Some questions in the bible assume an answer. Some assume a positive answer. “You really liked that present, didn’t you?” The answer expected is “yes I did.” You didn’t like that present, did you?” Expects, “No, I didn’t.” There are other questions that do not imply any kind of an answer. I think the question posed to the reader in the third verse of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, is assuming a negative answer. It asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” It could be answered in either way but the wording in the original language and the following discussion will tell us that the answer is “nothing.” There is nothing to be gained in the long run from all of man’s labor in this life. Verse 4 explains the answer, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”

The Hebrew word for “teacher” that shows up in Ecclesiastes is “Qoheleth.” The Greek translation of the Hebrew word is “Ecclesiastes” which is where we take the English name for the book. The ecclesia is the gathering or “collecting” of people. It’s the assembly. So, the teacher in Ecclesiastes is the guy who collects the people to teach them. The Hebrew Qoheleth is sometimes defined as “collector.” This is interesting because Solomon was a great collector. He collected great wealth of course. He collected a large number of horses. He collected wives and concubines (The pleasure of men). He collected servants and gardens and crops and he also collected wise sayings as we see in the book of Proverbs. Yes indeed. Solomon was a collector. He gathered the people together because he had something very important to teach them. In Ecclesiastes, he describes all his “collecting” as being exercises in futility. As Ryken says, “Qoheleth takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless. Then he takes the next twelve chapters to prove his point in painful detail, after which he returns to the very same statement: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). So the book begins and ends with the same idea: everything that man does is futile, it’s all just smoke and mirrors!

Surely there is profit in hard work! Yes, Solomon affirms that truth in Proverbs. He is not speaking of the things that will profit us in this life. He’s speaking in an eternal sense. The old Pulpit Commentary of 1909 observes, “If all things are vain and vanity, wherefore were they made? If they are God’s works, how are they vain? But it is not the works of God that he calls vain. God forbid! The heaven is not vain; the earth is not vain: God forbid! Nor the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor our own body. No; all these are very good.” After each day of creation in Genesis God pronounced the created order as being good. Solomon, the collector-teacher, is talking about the brevity of life and facing the vast beyond. Nothing we can do in this life will expand our life. As the songwriter crooned, “all your money won’t another minute buy.” Money, power, pleasure, possessions, or wisdom will win for you something beyond the pale. There is no fountain of youth in Florida. No medicine can keep us alive forever, there is nothing man can do for himself when the angel of death comes calling. Everything we do is useless. This is why Isaiah 64:6 tells us that all of Man’s righteous works are as filthy rags to God. Man can never earn or deserve God’s favor, but he can receive it by God’s grace through faith alone. Ephesians 2:8-9 says it clearly, “it is by grace you are saved, it’s not of works, lest anymore should boast.”  This goes against our human nature. One of man’s basic desires is to be in control of his own destiny, and that includes his eternal destiny. Salvation by works appeals to man’s pride and his desire to be in control. Being saved by works appeals to that desire far more than the idea of being saved by faith alone.  “Because salvation by works appeals to man’s sinful nature, it forms the basis of almost every religion except for biblical Christianity. Proverbs 14:12 tells us that: ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.’ Salvation by works seems right to men, which is why it is the predominantly held viewpoint. That is exactly why biblical Christianity is so different from all other religions—it is the only religion that teaches salvation is a gift of God and not of works.”[1]

[1] Got Questions Ministries. 2002–2013. Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.