1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher,
"Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
3What advantage does man have in all his work
Which he does under the sun?
4A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
5Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
6Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
7All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
8All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
9That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there anything of which one might say,
"See this, it is new"?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
11There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still.
Solomon’s point as he opens this book is that, apart from God and the reality of life after death, life has absolutely no meaning whatsoever. People are born, people live, and then people die. The sun comes up, and the sun goes down. Life plods on day after day after day. The wind blows and round the earth it goes, swirling along its circular courses (very impressive and scientifically accurate observation about the wind patterns). Rivers flow into the sea, but the sea does not fill up. The rivers are replenished and flow yet again. Cycles go on and on and on the same way that they have for a long time. Nothing of the world satisfies. The eye is not satiated by what it sees, nor the ear by what it hears. All things are wearisome and tiresome, not providing what the soul ultimately longs for.
There is nothing new “under the sun” (phrase that is best understood as the opposite of life under God), for all that is being done has already been done. This is not to say that man doesn’t invent new things, but that man always is left trying to come up with new things. The same tasks befall man as they always have, only in slightly altered ways. Work is work is work, though the specifics might differ. The greatest achievements on the earth are forgotten as time passes on. Famous people no longer come to mind after they are dead and buried. As for those who are alive now, the same thing will happen to them years from now. All will be lost and deemed meaningless as time marches on under the sun.
As depressing as this discourse might at first seem, it is actually very true and full of wisdom. Many in the world are deceived into thinking that they have the latest and greatest thing or experience. But the irony is that they must keep chasing the latest and greatest, and their children do so also until both are forgotten. There is nothing new; man keeps living out his weary life under the sun. That we understand the futility and meaninglessness of a mere seventy or eighty years on the earth struggling to find satisfaction apart from God is highly valuable. Solomon learned the hard way as he is about to describe. He had the means to try all that the world promised would satisfy and found it meaningless, empty, and vain.
12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
14I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
15What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Solomon, as King over Israel during a very prosperous time, had the luxury of taking the time to explore by wisdom the meaning of life. He looked at all that man does and what God has given them to do. His conclusion is that man is afflicted with his work under the sun and that all his work is vain and a striving after the wind, never to receive the deluding and deceiving promise of the gratification of sin and self. Man is never able to overcome his imperfections and limitations, and there are always things that he lacks. He is never able to “arrive,” but he is always in a state of vanity apart from God. He is always in a state of emptiness and striving.
16I said to myself, "Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge."
17And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.
18Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.
Solomon was given wisdom by God in measure that none before him or after him ever had (2 Chronicles 1:12). He set his purpose (i.e. his striving) to know wisdom, being able to distinguish it from insanity and stupidity. Yet even this pursuit of wisdom as a means of trying to find satisfaction apart from God was meaningless. Wisdom itself doesn’t satisfy; in fact, it is accompanied by much grief and increasing pain. The more one recognizes his limitations and the troubles and wearisome nature of life, the more depressed and discouraged he can become. Wisdom for wisdom’s sake and knowledge for knowledge’s sake are not the answers.