Human Impotence (Pt. 1) – Ecclesiastes 1

Human Impotence (Part 1) – Ecclesiastes 1

In his novel, When Nietzsche wept, Irvin Yalom writes, “Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness.” In other words, don’t look deeply into life. If you begin to think deeply about the world, wealth, work, and wisdom you’ll despair. And yet, God, through the author of Ecclesiastes spends 12 chapters forcing us to think deeply about all these things.


Our text for today is Ecclesiastes 1. These are the Words of God:

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, 
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
3 What does man gain by all the toil 

at which he toils under the sun?


In his novel, When Nietzsche wept, Irvin Yalom writes, “Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness.” In other words, don’t look deeply into life. If you begin to think deeply about the world, wealth, work, and wisdom you’ll despair. And yet, God, through the author of Ecclesiastes spends 12 chapters forcing us to think deeply about all these things.

The author of Ecclesiastes introduces himself as the Preacher and a son of David. Scholars debate over authorship, but I believe we can safely assume King David’s son, Solomon to be the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs which served as a training manual for young people, especially young boys in ancient Israel. He also authored the Song of Songs which is an erotic love poem.

Personally, I believe Ecclesiastes was written in Solomon’s old age as a repentant statement of his youthful apostasy. The Scriptures are filled with examples of last words. Jacob (Gen. 47) Joshua (Js 23) David (2 Sam. 22)

Solomon, who was granted a throne and wisdom, diluted his strength and power as king to a thousand women and introduced their apostasy into the worship of Israel. The man who wrote Song of Songs in his youth now pens Vanity of Vanities as confesses the worthlessness of his pursuits. (1 Kings 11:1-10)

For the purposes of this series, I’m breaking the book into three sections: first, the Preacher teaches us that human beings are impotent in themselves to find satisfaction in this life. If you are pursuing joy, heedless of God, then despair is what awaits you. (ch. 1-2) The Preacher then teaches us that God is sovereign over everything, from the largest galaxy to the tiniest quark, and wrestling with this perennially difficult doctrine is the key to joy. (ch. 3-8) Finally, the preacher ends with various practical exhortations. (ch. 8-12)


Two refrains dominate the book. One, a dominant refrain in a minor key, which tends to get all the attention. The second, a subordinate refrain in a major key, which, sadly gets ignored. The first is the minor-key refrain of human impotence, and Solomon uses three repetitive phrases as chords in this refrain. First: “Vanity of Vanities.” That single noun, vanity, occurs 76 times, and can also be translated “frustration of frustrations.”

• Everything is vanity (1:2)
• All that is done under the Sun is vanity (1:14)
• Pleasure is vanity (2:1)
• Work is vanity (2:11)
• Wisdom is vanity (2:15)
• Laboring night and day is vanity (2:23)
• Money is vanity (5:10)
• The days of a man’s life are vanity (6:12)
• All that is coming is vanity (11:8)

• Youth and all that came before is vanity (11:10)

In 1969, the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett produced a play entitled “Breath.” The play only lasts 34 seconds. No human being ever steps onto the stage. The play begins with a birth cry, followed by someone inhaling and exhaling, the lights come up, and the stage is littered with rubbish lying flat on the ground. A second cry rings out, the lights fade out, and the play ends. What’s the point? All is vanity.

The second chord of this refrain is “What is the profit?,” which occurs 10 times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Old Testament. This chord is most clearly heard in 5:15-16

15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?

The last chord is “Under the Sun.” We hear this minor chord in 1:9

9 What has been is what will be, 
and what has been done is what will be done, 

and there is nothing new under the sun.

All three chords compose a dirge for us: any search for joy or meaning apart from knowledge of and trust in the Creator results in despair.

Years ago, Sophia Loren gave an interview in which she said, “My life is what I have dreamed of: films, marriage to Carlo, bearing his children. Marvelous. I lack only one thing. In the center of my life, there is a void impossible to describe.” Vanity of Vanities indeed.

For those who live under the Sun and think the Sun is all there is, there are but two options: to think deeply about life to your despair or to ignore reality and pursue shallow happiness.


There’s no denying the minor chords are played with more volume than the major chord of Ecclesiastes, but if we train our ears, we can hear the sound of deeper, more substantial joy beneath it all: those who know that everything is a gift from God can enjoy everything for what it is.

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. (5:18-19)

15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. (8:15)

12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (3:12-13)

Everyone under the Sun does the same things. Those who fear God eat, as do those who hate God. Christians work jobs just like non-Christians. The difference is, a Christian knows why he’s eating and drinking.

As one pastor said, the blessings of this life are like cans of peaches. To his beloved, God gives both the can and the can opener. To others, he gives just the can. Who is wealthier, the man with one can and a can opener, or the man with a thousand cans and no can opener?

Yes, there is much vain repetition under the sun. The sink that was empty has filled. The ledger that was reconciled last month needs attention today. One project ends, another begins. And we do all of this right alongside non-believers.

The difference is the non-believer says, “Drink, for you do not know where you came from or why. Drink for you don’t know when you’re leaving or where you are going. Drink because nothing is worth trusting or fighting for.”

But in heaven, Christ stands, with cup in hand, and says, “Drink, for the whole world is red as this wine with the crimson love and wrath of God. Drink for the trumpets are blowing for battle. Drink for this is the blood of the New Covenant shed for you. Drink for I know where you came from and why. Drink for I know when you are leaving, and where you are going.” (A riff on Chesterton)

So, eat and drink, pack a million school lunches, and mow the lawn one more time. Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ is risen, and all of our work is done in him.

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