" 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher [or 'Preacher',
Heb "Qoheleth']. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless' " (Ecc 1:2).
This full phrase -- expressing the theme of the Book -- is duplicated in Ecc
12:8. These two verses (Ecc 1:2 and Ecc 12:8) form a kind of frame around the
main part of the book. The main argument of the book (Ecc 1:3-12:7) takes place
within the boundaries of this frame.
Both the introductory title (Ecc 1:1 only) and the conclusion
(Ecc 12:9-14) are written in the third person: the Preacher is referred to as
"he" (the Preacher), not as "I". In the main body of the book (Ecc 1:3-12:7),
the Preacher speaks as "I" to the reader, and gives us his personal
observations. There is only one place in this main body of the book in which
third person speech ("he") is again introduced: Ecc 7:27: it includes the phrase
"says the Preacher, or Teacher". This little phrase, occurring as it does
roughly in the middle of the book, is a reminder to us that what we are reading
all the way through this central section (Ecc 1:3-12:7) is a first person
account, the personal observations of the Preacher.
The key word
The key word in Ecclesiastes is "hebel", which occurs about 37
times in the short book. (This is remarkable because the same word only occurs
no more than a like number of times -- 33 by one count -- in the entirety of the
rest of the Bible.) "Hebel" literally means "a breath", and signifies that which
is "vain" or "meaningless".
Qoheleth consistently uses "hebel" with the nuance of
"transient" of "fleeting" when he uses the term to describe man's life (Ecc
11:10; 6:12; 7:12; 9:9; 3:19).
Qoheleth uses "hebel" with the nuance of "perplexing" or
"enigmatic" if occurrences upon earth which contradict the established moral
order (Ecc 6:2; 8:10; 8:14).
Qoheleth employs "hebel" often with the nuance of "futile,"
"fruitless," "not beneficial."
With reference to pleasure and wisdom, Qoheleth employs
"hebel" with the nuance of "profitless" (Ecc 2:1; 2:15):
With reference to events under the sun generally, to the laughter of fools
and to bequeathing one's estate to an heir, Qoheleth employs "hebel" with the
nuance of "profitless/futile" (Ecc 1:2; 12:8; 2:19,21,23; 7:6).
reference to a stillborn child and to death, Qoheleth employs "hebel" in the
sense of obscure or "unknown" (Ecc 6:14; 11:8).
Qoheleth employs "hebel" in conjunction with a feeding on or a
striving after wind ("ruach") to denote a futile effort (Ecc 1:14; 2:11,17,26;
4:4,16; 6:9; cp Joh 3:8).
Qoheleth employs "hebel" in contradistinction to "yithron"
(profit) and "tob" (good) and other terms which heighten the vividness of
"hebel". The absence of "yithron" for activity is "profitless." The lack of
"tob" in activity is "not beneficial." Among the words used in antithesis to
"hebel", "yithron" -- "profit, advantage, gain" -- plays a dominant role as a
term meaning "that which counts or matters", "that which results or issues from
all our work". It forces upon "hebel" the special sense of "that which does not
count or matter", "null", "vain", "that which yields no results". Qoheleth's
goal is to find what is lastingly "tob" (good) or gives abiding "yithron"
(profit, advantage). However, in his quest he finds nothing permanent in man's
experience, hence his verdict -- "hebel" (eg, Ecc 1:3; 2:3,11; 3:19;
Qoheleth's observations about the "hebel" nature of existence
fall into two categories:
those things concerning creation and the present order which confront him
on every hand and cause him to perceive the "hebel" condition of the world, and
all human endeavors by which a man seeks for "profit and good" but which
ultimately mock his attempts.
Qoheleth observes the cyclical patterns in nature and
concludes that the meaning to life cannot be found in the created order (Ecc
Qoheleth then looks at man for progress in history and
technology as possibly giving the key to life, but concludes that any apparent
progress is only illusionary, and that this does not hold the key to life (Ecc
Qoheleth ponders the fact that the righteous and the wicked
both suffer the fate of death, and concludes that this is another example of
"hebel" (Ecc 2:14, cf Ecc 8:14).
Qoheleth observes the common fate of man and beast as another
example of "hebel" (Ecc 3:19).
Qoheleth sees that the reordering of the present system is
beyond man's control (Ecc 1:15; 7:13).
Qoheleth sees prevalent injustice in the world as another
example of "hebel" (Ecc 3:16; 4:1; 5:7,8; 7:15).
Qoheleth also sees the moral order overturned in his
experience and concludes that this is "hebel" (Ecc 8:14).
Qoheleth laments that the profit from his labor will be left
to another and is hence "hebel" (Ecc 2:18).
Qoheleth sees the fact that the future after death is darkness
(Ecc 11:8) and thus "hebel".
Qoheleth observes all human endeavors by which a man seeks
"profit" and "good" to give meaning to life, and concludes that they are all
"hebel" (Ecc 1:14, 12:8).
Qoheleth concludes that toil is "hebel" because it is
motivated by greed, does not yield happiness, and is impermanent.
Toil is "hebel" because it is motivated by the competitive desire of one
man to get ahead of another. In trying to outstrip one's neighbor, one forfeits
rest and enjoyment of life (Ecc 4:4-6).
Toil is "hebel" because it is
motivated by greed. A rich man continues to amass riches with no thought as to
the reason why and consequently deprives himself of the enjoyment of them (Ecc
The result of toil does not yield satisfaction, but days filled with
pain and nights without sleep, due to worry (Ecc 2:23; cf Ecc 2:11), and is
The fruit of a man's labor cannot be enjoyed by him but must
rather be left to another who did not labor for them and who may be undeserving.
Hence, toil is "hebel" (Ecc 2:18,21).
A minimum of effort to meet life's
basic needs is superior to advancement through toil (Ecc
Qoheleth concludes that wealth is "hebel" because it does not
satisfy nor bring enjoyment, but rather brings anxiety (Ecc 2:4-10, 4:17,
Wealth is "hebel" because it brings anxiety rather than fulfillment (Ecc
Wealth is "hebel" because it can be easily lost through a rash
vow, through oppression or through a bad investment (Ecc
Wealth is "hebel" because rather than give satisfaction, it
demands increased vigilance to keep it (Ecc 5:12).
Wealth is "hebel" because
it brings misery (Ecc 5:6).
Wealth is "hebel" because a man may not enjoy it
(Ecc 2:26; 4:8).
Wealth is "hebel" because it does not satisfy (Ecc
Qoheleth concludes that wisdom is "hebel" since, rather than
give meaning to life, it gives only a temporary advantage.
The pursuit of wisdom yields grief and is thus "hebel" (Ecc
Wisdom is "hebel" because its advantages are seen in this life only
Wisdom doesn't guarantee success since its advantage can be
thwarted by various means, such as unpredicted misfortune (Ecc 9:11), sin and
folly (9:18; 10:5-7), and improper timing (Ecc 10:8-11). It is thus "hebel" (Ecc
Yet wisdom is not valueless. It has great relative advantage
in this life (Ecc 2:14; 4:10-14; 8:1-9; 9:14-18).
Qoheleth concludes that pleasure-seeking in its various forms
is "hebel" because it ultimately accomplishes nothing (Ecc 2:2):
Sensual gratification, while pleasing for the moment, yields no lasting
benefit (Ecc 2:3,8,11).
The pleasure derived from the accomplishment of
ambitious undertakings is only temporary (Ecc 2:4-6,11).
derived from great wealth brings no lasting satisfaction (Ecc
The pleasure derived by fools is of the briefest nature (Ecc
Pleasure is "hebel" since it yields no "yithron" (profit, advantage)
Qoheleth concludes that fame is "hebel" since it is
short-lived, depending on the masses who have only the briefest memory (Ecc
4:13-16). [Cited generally from M. James Sawyer]
Ecclesiastes has been called "the book of Solomon's call to
the Gentiles" (BM 78:17).
It has also been subtitled "The things that won't work!"
Where is the meaning of life? The meaning of life is
NOT in wisdom...
NOT in withdrawal...
NOT in weeping...
NOT in wind...
NOT in worship without obedience...
NOT in weapons of war...
NOT in writing...
...but in walking uprightly.
Conclusion: Fear God, and keep His commandments.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a book for deep study and
meditation. It is concerned with the age-old search for happiness and
satisfaction. What is good? What is real? What is worthwhile? What is the great
purpose and meaning of life?
Its theme is summed up in its opening and closing verses. It
begins with: " 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly
meaningless! Everything is meaningless' " (Ecc 1:2).
And it ends with: "Now all has been heard; here is the
conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the
whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every
hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Ecc 12:13,14). We note from the
italics in the KJV that the word "duty" is not in the original. The thought is
really broader and deeper. Literally it says: "This is the whole man" -- that
is, this is everything for man -- all his meaning and purpose -- all his life
Cp Luk 17:26,27; 2Ti 3:1-5: The Last Days will be a time of
unprecedented pleasure-seeking. "What's it all about?" A realization of the
emptiness of such pursuits turns one to Christ: as the only lasting
Two "incomplete answers"
"Two books fill a vital place in the scheme of revelation by
raising questions to which the full answers are only to be found in Christ.
Exploring life fearlessly, they seem to baffle the believer with doubts and
difficulties, yet they really pave the way to a deeper faith by bringing into
full light the problems which only the Gospel can wholly solve.
"Job leads through the problem of suffering to the wider
problem of man's relation to God. Is it a simple profit-and-loss account in
which well doing is rewarded and wrong doing punished? Obviously it is more than
that, since a righteous man can suffer and know that he is not guilty of the
secret sins his friends attribute to him. Still more is that evident when the
Son of God himself suffers on the cross; but the cross deepens the problem only
to solve it, since the way of life is opened up in the risen Christ, who becomes
the Mediator between God and men foreshadowed in the speech of Elihu.
"Ecclesiastes probes the problem of man's relation to his own
life. What is it worth when lived as an end in itself? What other end is there
by which life can be related to something outside itself? The field of inquiry
is wider than in Job since it covers the experience of life generally and not
only the particular experiences of loss and pain; but in the same way it raises
fundamental questions to which only partial answers can be given within the
book's own limits -- the final answers are in Christ" (LGS).
The "contradictions" in Ecclesiastes?
"It has been observed that often "the Preacher is using a
strategy that we might term, 'Yes... but...' He presents one truth and agrees
with it -- but only in certain respects. He is prepared only to go so far with
it because he realises there are other angles and other truths which qualify or
contextualize the first. Thus, it may be true that it is good to be diligent or
to be wise (indeed it is true); but there are other aspects which must also be
considered, as the Preacher is quick to point out. [This] is a phenomenon which
appears again and again throughout the book. It may be true that there is a time
for everything, but if humans do not know when that time is, and if they cannot
fathom the eternity which is God's, then they are hopelessly at sea unless God
condescends to help them out.
"Interpreters have agonised over paradoxes and apparent
contradictions in Ecclesiastes throughout the centuries, and where they have
become unstuck it is often because they have failed to realise truth can be
expressed in contradictory statements. One statement can be true to a certain
extent. Another statement, which is apparently contradictory, can be true in
another sense. Put the two together, and one begins to develop a complete
"This is somewhat akin to the position we find ourselves in
when we discuss freewill and predestination, or when we ask the extent to which
God is involved in controlling people's lives and the extent to which we take
the initiative in controlling our own destiny. There is truth in both: God
directs and we have free will. The precise sense in which they are to be
reconciled is not spelled out for us in scripture, and we are to take
encouragement and instruction from both truths. Many arguments arise because of
apparent overemphasis on one side or the other, but it is when they are taken
together that we can begin to perceive the truth of the matter. Likewise in
Ecclesiastes, the apparent contradictions are the Preacher's way of expressing
truth. There are different ways of looking at things, different perspectives and
levels, and this means that apparently contradictory statements can turn out to
be simultaneously true and can express the whole truth in a way that one simple
statement could not. This is very important to remember" (MV).
The title: Ecc 1:1
The theme stated: All is meaningless: Ecc
The futility of human efforts without God: Ecc 1:3–11
test of practical experience: Ecc 1:12 – 2:26
limited by time: Ecc 3:1–22
Human futility greatly increased by
oppression: Ecc 4:1–16
The futility of insincere worship: Ecc
The futility of riches: Ecc 5:10 -- 6:2
The futility of
human desires: Ecc 6:3 – 11:6
Advice and warning to youth: Ecc 11:7
The theme restated: All is meaningless: Ecc
Conclusion: Fear God, and keep His commandments: Ecc