Useful Bible Studies > Ecclesiastes Commentary > chapter 1

What can people achieve during their lives?

Ecclesiastes 1:1-3

Ecclesiastes 1:3 tells us the main subject in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It asks what a person really achieves by all his hard work in this world.

Jesus asked a very similar question in Matthew 16:26. His opinion was that, without a right relationship with God, a person achieves nothing worthwhile. Of course a person may become rich or famous but these things do not last. At death, that person loses all such things. And afterwards, nothing matters except that person’s relationship with God.

The Book of Ecclesiastes uses Solomon’s life to teach that lesson. Solomon was the ‘teacher’ or ‘leader’ that Ecclesiastes 1:1 refers to. He was Israel’s greatest king, and he made his country wealthy. He was wise, and he became famous.

We may consider that Solomon achieved great things in his life. Certainly, Solomon worked hard and his efforts seemed successful (Ecclesiastes 2:4-9). But the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us the truth about Solomon’s life. That is, it shows us God’s opinion about Solomon’s greatness.

Towards the end of his life, Solomon was not loyal to God. Formerly, Solomon had a close relationship with God. But Solomon lost that, and he even began to serve false gods (1 Kings 11:7-10).

And after Solomon’s death, the things that he had achieved did not last. There were wars and great troubles in Israel. The country lost much of its wealth, and the new king lost much of his authority.

Even such a great man as Solomon could achieve nothing that lasted. He seemed such a powerful man, but in God’s opinion, Solomon’s best efforts were very weak. They were as weak as Solomon’s own breath, because, in the end, Solomon was just a man. And all people must die.

In the original language, Ecclesiastes 1:2 repeats the same word 5 times. It does that in order to emphasise the word in the strongest possible manner. The King James Bible translates that word ‘vanity’, which means ‘in vain’ or ‘without purpose’. It is a description of all that people can achieve in their lives.

Some people translate that word ‘just a breath’. A person’s work is as weak as his breath, because all people must die. So the word ‘breath’ is a word-picture for people’s weakness. But the Bible compares God’s work to a great wind or a powerful storm (Psalm 29; John 3:8; Acts 2:2).

A person’s breath seems very weak when we think about the wind during a great storm. And even the work of a powerful king seems very weak when we think about God’s work.

The Book of Ecclesiastes does not say much about God’s work in people’s lives. Its subject is what people can achieve without a right relationship with God. But right at the beginning, the book reminds us about someone who really did have a right relationship with God. That person was King David (Ecclesiastes 1:1). David did not obtain that relationship with God because of his own works (Romans 4:4-8). David had that relationship because he genuinely loved God (1 Kings 11:4). God wants everyone to do that (Mark 12:29-30). People who love God do his work, not their own work. And God’s Holy Spirit makes them strong (Galatians 6:8; Ephesians 6:10-11).

Next part: Who can change the world? (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)


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© 2014, Keith Simons.