The Preacher begins with initial observations on the cycle of life. He argues against making “conventional” wisdom the end-all for life. We commonly say, “Work hard and you will succeed,” but he asks how does one account for people who work themselves to death? We say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but he asks what if that task should not have been started at all?
A precise definition of “vanity” must be determined in each immediate context, but as a starting point vanity means “overvalued.” He observes that when too much of life is lived with this understanding, then “All is vanity” (1:2).
He continues by questioning the benefit of work when nothing seems to come of it (1:3). What advantage does a person have in all his work throughout his life? Does one’s work affect the basic elements and systems God has set in place (1:4-7)? Generations come and go, but the earth remains (1:4). Sunrise and sunset remain on schedule (1:5). The wind is still free (1:6). Water still seeks its own level (1:7).
Constantly working with nature is laborious, yet God’s created system remains a mystery (1:8). The mystery of God’s creation lies beyond explanation. Knowledge advances on anomalies, but may not yield to curiosity. God and nature lie beyond understanding.
God has created an unchangeable order in His universe (1:9-10). What has existed within nature will not change in the future. What has been done in the past will continue into the future. His conclusion: God created an unchangeable order to things (1:9). Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new” (1:10)?
Each generation must on its own come to realize: “We don’t remember what happened in those former times. And in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now” (1:11, NLT).
We struggle (“work”) to find meaning in order to gain advantage (“profit”), which produces an overvaluing of effort (“vanity”) because God’s created system cannot be altered. Then what can be done? Like God Himself, order in the universe is a constant that can be trusted. Order can inspire a search for understanding, but order also holds mysteries that lie behind God’s design, so we must not “go to seed” (“overvalue”) on understanding. His conclusion: Live as an integral part of the order God has created and enjoy what He created with Him.
Dr. David Moore is a university online Bible and theology instructor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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