Things That Will Not Work

W. Terry Varner
June 23, 2013

One of the great books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. It has been highly abused by its interpreters. Some understand the book teaches us to “eat, drink, and be merry” for life will soon be over. Some argue that the book affirms no life after death. Neither of these understandings is correct. Of all the books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes is most often quoted by atheists, religious skeptics, and scoffers.

Understanding Ecclesiastes. The theme of the book is quite simple—the examination of secular wisdom and knowledge and its inability to satisfy man’s life. It limits itself, at the beginning, to those things that are apparent to the natural mind. One key phrase is repetitious, “under the sun.” The writer asks, “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” (1:3, NASB, emp. added). Ecclesiastes is the summation of what man is able to understand “under the sun”—meaning in this secular world. This is the writer’s limitation and we must be careful not to usurp his limitation with an understanding not found in the text.

Introduction to Ecclesiastes. Consider: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. ‘Vanity of vanity,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity, what advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?’” (1:1-3, NASB). The writer is “the Preacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” This can refer to none other than Solomon. The Hebrew word for “Preacher” is Qoheleth meaning, “one who gathers, assembles, or collects.” Applied in this case is that Solomon gathered, assembled, and collected the philosophies by which men live. The material writer 3,000 years ago is relevant, pertinent, and applicable to our present world philosophies by which men live.

Some have suggested “the Searcher” as a more helpful translation of Qoheleth (Preacher) due to the fact the writer searches life by examining life and what motivates people. He searches and collects and then writes assembling the results of his study.

The vanity of vanities. One often reads the conclusion of a chapter or a book to know the message of the book, but not so when Solomon penned Ecclesiastes. He gives the results of his search of life, secular philosophies, and its motivating power in the lives of people. He states: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2, NASB). In other words in his examination of life and what motivates people to live ana do as they please resulted in “vanity!” Solomon is not speaking of the pride of man though undoubtedly, at times, this was involved. Man men and women spend a lot of time in front of mirrors to make themselves presentable, finish and correct how they look, and then take the time to admire themselves. This is self-admiration, vanity, or pride. However, this is not what Solomon is speaking about in this great book.

The word “vanity” has the meaning of “emptiness, meaninglessness, and futility.” This is what Solomon found when he searched secular wisdom and knowledge. Solomon searched secular wisdom and knowledge and then collected and assembled these philosophies of life. The result of secular wisdom and knowledge brings man emptiness, meaninglessness, and futility. They do not satisfy. Nothing—pleasure and relationships—have enduring value in life. While man tries to make these work, they don’t! None of these produced an enduring value in life of the man who pursued them. Do you know what Solomon says produces an enduring life? “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” (Eccl. 12:13, NASB).