23 September 2010

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

"Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? ... What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun." (v.2, 9)


Ecclesiastes is one of the most enigmatic books among Old Testament wisdom literature. Dated to around 250 BC, it shows the influence of Hellenistic (Greek culture-inspired) philosophy and is among the later books of those included in the Hebrew biblical canon (collection of books).

The unknown author of Ecclesiastes identifies the narrator of the text in Hebrew as Qohelet, translated into English in modern versions of the Bible as "the Teacher". The author also claims royal association for the narrator, saying he is 'the son of David', though the language of the text is far later than that period. It is as if the author is looking back five or six hundred years into the royal history of his faith and writing the secret thoughts of Solomon for contemporary students.

Today's passage is all about the futility of human action and effort. The word translated here as 'vanity' (in Hebrew - hebel) has deeper meaning than the English word suggests. It has been translated as 'emptiness' (New English Bible), 'futility' (Revised English Bible), and 'meaningless' (New International Bible). The best sense of what it means is something like meaninglessness or weightlessness, with a root meaning of vapour or breath passing.

However it is translated, the teacher intends to scare readers and shock them away from any sense that what we do in human history has any lasting value or effect.

This is a hard teaching. Saying "there is nothing new under the sun" the teacher expresses a despairing listlessness that some modern readers might diagnose as characteristic of depression. It is ironic that this verse has entered UK English idiom to show surprise when something we thought was unique turns out to have historical precedent - often the one who uses this idiom means to caution against pride, but sometimes to express happiness at not being alone in some action or thought. At the very least, its usage shows a sense of solidarity in the human condition. The interesting question for readers and the teacher himself will be, 'If this is so, how do we respond?'

To Ponder

Do you think of humanity as part of the history of the natural world whose cycles are described in this passage, or do you think of humanity as having a unique place in creation? Why?

How does reading this passage make you feel?

Do you recognise here thoughts or feelings that you have had yourself, in response to life?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.