Ecclesiastes 1 Bible Commentary

Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown

(Read all of Ecclesiastes 1)
Ecclesiastes 1:1-18.

1. the Preacher--and Convener of assemblies for the purpose. See my Preface. Koheleth in Hebrew, a symbolical name for Solomon, and of Heavenly Wisdom speaking through and identified with him. Ecclesiastes 1:12 shows that "king of Jerusalem" is in apposition, not with "David," but "Preacher."
of Jerusalem--rather, "in Jerusalem," for it was merely his metropolis, not his whole kingdom.

2. The theme proposed of the first part of his discourse.
Vanity of vanities--Hebraism for the most utter vanity. So "holy of holies" (Exodus 26:33); "servant of servants" (Genesis 9:25). The repetition increases the force.
all--Hebrew, "the all"; all without exception, namely, earthly things.
vanity--not in themselves, for God maketh nothing in vain (1 Timothy 4:4,5), but vain when put in the place of God and made the end, instead of the means (Psalms 39:5,6, 62:9, Matthew 6:33); vain, also, because of the "vanity" to which they are "subjected" by the fall (Romans 8:20).

3. What profit . . . labour--that is, "What profit" as to the chief good (Matthew 16:26). Labor is profitable in its proper place (Genesis 2:15, 3:19, Proverbs 14:23).
under the sun--that is, in this life, as opposed to the future world. The phrase often recurs, but only in Ecclesiastes.

4. earth . . . for ever--(Psalms 104:5). While the earth remains the same, the generations of men are ever changing; what lasting profit, then, can there be from the toils of one whose sojourn on earth, as an individual, is so brief? The "for ever" is comparative, not absolute (Psalms 102:26).

5. (Psalms 19:5,6). "Panting" as the Hebrew for "hasteth"; metaphor, from a runner (Psalms 19:5, "a strong man") in a "race." It applies rather to the rising sun, which seems laboriously to mount up to the meridian, than to the setting sun; the accents too favor MAURER, "And (that too, returning) to his place, where panting he riseth."

6. according to his circuits--that is, it returns afresh to its former circuits, however many be its previous veerings about. The north and south winds are the two prevailing winds in Palestine and Egypt.

7. By subterraneous cavities, and by evaporation forming rain clouds, the fountains and rivers are supplied from the sea, into which they then flow back. The connection is: Individual men are continually changing, while the succession of the race continues; just as the sun, wind, and rivers are ever shifting about, while the cycle in which they move is invariable; they return to the point whence they set out. Hence is man, as in these objects of nature which are his analogue, with all the seeming changes "there is no new thing" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

8. MAURER translates, "All words are wearied out," that is, are inadequate, as also, "man cannot express" all the things in the world which undergo this ceaseless, changeless cycle of vicissitudes: "The eye is not satisfied with seeing them," &c. But it is plainly a return to the idea (Ecclesiastes 1:3) as to man's "labor," which is only wearisome and profitless; "no new" good can accrue from it (Ecclesiastes 1:9); for as the sun, &c., so man's laborious works move in a changeless cycle. The eye and ear are two of the taskmasters for which man toils. But these are never "satisfied" (Ecclesiastes 6:7, Proverbs 27:20). Nor can they be so hereafter, for there will be nothing "new." Not so the chief good, Jesus Christ (John 4:13,14, Revelation 21:5).

9. Rather, "no new thing at all"; as in Numbers 11:6. This is not meant in a general sense; but there is no new source of happiness (the subject in question) which can be devised; the same round of petty pleasures, cares, business, study, wars, &c., being repeated over and over again [HOLDEN].

10. old time--Hebrew, "ages."
which was--The Hebrew plural cannot be joined to the verb singular. Therefore translate: "It hath been in the ages before; certainly it hath been before us" [HOLDEN]. Or, as MAURER: "That which has been (done) before us (in our presence, 1 Chronicles 16:33), has been (done) already in the old times."

11. The reason why some things are thought "new," which are not really so, is the imperfect record that exists of preceding ages among their successors.
those that . . . come after--that is, those that live still later than the "things, rather the persons or generations, Ecclesiastes 1:4, with which this verse is connected, the six intermediate verses being merely illustrations of Ecclesiastes 1:4 [WEISS], that are to come" (Ecclesiastes 2:16, 9:5).

12. Resumption of Ecclesiastes 1:1, the intermediate verses being the introductory statement of his thesis. Therefore, "the Preacher" (Koheleth) is repeated.
was king--instead of "am," because he is about to give the results of his past experience during his long reign.
in Jerusalem--specified, as opposed to David, who reigned both in Hebron and Jerusalem; whereas Solomon reigned only in Jerusalem. "King of Israel in Jerusalem," implies that he reigned over Israel and Judah combined; whereas David, at Hebron, reigned only over Judah, and not, until he was settled in Jerusalem, over both Israel and Judah.

13. this sore travail--namely, that of "searching" out all things done under heaven." Not human wisdom in general, which comes afterwards (Ecclesiastes 2:12, &c.), but laborious enquiries into, and speculations about, the works of men; for example, political science. As man is doomed to get his bread, so his knowledge, by the sweat of his brow (Genesis 3:19) [GILL].
exercised--that is, disciplined; literally, "that they may thereby chastise, or humble themselves."

14. The reason is here given why investigation into man's "works" is only "sore travail" (Ecclesiastes 1:13); namely, because all man's ways are vain (Ecclesiastes 1:18) and cannot be mended (Ecclesiastes 1:15).
vexation of--"a preying upon"
the Spirit--MAURER translates; "the pursuit of wind," as in Ecclesiastes 5:16, Hosea 12:1, "Ephraim feedeth on wind." But old versions support the English Version.

15. Investigation (Ecclesiastes 1:13) into human ways is vain labor, for they are hopelessly "crooked" and "cannot be made straight" by it (Ecclesiastes 7:13). God, the chief good, alone can do this (Isaiah 40:4, 45:2).
wanting--(Daniel 5:27).
numbered--so as to make a complete number; so equivalent to "supplied" [MAURER]. Or, rather, man's state is utterly wanting; and that which is wholly defective cannot be numbered or calculated. The investigator thinks he can draw up, in accurate numbers, statistics of man's wants; but these, including the defects in the investigator's labor, are not partial, but total.

16. communed with . . . heart--(Genesis 24:45).
come to great estate--Rather, "I have magnified and gotten" (literally, "added," increased), &c.
all . . . before me in Jerusalem--namely, the priests, judges, and two kings that preceded Solomon. His wisdom exceeded that of all before Jesus Christ, the antitypical Koheleth, or "Gatherer of men," (Luke 13:34), and "Wisdom" incarnate (Matthew 11:19, 12:42).
had . . . experience--literally, "had seen" (Jeremiah 2:31). Contrast with this glorying in worldly wisdom (Jeremiah 9:23,24).

17. wisdom . . . madness--that is, their effects, the works of human wisdom and folly respectively. "Madness," literally, "vaunting extravagance"; Ecclesiastes 2:12, 7:25, &c., support English Version rather than DATHE, "splendid matters." "Folly" is read by English Version with some manuscripts, instead of the present Hebrew text, "prudence." If Hebrew be retained, understand "prudence," falsely so called (1 Timothy 6:20), "craft" (Daniel 8:25).

18. wisdom . . . knowledge--not in general, for wisdom, &c., are most excellent in their place; but speculative knowledge of man's ways (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17), which, the farther it goes, gives one the more pain to find how "crooked" and "wanting" they are (Ecclesiastes 1:15, 12:12).