This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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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?
The Ultimate Question
In Douglas Adams’s comical science fiction story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a far-off civilization builds a supercomputer that will be able to provide an answer to “the Ultimate Question—the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Much to the people’s chagrin, the computer informs them that it will take seven and a half million years to determine the answer! Nevertheless, they patiently await the day when this great truth will be revealed. After seven and a half million years of anticipation, the day finally arrives, and the people gather expectantly to hear the answer to this ultimate question of human existence. The computer emerges from its calculations and calmly informs the crowd that the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything” is . . . the number forty-two. The people are bewildered, disappointed, frustrated, and furious. The computer drily observes, however, that they never had a clear idea of what the “ultimate question” was in the first place.
Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the text of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
One lesson of this humorous story from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that an answer will make little sense if one does not also know what question is being asked. Thankfully, Ecclesiastes begins by revealing both of these, in reverse order. First we hear the answer (“All is vanity”), then the question (“What does man gain?” or “What remains under the sun?”). To have the chief question and answer of Ecclesiastes clearly indicated at the start helps to orient and guide our reading of this fascinating, mysterious book inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Who Is the Preacher?
The book is introduced as representing “the words of the Preacher.” The opening verse along with 12:9–14 creates a third-person narrative frame. Other than this frame and a brief interjection by the narrator in 7:27, the book consists of the Preacher’s words spoken from a first-person perspective. Some scholars have argued that the book represents dialogues between the Preacher and different conversation partners, but this involves a great deal of interpretive subjectivity. It is best to understand the text as representing the Preacher’s own thoughts rather than those of others. The Preacher’s words are “like goads” (12:11)—they are often challenging and sharp, intended to provoke the listener to deeper thought and to action.
The Preacher is introduced as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” While this has traditionally been understood to designate King Solomon as the speaker, a variety of factors within the book suggest otherwise. The phrase “son of David” is applied to various personages in the Bible, above all to Jesus Christ himself (e.g., Matt. 1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 21:9, 15). Ultimately, this title has messianic overtones. When we listen to the Preacher, we are ultimately listening to the wisdom of the greater Sage-King, Jesus Christ.
Vanity of Vanities
The Preacher begins with a dramatic exclamation of the “vanity” (Hb. hebel) of all things. This Hebrew word indicates a “vapor” or a “puff of wind” and is multivalent, possessing a range of nuances. Both its meaning and its referent are left undetermined at this point, and one must take in all the Preacher’s discourse in order to grasp its significance. Nevertheless, it provides a rhetorically powerful opening that captures the reader’s attention.
The actual phrase “vanity of vanities” occurs only at the bookends of Ecclesiastes (1:2; 12:8). The grammatical construction is one that indicates a superlative; for example, “heaven of heavens” means “highest heaven,” “holy of holies” means “the most holy place,” and “song of songs” means “the greatest of songs.” Hence “vanity of vanities” is expressing vanity to the highest degree. The phrase is repeated twice for emphasis. In addition to this expression of the superlative, the Preacher asserts that “all is vanity,” a more frequent expression in the book (1:2, 14; 2:17; 3:19; 12:8). While he says that “all” is vanity, it remains to be seen what exactly he means by this. It will soon emerge that the Preacher is on a quest to understand the cosmos (1:13, 17; cf. 7:25) and to discover what mankind “gains” from his time toiling on earth (1:3). Hence verse 2 summarizes the result of his searching.
Before assuming too quickly that the Preacher sees no value to life or the universe, we should note at the outset that the Preacher will later utilize the rhetorical device of hyperbole (i.e., exaggeration) in order to make a point. It will emerge over the course of his reflections that the Preacher is engaging in some degree of hyperbole when he proclaims that “all is vanity.” As he conducts his examination of the cosmos, it becomes clear that many of the things with which the man busies himself are indeed without lasting significance. At the same time, however, the Preacher will also note things of true value and worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, to capture his hearers’ attention initially and to keep his message from dying the death of a thousand qualifications, he simply begins with the bald assertion that “all” is vanity. While this forms an important slogan in Ecclesiastes, the full context of the book is needed to understand it correctly.
If “all is vanity,” as verse 2 asserts, then one immediately wonders if anything is worthwhile. The question of verse 3 speaks to this issue, and it is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. That is, the Preacher does not intend it as a negative statement, one assuming that man gains nothing by all his toil under the sun.
As noted, the Preacher will add qualifications to his statement that “all is vanity”—just as there are some things of real value, so also mankind stands to “gain” from his labor, though these “gains” are not what one typically would expect. As with the key word “vanity,” the word translated “gain” (Hb. yitron) is not defined at this point, and it could be understood in a financial sense or in some other way. The root of the noun typically indicates something that is “left over.” As used by the Preacher, the term is asking what, if anything, “remains over” from all man’s toil. Is it all for nothing, or does it make any kind of difference to the worker, to the world, or to God? Again, the answers to such questions will only emerge as one studies the entirety of the Preacher’s discourse.
The Preacher also asks what remains “under the sun.” He employs this phrase twenty-eight times in the book and to a much lesser extent the phrase “under heaven” (1:13; 2:3; 3:1). In many cases these two phrases appear to be referring to roughly the same reality of life in this present world, which, as the Preacher will make clear, is fallen and deeply flawed. As he proceeds in his examination of the cosmos, the Preacher will make it clear that there is objective value to life (e.g., 9:4; 11:7) even in a fallen world, though its meaning is not to be found in the accumulation of wealth (e.g., 2:1–11) or in the ways in which one might expect.
These dramatic opening verses are not intended to be a CliffsNotes version of the book. To grasp the message of any text of Scripture requires patient reading, studying, reflection, and rereading, and this is especially the case with an enigmatic and puzzling book like Ecclesiastes. If we want to understand the book, we need to read it not seven times but seventy-seven times!
In a culture that promotes immediate gratification and thinks that looking at a Wikipedia entry qualifies as doing one’s homework, will we have the endurance to persevere in the hard work needed to understand the message of Ecclesiastes, even when we find that “much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12)? Do we have the patience to wait as we read Ecclesiastes repeatedly while we prayerfully ask the Spirit to illuminate the Word? The reader of Ecclesiastes cannot be in a rush to get to the conclusion and must be prepared to wait quietly for the Preacher to deliver his message from beginning to end. Let the reader prepare to be surprised, challenged, tested, humbled—and enriched—as he or she studies this mysterious book. The Preacher’s words are not merely the “goads” of a taskmaster that (sometimes painfully) prod us to greater spiritual maturity (12:11); they are also true “words of delight,” spoken by a father to his children (12:10, 12). The one who listens attentively to them and perseveres in being not a “hearer who forgets but a doer who acts” will be blessed (James 1:25).
This article is by Max Rogland and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary Psalms–Song of Solomon (Volume 5).
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