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Deeper Commentary

Ecc 1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem-
I will explain on :16 why this book is appropriate to Solomon as author, at the time when his wives had turned away his heart from Yahweh. The "preacher", the convener or gatherer of an assembly for teaching, could as well mean the compiler. He says he produced and set in order many Proverbs (Ecc. 12:9), and this confirms that Solomon is the "son of David" in view. His emphasis upon how he was "king in Jerusalem" suggests he considers his kingship there as a fulfilment of the promises to David, which he considered to be fulfilled in himself. The description of his indulgence in every building project, woman and avenue of human experience in Ecc. 2 can only really apply to Solomon. 

But a case has been made for Hezekiah as the author. The huge amount of Solomonic language, and connections with Proverbs, Song of Solomon and his own recorded life history, would mean that I would still take Solomon as the author. But as explained on Prov. 25:1, Hezekiah had a great interest in Solomon, and edited his Proverbs in Prov. 25-29. I have pointed out throughout that section the relevance of so much of that material to Hezekiah. The way Hezekiah followed Solomon's path to apostasy in later life would explain his interest in the book. And so just as he reused Prov. 25-29, as stated in Prov. 25:1, so he may have used Ecclesiastes, as he found it so relevant to his own situation at the end of his life. He too had turned away from God in his heart but still retained Divine wisdom- in terms of theoretical truth. Likewise the observation has been made that there is much language used in Ecclesiastes which is influenced by Persian, as if the book was rewritten in captivity. That too may be the case, although I would add that whatever the processes, it was all under the overall inspiration of God. Judah in captivity were as Solomon at the end of his life and Hezekiah in his last 15 years, and the book would therefore have been used as an appeal for their repentance from the vanity of the good life in Persia.


Ecc 1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; Vanity of vanities, all is vanity-
Many attempts have been made to claim that Ecclesiastes is a kind of dialogue between a believer, or arguments for belief in Yahweh, and those for unbelief. But all these arguments for some kind of dialectic rather break down, in my opinion, because the Preacher himself here states, and repeats it often, that everything is vanity, including wisdom. Such statements are so global that they cannot really be as it were cancelled out by some other side in a dialectic.  And there is no clear schema according to which we can discern which verses fall within which side of the supposed dialectic. It's true that there is a difference between the words of the Preacher and those of the narrator, but this kind of thing is common enough in autobiography. For Ecclesiastes is just that; chapter 2 speaks of Solomon's early kingship, and proceeds to conclude with the description of him in very old age in Ecc. 12. The overall thrust of Solomon's argument is clearly against commitment to God, which is to be expected seeing we know that in old age his heart turned away from Yahweh. The few verses which appear to contradict that are, I suggest, Solomon quoting his previous wisdom and mocking it as vanity. Some of the verses which mention "God" appear to reference Him with sarcasm (see on Ecc. 2:24,26; 6:12); and not as commending belief in God at all.               

I suggest therefore that there is no such dialectic, but rather we are reading here Solomon's reflections upon his life, as an old man facing death. And this was at a time when the Scriptures tell us his heart had been turned away from Yahweh by his wives; and he died abusing his people (1 Kings 12:11). Seeing Ecclesiastes was clearly written in his old age, it was written at this time when he had turned away. Ecclesiastes therefore never mentions the title "Yahweh", there is no mention of Israel as God's people, nor really of the Mosaic law. If indeed this is a dialectic between faith and unbelief, then we would expect there to be such references to balance out the dialogue. But there is nothing of the sort.

I suggest that we are hearing Solomon straight up, telling it how he feels it to be, baring his heart. A heart which had turned away from Yahweh. There are some similarities between the book and Egyptian literature, not least an Egyptian work, The Man Who Was Tired of Life, written between 2300 and 2100 BC, where a man disputed with his soul whether life was worth living. Whilst Solomon's words are recorded by inspiration, this doesn't mean that the content of all that is said in Ecclesiastes is true; for there is a difference between inspiration and revelation, and his thoughts here are hardly a "Thus says the Lord". And so it could be that his Egyptian wives had introduced him to this literature and philosophy, and had indeed turned his heart away from Yahweh and towards this. 

I noted throughout commentary on Proverbs that Solomon held God's truths in his mind and preached them; but his heart was far from them, he never personalized them, and his behaviour with women and in whipping his people was all a stellar denial of the truths which he knew and taught. It was beyond hypocrisy, beyond even narcissism, but rather a mindset which arose from assuming himself to be the Messianic son of David, and his kingdom to be the promised Kingdom of God on earth. As he came closer to death and his faculties failed, he ought to have realized his mistake, and looked forward instead to David's greater son, the Lord Jesus. But instead he simply preferred to conclude that for him, all these great ideas were bunk. He made the mistake so many make; that "truth" is truth 'for you', 'for me'; rather than accepting that Divine truth is indeed absolute and global truth for all hearts at all times.

But his wisdom remained with him, and he still taught those truths, although they were far from his own heart. In this he is a valuable warning to all who hold God's truths; his apostasy, recorded for us in such detail with a unique insight into the psychology of those who turn away. This is the value of Ecclesiastes. Just as I will discuss on the Song of Solomon how we have in those songs a unique insight into the mentality of the man who flirts with those outside the faith. And Solomon may even have been self aware of all this on some level, for he concludes Ecclesiastes by saying that his words are intended as goads (Ecc. 12:11); the very observation that "all is vanity" is in fact a goad to action. 

This suggestion is true to observed reality. It is not uncommon to encounter those who 'know God's truth' who live absolutely contrary to that truth in their private lives. And yet they are keen to teach that truth to others, even commending it to others, and critical of any attempts to as it were water it down. They may be the conservative hawks of churches or denominations; but they have utterly failed to personalize any of it. They have the Solomon syndrome.


Ecc 1:3 What does man gain from all his labour in which he labours under the sun?-
The Proverbs contain repeated condemnation of laziness. Lack of a zealous work ethic is a rejection of wisdom, according to Solomon. As Solomon explains in Ecc. 2, he was an active person, not lazy by nature. And yet he lacked spirituality. He claimed that his service of God was due to his spirituality, but it was in reality merely a semblance of serving God when it was really just reinforcing his own personality type. His mocking of the "sluggard" or "lazy one" is so frequent (Prov. 6:6,9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30; 26:13-16). But it is a reflection of his own works-based approach to righteousness; the 'wise' "do" good things, and the wicked don't do enough good things. Personal spiritual mindedness and relationship with God are simply not emphasized.

As members of His people, doing His will, the labour of our lives is not in vain, seeing it is done "in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). Paul seems to be alluding to the spirit of Ecclesiastes, which laments that all achievement and labour "under the sun", not "in the Lord", is so tragically vain; there is no sense of final achievement, and this nagging fear about the ultimate validity of life's work must plague all who live outside the sphere of God (Ecc. 1:9-11; 2:18-23). We could understand Paul as specifically disagreeing with Solomon’s attitude that all endeavour is vain.


Ecc 1:4 One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever-
This is indeed proof enough that the earth shall not be destroyed, but is rather presented as the territory of God's eternal Kingdom. But that was likely not what Solomon had in view primarily; his idea was that just as he felt helpless in old age and that he had achieved nothing of lasting value, so humanity likewise comes and goes as if on an eternal stage. Solomon uses the Hebrews words used in 1 Chron. 16:17; 17:14; 2 Chron. 9:8 of how David's seed would remain forever. In Ecclesiastes, he rejected any idea that he would live for ever, claiming he had no idea what lay beyond the grave apart from the unconsciousness of death, and considering that any fulfilment of the promises to David had been in him and his kingdom. But now he was to die and his kingdom pass to a son whom he suspected of being a fool; and his heart had turned away from Yahweh and toward idols. He could be seen as therefore mocking at the very promises which could have been for him the ultimate gospel of the Kingdom.  


Ecc 1:5 The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises-
In line with :6, the idea may be that for all its hurrying [Heb. 'panting'], the sun just returns to where it was. And in that Solomon saw a parable of himself. He had sought wisdom, thought he had it, and now jettisoned it for himself; and he was back where he was, no personally wiser. As noted on :4, he had rejected the hope of resurrection from the dead and a future kingdom of God on earth. And so he was left with the impression that the natural creation continues as it were on clockwork, headed nowhere. It is that lack of sense of direction and progress towards an end which is the tragedy of rejecting a knowledge of Yahweh and His purpose.  


Ecc 1:6 The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses-
This sense of endless, pointless cyclical operation developed in :5-7 is really arguing that the entire natural creation is encoded with the same nihilism and vanity which Solomon felt in himself. He saw the world in the same way as he saw himself, and that is indeed how we are wired. But for those who have the hope of the Kingdom and an awareness of the work of God's Spirit within them, the outlook is different. They therefore and thereby sense within nature a yearning within it toward the day of God's Kingdom coming on earth, trembling in eager expectation and yearning for that day (Ps. 96:12,13; Is. 55:12; Rom. 8:19). The passage in Rom. 8 connects the work of the Spirit within believers with the work of the same Spirit in all of creation.


Ecc 1:7 All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again-
See on :6. For Solomon, his "wisdom" was merely knowledge. The promises to David, the hope of the Kingdom, had no personal bite for him. He muses that "there is a time" for everything (Ecc. 3:1-7), as if his nihilism led him conclude that all behaviour is somehow predestined, all is cyclical, nothing is ultimately new, and even God is caught up in this- for "God seeks again that which He has driven away" (Ecc. 3:15). As water goes around the water cycle (Ecc. 1:7), so everything repeats, things just happen to us (Ecc. 3:1-8), there will be no resurrection, no coming back (Ecc. 3:22 RV); and there is therefore no real point in endeavour (Ecc. 3:9). This attitude reveals a pathetic failure to let the knowledge of God dynamically impact daily life; there's no appreciation of the Spirit, of God's radical life co-joining with human life, of His mind meeting that of man. Leaving knowledge as mere theory, as so much Bible study can too easily remain, is a dangerous thing. And Solomon is the parade example of it.


Ecc 1:8 All things are full of weariness beyond uttering-
He is really arguing that the entire natural creation is encoded with the same nihilism and vanity which Solomon felt in himself. He saw the world in the same way as he saw himself. LXX "a man will not be able to speak of them". And yet Solomon had spoken of all things by the wisdom given him (1 Kings 4:32,33), but now he says that the vanity of all human experience is beyond speaking of. Whilst Solomon retained his wisdom, he felt that it was not the full answer to the mystery of life; and the answer was, so far as he could see it, that all things are vain and wearisome. Life is not therefore particularly worth living. He therefore effectively renounced his wisdom, as we will note throughout Ecclesiastes. This is the attitude which arises when we fail to personalize wisdom, and refuse to accept that this life is not God's Kingdom; that is yet to come.

The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing-
Solomon had spent his life ingratiating his senses, and this was his conclusion. The lack of "satisfaction" is a major theme in the descriptions of condemnation for those who break the covenant (s.w. Lev. 26:26). And it is the principle we must live by today; that the only satisfaction is in the things of God's Kingdom. Even in this life, the eye is not "satisfied" with seeing or wealth (s.w. Prov. 27:20; Ecc. 1:8; 4:8; 5:10). And those who seek such satisfaction from those things will find that dissatisfaction is the lead characteristic of their condemnation (Ps. 59:15). Tragically Solomon knew the truth of all this but lived otherwise; just as so many do who give lip service to the idea that the things of the flesh cannot satisfy.

It is possible to see Solomon as an anti-Christ, as well as a type of Christ; like Saul, he was both a type of Christ, and also the very opposite of the true Christ. This point is really brought out in Is. 53:11, where the true Messiah is described as being “satisfied” with the travail or labour of His soul, and will thereby bring forth many children. The Hebrew words used occur in close proximity in several passages in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon speaks of how all his “travail” or “labour” has not “satisfied” him, and that it is all the more vain because his children may well not appreciate his labour and will likely squander it (Ecc. 1:8; 4:8; 5:10; 6:3). Likewise the ‘Babylon’ system of Revelation, replete with its feature of 666, is described in terms which unmistakably apply to Solomon’s Kingdom. This feature of Solomon- being both a type of Christ and yet also the very opposite of the true Christ- reflects the tragic duality which is so characteristic of him.

In Ecc. 2:18,19 he laments that his labours will achieve nothing; doubtless alluding back to his words in Prov. 5:10, where he says that the Gentile wife will make the young Israelite's labours meaningless. Sin never satisfies. “Hell and destruction are never satisfied, and the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20 RV), Solomon wrote in his youth; and then in old age, he came to basically the same conclusion, having spent his life working back to the truth that he had been taught in his youth (Ecc. 1:8; 4:8). And there are many men and women who have done the same. We all tend to be empirical learners; and yet this is the great power of God’s word, that through it we need not have to learn everything through our failures; but we can receive His Truth, trust it, and simply live by it. Otherwise we shall be like Solomon… 


Ecc 1:9 That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun-
The knowing of God and His Son is not something merely academic, consisting only of facts. It is above all an experience, a thrilling and dynamic one. There is no “new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9)- all in this world is born to roll downhill. And yet in Christ, all things are made new in an ongoing sense. The "new song" which his father David loved to sing (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1 etc.) reflected the sense that the movement of the Spirit results in our living in "newness of life". But for Solomon, all was as it were old and boring. He had no sense of the Spirit's renewing work within him.   

David’s life was full of grief, anguish and joy (2 Sam. 1:19-27; 3:33,34; 12:15-23; 18:33; 19:4; 23:13-17); whereas Solomon’s life lacked any pathos, and he concludes that “what has been done is what will be done” (Ecc. 1:9). Because he sought to only replicate his father externally, he never experienced his very own and personal experiences and growth; he did what he perceived was right not because it was what he wanted, but because it looked smart, and appeared in line with his father. For those raised Christian, these issues are live and difficult. On a psychological level, it appears that those without personal experience, i.e. experience which is uniquely their own, fall into destructive behaviour- and Solomon would fit that pattern. R.D. Laing comments: “If our experience is destroyed, our behaviour will be destructive” (The Politics Of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967) p. 12). And it’s been observed that increasingly, modern society is creating behaviours rather than experiences (Martin Marty, A Nation Of Behavers (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1976)). Typical 21st century man or woman has the Solomon syndrome- focused upon others as their heroes, endless learning from others rather than through empirical, personal experience; adopting the conclusions of others without having personally worked them through; indulging in virtual experience [especially, these days, online] rather than actual experience. Both psychology and the Biblical example of Solomon teach that all this tends to self-destructive behaviour in the end.


Ecc 1:10 Is there a thing of which it may be said, Behold, this is new? It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us-
The answer of course is that yes there is. The engagement of God in human life produces something radically new, and this will come to full term in the establishment of God's Kingdom upon earth when the Lord Jesus returns. That was effectively what was promised to Abraham and David, but Solomon liked to think that he was the fulfilment of it. And so he failed to as it were sing the "new song" which his father David loved to sing (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1 etc.). But for Solomon, all was as it were old and boring. He had no sense of the Spirit's renewing work within him. History only appears to repeat because of human nature being such a constant factor; but the gospel of the Kingdom is that destiny is not dominated by human nature, but will be the result of God's radical intervention in the human narrative upon this earth.


Ecc 1:11 There is no memory of the former; neither shall there be any memory of the latter that are to come, among those that shall come after-
"Memory" is LXX "memorial". He may have in view his half brother Absalom's vain desire to build a memorial to himself (2 Sam. 18:18). It is the Yahweh Name, symbolizing His eternal purpose with the earth, which is the memorial which abides. But Solomon doesn't use the Name in Ecclesiastes. He was concerned about making a memorial from himself, of his own works, failing to have learned the lesson of Absalom. If he had seen his connection with the Yahweh Name and the longer term purpose of God, instead of assuming that his kingdom was God's Messianic kingdom, then he would have had a memorial. But in the book of Proverbs he sees wisdom as good only in that it gives a good name in this life. But now he was facing death and thinking of the passage of the generations, he concludes that it is vain because man has no lasting memorial in this world. And that is so; but human character is so significant to God that we shall indeed have eternal memorial at the resurrection of the body into God's Kingdom upon earth.


Ecc 1:12 I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem-
Solomon speaks about him being King in Jerusalem (Ecc. 1:1,12; Prov. 1:1) as if this was the ultimate fulfilment of the Davidic promises. Consider the implications of 2 Chron. 1:9: "O Lord God, let thy promise unto David my father be established: for thou hast made me king over a people like the dust of the earth... give me now wisdom, that I may go out and come in before (i.e. lead) this people". Solomon was asking for wisdom because he thought that he was the Messiah, and he saw wisdom as a Messianic characteristic. He failed to realize that the promises to Abraham and David were only being primarily fulfilled in him (e.g. 1 Kings 4:20); he thought that he was the ultimate fulfilment of them (1 Kings 8:20 states this in so many words). His lack of faith and vision of the future Kingdom lead him to this proud and arrogant conclusion (cp. building up our own 'Kingdom' in this life through our lack of vision of the Kingdom of God).


Ecc 1:13 I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky. It is a heavy burden that God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with-
"Seek" is the word typically used of how Israel were to seek God, and David often uses it in the Psalms. But Solomon didn't seek relationship with God, but rather sought knowledge. And here we have a profound warning. For in these days of wide Biblical literacy and access to tools enabling even laymen to search out the meaning of the Biblical text, we can so easily end up seeking knowledge of itself, however true, without coming to seek or know God in the Hebraic sense of finding legitimate, two way, live relationship with Him.

David spoke of seeking and praising God's grace with his "whole heart" (Ps. 9:1; 119:58; 138:1). Solomon uses the phrase, but speaks of being obedient with the "whole heart" (1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chron. 6:14) and applying the "whole heart" to the intellectual search for God (Ecc. 1:13; 8:9). There is a difference. The idea of whole hearted devotion to God was picked up by Solomon, but instead of giving the whole heart to the praise of God's grace, he instead advocated giving the whole heart to ritualistic obedience and intellectual search for God. This has been the trap fallen into by many Protestant groups whose obsession with "truth" has obscured the wonder of God's grace.


Ecc 1:14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind-
This may be true on one level, but it fails to account for the fact work for God will indeed endure and have eternal consequence, granted at the final day of judgment. But this perspective is totally denied by Solomon, and he is writing Ecclesiastes as his autobiography in old age, when his heart had already turned aside from Yahweh. It is only for those who reject Yahweh that life is a chasing after wind; the term is used in Hos. 12:1 of how apostate Israel feed upon / chase after the wind, and in Jer. 22:22 of how the wind would chase apostate Judah to their destruction. But they were themselves chasing the wind, so condemnation by being chased by the wind was appropriate. If vanity fills our minds now, then the emptiness of unconsciousness will be an appropriate destiny for us. And the world is so full of vanity, which it seeks to insert into our minds.


Ecc 1:15 That which is crooked can’t be made straight; and that which is lacking can’t be counted-
This is typical of the kind of fatalism which Ecclesiastes abounds with. Secular people at the end of their lives often come to the conclusion that everything is somehow overruled by 'God', to the point that human behaviour is pretty much all  determined and enforced by a force beyond ourselves. Solomon fails to accept the basic thesis of the book of Proverbs; that human actions can be controlled, we have election, and our choices are for real and eternally significant. We can change, and that which is lacking can be made by God's grace and operation in our hearts. And thereby we are accountable for our actions and to Divine judgment. But Solomon didn't believe in this, and so it led him to conclude that human behaviour isn't that significant and is somehow all orchestrated by some higher hand than our own. He may here be alluding to himself, arguing that change is impossible for him.


Ecc 1:16 I said to myself, Behold, I have obtained for myself great wisdom above all who were before me in Jerusalem. Yes, my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge-
Those "before me in Jerusalem" has been used by some to argue that the author must have reigned in Jerusalem at a time when many kings had preceded him. But this would create a major problem with the description of the author as being king of Israel in Jerusalem. It ought to read the king of Judah in Jerusalem. But "before" almost never means 'before' in the sense of 'earlier'; the reference is not to "before" in terms of time, but rather is this the common Hebrew word for "in the presence of". All who had come before his presence in Jerusalem didn't match his wisdom. And this is exactly the case with Solomon; many visited him in Jerusalem and heard his wisdom, marvelling that it was greater than theirs.

The constant moral and physical experimentation led Solomon to the deep cynicism of Ecclesiastes: 'If this is the Kingdom, the ultimate experience, then I don't think much of it'. Ecclesiastes emphasizes that Solomon experienced more glory and wisdom than any other who had been in Jerusalem (Ecc. 1:16; 2:7,9); this suggests that he felt he had reached the ultimate experience of the Kingdom, and yet he was not impressed by it. He lacked the faith and humility to look ahead to the future Kingdom, and to realize thereby that all the achievements of this life are as nothing.

Solomon's building of exotic gardens with "all kind of fruit" (Ecc. 2:5) sounds as if he was attempting to reconstruct Eden;  he was so carried away with expressing his own abilities that he effectively created his own kingdom in this life. It seems Solomon's crazy program of building and moral experimentation (outlined in Ecc. 2) began after he had finished building the temple. He seems to have got cynical and depressed after that; he had his kingdom in this life;  he looked back and compared himself with others (Ecc. 1:16;  2:7,9), and thereby he became proud. He could see that materially and spiritually (in terms of knowledge) he had far, far outstripped all God's previous servants. It was this comparison with others (there is triple emphasis on it) which well indicates his pride.

The words of Dt. 17:16-20 are evidently a prophecy of Solomon.   He did multiply silver, gold, horses and wives;  his heart was turned away (Dt. 17:16,17= 2 Chron. 9:20).  Yet this passage says that if he studied the Law all his life, this would not  happen, and also his heart would not be "lifted up above his brethren" (v. 20). Solomon's whipping of the people and sense of spiritual and material superiority (Ecc. 1:16;  2:7,9) shows how his heart was lifted up. Yet Solomon knew the Law, despite his explicit disobedience to the commands concerning wives, horses etc.  But his knowledge of the word didn't bring forth the true humility which it was intended to. 


Ecc 1:17 I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind-
LXX "My heart knew much- wisdom, and knowledge, parables and understanding". Solomon accepts his wisdom was as it were just in his head or mind. The LXX even implies he considers his desire for wisdom to have been mistaken, "a waywardness of spirit". And yet God had rewarded him for that desire. We see here the depth of his apostasy from God.


Ecc 1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow
-
Solomon forgot that his wisdom was a gift from God; he speaks in Ecc. 1:16 of how “I have gotten me great wisdom” (RV). His possession of truth led him to the assumption that this was a reward for his own diligence; whereas it was a gift by grace. Yet he himself knew that the wisdom given by God brings joy, whereas human wisdom leads to the grief and depression which afflicted Solomon (Ecc. 1:18 cp. 2:26). Solomon  'had  the truth', he knew so deeply the true principles of  Yahweh  worship.  But  like  us,  he scarcely considered the enormity  of the gap between the theory he knew and the practice of  it  in  his  own  heart  and living. We too have a tendency to build up masses of Biblical and spiritual knowledge, and to let the mere acquisition of it stop us from practicing it.