Ecclesiastes 1:12-15

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Ecclesiastes 1:12
  • Ecclesiastes 1:13
  • Ecclesiastes 1:14
  • Ecclesiastes 1:15

One of the most fascinating books of Scripture, Ecclesiastes sets out on a difficult but foundational task—reconciling the human longing to discover and understand, to find meaning and purpose, with the practical realities of being a finite creature in a world created by an infinite being. What is discovered is that human reason and experience is inadequate to find purpose. If we rely solely on human reason and experience, we only find futility and madness. However, if we begin with faith, we can effectively use our human faculties to realize wisdom and fulfillment.
Ecclesiastes predicts the failure of human philosophy to discover purpose apart from faith, while offering a viable philosophical solution: to begin with faith.

The author, Qoholeth in Hebrew, or “Assembler,” is trying to make sense of life “under the sun.” It is widely believed “Qoholeth” is King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom. His goal is to synthesize philosophy with the practical world around him.

Solomon invites us on a great journey of discovery. If anyone could use reason to discover meaning through life experiences, it would be Solomon. Solomon’s great wealth meant he could use all his time toward his investigations. His unsurpassed wisdom allowed him the faculties to design a vast array of activities, as well as assess their results, and determine their meaning.

Solomon’s conclusion is dark but real: neither meaning nor purpose can be discerned through human reason and experience. As the rivers flow endlessly to the sea, so one life flows to the next. Without a foundation of faith, life has no meaning.

Solomon shares with us his experiments to find meaning through reason and experience. He tries achievement and engages in vast building projects. He tries every sort of pleasure and entertainment, spanning the full spectrum of wine, women, and song. He leaves no stone unturned, but finds nothing but futility. Solomon’s experience is summarized in one word: “hebel.” Hebel is Hebrew for “vaporous.” A fog, a mist. Something that is there but can’t be grasped. You see it for a moment, then it is gone. Such is a philosophy of life founded upon human reason and experience.

Ecclesiastes tackles the kinds of things we think about but do not often say. And likely do not wrestle with to the extent Solomon does. Utilizing a mix of imagery and direct description, the Book of Ecclesiastes is an honest attempt to reconcile life on this Earth with the mysteries of Heaven.

Ecclesiastes’s refusal to pull any punches has caused many to describe it as negative and depressing. But the truths discovered in this book are real. Reality might be an acquired taste, but Solomon urges us to see reality for what it is.

When Solomon sees reality firsthand, it causes him to turn to God, and find fulfillment. Life can be confusing and complicated. It can seem like we are living in a fog. We cannot gain clarity through our own efforts and experiences. But clarity can come if our starting place is faith in God. Solomon concludes with an exhortation that life’s fulfillment is found in following God’s ways, for it is He who will determine the meaning of all deeds in His final judgement.

The patient, teachable reader will discover truth, hope, and challenge within these chapters. In the end, it is a strange joy only found through full consideration of the mysteries of God.

The first chapter of Ecclesiastes introduces Solomon and his unique capacity to explore the meaning of life through human reason and experience. Even so, he is frustrated by his limitations, which leads to one of the most assertive statements in Scripture: “All is vanity.” Solomon then dives into the great question mankind must consider: What is the meaning of life and how does one constructively participate in it?

After establishing his authority and setting his thesis, Solomon sets out on an exploration of purpose. He wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter—that everything we do and experience on earth is an enigma, a paradox, a vapor that cannot be fully grasped or understood.

A poem highlights God’s creation compared to man’s labors—God is the Creator of purpose and meaning, but man cannot partner with God through reason and experience alone. All of Solomon’s efforts, including his greatest asset, wisdom, prove insufficient by themselves. He wrestles with the reality that God has made the world and the human life so mysterious. Even wisdom cannot resolve the mystery. Solomon’s circumstantial experience (and his reason), great as they are, are still insufficient.

The preceding poem (verses 3-11) is the result of an exhaustive search by Solomon to use his reason and capacity for exploration in an attempt to discover the meaning of life. God created mankind with a longing to study, explore, and see—but even an exhaustive search by a capable person ends with futility if we only rely upon reason and experience.

The poem in verses 3-11 represent a conclusion: trying to arrive at meaning and purpose through human reason and experience leads to “hebel” (vapor, or vanity). Solomon now lets us in on the search that led him to that conclusion. He begins by reasserting his authority as the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:1). He is the “assembler”—the one who has vast resources as king over Israel and wisdom to assemble data and pursue analysis in order to explain the meaning of life. To explain all the works which have been done under the sun. This reiteration serves as a transition from the earlier poem to the next section of the chapter and into chapter 2.

The phrase by wisdom adds capability to authority, reminding the reader of Solomon’s great gift of wisdom, granted him by God (2 Chronicles 1:7-12; 1 Kings 3). This investigation was not merely idle curiosity, but the diligent undertaking of a wise king. Solomon has been granted by God with supernatural wisdom and the vast riches of a kingdom. These are the tools at his disposal to pursue the question of the meaning of life.

Solomon set his mind to seek and explore. Solomon used his mind to inquire and understand. As king, he had the resources at his disposal to seek to comprehend the world in which he lives. His seeking was done by experience; Solomon set out to explore. This was not just a mental exercise.

He echoes the conclusion of the opening statement, telling us that his drive to seek an explanation for life is something humanity is afflicted with. We already know from the introduction why it is an affliction; because it is futile trying to explain the meaning of life through human reason. Which is why Solomon calls it a grievous task.

Solomon’s exploration was exhaustive. He planned to explore all that has been done under heaven. The phrase all that has been done is a translation of a single Hebrew word “asah.“Asah” is a verb that appears over 2600 times in the Old Testament and is used to refer to actions or deeds in the broadest sense. Solomon set out to make a comprehensive inquiry.

There are two other Hebrew words for “work” in Ecclesiastes. One refers to the agony within work and is often translated toil, as in Ecclesiastes 1:3. The other word is used in the sense of a job or occupation. This is the word translated as task in the phrase a grievous task. It is a translation of “inyan,” the third word used for work in Ecclesiastes.

Interestingly, “inyan” is found eight times throughout all Hebrew Scripture and all eight times are within the book of Ecclesiastes. The “inyan,” or occupation, of mankind is to explore and understand the world around them. God put into the heart of humans the job of seeking, exploring, and understanding the world around us. After his investigation, Solomon describes this grievous job as something God afflicted humans with. It is a job that can’t be completed on our own, just relying on our human capacities.

Solomon again emphasizes the exhaustive nature of his inquiry, stating, I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun. Solomon uses “ma’aseh” which includes the word for work that refers to actions in the broadest sense. Throughout Ecclesiastes we will see the result of Solomon’s job (inyan) to understand. Solomon, like each of us, wants to comprehend the whys of life. His innate humanity has given him this compulsion. Perhaps his extra dose of wisdom has heightened this desire.

Yet he concludes that this is vanity (“hebel”), an uncertainty of human life—we are not satisfied until we understand, yet we are not capable of complete comprehension. This is why our job (“inyan”)to seek and understand is grievous.

It is this task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. Exploring all that goes on under the sun, even with the help of wisdom, is a grievous and grueling job. One that never properly gets accomplished. God is the source of this compulsion. It is He who made mankind with this compulsion to know, to understand.

At this point Solomon has only acknowledged that God placed the desire to understand within our hearts, but he is seeking to understand using his own faculties. Solomon has told us in advance that his quest will be unsuccessful.

The word for grievous, “ra’,” is often translated evil. In fact, the tree in the garden that mankind was supposed to avoid was the tree of good and grievous (“ra’”) (Genesis 2:9). The same term is used here in Ecclesiastes.

Solomon says these works are all vanity and a striving after the wind. The word hebel (translated as vanity) means a vapor or mist. And striving after the wind is a phrase that invokes the image of futility. We can feel the wind or observe a mist, but we can’t catch them. We can’t hold them in our hand. They escape our grasp. So it is with striving to discover a philosophy that satisfies our desire to make sense of it all.

Solomon combines vanity with striving after the wind to double down on his assertion from earlier in the text that all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Hebrew uses repetition for emphasis. It seems a bit hyperbolic at first to say all is “hebel.” But as Solomon makes his case, it becomes clear he really means all. He made a comprehensive investigation, and now provides a comprehensive conclusion. When humans attempt to gain complete comprehension starting from themselves, all is vanity.

This section finishes with the phrase what is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted. Solomon uses two illustrations for futility. Once something is crooked you can’t ever make it perfectly straight again. And you can’t count something you don’t have. If someone asked you to “Please go count how many apples we don’t have in the pantry” you might think they were a little crazy. Solomon concludes after his comprehensive investigation that trying to determine the meaning of life by human faculties is like trying to count how many apples you don’t have. It is futile.

Solomon has said this exploration of meaning is a grievous task which God has given. And that it is vanity, a striving after the wind. Solomon has set the tension here. God has made it this way, and has given us a desire to know, yet we do not have the capacity to understand. Solomon is the wisest man who has ever lived. He had massive resources at his disposal. Yet he couldn’t figure it out. So it isn’t going to be figured out. God has made work as a vapor and asked us to toil after it. But we cannot grasp the unfathomable just as we cannot straighten a crooked thing.

If you wonder why Solomon would bother to tell us such grim news, it is because before we can make a plan to get somewhere, we first must know where we are. Solomon is giving us a dose of current reality. There is more to the story. There is a redeeming conclusion to the book. Faith will be the answer to the dilemma. But we must first exhaust its alternative, and see if we can reach a satisfactory conclusion through reason and experience.

Biblical Text
I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

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