Previous article in this series: December 15, 2010, p. 129.
The opening words of the “Preacher” are in many respects very striking. His identity, which as we have seen is that of Solomon, is stated as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” But that identity is initially set in the background. He steps before us first of all as the “Preacher” and his “words.” His words are “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” This truth we must hear from the outset. It is from this truth as it is developed that he will lead us to the whole duty of man, the fear of God, and the calling to remember our Creator particularly in our youth. His purpose is to show us this vanity concretely in the world about us so that we see it, reflect upon it, and indeed wrestle with it so that the point is driven home.
He therefore steps forth with his words as “the words of the Preacher.” The word preacher here has the idea of calling or summoning with one’s voice. The term draws a certain visual picture, of one stepping forth among the assembly of God’s people. He stands before us to show us by his words the reality of the world we dwell in as it is before us “under the sun.” We too must see it, as it were, experience it, and the burden to which he would draw our attention. The viewpoint is of the life of man as he lives from day to day, “under the sun.” Yet that viewpoint is of one who lives by faith standing in the Word of God and God’s covenant promises, who stands upon the foundation of God’s Word and God’s counsel also over the affairs of life. It is in the congregation and before the people of God that he speaks his words concerning the realities of life under the sun.
That life under the sun is characterized by vanity. The word has the idea of a breath or vapor. It is used of idols, who have no substance, but are vanities. It sets before us here the futility and emptiness of life in a fallen and sinful world as it lies under the sun and, as such, under the curse of God upon sin. That life lies in a world of constant change. It is transitory, constantly in motion, yet does not arrive or achieve anything under the sun. The meaning of life and its purpose also cannot be found in the world itself under the sun. This is not pessimism, but realism. The Word of God would lead us beyond the things that are made, to the Creator of them all and His fear, for therein alone is the meaning and purpose to be found.
It is the purpose of the book to expound more fully what is meant by vanity. To set before us why all is vanity, vanity in the extreme, or “vanity of vanities.” To point us in that direction, the text, having raised the subject of vanity, comes to us with a question: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” What does he achieve? What does he really accomplish? What of that labor abides? “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” The earth endures or abides, but man and his life do not. Man dies and leaves all his labor and activity. He can take nothing of this world with him. Death, the reality of it and the outworking of it, as the curse of God upon sin, renders the life of man vain. The Word of God in Ecclesiastes will repeatedly bring up that relationship between this life, the reality of death, and how it renders the labor of man vain and empty. The world under the sun was not made by its Creator vain in its beginning, but good. It is sin and the judgment of God upon sin that have rendered it vain. The wages of sin is death, and therefore all things, even the life of the creature, are subject to vanity, and “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:20-23).
The creation itself is in constant motion and activity, so that it also may be said to be full of labor. The sun rises and sets, the wind “whirleth about continually,” “all the rivers run to the sea.” Yet in all that motion, what destination is achieved? What is truly accomplished? The sun goes around and around again, making its circuit in the heavens. The wind does likewise, turning south or north, blowing “continually.” The wind never arrives. It goes in circles. The same is said, in the text, of the rivers. They run into the sea, “yet the sea is not full.” Not only is the sea not made full but “the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Nothing that endures forever is accomplished by it. The cycles of the sun and the seasons, the blowing of the wind and the flowing of the rivers, are full of labor and activity, in constant change and motion, yet it is vain, it goes in circles.
Now that too is under the appointment of God the Creator. The world before the flood was perhaps different in the manner in which God’s curse operated. We read of Noah’s sacrifice and God’s pronouncement:
And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease, Gen. 8:20-22.
By that declaration God Himself set the cycles of the seasons in the creation so that the very motions of the creation are not merely the result of some natural process but are a work of God the Creator. The effect of that work of God is that “all things are full of labour” and subject to vanity.
But there is another element to the truth that nothing can be satisfied with fullness. Nothing is ever truly full, so that it gives an abiding satisfaction. When an end is obtained, the end should satisfy and endure. As the creation, however, is in constant motion and activity under the sun, nothing in life endures. This is true of man and his life. The life of man in the world is such that his eye is not filled with seeing or his ear with hearing. Enough is never enough, so that a true end is accomplished. Rather, the labor of life is a weary burden, because it neither satisfies nor obtains an enduring end. This wearisomeness is set forth in the text in the idea of “labour.” Yet, as the Preacher will point out later in the book, the deceitfulness of sin is such that the things of this life present themselves as that which cansatisfy, as that which will make a man’s life full. Therefore men are given to labor to heap and gather, not considering whose those things will be. He will also direct us to the right use of the things of this life and their value, which is to enjoy the present gifts of God, in effect our daily bread, with thanksgiving.
Before that consideration, however, we must have clear before our minds that the cycles of life render the delusion of sinful man, who heaps and gathers, a vain delusion. For man comes with the false notion that he has achieved something new. He speaks as if “this time things are different.” The reality is rather otherwise: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). He asks: “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us”(Eccl. 1:10).
In asking this, the Preacher is asking a question concerning the underlying principle or the essence of things. Development in science and technology has the appearance of something new in their external form. But they are not essentially new. Transportation is transportation. That one can travel faster, quicker, and in more comfort does not change the fact that transportation is a means to get from one place to another. Increasing complexity in technology from handwriting to printing-presses to typewriters to computers is not an essential change. It belongs to the confusion of the early industrial revolution that men equated such changing complexity with a genuine advancement in life itself. But man, the sinner, is still sinful man, though you give him more and abundant means to sin. In principle, the new thing is just the old repackaged in another form. It truly “hath been of old time which was before us.” This is even more true of man in his society, governments, and history as they lie in sin. Sin and depravity make the Pelagian idea of human progress a vain hope. The idea that man will solve all his problems by his own efforts, or by improving education, or the environment, or health care, is a vain denial of reality. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done” (Eccl. 1:9).
Moreover, as the text points out, the problem is in our perception, because man does not truly remember. Each generation as it rises grows old and dies and is succeeded by another. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh” (Eccl. 1:4). The effect of this is that the knowledge and wisdom born of experience of the preceding generation also passes with it. The result is: “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after” (Eccl. 1:11). Generation succeeds generation. That very succession limits man’s perception and understanding. The mistakes of the past are repeated. The kingdoms of the world rise and fall through the same causes of decline, corruption, and the sins of men, yet such is the vanity of man himself that though he know of the history of the past, there is in him no true remembrance. The same follies in the life of men come again and again in the world.
It is against the background of that transitory character of man’s life that all things lead to vanity and futility under the sun. The Preacher would stand in the