All Is Vanity! (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

All Is Vanity! (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)


Open your bibles to the book of Ecclesiastes. We’re kicking off our series looking at the first eleven verses this morning. You will find Ecclesiastes somewhere near the middle of your bibles, following the books of Psalms and Proverbs.

While you’re turning there, let me say a brief word about the author. Although historically, Ecclesiastes has been linked to Solomon, there is no mention of his name, unlike Proverbs and Song of Solomon. That alone gave Martin Luther reason to think it was someone else. In addition, the language points most likely to a post-exilic time period (3-4 centuries after Solomon). So who was it? We don’t know. Therefore, it seems best in my opinion to call him what he called himself, “the Preacher.”

Ecclesiastes 1:1–11 ESV

The landscape of politics is filled with numerous frustrations. The President is upset with his staff. Staff members point their fingers at each other. Republican Senators are dissatisfied with the lack of progress being made on anyone’s agenda. The Democrats have to at least appear frustrated in order to keep the focus on the President’s failures. In the end, it’s a gigantic mess.

In the midst of the political turmoil, we find social frustrations are rampant. Racial tensions ignite around flags and statues. Violence and hatred erupt with no clear end in sight.

For many, Facebook has become an outlet to air out those frustrations. Back in March, a professor from UCLA suggested that Mark Zuckerberg take some responsibility for enabling Trump’s election. He suggested that Facebook begin adjusting the algorithm that determines our news feeds in order to balance out the information we are seeing. Since Facebook has become a primary news source, and that’s true, it should be held accountable as one (that’s assuming accountability exists currently…).

And now, I’m sure I’ve got a good number of you also frustrated…Frustration and discontentment are a way of life.

As we turn our attention to Ecclesiastes this morning, it is easy to relate to the frustrations of “the Preacher”. He has tried just about everything to find purpose and meaning in life, and he has come up empty. In addition, his audience is likely living in exile, thus receiving little hope from their government.

Our commitment to a God-centered interpretation of the text feels impossible here. Even when talking about creation, the Preacher makes no mention of God.

He seems to possess an overly pessimistic outlook upon life. He comes across as hopeless in this introductory poem. What is the ultimate result of man’s toil? Nothing!

We will come to see that the Preacher is not always Debbie Downer, but he is realistic, unwilling to sugarcoat things. He opens with an unpleasant truth:

The quest for life’s meaning begins with an honest assessment of your discontentment.

  1. Life Under the Sun is Frustrating (2-3)
  2. Earth Remains Constant (4-7)
  3. Man Remains Discontent (8-11)

1. Life Under the Sun is Frustrating (2-3)

In this opening section, the Preacher states his thesis. It is a thesis he will draw out throughout the book. The primary key word is repeated 5 times in the opening quote:

Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

The word translated “vanity” is found 38 times in Ecclesiastes. It has a broad range of usage, but literally means: vapor or breath. It’s your breath that appears on a window if you get up real close and deeply exhale. It’s only there for a second or two. The Preacher is comparing everything in life to that breath that disappears.

Psalm 39:5 ESV

5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah

But its meaning goes beyond that. It is used to speak of things that are frustrating, perplexing, and meaningless. Yes, life is brief and fleeting, but it’s also really difficult to understand. It is confusing and stressful. Oftentimes, if we’re being honest, it feels pointless.

The transmission goes out in one car, so we buy a new one and immediately get into an accident. We get ahead on mortgage payments only to have a medical emergency. Life can frustrate us like that.

The Preacher closes with the same statement.

Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV

8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

Does this mean his pessimism has won? Does he think life’s negatives outweigh the positives? I love Derek Kidner’s response:

Where other writers would commend the light to us directly, Qoheleth does it by making the darkness intolerable, allowing the light only the rarest gleam to provoke the observant into second thoughts.

In verse 3 the Preacher asks the central question of this passage:

Ecclesiastes 1:3 ESV

3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

The Preacher will use the word, “toil” (עָמָל) 24x It refers to hard labor, implying anxious or even miserable work. It is often translated as “trouble”.

But, he makes an important clarification about the context of which he’s pondering. “Under the sun” is used 29x. It is man’s life without regard for God. It is a brief life, in a fallen world, oftentimes filled with frustration.

And what is the result? What is the reward for all of our hard labor? The implied answer is nothing.

It is actually the same point Jesus makes:

Matthew 16:26 ESV

26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

The profit is nothing. Remove God from the picture, view everything from an atheistic perspective, and you are left with a pointless, meaningless existence – filled with frustration.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis probes this point:

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world…

He mentions our deep desires for love, travel, and learning. But, in the end, Lewis continues…

There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.

So how do we cope with this reality? What are we supposed to do considering all the confusion and frustration we face?

Well, I think the first thing the Preacher is suggesting we do is to face reality head on. The quest for life’s meaning begins with an honest assessment of your discontentment.

› The first proof of frustration the Preacher points to is that…

2. Earth Remains Constant (4-7)

The Preacher provides three examples of the circular consistency of nature (sun, wind, and streams). In each case the regularity of activity points to its pointlessness. The earth is simply a monotonous mass of activity. He opens his argument with a comparison:

Ecclesiastes 1:4 ESV

4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

One generation is replaced by another, but the earth remains steady. Think about that. The significance of our work within our own generation is typically miniscule. However, in light of the myriad of generations that have come and gone, while this earth has continued to spin, is even more humbling to consider.

Ecclesiastes 1:5 ESV

5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.

From our perspective, we see the sun rise and set, day after day. It is the same thing over and over again. For the Preacher, the sun is a picture of the monotony of life. The pace is relentless, the sun hastens back to where it will rise again.

Next, the Preacher considers the wind:

Ecclesiastes 1:6 ESV

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.

The path of the wind is not as fixed as the sun, but it to continues to blow in a circuitous fashion. Around and around it goes… Lastly, the Preacher considers the sea:

Ecclesiastes 1:7 ESV

7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.

Water is in constant motion. Streams deposit into lakes and oceans, but they never fill up entirely. It’s as if the work is never completed. Nature has no gain to show for it’s ceaseless toiling. It’s an illustration of life’s vanity, its meaninglessness…

The movie Groundhog Day comes to mind here. There is a point where Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is talking with some friends and he sounds just like the Preacher when he asks:

Phil Connors: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

Again, surprisingly, we find no mention of God in this passage. (And we need to be careful not to suggest that God’s good created order is somehow to blame for our sense of meaninglessness.)

Lest we miss sight of the theme statement in v.3, let us remember that the Preacher is only following through with an answer of his own question. This is a description of creation and its operations from our perspective, “under the sun”.

Later on in Ecclesiastes we will see that he recognizes God to be the Creator. It’s constancy is the result of a sovereign God who creates and sustains life.

So how does this relate to “vanity”? Why is this frustrating?

Because, under the sun, from man’s perspective, there is darkness and uncertainty about life. Genesis 1-11 has a significant impact upon this book. So the Preacher sees “vanity” as the result of the Fall. The hopelessness that we feel. The monotony we see is the result of our sinful disposition. We cannot appreciate things from God’s perspective.

And that leaves us frustrated and perplexed because the same God who is sovereign over creation is sovereign over our frustrations. He could provide the answers, and sometimes he does. But the primary focus of the Preacher is on the seasons of life that go unexplained.

› The circuits of creation seem to only perpetuate the reality that…

3. Man Remains Discontent (8-11)

Here the Preacher makes the connection with creation apparent. Creation’s ceaseless activity with no sign of progress is a picture of our existence.

Ecclesiastes 1:8 ESV

8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The weariness of life is exemplified by the inability of a man to speak, as well as the dissatisfaction of an eye to see, and an ear to hear. There is no rest because we are never content with our circumstances. We are constantly striving, chasing after the wind as he will mention later on.

We see a similar point made in Proverbs:

Proverbs 27:20 ESV

20 Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man.

Just as the grave and the underworld are never satisfied by the dead bodies they receive, so our eyes are continually seeking to find something new to gaze upon. And are ears are constantly seeking for something tickling to hear. We are perpetually discontent.

The Preacher continues:

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 ESV

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 Sunday. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.

History repeats itself. We see mankind making the same mistakes their ancestors made generations before. Historians are oftentimes incredibly skilled at predicting where culture is headed by considering what previous generations did.

And for many, the future is bleak. When we look at the path we’re on, few people find reason to rejoice. Rather, they are filled with anxiety and fear.

But, “Don’t worry!” says the Preacher, “You’ll be forgotten just like every other generation that has passed before you.”

Ecclesiastes 1:11 ESV

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.

We strive to leave a legacy for ourselves, but a future generation can wipe out the records. Authors leave their life’s work for future generations to pick up and read, but…Hey, Mario Kart!

Neil Postman’s warning in Amusing Ourselves to Death is right on:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

And right about now, I’m sure you’re nodding your head thinking. “Amen! That’s right. This generation is in chaos. Our nation will be in ruins soon enough.” We tend to point our wagging fingers at the world outside.

But what about you? Where does your idle heart find satisfaction? Are you personally discontent? Be honest.

This is where we all must begin our study of Ecclesiastes, with an honest assessment of our discontentment. Here’s why, because until we’ve done that, we won’t realize that we’ve been made for so much more than a mere life under the sun. We’ve been given a soul that will never die.

The frustration we experience in this life is universal. Believers aren’t immune from worldly pessimism. But the Christian does have a hope that the unbeliever lacks.

That hope stems from the cross. Turn with me if you would to Isaiah 53. I want you to see this for yourselves.

Isaiah 53:10 ESV

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The grief that our Lord Jesus endured as he was crushed on the cross points to the fulfillment of all our frustration that is the result of our sin.

Remember the word “toil” from Ecclesiastes 1:3? In the next verse of Isaiah 53 we see that word again, but this time it is translated “anguish”.

Isaiah 53:11 ESV

11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

We have hope, because we have a Savior whose eyes were satisfied by what he saw as the result of his redemptive work. What did he see? His offspring (v.10). That’s you and me, and all who believe!

Jesus’ cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the fulfillment of the frustration that all believers face in this life. And, in the midst of suffering that anguish, our Lord saw the fruit of his turmoil, and he was satisfied.

On the cross, Jesus bore our life of vanity and he replaced it with purpose and hope!

› In summary


The quest for life’s meaning begins with an honest assessment of your discontentment. We should not sugarcoat reality.

But, in Christ, there is a hope received in our redemption. Because of the resurrection, our toil and hard labor is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ has cleared up any ambiguity left by Ecclesiastes regarding the afterlife. The Preacher argued that nothing is remembered (v.11), but Jesus taught:

John 11:25–26 ESV

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,

26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

If not, you will remain discontent as you search in vain for that elusive meaning in life. It’s that hopeless search that the Preacher turns to next.