This is my most favorite book of the bible. I have read it many times more than any other book. Its insight and pathos overwhelm me at times. That is not to say it is perfect. It also exhibits some rather strange ideas and beliefs that seem to me to be considerably removed from wisdom. I will address this when we get to the right places.
Although the author professes to be Solomon in the first verse and does so again, even in this chapter, modern scholarship discounts it. The style and spelling of some of the Hebrew points to a date much later than Solomon. However, I tend to the suspicion that Solomon wrote most of it, perhaps as notes, and a later author found them (or had preserved them) and put them into the form of this book.
דִּבְרֵי קֹהֶלֶת בֶּן־דָּוִד מֶלֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם׃ 1:1
Eccl. 1:1 The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem:
The name Koheleth can be translated as teacher or prophet, one who is assumed to be among those assembled.
Eccl. 1:2 “Vanity of vanities,” says Koheleth.
Vanity of vanities!
Everything is vanity.
Right away, here in the second verse, the author immediately reveals his thesis: Everything is for nothing. Because of this, most scholars attribute depression and hopelessness to the author. Nevertheless, he will later write as though he doesn’t believe his own admission. Thus the statement seems almost to have an air of a deliberately over-generalized philosophical observation. It doesn’t apply to everything; it applies only to most things. It would most likely apply to Solomon’s own view of his life. After superbly succeeding at all his wonderful and marvelous accomplishments and in his continual excessive pursuit of happiness in which he indulged himself, I could easily visualize him looking back at all of it and saying these words. His sadness would show through them.
מַה־יִּתְרֹון לָאָדָם בְּכָל־עֲמָלֹו שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ׃ 1:3
Eccl. 1:3 What is the profit to a person in all his toil
by which he must labor beneath the sun?
דֹּור הֹלֵךְ וְדֹור בָּא וְהָאָרֶץ לְעֹולָם עֹמָדֶת׃ 1:4
Eccl. 1:4 A generation goes and a generation comes,
while the earth is enduring forever.
וְזָרַח הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וּבָא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶל־מְקֹומֹו שֹׁואֵף זֹורֵחַ הוּא שָׁם׃ 1:5
Eccl. 1:5 And the sun would rise and the sun would go,
then it is there by its place ready to rise.
הֹולֵךְ אֶל־דָּרֹום וְסֹובֵב אֶל־צָפֹון סֹובֵב סֹבֵב הֹולֵךְ הָרוּחַ וְעַל־סְבִיבֹתָיו שָׁב הָרוּחַ׃ 1:6
Eccl. 1:6 The wind is going toward the south,
or is turning about to the north,
turning about, continually moving.
Yet the wind is coming back upon its circuits.
כָּל־הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל־הַיָּם וְהַיָּם אֵינֶנּוּ מָלֵא אֶל־מְקֹום שֶׁהַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים שָׁם הֵם שָׁבִים לָלָכֶת׃ 1:7
Eccl. 1:7 All the rivers are going to the sea,
but the sea does not itself become full.
To the place from which the rivers are coming,
there they are turning to go back.
כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים יְגֵעִים לֹא־יוּכַל אִישׁ לְדַבֵּר לֹא־תִשְׂבַּע עַיִן לִרְאֹות וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵא אֹזֶן מִשְּׁמֹעַ׃ 1:8
Eccl. 1:8 No one could prevail
to state all the wearisome things.
The eye cannot be sated of seeing,
or the ear become full because of hearing.
מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ׃ 1:9
Eccl. 1:9 What has been, that is what will be,
and what has been done, that is what shall be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
As I interpret this statement, the author is completing his observation of the repetition of things (stated in vss. 4 to 8), and to him it looks like there would be nothing new under the sun. Everything has come before over and over again, and will continue to do so forever.
יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה־זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵנוּ׃ 1:10
Eccl. 1:10 There may be a thing about which one might say, “See, this is new.“ That already has been eternally, that was before us.
Are there not things or behaviors we can point to today and say “See, this is new?” Computers, space boosters and manned and unmanned space capsules? Robots and minimally invasive surgery? Atom smashers? Computer-controlled cars and trains? And so much more! But the author supports his logic in the next verse: We forget what came before! This may not be considered wisdom today, but then it probably dazzled the scholars.
אֵין זִכְרֹון לָרִאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָאַחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לֹא־יִהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרֹון עִם שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לָאַחֲרֹנָה׃ 1:11
Eccl. 1:11 There is no remembrance for former things. And also for later things that will be, there
will not be any remembrance for them, along with those that will occur after it.
אֲנִי קֹהֶלֶת הָיִיתִי מֶלֶךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּירוּשָׁלִָם׃ 1:12
Eccl. 1:12 I am Koholeth. I am king over Israel in Jerusalem.
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־לִבִּי לִדְרֹושׁ וְלָתוּר בַּחָכְמָה עַל כָּל־אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם הוּא עִנְיַן רָע נָתַן אֱלֹהִים 1:13
לִבְנֵי הָאָדָם לַעֲנֹות בֹּו׃
Eccl. 1:13 Now I have dedicated my heart to seeking and to exploring with wisdom about
everything that is done under the heavens. It is an unpleasant task God has given to the children
of mankind to be occupied with it.
רָאִיתִי אֶת־כָּל־הַמַּעֲשִׂים שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ׃ 1:14
Eccl. 1:14 I have considered all the things that are done under the sun, and behold, all of it is
vanity and vexation of spirit.
The last two words in this verse are usually translated as the famous expressions “chasing after wind” or “striving after wind” in three-quarters of the most popular bibles. Most others have what I have, “vexation of spirit,” which is the more accurate translation. With the spelling of the next-to-last word as shown here, that would be the preferred translation. But there is a variation of this spelling that shows up for the first time in v. 17 below. There the two words are translated as an idiom meaning absurdity.
מְעֻוָּת לֹא־יוּכַל לִתְקֹן וְחֶסְרֹון לֹא־יוּכַל לְהִמָּנֹות׃ 1:15
Eccl. 1:15 Crookedness cannot be straightened, and deficiency cannot be counted.
This statement may have carried significant weight in the author’s time, but it is no longer completely accurate. We can now straighten some crookedness and many deficiencies can be counted.
דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲנִי עִם־לִבִּי לֵאמֹר אֲנִי הִנֵּה הִגְדַּלְתִּי וְהֹוסַפְתִּי חָכְמָה עַל כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־הָיָה לְפָנַי עַל־יְרוּשָׁלִָם 1:16
וְלִבִּי רָאָה הַרְבֵּה חָכְמָה וָדָעַת׃
Eccl. 1:16 I have spoken with my heart, saying, Behold, it is I who has become great with
increased wisdom beyond any who has been before me over Jerusalem, and my heart perceives
the greatest wisdom and knowledge.
וָאֶתְּנָה לִבִּי לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וְדַעַת הֹולֵלֹות וְשִׂכְלוּת יָדַעְתִּי שֶׁגַּם־זֶה הוּא רַעְיֹון רוּחַ׃ 1:17
Eccl. 1:17 And I applied my heart to knowing wisdom and distinguishing madness and folly. I
know that this also: It is absurdity.
The next-to-last word offers the alternate spelling for the word I mentioned at v.1:14.
כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב־כָּעַס וְיֹוסִיף דַּעַת יֹוסִיף מַכְאֹוב׃ 1:18
Eccl. 1:18 For with an abundance of wisdom
is an abundance of vexation,
and one who increases knowledge
In a way, anyone who would derive the answer that the author does -- all is vanity -- should probably conclude as he does here. But in another way, isn’t the result of increased knowledge indeed increased sorrow? More knowledge usually doesn’t give us answers, it promises more questions. Certainly the pursuit of knowledge is costly and troublesome, and the results often lead only to further costs and troubles and more complex projects. The author of this book could never have foreseen the science of our time; yet his observation remains accurate to a considerable degree. However, while the poetry may be elegant, the mixing of wisdom and knowledge in this last verse seems a bit disconcerting to me. They are neither the same nor even parallel. I believe it is more appropriate to view wisdom as a proper wielding of knowledge.