Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
The introductory verses Ecc 1:1-3 serve to describe the writer, and to state the subject of his book.
Preacher - literally, Convener. No one English word represents the Hebrew קהלת qôheleth adequately. Though capable, according to Hebrew usage, of being applied to men in office, it is strictly a feminine participle, and describes a person in the act of calling together an assembly of people as if with the intention of addressing them. The word thus understood refers us to the action of Wisdom personified Pro 1:20; Pro 8:8. In Proverbs and here, Solomon seems to support two characters, speaking sometimes in the third person as Wisdom instructing the assembled people, at other times in the first person. So our Lord speaks of Himself (compare Luk 11:49 with Mat 23:34) as Wisdom, and as desiring Luk 13:34 to gather the people together for instruction; It is unfortunate that the word "Preacher" does not bring this personification before English minds, but a different idea.
Vanity - This word הבל hebel, or, when used as a proper name, in Gen 4:2, "Abel", occurs no less than 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and has been called the key of the book. Primarily it means "breath," "light wind;" and denotes what:
(1) passes away more or less quickly and completely;
(2) leaves either no result or no adequate result behind, and therefore
(3) fails to satisfy the mind of man, which naturally craves for something permanent and progressive: it is also applied to:
(4) idols, as contrasted with the Living, Eternal, and Almighty God, and, thus, in the Hebrew mind, it is connected with sin.
In this book it is applied to all works on earth, to pleasure, grandeur, wisdom, the life of man, childhood, youth, and length of days, the oblivion of the grave, wandering and unsatisfied desires, unenjoyed possessions, and anomalies in the moral government of the world.
Solomon speaks of the world-wide existence of "vanity," not with bitterness or scorn, but as a fact, which forced itself on him as he advanced in knowledge of men and things, and which he regards with sorrow and perplexity. From such feelings he finds refuge by contrasting this with another fact, which he holds with equal firmness, namely, that the whole universe is made and is governed by a God of justice, goodness, and power. The place of vanity in the order of Divine Providence - unknown to Solomon, unless the answer be indicated in Ecc 7:29 - is explained to us by Paul, Rom. 8, where its origin is traced to the subjugation and corruption of creation by sin as a consequence of the fall of man; and its extinction is declared to be reserved until after the Resurrection in the glory and liberty of the children of God.
Vanity of vanities - A well-known Hebrew idiom signifying vanity in the highest degree. Compare the phrase, "holy of holies."
All - Solomon includes both the courses of nature and the works of man Ecc 1:4-11. Compare Rom 8:22.
What profit ... - The question often repeated is the great practical inquiry of the book; it receives its final answer in Ecc 12:13-14. When this question was asked, the Lord had not yet spoken Mat 11:28. The word "profit" (or pre-eminence) is opposed to "vanity."
Hath a man - Rather, hath man.
Vanity is shown in mankind, the elements, and all that moves on earth; the same course is repeated again and again without any permanent result or real progress; and events and people alike are forgotten.
Abideth - The apparent permanence of the earth increases by contrast the transitory condition of its inhabitants.
Ever - The word does not here absolutely signify "eternity" (compare Ecc 3:11 note), but a certainly short period (compare Exo 21:6): here it might be paraphrased "as long as this world, this present order of things, lasts."
Hasteth ... - literally, at his place panting (in his eagerness) riseth he there.
More literally, Going toward the south and veering toward the north, veering, veering goes the wind; and to its veerings the wind returns.
The place - i. e., The spring or river-head. It would seem that the ancient Hebrews regarded the clouds as the immediate feeders of the springs (Pro 8:28, and Psa 104:10, Psa 104:13). Gen 2:6 indicates some acquaintance with the process and result of evaporation.
All things ... utter it - This clause, as here translated, refers to the immensity of labor. Others translate it, "all words are full of labor; they make weary the hearers," or "are feeble or insufficient" to tell the whole; and are referred to the impossibility of adequately describing labor.
Hath been ... is done - i. e., Hath happened in the course of nature ... is done by man.
Things - Rather, men.
Solomon relates his personal experience Eccl. 2; the result of which was "no profit," and a conviction that all, even God's gifts of earthly good to good men, in this life are subject to vanity. His trial of God's first gift, wisdom, is recounted in Ecc 1:12-18.
Was - This tense does not imply that Solomon had ceased to be king when the word was written. See the introduction to Ecclesiastes. He begins with the time of his accession to the throne, when the gifts of wisdom and riches were especially promised to him Kg1 3:12-13.
Wisdom - As including both the powers of observation and judgment, and the knowledge acquired thereby (Kg1 3:28; Kg1 4:29; Kg1 10:8, ...). It increases by exercise. Here is noted its application to people and their actions.
Travail - In the sense of toil; the word is here applied to all human occupations.
God - God is named as אלהים 'elohı̂ym thirty-nine times in this book; a name common to the true God and to false gods, and used by believers and by idolators: but the name Yahweh, by which He is known especially to the people who are in covenant with Him, is never once used.
Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the evil which is the object of inquiry in this book is not at all unique to the chosen people. All creation Rom. 8 groans under it. The Preacher does not write of (or, to) the Hebrew race exclusively. There is no express and obvious reference to their national expectations, the events of their national history, or even to the divine oracles which were deposited with them. Hence, it was natural for the wisest and largest-hearted man of his race to take a wider range of observation than any other Hebrew writer before or after him. It became the sovereign of many peoples whose religions diverged more or less remotely from the true religion, to address himself to a more extensive sphere than that which was occupied by the twelve tribes, and to adapt his language accordingly. See the Ecc 5:1 note.
Vexation of spirit - A phrase which occurs 7 times, and may be otherwise translated, "feeding on wind." Modern Hebrew grammarians assert that the word rendered "vexation" must be derived from a root signifying "to feed," "follow," "strive after." This being admitted, it remains to choose between two translations:
(1) "striving after wind," or "windy effort;" adopted by the Septuagint and the majority of modern interpreters; or
(2) feeding on wind. Compare Hos 12:1 : and similar phrases in Pro 15:14; Isa 44:20; Psa 37:3.
He saw clearly both the disorder and incompleteness of human actions (compare the marginal reference), and also man's impotence to rectify them.
I am come ... - Rather, I have accumulated (literally "enlarged and added") wisdom more than etc.
They that have been ... - The reference is probably to the line of Canaanite kings who lived in Jerusalem before David took it, such as Melchizedek Gen 14:18, Adonizedek Jos 10:1, and Araunah Sa2 24:23; or, it may be, to Solomon's contemporaries of his own country Kg1 4:31 and of other countries who visited him Kg1 4:34; Kg1 10:24. for "in" Jerusalem render over.
To know madness and folly - A knowledge of folly would help him to discern wisdom, and to exercise that chief function of practical wisdom - to avoid folly.
We become more sensible of our ignorance and impotence, and therefore sorrowful, in proportion as we discover more of the constitution of nature and the scheme of Providence in the government of the world; every discovery serving to convince us that more remains concealed of which we had no suspicion before.