1:1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:
Introduction: Utter Futility
1:2 “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher,
“Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”
The word hebel has attracted a range of translations.
The NIV’s ‘meaningless’ ‘doesn’t really do justice to the word because the Teacher goes on to talk about plenty of things which do have some measure of meaning such as work, serving God, enjoying God’s good gifts like eating and drinking.’ (Tinker)
Provan: ‘It is certainly true that to translate hebel as ‘meaningless’ as the NIV does, causes serious difficulties for the interpretation of the book as a unified work, for even a cursory reading of Ecclesiastes demonstrates that Qohelet [the teacher] does not consider everything meaningless. On the contrary he is constantly to be found recommending certain ways of being to his listeners precisely because it is possible for human beings to know the goodness and joy of existence (cf. 2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22). ‘Everything’ is not ‘meaningless’.
Tinker’s summary is helpful: ‘hebel means that life is ephemeral, here today gone tomorrow and elusive, impossible to pin down.’
Futility Illustrated from Nature
1:3 What benefit do people get from all the effort
which they expend on earth?
Benefit – or ‘profit’.
‘It is as if Qohelet is asking, “At the end of the day, when all the gains and losses have been calculated against each other, what remains? What permanent gain do we have to show for all our years of scurrying around in our work?” The implied answer is nothing. We tell ourselves we are making a mark, making the world a better place, but the imprint of our lives is quickly washed away. It is simply a matter of time before any evidence that we lived on earth and worked is wiped away.’ (Ortland)
1:4 A generation comes and a generation goes,
but the earth remains the same through the ages.
1:5 The sun rises and the sun sets;
it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.
1:6 The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north;
round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns.
1:7 All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full,
and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again.
1:8 All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it:
The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing.
1:9 What exists now is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing truly new on earth.
1:10 Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?
It was already done long ago, before our time.
1:11 No one remembers the former events,
nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen;
they will not be remembered by the future generations.
Dan Story (Defending Your Faith, p133) says ‘Ecclesiastes 1:6 relates that the wind blows “toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns” (NASV), a clear description of the great circular movements of earth’s winds.’
Story continues: ‘In the following verse, the author states that “all the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again” (NASV). This, of course, is a picture of the earth’s hydraulic system in which water evaporates from the oceans, rains on the earth, and then returns to the sea via rivers to repeat the cycle again.’
‘Some,’ agrees Story, ‘will argue that this is reading science back into the Bible. But that is not the point.’ We, however, think that is the point. And we do not think that our faith is effectively defended by making such spurious connections between biblical teaching and modern knowledge.
Verse 7 of this chapter has similarly been thought to witness to the ‘water cycle’. But we think that it is inappropriate to read into the ancient text modern notions of evaporation and precipitation.
Futility of Secular Accomplishment
1:12 I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
1:13 I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine
all that has been accomplished on earth.
I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task
that keeps them occupied.
1:14 I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth,
and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind!
1:15 What is bent cannot be straightened,
and what is missing cannot be supplied.
Futility of Secular Wisdom
1:16 I thought to myself,
“I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem;
I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
1:17 So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas;
however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind!
1:18 For with great wisdom comes great frustration;
whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache.