere breath Isaiah 57:13 (NIV)
a sham Jeremiah 10:3 (REB)
fleeting Proverbs 31:30 (REB, NIV)
enigma Ecclesiastes 8:10 (NET)

Several different contexts within Ecclesiastes present different potential meanings for this one Hebrew term. H. C. Leupold takes the position that 'vanity of vanities' means 'utterly transitory.' In 3:16-19 it appears to focus on the painful condition that results from 'having to live with many questions unanswered.' The text depicts a workaholic in 4:7-8. The success that he experiences lacks any understanding of the purpose of all his work. 'He never stops to ask the important question: "for what purpose am I doing all this?"' In 6:1-2 Solomon deals with the matter of having material benefits but not being able to enjoy them. He talks, not about the meaninglessness of life, but about the frustration of not being able to enjoy the fruits of one's labor. A final example occurs in 8:14 where Solomon observes that good things happen to bad people while bad things happen to good people. It is one of life's great enigmas for which no one has the answer.

Thus, the word so often translated 'vanity' describes all of these situations. None of the texts proclaim that life is totally empty and meaningless. However, all of them do express the inability of mankind to fully understand these realities of life.

Such realities produce frustration, puzzlement, and vexation, but they do not make life meaningless. In fact, the message of Ecclesiastes seems to be that the wise individual will learn how to accept such realities and live happily in the knowledge that there is Someone who really does comprehend the reasons for apparent inequities and who sovereignly controls life's enigmatic twists and turns.

One more observation concerning the phrase 'All is vanity' requires attention. In the Hebrew language a mere two words make up the phrase. At the time Solomon penned the Book of Ecclesiastes, Hebrew did not include written vowels. Consonants alone constituted the written text. This phrase not only exhibits assonance, its visual representation displays a repetition: תכל תכל (hakkol hebel).