Ecclesiastes Lesson One: The Humdrum of Life – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. 

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. 

“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” 

What does a man gain for all his efforts 

that he labors at under the sun? 

A generation goes and a generation comes, 

but the earth remains forever. 

The sun rises and the sun sets; 

panting, it returns to its place 

where it rises. 

Gusting to the south, 

turning to the north, 

turning, turning, goes the wind, 

and the wind returns in its cycles. 

All the streams flow to the sea, 

yet the sea is never full. 

The streams are flowing to the place, 

and they flow there again. 

All things are wearisome; 

man is unable to speak. 

The eye is not satisfied by seeing 

or the ear filled with hearing. 

What has been is what will be, 

and what has been done is what will be done; 

there is nothing new under the sun. 

10 Can one say about anything, 

“Look, this is new”? 

It has already existed in the ages before us. 

11 There is no remembrance of those who came before; 

and of those who will come after 

there will also be no remembrance 

by those who follow them. (HCSB)

As we begin our study of Ecclesiastes, the biggest question that is debated is, “who wrote it?” There are two main opinions.

  • Solomon.
    • The traditional viewpoint, based on verse one, is that Solomon wrote it.
    • D. Fredericks found forty-six points in which Ecclesiastes agrees exclusively or primarily with biblical Hebrew over later Mishnaic Hebrew.
    • Fredericks also found six grammatical features of Ecclesiastes that appear dependent on early biblical Hebrew and none dependent on late biblical Hebrew.
    • The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes reflects authentic Canaanite vocabulary, rendering the position of an Aramaic base text unlikely.
    • There is a parallel between the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2,000 BC, and Ecclesiastes 9:7-9.
    • This belief prevailed until the rise of historical criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Non-Solomonic authorship.
    • Linguistic evidence.
      • This is the most important issue when considering non-Solomonic authorship.
      • The language of Ecclesiastes is unusual.
      • It appears to have been written in either very late Hebrew or possibly Aramaic prose.
      • The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes doesn’t fit anywhere in the known history of the language; it doesn’t resemble the Hebrew of Malachi, Esther, or the Chronicler.
      • There are also two Persian words contained in the letter. This hints at the possibility it was written in or after the rise of the Persian empire.
      • By the beginning of the 20th century, the theologian G. A. Barton stated the idea of Solomon being the author of Ecclesiastes was “unthinkable.”
  • The modern opinion is that Ecclesiastes is from Solomon, but was most likely written in the post-exilic period. This would explain the “mixing” of styles from different historical periods.

Now, let’s begin our study of this first section of Ecclesiastes.

Many translations use the term “vanity,” but the HCSB uses “futility.” When read in the context of the beginning of the letter, futility makes more sense and is better understood in modern society. The teacher uses the word quite often throughout the letter, underscoring its importance to understanding what he is writing. Now, let’s dig deeper into this passage.

  • Although the letter was written at some period before the birth of Christ, we should understand it in light of the difference between worldly living and Christian living.
    • Living the way the world says does lead to futility.
      • We’ll never have enough.
      • We’ll never be satisfied.
      • We’ll always be chasing after the next “dream” or the next “new toy.”
    • Living for Christ leads to abundant living.
      • John 10:10b – I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.
      • 1 Corinthians 15:58 – Therefore, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work,  knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
    • As we progress through the lessons connected with Ecclesiastes, always remember this contrast. It will distinguish between Christian and worldly living.
  • As was discussed above, we don’t know who wrote the letter, but the one who spoke these words identifies themself as a king in Jerusalem.
    • Someone of this stature wouldn’t be lacking in “things.”
    • They would be respected and honored.
    • They would have the “pick” of whatever they wanted.
    • Yet, they understood that everything was futile.
    • None of it would satisfy.
    • No matter what we do or accomplish, there is no gain for their efforts “under the sun.”
      • This phrase repeatedly occurs throughout the letter.
      • It means to view things from a human perspective and not from a heavenly perspective.
      • At the end of his life, the author acknowledged that there was something “above the sun.” The world no longer mattered. It was the eternal that mattered.
    • The word “gain” means a surplus and is the opposite of futility. 
    • The word “labor” means to work to the point of exhaustion and not experience fulfillment in your work. It also contains the ideas of grief, misery, frustration, and weariness.
  • As we review the theme from the first three verses, we see the following points.
    • Living for “worldly” aims is futile and will leave us feeling empty and exhausted.
    • Living to please God and align with His will leaves us feeling satisfied and rested.

Now that we’ve looked at the first three introductory verses let’s take a closer look at verses four to eleven.

  • As we look at this section of Scripture, one theme stands out. Life and the world are cyclical in nature.
  • As we look at verses four to seven, we see that nothing changes.
    • The earth is unchanged. It has existed for thousands of years.
      • From a human perspective, the earth is the most permanent and durable “thing” we can envision.
      • The laws and dependability of nature are the basis for modern science.
    • Man is transient.
      • Our time on earth is a tiny blip on the timeline of eternity.
      • We are pilgrims on the earth.
      • The author introduces a theme that is prevalent throughout Ecclesiastes; life is short, and death is certain.
      • Individuals come and go.
      • Nations and empires rise and fall.
      • The world doesn’t change, but the “actors” on the stage do change.
    • The author now moves from the cycle of birth and death to the cycle of day and night.
      • Each day the sun rises, and the sun sets.
      • The author uses the term “panting” to illustrate the sun’s daily journey. The sun is eager to reach the “sunset.”
      • But nothing changes. Each day is the same; the sun rises, and the sun sets.
    • The author then describes the wind.
      • He isn’t giving a lesson in atmospheric physics.
      • The wind is in constant motion, following cycles that man can’t understand.
      • John 3:8a – The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.
      • The author’s point is that the wind is constantly moving and changing directions, yet it is still the wind.
      • We can hear it, feel it, and see its effects, but over the life of the earth, it hasn’t changed.
    • The author now describes the water cycle, which sustains life on the earth.
      • According to scientists, 97% of all the water on the earth is in the oceans.
      • The interaction between the sun and wind makes evaporation possible, leading to the transport of moisture and circulating the water.
      • But the sea never changes. Rivers and rain send water into the oceans, but they remain the same.
    • When we consider the earth, sky, winds, and waters, the same conclusion is reached. There is motion, but nature doesn’t change.
      • This is the first point in the author’s discourse that life is monotonous and not worth living.
      • But that is only true if you look at life “under the sun” and leave God out of the equation.
        • When we do that, we see a closed system that is uniform and predictable.
        • It’s a world with no answers to prayer and no miracles.
        • A God in this kind of world can’t act on our behalf because He is imprisoned inside the “laws of nature.”
      • But we know that God does exist “under the sun.”
        • He hears and answers prayers.
        • God has acted “inside” nature to alter the normal physical laws.
          • Joshua 10:12-13 – On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” 13 And the sun stood still and the moon stopped until the nation took vengeance on its enemies. Isn’t this written in the Book of Jashar? So the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed its setting almost a full day.
          • Isaiah 38:7-8 – This is the sign to you from the Lord that He will do what He has promised: I am going to make the sun’s shadow that goes down on Ahaz’s stairway go back by 10 steps.” So the sun’s shadow went back the 10 steps it had descended.
          • God opened the Red Sea and the Jordan River for Israel; Exodus 14 and Joshua 3-4.
          • God turned off the rain for Elijah – 1 Kings 17.
          • God turned on the rain – James 5:17-18 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.
          • Jesus (God the Son) calmed the wind and the waves – Mark 4:37-41 – A fierce windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking over the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But He was in the stern, sleeping on the cushion. So they woke Him up and said to Him, “Teacher! Don’t You care that we’re going to die?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 Then He said to them, “Why are you fearful?  Do you still have no faith?” 41 And they were terrified  and asked one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey Him!”
          • God will use the forces of nature to bring terror and judgment to people – Revelation 6.
        • When we come to faith through the sacrifice of Jesus and become part of God’s spiritual family, we no longer live in a “closed system” of endless monotony.
          • We can joyfully sing, “This is my Father’s world.”
          • God meets all of our needs. Matthew 6:25-34 – This is why I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27 Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these! 30 If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you—you of little faith? 31 So don’t worry, saying,‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
          • As Christians, we live in this world as pilgrims, not as prisoners. Therefore, we should live with joy and confidence.
  • Looking at verses eight through eleven, we see that there is nothing new.
    • This may not have troubled the original readers of this letter. However, in the context of our modern world, where we believe there is constant “change,” this revelation may jolt us.
      • Modern science has provided us with electronics, medical advancements, wonder drugs, and extraordinary means of travel.
      • Advancements in education have also uncovered many hidden truths.
    • In this section, the author stopped being a scientist and transitioned to the role of a historian.
      • Man desires new things.
        • The world ultimately brings boredom, and people desire new things to distract or deliver them.
        • They are like the Athenians in Paul’s day, spending time either telling or hearing new things. Acts 17:21 – Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new
        • Yet, this still leaves people unsatisfied.
        • The entertainment industry thrives off of this desire for “newness,” and takes advantage of it to reap a great profit.
        • As Augustine prayed, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
        • Matthew 11:28 – Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
      • The world provides nothing new.
        • A quote from Dr. H.A. Ironside, a longtime pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church, says, “If it’s new, it’s not true; and if it’s true, it’s not new.”
        • If something is purported to be new, it is actually a restructuring of something old.
        • Man can’t create anything new because we are a creature and not the Creator.
        • Thomas Edison said his inventions were “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind.”
        • Only God can create new things.
          • When we enter God’s spiritual family. 2 Corinthians 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.
          • We walk in newness. Romans 6:4 – Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life.
          • We sing a new song. Psalm 40:3a – He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
          • We enter God’s presence through a new and living way. Hebrews 10:20 – by a new and living way He has opened for us through the curtain (that is, His flesh).
          • We will enjoy a new heaven and earth. Revelation 21:1 – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.
          • God will make everything new. Revelation 21:5a – Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.”
        • The author wrote about the basic principles of life and not methods. A simple saying reflects this concept. Methods are many; principles are few. Methods always change, but principles never do.
  • As we look back on this passage, we should realize that it is not a contradiction to the Gospel but rather a call for it.
    • The world is in bondage.
    • Humanity is not able to explain, be satisfied, or change it.
    • Only Jesus, who came from “above the sun,” can give understanding and escape.
      • Jesus has done a new thing.
      • He has created a new covenant.
      • He has given a new birth and life.
      • He has given a new commandment.
    • Everything else is old and passing away.
  • The sum of futility in placing our hope in the world is captured in Matthew 16:26a – What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life?


  • Don’t chase after “worldly” goals or items. As the author of Ecclesiastes writes, it’s all futile. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work; Scripture commands us to work. But our work is a means to glorify God and not pursue materialism. 
  • Don’t chase after fame or recognition. Live a life of obedience to God and His commands. A person may be famous or infamous but live a life of unrighteousness and spend eternity in hell. It may not satisfy our human wants, but living a life of anonymity, and after dying, hearing the words, “well done, good and faithful servant,” should be our goal.
  • Our only satisfaction and fulfillment in this life are found in being an obedient follower of Christ. John 10:10b – I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. A life outside of obedience to Christ is a life that will leave us unfulfilled and frustrated.

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