1 The Title - 1:1
2. The Theme - 1:2
"Utterly meaningless" = vanity of vanities, a phrase that communicates the idea of superlative quality. E.g., "song of songs" = the finest song; "King of kings" = the greatest king; hence, "vanity of vanities" = futility in the highest imaginable degree!
3. Introductory Poem on Toil - 1:3-11
a. Thesis - v. 3
The point of the question is simply that notwithstanding a lifetime of effort and toil, the enigma of it all remains. You expect a reward or dividend for your efforts in that you anticipate learning from your labors what life is all about. But no, "nature and labor both have no residuum; that is, anything left over. There is no benefit, profit, increment, principle of life, or purpose, inherent within nature or labor for man. And that fact weighs heavily on man" (Wright, 49). We shape plans that collapse; we scrimp and save a lifetime only to have it wiped out in a moment's time. Ultimately, says the teacher, life pays no dividends in unlocking the key to itself.
b. Illustrations - vv. 4-11
1) no permanence - v. 4
Here the transitory character of mankind is contrasted with the permanence of the earth. We fancy ourselves immortal; but we pass away as do all generations and the earth lingers on. The stage is still there, but all the actors die. "The earth, methodically plodding along in its routine course, does not skip a beat of its rhythm to celebrate a man's birth nor to mourn his death" (GTJ, 38).
2) no progress - vv. 5-7
The creation is a hub-ub of activity, but seemingly devoid of progress. All is but a symbol of monotony.
a) the sun - v. 5
b) the wind - v. 6
There is no distinct or noticeable purpose to the wind; it blows from here to there and then reverses itself. It is the epitome of ceaseless change and reversal of direction.
c) the streams/rivers - v. 7
The rivers symbolize continual effort but no consummation.
Each of these figures points to repetitive, ceaseless, wearisome, restless activity with no conclusion or finality or resolution or consummation. Such uniformity and regularity ultimately breed monotony and thus become tiring.
3) no purpose - vv. 8-11
a) nothing is fulfilled - v. 8
Like the ocean, our sense are fed and fed but never filled.
b) nothing is new - vv. 9-10
This is not a comment on mankind's mechanical inventiveness. The teacher does not deny that new ideas for improving life, new expressions of reality, new gadgets or whatever are constantly appearing. He simply says that try as we might to invent and to find, our efforts at finding something new under the sun whereby to unlock the meaning to life forever fail.
c) nothing is remembered - v. 11
Despite the monuments we erect and the endowments we leave behind, eventually the dust of time will cover them all.
4. Double Introduction to the Investigation of Life - 1:12-18
a. His identity - v. 12
b. The limitation of human effort - vv. 13-15
1) investigation - v. 13
The teacher plunged himself into life: he searched and explored from every conceivable angle and came up empty each time. "The sons of Adam labor and toil without finding any satisfaction or answer to the question, What is the profit? Yet all the time it is God who continues to prompt man's heart to discover the truth. Man is trapped by the difficulty of the problem and his own divinely implanted hunger to know. It is a very tricky business indeed" (Kaiser, 53-4).
2) conclusion - v. 14
3) proverbial explanation - v. 15
No matter how hard you think or try, you will never explain life's enigmas and anomalies. You will never reduce everything to a neat and tidy system.
b. The limitation of human wisdom - vv. 16-18
1) investigation - vv. 16-17a
2) conclusion - v. 17b
3) proverbial explanation - v. 18
Note well what the teacher says about wisdom, first in its search for justice in vv. 13-15 and second in its attempt to find happiness in vv. 16-18. It fails on both counts. Wisdom is good and is to be pursued at all costs (see Proverbs!), but ultimately it is unable to overcome life's inequities.
"Much of what is wrong with life is not wisdom's fault; it is just the way things are. Full of injustice, stamped by suffering, plagued by weakness, terrorized by crime, life has so much wrong about it that wisdom stands by powerless to do more than observe. Think of the massive problems that confront our huge cities: treasuries on the edge of bankruptcy, unemployment at alarming levels, education perplexed about is directions, crime rates soaring to eagle heights. Wisdom is much better able to analyze the trends than it is to prescribe the solutions. Our wise man must have had this in mind when he wrote these puzzling words: 'What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted' (v. 15). Wisdom may finger the problem but it cannot straighten out what is crooked or add to what is lacking. Wisdom cannot change reality" (Hubbard, 26-27).
It is important that we recognize the difference between the "wisdom" of Proverbs and the "wisdom" of Ecclesiastes. In the former it is skill for living; it is learning how to get along in difficult circumstances, dealing with different people. Wisdom in Proverbs is a "how to" skill. But the wisdom referred to in E is more philosophical. It is that wisdom which seeks an explanation for meaning to the many parts of life. In Proverbs it is mundane; in E it is metaphysical. Proverbs says, "Do this and prosper," whereas E asks, "If things really are as they appear to be, why bother?"