Studies in Ecclesiastes

Words and Work of God and Man
Part Two
by Vladimir Gelesnoff

Words and Works

While the place of evil figures large in Ecclesiastes, it must be borne in mind that the problem of evil, rather a certain phase of it, is not faced at once; it is approached gradually and arrived at by successively subjecting to review the strange riddles of individual and racial experience.

The introduction, or prologue to Ecclesiastes (1:2-11), touches two subjects: The vanity of "works," and the weariness of "words," and marshalls an array of facts in support of each thesis. Subsequent chapters embody a detailed discussion of those themes. Of the five "books" of the treatise the first (1:12-2:26) and the third (5:10-7:12) analyze the works under the sun; the second (3:1-5:9) and the fourth (7:13-11:6) discuss words relating to God's plan of the universe; while the fifth (11:7-12:7) takes in both fields at once, and dwells on the two positive thoughts which analysis has yielded. The epilogue (12:8-12) draws the inference from the data attained and formulates the moral.


2 I myself , the Assembler, came to be king over Israel in Jerusalem.
3 Vanity of vanities, says the Assembler;
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
4 What advantage has a human in all his toil
Which he toils under the sun?
5 One generation goes, and another generation comes,
Yet the earth is standing for the eon.
6 The sun rises, and the sun sets
And gasps back to its place,
That it may rise there once more.
7 Going to the south and turning around to the north,
Around and around the wind is going,
Yet on its courses the wind returns.
8 All the watercourses are flowing to the sea,
Yet it is not filling the sea;
To the place from which the watercourses are flowing,
There they return to go forth again.
9 All the words are weary;  A man cannot utter it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
10 What occurred once, it shall occur again,
And what was done, it shall be done again.
There is nothing at all new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one may say:
See this, it is new? It has already occurred
In eons that were before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former generations,
And also for those who shall come after us,
A remembrance of them shall not continue
With those who shall come afterward.

The prologue (1:2-11) states the two questions which the quest is to answer:

(1) "Vanity of vanities, says the Assembler; vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (1:2). This is not everything in the universe, as the reading "all is vanity" might imply, but every department of human toil, as indicated in verse 3. The word "vanity" is used of that which soon vanishes. The point here is the fleetness of the works done under the sun, which is elaborated, in verses 7-9, in a series of illustrations from the natural world. In things of nature, as in the succession of events, there is no advance; everything moves in a circle, like motion in a treadmill—an unceasing round of monotonous repetition without novelty or progress. "What was done, it shall be done again."

(2) "All the words are weary; A man cannot utter it" (1:8). The Hebrew term dbrim is best rendered here by its primary meaning of "words;" besides being more natural than the AV "things," this emphasizes a differentiation between words of weariness and words of delight and truth, a differentiation sustained all through the book and finally established in the epilogue (12:10-12).

The verses immediately following expand the thought by showing that the continually recurring circle of history underlines the inadequacy of human theories to account for the vanity of man's works under the sun (Ecc.1:9-11). Existing theories are insufficient, and fail to satisfy the mind. Though one theory has replaced another, nothing new has been evolved; the changes that have taken place have only modified their form. Formulae have changed, methods of expression have altered to suit the speech of succeeding generations, but the substance of man's theories of the universe is unchanged.


8 Vanity of vanities, says the Assembler,
The whole is vanity.
9 Yet furthermore, because the Assembler was wise,
He still taught the people knowledge,
And he listened and investigated
And set in order many proverbs.
11 The Assembler sought to find words of delight,
And what was written is uprightness and words of truth.
12 The words of the wise are like goad points,
And like imbedded bolts is the possessing of gathered sayings;
They are given by one shepherd
13 Yet furthermore, my son, beyond these, be warned;
Of the making of many scrolls there is no end,
And much study is weariness to the flesh.

At the close, then, we get the epilogue (12:8-12), in which the author returns to the questions with which he started his quest, and restates them in the light of the results which his analysis of things has yielded. The vanity of man's works upon the earth is reaffirmed (12:8). Extensive experiment embracing various fields of human toil has but accentuated and confirmed the transient character of present activities.

Examination of the various theories of the universe, however, has demonstrated certain fundamental principles which carry a self-evident, self-manifest light, by which the truth is sealed to the conscience in the sight of God with a certainty transcending all conjectures, and superior to all changes of human feeling. We can surely appreciate the contrast between the words of weariness and those words of delight and truth, which, in the absence of power to solve the mystery of the whole, warn us against indulging in fruitless speculation and profitless discussion.

The Divine purpose behind things as they are is so far off and so exceeding deep, that man can never reach it; nevertheless reason can lay hold of principles which instill reverence for God and enjoin conformity with His instructions. To discover these principles was the aim or "terminus" of our author's word or treatise. The function of reason is limited to the gathering of wise thoughts which stimulate an ordering of life in the light of a coming rectification or "judgment," but to go further is to take a leap into the realm of fancy.


It only remains to sum up all duty in one conception—human works regulated by wise words pointing to a future readjustment (12:13,14).

"The terminus of the whole matter has been heard: Fear the One, Elohim, and keep His instructions, for this is the whole duty of humanity. For the One, Elohim, shall bring every deed into judgment concerning all that is obscured, whether good or whether evil."

Vladimir Gelesnoff

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