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The Scriptorium

Been There, Done That

Ecclesiastes 1.3-7

Ecclesiastes 1.3-7

3What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
Onegeneration passes away, and anothergeneration comes,
But the earth abides forever.
5The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
6The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
7All the rivers run to the sea,
Yet the sea
is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.

The Story: Where do people turn in order to discover meaning and purpose for their lives? The same places Solomon was led to explore, once he had turned away from the God of Scripture. People try to find meaning in their work (v. 3), their experiences (and those of the human race, v. 4), and the patterns and processes of the created world (vv. 5, 6). As he will explain, Solomon had “been there, done that” with all these traditional sources of meaning, and none of them yielded anything other than short-term satisfaction. Ultimately, all these areas lead to disappointment when it comes to discovering permanent, abiding things. People cannot help but wonder about what their lives are supposed to count for in an impersonal, uncaring world. Rehoboam was surely doing the same; Solomon only hoped to guide his son away from the dead end toward which (by the end of Solomon’s life) he must have already been heading. “I know what you’re thinking,” Solomon seems to have been saying, “and I can assure that what you hope to find in your work, your experience, or your reflections on the world in all its complexity will not be what awaits you there.”

The Structure: These first 11 verses of Ecclesiastes are a kind of synopsis of Solomon’s experience apart from God. The chapters that follow will elaborate on topics raised here. Like the overture of a musical or opera, Ecclesiastes 1.1-11 presents the themes, moods, and motifs that will recur throughout the book. While it is difficult to impose a consistent outline or logical flow to the chapters of Ecclesiastes, this opening synopsis seems to have served as a touchstone to which Solomon returns again and again in seeking to turn his son from vanity to hope. A sense of impenetrable mystery pervades verses 3-7. We can recognize priorities and patterns – work, life and death, sun and wind and water – but they appear as mere phenomena; they do not yield explanations as to who we are, why we are here, or how we can make sense out of our lives. If all we have to look to in discovering our reason for being are those things we can see and experience, then we are headed for frustration, disappointment, and, ultimately, meaningless death.

What evidence do you see in the world today that people are trying to find meaning and purpose in life by looking only to their experiences and observations? Do they seem to be finding what they hope these things will yield? Ask a non-Christian friend or co-worker where he or she looks in order to find meaning and purpose in life.

Each week’s studies in our
Scriptorium column are available in a free PDF form, suitable for personal or group use. For this week’s study, “Vanity of Vanities: Ecclesiastes 1,” simply click here.

T. M. Moore

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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