1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
(Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 ESV)
The opening verse vaguely identifies the author of the book of Ecclesiastes as the Preacher. He was the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Solomon was King David’s son but the term “son of David” could refer to anyone who was a descendant of David. This is where some of the confusion about the author of this book comes from. The author is referred to, but not specifically identified. Nevertheless, most commentators attribute this book to King Solomon for reasons we’ll see throughout this study.
The book of Ecclesiastes cuts right to the chase and gives us a summary statement about life: it is the vanity of vanity. The word “vanity” here does not mean pride or self-directed attention. The original Hebrew word, הֲבֵ֤ל (pronounced: hă-ḇêl), means “emptiness; vapor” and, as we’ll see, figuratively refers to something transitory and unfulfilling. Solomon repeats this word five times in this one verse to emphatically state the emptiness of life.
The Hebrew language does not have superlatives so it uses the phrasing “X of Xs” to express the ultimate of something. Jesus was the “king of kings” – the ultimate king – for example. King Solomon observes here that of all the empty things, life is the emptiest.
Notice that all is vanity. That is, nothing satisfies or lasts. We accumulate things. We pursue pleasure. We amass wealth. We further our education. King Solomon did all these things too. And he found, like most of us have found, that, despite our expectations none of those things satisfy.
In some translations the word “vanity” is rendered as “breath”. This creates a great word picture of man’s efforts. They, like your breath you see outside on a cold day, don’t last but a short time. Nor does a breath have any power. In comparison, the work of God is a powerful storm [Psalm 29; John 3:8; Acts 2:2]. Man, in his own efforts, cannot achieve anything. Our strength is weak. That which we work so hard for is fragile and fleeting.
We all work hard at our jobs, in our families, and in our hobbies. But what good does any of it do? Eventually we all die and nothing we achieve on this earth lasts. Our relationships come to an end. We don’t take our possessions with us. Solomon observed this and wonders what we gain by all our toil under the sun?“
The phrase “under the sun” will be a recurring theme in this book. It was Solomon’s way of referring to life on earth without God. When we view life as nothing more than what we see, hear, and touch on this earth, it seems pretty meaningless.
Even though Solomon posed this question 1,000 years ago, it is just as valid today. Certainly all of us have wondered what the point of life is. The rewards we get don’t seem commensurate with the effort we put in. As we continue our study of Ecclesiastes, we’ll see that Solomon discovered the answer to this question.
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