The summary of Qoheleth is not the summary of the whole book of Ecclesiastes but rather the summary of Qoheleth’s teaching. The frame narrator gives us an overview of Qoheleth’s teaching in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11. Qoheleth’s first person summary of his project is the next few verses after those (Ecc 1:12-15). We are going to spend some time particularly with the frame narrator’s summary — I want you to focus especially on the first verse of it because that seems to sum up the whole of Qoheleth’s teaching (Ecc 1:2, cf. Ecc 12:8) and yet it is not easily translated into English.
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Something like: ”Absurdity of absurdities! Says Qoheleth, Absurdity of Absurdities! Everything is absurd” (Ecc 1:2).
We know that the singular of the plural (Hebrew -im ending above indicates the plural) is a form of the superlative. Thus Peter Enns translates the phrase, ”Absolutely absurd!” The NIV the second time says, ”Utterly meaningless!” ”Vanity of vanities” is the translation in the King James. However, the problem is that today the term ”vanity” is used most often to speak of self-pride. The Hebrew term literally means breath or vapor. The problem is understanding how that word is being used metaphorically by Qoheleth. Is he simply saying that everything is temporary? Is he saying that because everything is but a vapor or breath (i.e., temporary) it is meaningless?
The term is most often used in other books to refer to idols – not to say that they are temporary but that they are meaningless. This may be a hint as to the meaning here. But as Longman notes, ”The problem with considering the context of the refrain is that it depends on the meaning of the whole book. We are thus involved in a form of the hermeneutical spiral…” (the word depends on the book and the book on the word).
The reason that Peter Enns chooses to render the word “absurd” with Michael Fox is that ”Qohelet means to say that life as he sees it is ‘an affront to reason.”’ He is deeply disturbed by the things that he sees—to put it mildly. The problem is that you will not know what way to understand this word until you have explored its usage throughout the book. Moreover, the word can have different nuances in the various places where you find it.
The next line reads, ”What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3). This rhetorical question has an obvious answer: הֲבֵ֤ל (nothing). Everything is nothing. Often Christian sermons will say that the problem with Qoheleth’s wisdom is that it is limited to ”under the sun” rather than taking the perspective of heaven. However, this is merely a poetic way of saying in the realm of the living. He has searched everywhere that he can possibly look. As Enns paraphrases the idea, ”What payoff is there in any activity I could possibly engage in throughout the land of the living?”
”A generation goes, and a generation comes” – in other words, everything is הֲבֵ֤ל (absurd) because one generation dies and another replaces it. Here we already see the primary theme of the book – death makes everything הֲבֵ֤ל .
”A generation goes, and a generation comes, the earth remains forever” (Ecc 1:4). Despite the ESV rendering the point is not to contrast (”but”). Rather the point is to show that this pattern continues and nothing changes. The summary illustrates this point then with three metaphors from nature – the sun, wind, and streams. We might call these the cycles of nature. Their very cyclical pattern is elaborating on this idea that the earth remains forever the same. So Qoheleth argues that your life is likewise absurd and then you die and after you die no one will remember you.
”The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens (ESV footnote says “returns panting”) to the place where it rises” (Ecc 1:5). The footnote is right – the idea is that of strenuous activity alongside being tired. The larger message is that many people will work very hard over and over again with nothing to show for it in the end because of death. This illustration simply shows that nothing changes.
”The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns” (Ecc 1:6). Again, nothing changes. Nature just continues the same patterns over and over again illustrating the absurdity of our lives.
”All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecc 1:7). It should be pretty obvious by now that all three metaphors are making the same point. That basic point to bring this back to Ecc 1:2 is to say that the sun, wind, and streams show no profit. Thus according to Qoheleth the creation shows life is absurd. Remember that wisdom literature very often appeals to creation – but the conclusion that Qoheleth is making is different than we would find elsewhere in Scripture.
The summary continues, ”All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecc 1:8). This simply repeats the idea from creation applied to human activities – speech, seeing, and hearing. ”All things” is not likely the right way to render the phrase – it should read ”all words.” Weariness with regard to words should remind us of Ecc 12:8 – ”much study wearies the flesh.” Saying that a man ”cannot” utter it does not mean he is physically incapable but that speaking is ineffective. Peter Enns says, ”the wearisomeness of words makes speaking ineffective; talk is incessant and gets nowhere – neither do seeing and hearing.” He also notes that to apply the cycle of nature we might say that they are never full (i.e. ”nor the ear filled with hearing”).
The summary then puts this more plainly: ”What has been (actually ”what has happened”) is what will be (”what will happen”), and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing (”at all”) new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). Note the ESV rendering leaves out the word ”all,” which makes the point stronger. He answers the objection that someone might make that they will say ‘here is something new,’ by saying in the following verse that it is nothing new at all.
The summary comes to a close this way: ”There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc 1:11, ESV). However, the ESV footnotes again say ”or former people” and ”or later people.” Enns explains that the words in question have the masculine ending and not the feminine ending. This is significant because you would expect the feminine ending if the meaning were things and the masculine ending if the meaning were people. Thus the footnote is right rather than the translation. Let me illustrate by comparing the beginning of all things and the ending of all things (the latter days) in Genesis. Ignore for a moment the first letter (reading right to left) because that is a preposition. Genesis 1:1 begins בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית Genesis 49:1 says, בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית The -ith ending is feminine hence Genesis 1:1 speaks of the beginning of all things and Genesis 49:1 speaks of the latter days (the ending of all things). However, the word choice in Ecc 1:11 is as follows: לָרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים and לָאַחֲרֹנִ֜ים
Thus the point is that all the hard work in the world during your life does not profit because then you die and worse yet no one will remember you. This is important because of passages like Proverbs 10:7, Psalm 112:6, also Psalm 44:18, 72:17 and other passages that promise the memory of the evil will be cut off from the earth like Exo 17:14/Deut 25:19, Deut 32:26, Bildad’s speech at Job 18:17, Psalm 9:6, 34:16, 109:15. But Qoheleth argues that all the living suffer the same fate (also cf. Ecc 2:16, 9:5).
Qoheleth is a wisdom teacher who knows Scripture. He is making this point because he is struggling with it. What he reads is not what he sees. Psalm 73 begins on a similar note but then ends basically with the point that you just need to be patient. Qoheleth never gets past the struggle.
Qoheleth’s Own Summary
Qoheleth’s own summary is Ecc 1:12-15. Thus we switch from the third person description of Qoheleth’s teaching to the first person. Enns notes that the opening resembles the ANE genre of a royal testament. The purpose of such a document was to glorify the king and encourage everyone to remember him. So he suggests translating the opening line this way: “I am Qoheleth. I have been king…” Remember there never was a king named Qoheleth, it is a pretended nickname. We could also note that the only two kings of Israel to rule in Jerusalem were David and Solomon and since this Qoheleth says he is David’s son the text means to identify him with Solomon.
The interesting thing then is that Qoheleth does not continue to list his accomplishments so that people will remember him and he will be glorified. Instead, Qoheleth shows that they don’t amount to anything. As Enns says, ”Qohelet employs an ancient literary device and then subverts it.”
He describes giving this pursuit everything he had to give – ”And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecc 1:13). And then the rest of the verse Enns tells us is saying that God has given humanity a heavy burden to occupy him – searching for meaning (”It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”) In English we have a very narrow meaning for the word evil, but the corresponding word in Hebrew has a much broader semantic domain – the ESV ”unhappy,” the NIV ”heavy.” The way that Qoheleth uses the word we often render ”evil” does not have the moral overtones that we associate with the English word ”evil.”
I think Enns is right that Qoheleth is angry with God and thus we are to read this book as like the lament psalms (I would say especially Psalm 88 because the lament continues to the end of the Psalm). This is where he disagrees with Longman. Enns says, “It is written by a profoundly religious – indeed, wise (see 12:9) – Israelite, one who is not outside of the covenant but inside; one who is looking at Yahweh not from the outside in, but as an insider who is deeply perplexed, confused, perhaps even teetering on the brink of total skepticism….”
Qoheleth continues, ”I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is הֲבֵ֤ל and a striving after wind” (Ecc 1:14). The phrase at the end is a common one in the book. It is fitting for the literal meaning of the word we are rendering absurd or meaningless.
And then he finishes his own summary saying, ”What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (Ecc 1:15). Enns suggests that Qoheleth is blaming God for making things crooked. He is not just upset with the way things are but also with God for making them that way.
Enns says about the wisdom teacher: ”He is not someone who ‘does not know God’ and is trying to make sense of life apart from him. He knows how things are supposed to be, yet his experience does not mesh with the ideal.” So to say that he has searched out everything ”under the sun” is not to say that he has done this apart from God.
Qoheleth is rather cynical, but he has a point. And it is not our task to be Qoheleth, he has already done that. But we nevertheless, are meant to study his words – for they are also God’s words. But much study wearies the flesh, so let’s stop here!