Ecclesiastes chapter 1 and the humanist outlook on life

Ecclesiastes 1

Published on Sep 4, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | September 2, 2012 | Pastor Derek Neider

_____________________

I have written on the Book of Ecclesiastes and the subject of the meaning of our lives on several occasions on this blog. In this series on Ecclesiastes I hope to show how secular humanist man can not hope to find a lasting meaning to his life in a closed system without bringing God back into the picture. This is the same exact case with Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Three thousand years ago, Solomon took a look at life “under the sun” in his book of Ecclesiastes. Christian scholar Ravi Zacharias has noted, “The key to understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes is the term ‘under the sun.’ What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system, and you are left with only this world of time plus chance plus matter.”

Let me show you some inescapable conclusions if you choose to live without God in the picture. Solomon came to these same conclusions when he looked at life “under the sun.”

  1. Death is the great equalizer (Eccl 3:20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”)
  2. Chance and time have determined the past, and they will determine the future.  (Ecclesiastes 9:11-13)
  3. Power reigns in this life, and the scales are not balanced(Eccl 4:1)
  4. Nothing in life gives true satisfaction without God including knowledge (1:16-18), ladies and liquor (2:1-3, 8, 10, 11), and great building projects (2:4-6, 18-20).

You can only find a lasting meaning to your life by looking above the sun and bring God back into the picture.

Here are some good comments:

Ecclesiastes 1
« Proverbs 31 | Ecclesiastes 1 | Ecclesiastes 2 »

Introduction to Ecclesiastes

The book at a glance.

12 chapters, 222 verses. Herman Melville called it “the truest of all books,” and his fellow American novelist Thomas Wolfe described it as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth.” Despite the attempts of biblical scholars and others to make the book seem problematical and inaccessible, it is an easy book to read and grasp. The viewpoint espoused by the author is a virtual summary of the biblical worldview: life lived by purely human and earthly standards is empty, while life with God at the center is fulfilling. The author tells us near the end of the book (12:9-10) exactly how he went about his task, and in the same passage provides his self-characterization: he is a teacher, a collector and careful arranger of proverbs, a stylist and wordsmith, and a person in quest of the truth. The book of Ecclesiastes has been aptly called the most contemporary or modern book in the Bible.

Passage Subject Matter Dominant Mood Literary Forms and Motifs
1:1–3 Introduction to author and theme Negative Superscription
1:4–2:23 Life under the sun: meaningless cycles; pursuit of knowledge, pleasure, wealth, work Negative Lyric meditation; brief narrative; quest motif
2:24–26 Life above the sun: the God-centered life Positive Declarations by the wise man
3:1–22 Two views of time Positive Lyric meditation; declarations by the wise man
4:1–5:17 Life under the sun: how life fails to satisfy Negative Catalog of observations; commands to the reader
5:18–20 Life above the sun: the God-centered life Positive Declarations by the wise man
6:1–9:6 Life under the sun: the disappointments and disillusionments of life Negative Observations and exhortations by the wise man
9:7–10 The enjoyment of life Positive Commands
9:11–10:20 Life under the sun: disillusionment and folly Negative Observations by the wise man
11:1–12:8 How to live well despite the limitations that are inevitable parts of life Positive Commands by the wise man
12:9–14 Wrap-up: concluding thoughts Positive Rituals of closure

Format.

Although Ecclesiastes is a collection of proverbs, it does not read like a typical collection of proverbs. This is because the proverbs are molded into clusters and furthermore because there is a unifying plot line that holds the units together. The units fall into the three categories of recollections, reflections, and mood pieces. All of these are expressed by a single narrator, who in effect tells the story of his quest to find satisfaction in life. This quest is reconstructed from the safe position of someone whose quest ended satisfactorily. The transitions between units often keep the quest in view: “so I turned to consider,” “again I saw,” “then I saw,” etc. As we watch the quest unfold, we are continuously aware of the discrepancy between the narrator’s present outlook and his futile search undertaken in the past. In effect, the speaker recalls the labyrinth of dead ends that he pursued, recreating his restless past with full vividness but not representing it as his mature outlook. Along with the narrative thread, the observational format of much of the material gives the book a meditative cast.

The book’s dialectical structure.

Ecclesiastes is organized as a prolonged contrast between two viewpoints. In terms of space, the major theme is the emptiness of life under the sun, that is, life lived by merely human and earthly values. The counterpart, which is intertwined and does not (contrary to a common misconception) surface only at the end, asserts an alternative to life at ground level. We might call it life above the sun—a God-centered view that opens the door to finding meaning in the earthly sphere. The book shuttles back and forth between negative and positive sections. The key to interpreting the parts of the book accurately is to note into which of the two contexts a passage falls. The writer himself gives us hints in this regard. The phrase “under the sun” or an equivalent appears conspicuously in the negative sections. The positive sections, which are briefer than the negative ones (like a breath of fresh air), refer conspicuously to God. The negative passages tell us the truth just as thoroughly as the positive sections do: they tell us the truth about life without God.

Unifying image patterns and motifs.

The phrase “under the sun” or its equivalent occurs more than thirty times. The word translated “vanity” appears as the word for vapor or breath in the original Hebrew text; it appears thirty-one times and suggests the fleetingness and emptiness of life lived without God at the center. To keep us rooted in real life, the author repeatedly uses imagery of eating, drinking, toil, sleep, death, and the cycles of nature. The book of Ecclesiastes has a flavor all its own; we recognize it instantly when we read or hear a passage, and no other book is quite the same.

The rhetoric of the book.

The book of Ecclesiastes has a strong persuasive cast, as the author attempts to persuade us of the futility of life under the sun and the glory of life above the sun. However, the Hebrew way of conducting an argument is not to lay out a logical sequence of arguments. Instead, the author of Ecclesiastes keeps repeating his claims so often that we come to agree with him. His appeal is to observable human experience, and his persuasive purpose is gained by getting us to feel the truthfulness of his viewpoint.

Genres.

The *proverb is the basic building block of the book. Although the book is not primarily structured like a story, the underlying *quest motif gives it a *narrative effect—an effect heightened by the continuous presence of a first-person narrator. Many of the negative, under-the-sun passages are voiced as a protest, so that the genre of protest literature comes into play. While all wisdom literature tends to make use of the resources of *poetry, including the verse form of *parallelism, the book of Ecclesiastes flaunts its poetic medium much more than ordinary wisdom literature does. The author is a master of *image, *metaphor, and *simile. (For more information on items accompanied by an asterisk, see the glossary at the back of this Bible.)

Tips for reading Ecclesiastes.

Individual passages need to be read in light of the dialectical structure of the book as a whole. Assertions made in the “under the sun” passages do not represent the author’s final viewpoint, whereas those that appear in the positive passages do. The book is partly observational and descriptive in format; we need to approach such passages in a meditative way, reflecting on our own experiences of the phenomena that the author describes. The book is also very affective, so we need to be receptive of the moods that it seeks to instill. Proverbs rely on real life as their best context, so we need to illustrate them from our own observations and experiences. Additionally, we will do justice to the book of Ecclesiastes only if we are receptive to the poetic medium in which it is couched.

Inferred literary intentions.

The book is designed to achieve the following literary purposes:

  • make the reader feel the emptiness of life lived by purely human and earthly values
  • lead the reader to feel the exaltation of a God-centered life
  • be truthful to human experience
  • appeal to our emotions and imagination as well as our reason
  • express truth in the form of poetry and proverb
  • lead us to share the author’s quest to find satisfaction in life
  • unify the individual proverbs and clusters around a central conflict between negative and positive viewpoints, as well as around a unifying quest motif
  • embody much of the meaning of the work in image patterns

Theological themes.

(1) The nature of people: the book of Ecclesiastes presents authentic human experience and excels in showing essential human nature. (2) The good life: by means of its quest motif, the book shows by negative and positive example how to live well and the restlessness of the human soul until it rests in God. (3) The nature of God: God is implicitly shown to be creator, judge, and provider, as well as the all-sufficient goal of human longing. (4) The Fall: behind the restlessness of the speaker’s futile quest to find meaning apart from God lies the story of Genesis 3 (see 7:29 for confirmation).

Ecclesiastes as a chapter in the master story of the Bible.

The purpose of the Bible’s master story is to lead the reader to faith in God and in Christ as the supreme sacrifice. Whatever the particular slant of a given book of the Bible, the overall purpose is the same. The book of Ecclesiastes has been called a Christ-shaped vacuum. Its contribution to the story line of the Bible is to record the longing of the human soul to find satisfaction and to point us toward the satisfaction of that longing in a Christ-centered experience of life. Jesus is the meaning of life, and if he is not at the center of our daily experience, we will find only futility and frustration.

Prologue 1:1–3 ]. The forthrightness of the author (identified as King Solomon) is one of his most attractive traits. He tells us at once who he is and the keynote of his book. The word translated as “vanity” appears thirty-one times in the book and in the original Hebrew is a concrete image—vapor or breath. We need to turn that metaphor like a prism in the light, teasing out how it relates to the overall effect of Ecclesiastes.

1:1 The words of the Preacher, 1 the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity 2 of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?

Meditation on the futile cycles of life 1:4–11 ]. The author’s first meditation on the emptiness of life under the sun is a mood piece in which he gives example after example of the cycles of nature (vv. 4–7) and the corresponding cycles in human experience (vv. 8–11). The common denominator in all of the cycles that are portrayed is that there is repetition but no progress. The first half of the poem is a tissue of contrasts—between the changing generations and the unchanging earth, the sun’s rising and setting (east vs. west), the wind’s blowing to the south and the north (opposites) but always returning, and streams running to the sea but returning to the place of origin. As a pivot between the two halves of the poem stands the statement of theme: “All things are full of weariness” (v. 8). Then the poet shifts the focus from nature to people, still with a view toward getting us to feel how futile our repeated actions in life are. He records a litany of failures—failure to find satisfaction in seeing and hearing (v. 8), failure to introduce genuine progress or change into human history (vv. 9–10), failure of memory, resulting in oblivion to the individual (v. 11). Verse 8 uses the formula “not satisfied,” and one of the distinguishing features of Ecclesiastes is that the voice of unsatisfied desire runs strong.

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens 3 to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things, 4
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things 5 yet to be
among those who come after.

The futile quest to find meaning in knowledge 1:12–18 ]. This unit is a mininarrative—an abbreviated quest story in which the speaker pictures himself as the archetypal quester who speaks of applying his heart (vv. 13, 17), seeking and searching (v. 13), seeing everything (v. 14), and acquiring great wisdom (v. 16). We should note the following things about the quest: (1) it was a humanistic quest that the speaker undertook by himself (vv. 13, 16, 17); (2) it was a comprehensive quest (vv. 13, 14, 16); (3) it was an unsuccessful quest (vv. 13, 14, 15, 17); (4) it was a self-centered quest. This passage records one of the dead ends that the speaker pursued in this quest to find meaning in life.

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart 6 to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 7

15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Footnotes

1 1:1 Or Convener, or Collector; Hebrew Qoheleth (so throughout Ecclesiastes)
2 1:2 Hebrew vapor (so throughout Ecclesiastes)
3 1:5 Or and returns panting
4 1:11 Or former people
5 1:11 Or later people
6 1:13 The Hebrew term denotes the center of one’s inner life, including mind, will, and emotions
7 1:14 Or a feeding on wind; compare Hosea 12:1 (so throughout Ecclesiastes)

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