"The words of the Preacher (or Convener), son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; the whole [is] vanity. What profit hath man in all his toil wherewith he toileth under the sun?"
"Generation cometh and generation goeth, and the earth for ever abideth. And riseth the sun and setteth the sum, and to its place hasteth (lit. panteth) where it riseth. Going toward the south and turning round toward the north, turning continually goeth the wind, and in its turnings returneth the wind. All the rivers go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things [are] fatiguing; one cannot express [them]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing. What hath been [is] what will be, and what hath been done, what will be done; and there is not all new under the sun. Is there a thing whereof one saith, See, this is new? It belonged to the ages that were before us. [There is] no remembrance of former things, nor shall there be remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall be after them" (vers. 1-11).
The introduction lays the thesis clearly before us; and this by a man not inspired only but suited personally to impress the homily beyond all that ever lived. Hence the importance of its emanating from king Solomon, and of the reader knowing on the highest authority that the words were his, and none other's. Impossible to convey this more simply and affectingly than by the way the Holy Spirit has chosen to effect it. Such a communication, strange at first sight, solemn increasingly on reflection, tells from God its own tale; which man has been always slow to learn, ready to believe that his life consists in the abundance of the things he possesses. It is not guilt, as in Ps. 32, Ps. 51, which is here discussed, but the unhappiness of man whose heart rises not above the creature. The amplest means, the highest capacity, the most exalted rank the most active mind, the most cultivated taste, yea, and wisdom above all men, only give intensity to the dissatisfaction and the misery; and Solomon was the man both to experience it in his departure from God and to give us the profit of it, when grace gave him to review and communicate it all for everlasting admonition. It is the fruit of the fall and of sin: what else could it be? "Vanity of vanities," and not here and there only but "the whole is vanity" or evanescence, including most of all man without God; not the faith that looks above the sun to the resources of grace and in the fear that keeps His commandments. Our own idiom, "taking pains," answers in its measure to the toil of man "under the sun," profitless for happiness (ver. 3). "The shadow" earnestly desired by the hireling, how unsubstantial! Job. 7. On the other hand, "he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever; and this is the more apparent when "the world passeth away and the lust thereof." "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride (or vain glory) of life is not of the Father, but is of the world." So clear and trenchant a revelation as this, however, awaited another day, when the Son of God was come and has given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true. Real repentance is but pessimism in unbelieving eyes.
The thesis is followed by four illustrations from the natural sphere (vers. 4-7), and by as many from the moral (vers. 8-11).
There is all the difference between the inanimate earth, and what has life upon the earth or in it. But what a gap between a sentient creature and that which but vegetates! still more between what has but a soul of life natural, and the human body into which Jehovah Elohim breathed the breath of life, and man, only man thereby, became a living soul; or, as this very book expresses it, "the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downwards" (Ecc_3:21). Yet "generation goeth, and generation cometh, and the earth for ever abideth." What is there here to meet the void of man's heart?
Let him look up then at the sun, that brightest orb of a man's vision, which above all to his senses sheds light and heat; without which what would be the earth, and all its denizens, and most of all man? What of profit, or happiness, does he thence derive, as he looks from under it? "And the sun riseth, and setteth the sun, and hasteth to its place where it riseth." Is this the spring of happiness that his spirit pines after? Orderly and unfailing movement is apparent in connection with the earth; but does this affect man's sense of evanescence in all his being and environment save to aggravate it?
Well, but the wind, which is the same Hebrew word as that which expresses the highest part of sentient and even intelligent nature, the wind whose movements are in the strongest contrast with mundane motion, is there any relief to be found for his tired spirit there? "Going toward the south and turning round toward the north, turning continually goeth the wind, and in its turnings returneth the wind." Nought is there here to console his anxious spirit.
There remain the rivers or mountain streams: can they refresh a mind diseased? "All the rivers go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither rivers go, thither they go again." Admirably for the earth and its atmosphere and every living creature; but not a drop of comfort. for him that was made in God's image after His likeness; now that all creation is ruined and wretched through sin, all subjected to vanity, the whole of it groaning and travailing in pain together till now; and man its chief most of all feeling and lamenting, unless he renounce God and Satan sear him, and he be given up to the fatal dream of perfectibility through education and science and all the other devices of his unbroken will.
But these devices are just what the next four verses cover and expose in their futility to supply the needed value.
"All matters are fatiguing; one cannot express [them]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing." Here the Preacher turns to all the things of nearer experience and direct human interest, and declares that all the things or words, fatigue (or as some think, feebleness), are beyond one's expression: not only so, but even for the senses of largest range and the easiest to please, the eye is not satisfied, nor the ear filled. The result is weariness and disappointment, not happiness. What a difference where one beholds the Son and believes on Him! For He is the Bread of life, and the believer feeding on Him hungers not nor ever thirsts more; and no wonder, seeing that the water He gives becomes in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life. Fallen man becomes increasingly wretched, unless when under deadly opiates which end in the deeper misery of reaction.
Then is there not the enjoyment of novelty? "What hath been is what will be, and what hath been done, what will be done, and there is not all new under the sun." Granting this is the moral province, seen especially in what has been done; but is there not a matter of which it may be said, See, this is new? Even this hath been in, or belonged to, the ages that were before us.
But is there no pleasure thence, from the last infirmity of noble minds, as men say? "No remembrance of former things [is there], nor will be remembrance of those to come with persons that will be afterwards." Such is experience under the sun.