Message # 1 | Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 | July 10, 20162
Beginning in September of 1939, the Germans occupied Krakow. At that time there were nearly 90,000 Jews living in Krakow. Forced labor, seizure of homes and possessions, curfews, and general maltreatment by the German soldiers and officers was the norm. By August of 1940, around 30,000 Jews had been forced to leave the city and had fled to other cities throughout Poland. In December of 1940, the German Governor of the Krakow District issued an order prohibiting any more Jews from coming into Krakow and forced those without permits to leave. As a result of this order, another 25,000 Jews left Krakow and by the beginning of 1941 there were about 13,000 Jews that remained.
It was in March of 1941 that the remaining Jews were forced to move into the Jewish Ghetto. While at first the Jews were allowed to come and go freely, within a few weeks the Ghetto was closed and nobody could enter or leave without special permit. Within that first month, 8-9 foot walls were built around its boundaries and guards were posted at the gates. Forced labor with the reward of about 1kg of bread, a living space of about 4 cubic feet, and daily arrests resulting in being taken to Auschwitz became normal life for these Jews. It was in June of 1942 that the programme to clear out the ghettos and exterminate all the Polish Jews took place. Over the next year, the Krakow ghetto would be cleared, and in March of 1943 it was completely emptied.
During one of these meticulously planned campaigns, Oscar Schindler inadvertently witnessed the brutality of the German soldiers in Krakow. At the time Schindler and his mistress were out for a pleasant horseback ride on a hilltop when the campaign opened directly below them. Surprised by the Nazi cruelty, Schindler’s eye was drawn to a little girl dressed in red who, alone, stood out from the mass of Jews being herded to the trains and to their death. Many years later Schindler looked back on this event and said, ‘Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.’
Schindler had amassed a fortune through bribery and corruption, exploiting every opportunity that his status as a member of the Nazi party presented. In the light of what he saw, the ‘good life’ became meaningless! He went on to risk his life and spend a fortune—dying penniless—in the rescue of an estimated twelve hundred Jews in the shadow of Auschwitz. 
When Steven Spielberg retold the story in Schindler’s List, the main body of the film was shot in black and white, except for the glow of candles and the two scenes in which the girl in the red coat appears. The effect was both stunning and heartbreaking as she stood out from the mass of humanity that was being herded to their deaths.
Ecclesiastes is life portrayed in black and white, emphasizing the captivity and destruction of a whole race—the human race—gathered together under the shadow of death. But there is color. The occasional candle flickers and soon others begin to glow and illuminate the scene. The brightest color appears when the cameras focus upon one person vividly illuminated against the drab back-drop—not a little girl in a red coat, but God, the Creator of human beings. As the camera pans away and the span of biblical history is revealed, we see that same God among the seething mass of humanity, sharing in their suffering and death—Jesus Christ.
The book that portrays the pointlessness of everything really does have a point to make! The Preacher is well qualified to search for the meaning of life—exploring many avenues of human experience and leaving no stone unturned in his quest. After introducing himself (v. 1), the Preacher introduces his text (v. 2), and what follows is his exposition and conclusion. The rest of the book explains how and why he has come to this conclusion. 
Genesis 3:17-24. When man was driven from the garden, access to the tree of life was taken away. In essence hope for a fulfilling life was lost. We will shortly see in Romans how the whole of creation looks forward to once again the freedom it enjoyed.
Ecclesiastes is a view of life separate from God. The futility that began in Genesis 3 and is spoken of in Romans 8 is magnified in Ecclesiastes. What would life look like if we were left in that futility? Ecclesiastes is the answer to that question. While there are hints spread throughout the book and a clear statement of focus in the conclusion, the rest of the book views life without hope.
Romans 8:18-21 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
The hope is found in Christ. Further in the passage in Romans it is clear that Christ is the hope offered to a society plagued by futility. This understanding of Genesis and Romans leads us into the first section of Ecclesiastes and its theme . . .
Often, as I prepare a message or a presentation of some kind, I will spend a significant period of time thinking through the right words to use. There is a specific meaning I want to communicate and sometimes it’s challenging to find the right word to communicate all the different nuances of the idea.
It seems evident that Solomon takes great care in choosing the key word in Ecclesiastes. This phrase, vanity of vanities, is used many times within Ecclesiastes; and the singular, vanity, frequently occurs in the Old Testament. The employment and repetition of this term stresses the importance of what the Preacher is saying. To understand his argument fully, we must look further into the meaning of this word.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Vapor, breath, vanity . . . The noun appears seventy-one times in the OT. Thirty-six times it is used in Ecclesiastes, where it occurs at least once in each of the twelve chapters except chapter ten.
Isaiah 57:13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain.
Proverbs 21:6 The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.
Brief. The first of the three meanings of hebel carries the idea of being brief or short. In these instances, the word is not so much speaking to the worthlessness of the activity as much as it is to the length of the activity. Often Ecclesiastes looks at life or a pursuit as simply being so short that it is like a breath.
Ecclesiastes 3:19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 6:12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 11:10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
Imagine a cold winter day . . . As you walk outside and breathe, you might see a mist or vapor come from your mouth. It is real, you can truly see it; but its presence is brief. Often we search for satisfaction in life; and what we often find is that those areas of life only offer a brief joy or satisfaction. The pleasure or satisfaction in those areas is as fleeting as one’s breath on a cold winter’s day.
James 4:14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
Absurd. In these instances, the passage is not speaking to the brief length of the pursuit. It is speaking to the pointlessness of a diligent attempt.
Ecclesiastes 2:15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 8:14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
Consider your job . . . Why are you, diligent as you are, treated in the same fashion as the sluggard that works next to you? Why is your raise the same or even less than someone else’s? Why does the other guy get the promotion? Why does the other guy get the job, and you don’t? Do you ever feel like there might be injustice in your business setting? Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s the point in trying so hard?” This is the vanity of which Solomon speaks. Righteousness and justice do not necessarily seem to be on the side of the wise, moral and diligent.
Meaningless. This final nuance to the word hebel is slight from the meaning of ‘absurd.’ This meaning takes a look at the individual who was able to ‘succeed’, but even in his success there is no satisfaction. This could also be the result of the absurd. Because life is often absurd, life seems to be unfulfilling.
When the teacher says that pleasure is a hebel and accomplishes nothing (2:1-2), he does not mean that pleasures are strictly absurd or even primarily that they are fleeting. Rather, he means that they are a waste of time in that they fail to satisfy.
Ecclesiastes 4:8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
The problem is that life in light of Ecclesiastes is futile, brief and meaningless. At times we may tend to think that we might be able to overcome the meaningless of Solomon’s life. We are, of course, more technologically advanced and have had the benefit of new and improved ideas.
Ecclesiastes 1:3–7 (ESV) 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
Psalm 90:10 The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Work. The root of this word “relates to the dark side of labor, the grievous and unfulfilling aspect of work. A biblical view of labor based on this word alone would be defective, but this aspect of work should be included in a full induction. Thus Moses uses this term to describe the frustration and struggle of the worker in this ephemeral, transitory world (Psa 90:10). No wonder he cries out to the eternal God “and let thy beauty (eternal, lovely work) be upon us” (v. 17). The root in its several forms is used especially by Solomon in Ecclesiastes as he details the frustration, profitlessness, and transitory (hebel) benefits of day-by-day labor; such is noted when that labor is not seen as service (even worship!) to God, but simply as work done “under the sun.” For the man whose relationship to God is tenuous, there is no profit from all his work (Eccl 1:3). Yet even in Ecclesiastes there are glimpses of a higher view of labor: “everyone who eats and drinks and sees good in all his labor-it is the gift of God” (Eccl 3:13; cf. Eccl 5:18-19).
Under the Sun. As was just stated, ‘work’ carries a negative connotation in this context and this context views work as done ‘under the sun’ instead of as worship or service to God. Some have seen below a parallel to the four classical Grecian elements (fire, earth, air, and water).
1:4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
1:5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
1:6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
1:7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
While creation continues unencumbered by the concerns of humanity, the elements themselves are cyclical and seemingly futile. (1) The Earth. While generations come and go, nothing really changes. “Like ants on a rock, we leave no trace of having been here. The birth of one generation and the passing of another are just nature’s cycle.” In a similar fashion as we will soon see, nothing really changes, nothing is really new . . . While people come and go, creation doesn’t really change. (2) The Sun/The Wind. The continual circuit reminds us of a runner on a track. He continues to go around and around in circles. It implies monotony and purposelessness. (3) The Rivers. As we view a river, it seems to accomplish nothing, it fills the sea but the sea is no more full than it was… this implies more a futile activity than a cyclical motion.
The primary purpose of these verses is to show the similarities between a hedonistic view of life and work and the cyclical, seemingly mundane actions of creation.
Ecclesiastes 1:8 (ESV) All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
This is the problem and there is nothing you can do about it . . . (1) Man cannot answer the problem (man cannot utter it). (2) Man cannot find anything to satisfy (the eye is not satisfied with seeing). (3) Man cannot learn anything that will satisfy (nor the ear filled with hearing). (4) Man cannot come up with any new ideas (there is nothing new under the sun).
Not only is the vanity of life magnified by creation, it is as well magnified by the fact that we will find no new avenues of purpose and satisfaction. “There is nothing truly new on the earth.” Just in case you think our technologically advanced society might be able to come up with new ways to satisfy man that would have been foreign to the Ancient Near East, the simple fact is that there are no new novel ideas.
Our error is that once we have heard from Solomon, we think, “maybe I can do it better than Solomon. Maybe Solomon didn’t find all the potential places of satisfaction in this world. I’ll keep trying . . .”
Far from being a contradiction to the gospel, Ecclesiastes is a call for the gospel. The world has no hope of finding lasting satisfaction or an explanation for the hopelessness in which they find themselves. It is only in Christ that true hope can be found and satisfaction be realized.
 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 12–13.
 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, 14.
 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, 15.
 Duane A. Garrett, The New American Commentary Volume 14 – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Holman Reference, 1993), 283.
 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
 Garrett, The New American Commentary Volume 14 – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 285.
 Garrett, The New American Commentary Volume 14 – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 285.