All Is Vanity (1:1-18)

Bible Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1-18

This opening passage to Ecclesiastes sets the tone for the entire book. It is important to use this sermon to set people up for what to expect, as Ecclesiastes is unlike most other Bible books. Rather than setting out the truth directly, it shows the teacher’s quest for meaning in life in different things, only for them to come up short every time. Two phrases that keep coming up are ‘vanity’ and ‘chasing after the wind’, both highlighting the utter futility of life. It is good to let people sit with the challenges that Ecclesiastes raises. Don’t be too quick to explain away the questions. Though, of course, there will come the point that you want to show that whilst the places in which the teacher is looking do not offer meaning, there is meaning to be found in God.

All Is Vanity Under the Sun: Another key phrase in Ecclesiastes is ‘under the sun.’ We see it come up in this passage in verse 3, verse 9 and verse 14, and it shows where the teacher is looking in his search for meaning. The teacher is focussed on this world and all that in contains. In this phrase is a hint that there is a place to look that will give a different outcome. Ultimately nothing in this world will satisfy, because the satisfaction that we are made for can only be found in God.

All Is Vanity Because History Repeats Itself: In verses 2-11, the teacher observes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He notices that generations come and go but the earth remains, the sun sets and rises again, the wind goes round and round, the water continues to flow. Natural cycles happen on repeat and there is nothing new. Life can feel this way. It can seem like it is the same things happening over and over again with no change or break, and it is utterly wearisome. What we are going through has already been experienced by others who have passed out of memory, and will be experienced again by others when we are long forgotten.

Seeking Wisdom Is Vanity: In verses 12-18 the preacher turns his attention to one particular area, the pursuit of wisdom – and he concludes that this too is vanity. He realised that the more he knew, the more problems he saw and that the pursuit of wisdom just led to more vexation and sorrow. He had also tried knowing madness and folly but this too was unsatisfying for him.

Potential Applications:

  • Ask people to think about where they are looking for meaning and satisfaction in life and how much of it is ‘under the sun’.
  • Challenge people who are academically or philosophically minded to reflect on whether the points made in verses 12-18 resonate with their own experience of pursuing wisdom.
  • Show that Jesus is the one who can provide meaning, who can make things new and who can give true spiritual wisdom. Invite people to look to him to be satisfied.