The haunting lines of Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 strike us at
first, not with courage and determination, but with the familiar, human
feeling of melancholy. The repetition of human experience is paralleled by
nature's cycles, sunlight and darkness, rain and evaporation. "What has
occurred once, it shall occur again, and what was done, shall be done
again. There is nothing at all new under the sun" (Ecc.1:9)
Yet even though there is transitoriness in all this, it
is absolute vanity because above it all is God. The Assembler inquired and
explored concerning all that is done, but in doing so he never forgot that
it was what "Elohim has given" (Ecc.1:12,13)
CONCERNING ALL THAT IS DONE
||I myself, the Assembler, came to be king
over Israel in Jerusalem.
||I applied my heart to inquiring and exploring by wisdom
concerning all that is done under the
It is an experience of evil Elohim has given to
the sons of humanity
them by it.
These lines which begin the survey of human deeds and
wisdom should also be associated with the prologue concerning vanity and
weariness. What the Assembler said in 1:2-11 came from his own
observation, from his inquiring and exploring of that which is done and
occurs under the heavens. Consequently, the repetitious experiences of
generation after generation, and the weariness and lack of satisfaction
that come from these experiences are given to us all by God to humble us
Why is it important that we see that this transitoriness
is given to us by God? The answer is that since it is given by God it has
meaning. If it is given by God, it has a purpose. If it is given by God it
is something we need for ultimate good.
EXPERIENCE OF EVIL
The Hebrew words translated "experience" and "humble"
here belong to the same general word family to which we have assigned the
The former word occurs only in Ecclesiastes (1:13;
2:23,26; 3:10; 4:8; 5:3,14; 8:16), and is translated "experience" in every
case but one. In Ecclesiastes 5:3 we use the word "responsibility" to
express the idea of pressing experiences of daily life leading to nightly
dreams. This indicates that the Hebrew word connotes a sense of negative
experience. And this is verified by the other usages, many of which occur
in association with the word "evil." This is the reason many other
translations use such English words as "travail" or "affliction."
God gives us burdensome experiences developing response,
and the response that these produce is that we are humbled.
In the experience and its results themselves there is
nothing we would desire. But in seeing that God has given this whole
process to us there is much that should encourage and assure us. Because
we rely on God we can expect that the experiences we would rather avoid
eventually will be appreciated as truly for our good and His glory. That
is the great value of Ecclesiastes and the reason why it rises above the
dark and despairing poetry of humanistic artists.
TO HUMBLE US
The Assembler, as a descendant of David, had many
privileges as well as responsibilities. But the special advantages he
enjoyed were greatly tempered by the unique measure of "sore travail" in
his experiences. What might have made him proud and forgetful that his
blessings were from God was balanced by hard experiences which also, like
all things, were from God. The result was that he was humbled.
Humility in the human is not an evil. It is a blessing,
consisting in itself of wisdom and power for endurance and compassion.
As believers we are aware that we are special people,
chosen and called of God, blessed with every spiritual blessing among the
celestials. But our experiences keep us humble, reminding us that indeed
we have been chosen and called more because we are less powerful and noble
and wise and strong than others who are not chosen and called (cf 1
We do not have to sign up for these hard knocks. They
will come because God graciously gives not only the blessing of
believing but the suffering as well (Phil.1:29).
These are given, as they were to Paul, lest we should be
lifted up by the transcendence of the blessings (cf 2 Cor.11:7).
And they bring us, as they did Paul, a sharper acquaintance with the
happiness and power in the blessings of grace. "With the greatest relish,
then, will I rather be glorying in my infirmities, that the power of
Christ should be tabernacling over me" (2 Cor.11:9).
Through his experiences, given to him by God, Paul became
aware what it is to be humbled (Phil.4:12). In accord with the evangel and
its faithful impression on the one believing, we may be "being led away to
the humble" (Rom.12:16). Humility and humbleness are not produced simply
by command and desire. They result from acquaintance with sufferings and
discouragements and realization that we must place reliance on God to
bring out justly and gloriously the values of our experiences.
In contemplating the sad, repetitious failures of
humanity to learn from the past, to make real progress and know true
satisfaction, the Assembler was being led toward a growing appreciation of
God. Because his blessings were merely physical and terrestrial he could
not reach the level of enlightenment given Paul, nor be given the level of
humbling. Nevertheless, there was, for the Assembler, a beginning, which
parallels more closely the levels of humbling that mankind in general are
given through their lives. But, indeed, the Assembler was given something
that has so far not been given to the majority of mankind. This was the
gift of knowing that the experiences and their results are given by God.
VANITY AND WEARINESS
Hence we would listen to the words of Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
in the context of verse 13. All human toil is transitory, all is vanity,
but God has given this frustrating experience to us. The very experience
of needing to toil and then finding the need to start all over again, and
never reaching the point where we can be satisfied that all has worked out
well, is given to us by God.
What the Assembler says is true, and we have all observed
it. As a whole, humanity does not progress or bring to an end the need of
toil and learning lessons previous generations had also learned. The
pictures afforded by the patterns of nature, the sun, the wind, the water
cycle, all these are reflections of the transitoriness and repetitiousness
of human toil and wisdom.
But this must not cast us down in despair because God
remains over it all. He uses all these hard experiences for our eventual
good and His glory.
There is weariness in human words, in the cycles of ideas
and philosophies and discoveries. We think we have come up with something
new, but it turns out to be only a different way of expressing old ideas
or facing old responsibilities.
But this must not discourage us. We need these
experiences, and because God gives them to us, they will accomplish His
WHAT IS HUMAN
The book of Ecclesiastes is not a discourse in human
philosophy but, while recognizing that much of human philosophy speaks
truly, the book directs us beyond those truths to God and what He is
doing. It speaks of what is human and what is so concerning human history,
because God has made it so. We should not dismiss these words as
pessimism unworthy of believers who have been blessed with every spiritual
blessing among the celestials in Christ. For we are also human beings,
sinners, infirm, living in this current, wicked eon. And we need to be
reminded that our own experiences of transitoriness and weariness are from
the hand of the living God Who is our Saviour.
Paul also speaks of human realities. "No trial has taken
you except what is human" (1 Cor.10:13). As human beings we
experience much of the disquietude and depression described in
Ecclesiastes. Along with everyone else we discover that we cannot escape
the cycles of toil and disappointment that God has given to humanity. But
as believers we recognize God in the trial, not simply the existence of
God, but God as One involved in the experience. We have been given faith
to see that God is faithful. God has given us the experience, but
He is also faithful in bringing a sequel, or issue, an "out-stepping," out
of the troublesome experience.
God gives us our experiences and purposes their sequels.
The experiences are transitory, and often wearying, but they are part of
what God has designed for us. This is of tremendous value for us to know,
and the book of Ecclesiastes greatly helps to bring this truth before us.
Dean H. Hough