Ecclesiastes 1:1-18

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The “words” are meaningful sayings designed to impart vital instruction. They are the sayings of Qohéleth (transliterated “Koheleth”), a designation variously rendered “Preacher,” “Speaker,” “Spokesman,” “Convener,” “Assembler,” and “Teacher.” In the role of an “assembler,” he could be understood to be a person who assembled hearers in order to address them or an individual who assembled or made collections of proverbs or wise sayings. (1:1)

Koheleth referred to himself as the “son of David.” Although “son” can apply to any male descendant of King David, the term is restricted by the words, “king in Jerusalem.” The Septuagint reads, “king of Israel in Jerusalem,” and, in verse 12, both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint refer to him as “king over Israel in Jerusalem.” Solomon alone fits that description, as no descendant of David thereafter ruled over all Israel. Upon Solomon’s death and the start of Rehoboam’s reign, ten tribes revolted and established an independent monarchy. (1:1)

Some have reasoned that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes after repenting from his apostasy, but there is no supporting biblical statement to this effect. Moreover, although first-century Jewish historian Josephus included details about Solomon’s reign not found in the scriptural record, he makes no mention of any repentance. This suggests that no ancient tradition existed about Solomon’s repenting from apostasy. If he had indeed done so, this apparent silence about a favorable outcome would be difficult to explain.

“Vanity of vanities” is the common rendering for the Hebrew expression havél havalím. This denotes a vanity above all other vanities, that is, the greatest vanity, the utmost vanity, a vanity of the superlative degree. Other English terms that convey the thought of the Hebrew hével would be “emptiness,” “nothingness,” “meaninglessness,” “transitoriness,” “purposelessness,” and “futility.” These meanings harmonize with the basic sense of the Hebrew — “vapor,” “breath,” “exhalation.” The utter emptiness is further stressed by repetition. The Hebrew text reads, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says Koheleth, ‘vanity of vanities, the whole — vanity.’” The Hebrew term kol, meaning “whole,” “all,” or “everything,” is not to be understood in the absolute sense. It simply denotes everything in human affairs that became the object of Koheleth’s careful evaluation, based on his personal experience and keen observation. (1:2)

“None” — that is the implied answer to Koheleth’s question about what “profit” (Hebrew, yithróhn, also defined as “advantage,” “gain,” “that which is over and above, or in excess”) does a man have from all his “labor,” or “toil.” This is so because nothing has any permanence. (1:3)

The Hebrew word for man is ’adhám, from a root meaning “red.” This root is also the one for ’adhamáh, “ground,” “soil,” or “land.” Accordingly, ’adhám seemingly designates an “earthling,” one formed from the reddish soil. (1:3; Genesis 2:7)

The Hebrew word for “labor” (‘amál) denotes painful, wearisome, burdensome, or exhausting toil. A literal reading for the phrase starting with “his labor” would be, “his labor which he labors.” The repetitious combination “labor which he labors” adds emphasis to the hard, wearisome, or exhausting nature of the toil and the toiling. It also suggests monotony — a relentless cycle of laboring. (1:3)

“Under the sun” signifies “on earth,” the place beneath the sun from the standpoint of the human observer. It is here on earth that man toils to the point of weariness. (1:3)

The transitoriness of human endeavors is also evident from Koheleth’s next words. One generation of humankind is replaced by another generation, as one generation after another passes off the earthly scene. The earth, however, remains. With reference to the continuance of the earth, ‘ohlám is the term appearing in the Hebrew text. This word is commonly rendered “forever,” but it specifically designates time that has no set limit. The Septuagint reads, “into the age,” which expression is likewise translated “forever.” (1:4)

A strict literalism should not be forced upon the statement about the rising and setting of the sun. Koheleth is simply calling attention to repetitive cycles as they appear to the earthly observer. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, seemingly hurrying back to its place, thereafter to repeat the familiar cycle. “Hurries,” “hastens,” and “speeds” are renderings for the Hebrew term shaáph, defined as “gasp,” “pant,” “pant after.” The sun is figuratively depicted as a runner, eagerly panting after its place. The “place” may figuratively refer to the sun’s abode during the night when it is not seen. According to the reading of the Septuagint, the sun “draws to its place.” (1:5)

Although translators commonly use the word “wind” at the beginning of verse 6, the Hebrew term is found in the second part of this verse. The Hebrew literally reads, “going to south and circling to north.” Both the Septuagint and the Syriac link this phrase to the sun, not to the wind. In the Septuagint, verses 5 and 6 read, “And the sun rises, and the sun goes down and draws to its place; rising there, it goes toward the south and circles toward the north.” If the reference is to the sun and not to the wind, the meaning could be that, from the standpoint of the human observer, there is a seeming movement from south to north, this seeming movement taking place between the summer and winter solstices. (1:6)

The basic objection to viewing the sun as the subject is that the sun really does not “go round,” “turn,” or “circle” to the north. Thereafter, in this verse, the “circling” or “turning” definitely refers to the wind. So there is justification for understanding all of verse 6 to refer to the wind. The primary thought of Koheleth’s words is that the wind blows in one direction and then in another, ever moving in repetitive cycles. (1:6; see the Notes section for examples of translations that render the entire verse as applying to the wind.)

Similarly, streams continue to empty into the sea, but the sea is never filled. The water cycle continues. Ancient Jewish sources attributed this to underground tunnels through which water flowed from the sea back into the rivers. There is, however, no reason to believe that wise Koheleth had this erroneous view. The Hebrew word rendered “streams” or “rivers” is nechalím (singular, nachál). This term often designates torrents that flowed during the rainy season but completely disappeared in the dry summer. (Compare Job 6:15.) So it would have been apparent to Koheleth that the source of such streams was precipitation. He would also have been able to observe that the rain-bearing clouds moved in from the direction of the sea (the Mediterranean). (Compare 1 Kings 18:44, 45.) As Koheleth expressed it, the torrents continually return to their source, to the sea from which they came. (1:7)

With reference to the repetitive cycles, Koheleth said, “All the things — wearisome; a man cannot speak.” The numberless repetitive cycles to be seen in human affairs and in the natural world give no evidence of coming to an end, to a state of rest. From the human perspective, anything that is repetitious, giving no promise of any letup or rest, is fatiguing, tiring, exhausting, or wearying. Accordingly, one would be at a loss for words when attempting to convey accurately the concept of countless repetitive cycles continuing for endless ages to come. (1:8; see the Notes section for an application to “words,” not “all the things.”)

Although numberless visual impressions continually enter it, the eye is never satisfied, filled up, with the object of seeing having come to a pleasant culmination. Likewise, a barrage of various sounds, including human speech, enters the ear. The ear, however, is not filled, not having reached the state of being fully satisfied with the sum of all that has been heard. Because so much of what is seen and heard proves to be repetitious, humans experience a sense of restlessness, dissatisfaction. There is a desire for seeing and hearing something truly different — new. (1:8)

Koheleth observed that, in the realm of nature and in the affairs of humankind, everything takes place according to the same cyclical patterns. In the world of nature, whatever happened in the past is what will occur again. Similarly, whatever people have done in former times will be repeated. Nothing is really new “under the sun” (in the earthly realm where humans conduct their affairs of life). Everything continues to take place according to God’s promise, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” (Genesis 8:22, NIV) Babies are born, grow up, get married, have children of their own, grow old, and finally die. The basic routine of life does not vary. It is a cycle of working, eating, and sleeping. There have been times of prosperity and poverty, abundance and famine, advancement and regression, stability and instability, freedom and oppression, and peace and war. Earth’s inhabitants have had the same hopes, longings, goals, desires, frustrations, and disappointments. (1:9)

The sweeping statement that “there is nothing new under the sun” could cause someone to conclude that there must be at least one exception. Possibly anticipating this, Koheleth raised the question whether there is anything concerning which it can be said that it is new. His answer is that it has existed from long ago (‘ohlám, in this case being descriptive of the indefinite past; “ages that came to be from before us” [LXX]), from a time preceding him and his contemporaries. (1:10)

Koheleth seems to refer to the harsh reality that people who lived in the past have been forgotten and that this will also prove to be true regarding future generations. Those of future generations simply will not be remembered by those following them in time. The passage of many centuries has confirmed Koheleth’s words. Billions of the human race have been forgotten. Even those whose names have been preserved in ancient writings and who exerted great power over others have no real influence on the billions of earth’s present inhabitants. (1:11)

The words of Koheleth may be translated, “There is no remembrance of the former ones.” Because the Hebrew word ri’shóhn simply denotes the “former,” a number of translations convey the meaning to be “former things,” thus linking the term with the doings and occurrences spoken of in the preceding verses. “The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.” (Tanakh). “No one thinks anymore about what happened earlier, and also the deeds of our descendants their children will sometime not remember anymore.” (Niemand denkt mehr an das, was früher geschehen ist, und auch an die Taten unserer Nachkommen werden sich deren Kinder einmal nicht mehr erinnern. [German, Hoffnung für alle]) “We have just forgotten what has formerly occurred. And in a few years one will not remember anymore what we are doing now.” (Wir haben nur vergessen, was damals geschehen ist. Und in einigen Jahren wird man sich nicht mehr an das erinnern, was wir jetzt tun. [German, Neues Leben]) The Septuagint may likewise be understood to designate things: “There is no remembrance of the first [ones, things].” As in the case of people, past doings and occurrences are, of course, soon forgotten. (1:11)

Koheleth (as in verse 1) identified himself in the role of a monarch, saying, “I, Koheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” The Hebrew verb for “to be” in this case expresses a completed action and, therefore, is commonly rendered “was.” This has been cited as indicating that Solomon could not have been the intended monarch because he continued to be king up to the day of his death. The Hebrew verb, however, does not have to be regarded in such a restrictive way. Koheleth may simply have spoken of himself as being king at the time, without implying that he later ceased to be such. The Septuagint reads, “I, Ecclesiast, became [egenómen] king over Israel in Jerusalem.” (1:12)

The expression “king over Israel” preceded the division of the nation into two kingdoms. Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, was the first one to be anointed as “king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:1, 17, 35; 16:1), and he was commonly referred to as the “king of Israel.” (1 Samuel 24:14; 26:20) Even the neighboring Philistines spoke of Saul as “king of Israel.” (1 Samuel 29:3) Saul’s son Jonathan expressed the conviction that David would be “king over Israel.” (1 Sam. 23:17) Later, Solomon’s father David was anointed as king over the house of Judah. (2 Samuel 2:4) Not until after the death of Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (who had become king over Israel) was David anointed as “king over Israel.” (2 Samuel 2:8-10; 5:3) So the expression “king over Israel in Jerusalem” corroborates the link to Solomon, for he is the only “son of David” who ruled over all Israel from the city of Jerusalem. (1:12)

Koheleth next said, “I gave my heart.” The term “heart” translates the Hebrew lev and is often rendered “mind.” (NAB, NASB, NRSV, REB, Tanakh) Lev, however, could apply to the self or inner self. “I devoted myself” (NIV, NLT); “I have applied myself.” (NJB) Koheleth’s words may indicate that he “gave” or “set” his “heart,” (1) his all, his entire being, or (2) his whole mind, his complete attention, to seeking or searching out everything that is done under the heavens. (1:13)

The Hebrew word rendered “seek” (darásh) may also signify “study,” and this is the term used in a number of translations (NIV, REB, Tanakh). In the Septuagint, darásh is rendered “search out” (ekzetéo), and this meaning fits the context well. Koheleth expressed the next action by using the Hebrew tur, defined as “spy out,” “investigate,” “examine,” and “explore,” corresponding to the meaning of the Greek katasképtomai appearing in the Septuagint. The thought may be that Koheleth did his seeking or searching out and then carefully examined or investigated his findings. This seeking or searching and the examining was done with wisdom, being guided by wisdom or sound judgment. (1:13)

“All” or “everything” under “the heavens” (on earth beneath the skies) is to be regarded in a relative sense. It includes only what became the object of Koheleth’s searching and careful examination. The term “all” is limited to what Koheleth calls ‘inyan ra‘ (literally, “occupation of evil”) and variously translated “vexatious employment” (Rotherham), “unhappy business” (RSV, Tanakh), “grievous task” (NASB), “worthless task” (REB), “wearisome task” (NJB), “thankless task” (NAB), and “tragic existence” (NLT). The “occupation of evil” with which “earthlings” are “occupied” (‘anáh) evidently denotes the painful toiling in which they must engage just to live, to exist. In other contexts, the Hebrew word ‘anáh can mean to be “afflicted,” “humbled,” or “oppressed.” The Septuagint rendering is perispáo, meaning “preoccupy” or “distract.” (1:13)

God has allowed the painful “business,” “occupation,” or “employment” to be the lot of sinful humans and, therefore, it is referred to as his giving the occupation to them. This “occupation” is “evil” or “calamitous” because nothing of lasting value or permanence is produced. The futility of all the toiling is summed up in God’s words to Adam, “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground ― for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you will return” (1:13; Gen. 3:19; Tanakh)

Koheleth had “seen” or personally observed “all the works” done by humans “under the sun” (on the earth beneath the sun). Based on his careful observations of human laboring, he was moved to conclude, All is “vanity,” “emptiness,” “meaninglessness,” or “nothingness.” It is a “striving” or “chasing” after “wind,” after something that has no real substance. (1:14; see the Notes section.)

Through his careful investigation of human affairs, Koheleth came to the painful realization that the incessant striving, struggling, and toiling of humankind brought no real satisfaction. Nothing had any permanence and humans were powerless in effecting lasting change for the better. He then set forth the basic reason for this in the form of a proverb, “A twisted thing that cannot be made straight, a lack that cannot be made good.” (1:15, Tanakh)

On account of human sinfulness, much indeed is defective or flawed. It is twisted or crooked. Yet, nothing can be done to straighten out the many defects that are clearly manifest in every part of human society. Even the best minds cannot come up with solutions that will result in permanent good. The sincerest efforts prove to be to no avail in straightening out what is twisted. So the twisted or crooked thing remains such. (1:15)

The Hebrew term (chesróhn) that has been translated “lack” signifies “deficit,” “lacking thing,” or “what is missing.” As to what cannot be done respecting the lack, the Hebrew term appearing in the text is manáh, meaning “numbered” or “counted.” This could mean that, if something is lacking or missing, it is not there to be counted. Another possible meaning is that the inability to number or to count signifies that the lack cannot be “made complete” or cannot be “made good.” Yet another sense is that the defects cannot be counted because there are just too many of them. The basic point is the same ― much simply cannot be rectified. (1:15)

According to the literal reading of the Hebrew text, Koheleth said, “I spoke ― I ― to my heart.” In this case, “heart” (lev) may designate the self or inner self. This would denote that Koheleth spoke to himself or thought within himself. He then expressed the subject of his inner reflection. The Hebrew text reads, “I became great and increased wisdom above all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my heart saw much wisdom and knowledge.” (1:16)

“Became great” is a rendering of the Hebrew gadhál. Many translators link this verb to wisdom. “I have amassed great wisdom, surpassing all my predecessors.” (REB) “I have acquired a greater stock of wisdom than anyone before me in Jerusalem.” (NJB) “I have magnified and increased wisdom.” (NASB) It is, however, possible to understand the words of Koheleth as expressing two distinct thoughts — (1) he became great in his royal position, exercising extensive dominion and possessing abundant riches, and (2) he increased in wisdom. “I have become great, and have gathered wisdom.” (Rotherham) “Here I have grown richer and wiser.” (Tanakh) These renderings also harmonize with the description at 1 Kings 10:23, 24 (REB), “King Solomon outdid all the kings of the earth in wealth and wisdom, and the whole world courted him to hear the wisdom with which God had endowed his mind.” (1:16; see also 1 Kings 4:20–34; 10:1–22.)

The Hebrew preposition ‘al preceding “Jerusalem” often means “over.” Translators have commonly inserted words that limit the meaning to rulers over Jerusalem (“anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem” [NIV]; “all my predecessors on the throne at Jerusalem” [REB]; “any that ruled before me over Jerusalem” [Tanakh]). ‘Al, however, can also mean “in,” and this meaning has the support of the Septuagint. Accordingly, the reference does not have to be restricted to rulers but can include any exceptionally wise former resident of Jerusalem. The city itself had existed for centuries prior to Solomon’s reign, its history extending at least back to the time of Abraham when priest-king Melchizedek reigned there. (1:16; Genesis 14:18 [Salem is the earlier name for Jerusalem.])

During all the intervening centuries, persons known for their wisdom must have lived in Jerusalem. Koheleth, however, surpassed all of them in wisdom, and this agrees with what is set forth about King Solomon at 1 Kings 4:29–31 (REB). “God gave Solomon deep wisdom and insight, and understanding as wide as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed that of all the men of the east and of all Egypt. For he was wiser than any man, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; his fame spread among all the surrounding nations.” (1:16)

Koheleth’s “heart” (lev), either meaning his mind or his inner self (he himself) “saw” or had experience with an abundance of wisdom and knowledge. The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (chokhmáh) includes the thought of having an extensive fund of knowledge, coupled with the insight or good judgment to use it aright. The possessor of wisdom is one who is competent, usually by reason of experience, in dealing with life’s problems and in presenting sound advice to others. In this case, “knowledge” (da‘áth) relates to extensive factual information, information that plumbs the very depths. Wisdom and knowledge had become a part of Koheleth’s innermost self, guiding his thoughts, speech, and judgment. The account at 1 Kings 4:32-34 (REB) portrays Solomon as the possessor of such wisdom and knowledge. “He propounded three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He discoursed of trees, from the cedar of Lebanon down to the marjoram that grows out of the wall, of beasts and birds, of reptiles and fish. People of all races came to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and he received gifts from all the kings in the world who had heard of his wisdom.” (1:16)

Koheleth “gave” or “set” his heart to know “wisdom,” “madness,” and “folly.” Since the “heart” can represent the inner self, Koheleth may be understood as saying that he applied himself fully to knowing wisdom, madness, and folly. He put his all into this pursuit. If the heart primarily designates the mind in this case, Koheleth would be saying that his mind was focused on this pursuit; he gave it his full attention. The Hebrew verb for “to know” (yadhá‘) signifies to be thoroughly acquainted with, to have intimate personal knowledge gained by experience or diligent study and careful observation. Koheleth’s coming to know wisdom proved to be on a firsthand basis as the possessor of unsurpassed wisdom among his contemporaries. (1:17)

“Madness” denotes “delusion,” “derangement,” “distraction.” It is a distortion of sound judgment, resulting in irrational behavior. Apparently Koheleth came to know madness by studiously observing its manifestation in others. (1:17)

Koheleth also came to know “folly.” This indicates that he became thoroughly acquainted with “senselessness,” “thoughtlessness,” “recklessness.” He must have carefully observed how others acted without reason or good sense. Folly is characterized by an inconsiderate and reckless disregard for what is becoming in speech and conduct. (1:17)

Koheleth’s coming to know madness and folly may also have involved making an assessment or appraisal of these in relation to wisdom. The Septuagint includes no reference to madness and folly. It reads, “And I gave my heart to know wisdom and knowledge; parables and understanding I came to know.” His efforts to come to “know” the things he investigated proved to be disappointing. Koheleth called the result a “striving” or “chasing” after something unsubstantial — wind. (1:17; see the Notes section.)

He came to recognize the troubling consequences an increase in wisdom can have. “For [with] much wisdom ― much vexation.” The Hebrew term for “vexation” (ka‘ás) may also be defined as “irritation,” “disturbance,” “distress.” The Septuagint does not use an equivalent Greek term but reads, “because in abundant wisdom — abundant knowledge.” (1:18)

One who increases in wisdom becomes more aware of the numberless flaws in the realm of human affairs. Limitations imposed by time and circumstances make it difficult, if not impossible, to improve the situation. The wise person may be surrounded by those who stubbornly cling to wrong concepts and reject sound recommendations. Outnumbered, the wise one may find that any influence for good is quickly nullified. Even if the individual has a position of authority and circumstances are favorable, a relatively short life restricts what can be done. Moreover, there are just too many defects in need of correction. The wide gap existing between what needs to be done and what can be done is overwhelming. So the increase in wisdom can indeed lead to vexation, irritation, or disturbance. (1:18)

Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint basically read, “he who increases knowledge increases pain.” With increased knowledge, the individual becomes more and more aware of just how much is wrong, about what may be needed to correct flaws, and yet how very little, if anything, can be done to effect change for the good of others. There is intense internal pain, distressing sadness, when one is prevented from using the very knowledge that could benefit others. It hurts when one has to face stubborn resistance and realizes that time for positive action is very limited. (1:18)


Numerous translations use “wind” at the beginning of verse 6. “The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.” (NIV) “The wind blows south, the wind blows north; round and round it blows over and over again.” (CEV) “The wind blows to the south, it veers to the north; round and round it goes and returns full circle.” (REB) “The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.” (NRSV) “Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north; it turns and turns again; then back to its circling goes the wind.” (NJB)

In other contexts, the Hebrew word rúach and the Greek word pneúma (1:6, 14, 17) mean “spirit,” not “wind.”

The reference in verse 8 could be to “words,” not “things.” A number of translations have rendered the verse to apply to the spoken word. “All speech is labored; there is nothing man can say.” (NAB) “All words, are weak, unable is any man to tell.” (Rotherham) The Septuagint rendering may be translated, “All the words are tired” or “worn out,” which could mean that the words are overused.

In verses 14 and 17, a number of translations have retained the meaning “spirit” for the Hebrew rúach and the Greek pneúma. Instead of “striving after wind” or a similar expression, a number of translations read “vexation of spirit” (KJV, Young). In its rendering of the Septuagint, a new English translation (NETS) uses the expression “preference of spirit” and does not include the alternate meaning “wind” (as it does for verse 6). A German translation of the Septuagint (Septuaginta Deutsch), however, reads “a striving after wind” (ein Streben nach Wind). The Greek term rendered “preference” or “striving” is proaíresis and can signify “choice,” “preference,” or “commitment.” Persons who have chosen, preferred, or committed themselves to something that is mere wind could be spoken of as striving after wind.