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Ecclesiastes 1:4 | Word Study

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. Eccl. 1:4 (KJV)

The word ‘abideth’ comes from ‛âmad עָמַד; and it means to ‘stand.’[1] Other versions of the Bible translate this last phrase as ‘but the earth remains forever.’ (ESV, NIV, NASB). Between the two, the meanings might make different implication. The simpler translation gives an impression of earth being, in somewhat, a superior position to man; which might not be the whole truth that this verse makes claim. This is clearer when we take into account the way ‘abideth’ is used in the scripture.

From other rules of usage, (say Gen 18:22, 19:27, 41:46, 43:15, Exo 9:10, et cetera) it could mean, ‘to be presented to a figure of authority.’ Or in other words, it could also mean ‘to obey.’ But this is not to say the word does not have a generic meaning, where it simply means to stay. There is. There are examples of it being used in its generic meaning. But the former seems to be appropriate in this particular verse. As Qôheleth seems to be moving towards reasoning why man cannot have any profit under the sun; (Gill) which is the central claim he makes in verses 2 and 3.

We’ll read this verse as to say, man cannot have any profit under the sun because the things he relies on (i.e., the creation) obeys a pattern of divine law quite different from the law man was meant to obey. One may speak of the differences as one being natural, and the other moral. In effect, the point here seems to be that the earth ‘remains’ because it still abides by the law of its Creator, unlike man; and hence, it passes away.


There seems to be two reasons as to why man cannot have any profit under the sun: (1) the world is subject to a series of constant change and renewal. Meaning, the creation cannot offer more than what it has always offered. “The earth is where it was; the sun, and winds, and rivers, keep the same course that ever they did; and therefore, if they have never yet been sufficient to make a happiness for man, they are never likely to be so, for they can but yield the same comfort that they have yielded. We must therefore look above the sun for satisfaction, and for a new world.” (Matthew) And, (2) humanity as a whole may under go the same series of change as that of the created world, humans in particular do not. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not.” Job: 14:7-12 (KJV) Humans are never renewed; we either burn in hell or raise with Christ. The created world has no stake in our future. Man moves on, the earth stays.

Image: Rachid al-Din Tabib, Jonah and the Whale (14th Century)


Gill, J. (1748-63). Exposition of the Old Testament, Eccl. 1:4

Henry, M. (1706). Commentary on the Whole Bible, Complete, Eccl. 1:4-8


Ecclesiastes 1:3 | Word Study

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? Eccl. 1:3 (KJV)

‘What’ is derived from mâ מָה; it is an interrogative pronoun. (H4100)[1] ‘Labour’ is derived from ʿāmāl עָמָל. A range of translation follows this word: labour, mischief, misery, perverse, wickedness, et cetera. (H5999)[2] Labour here could mean, ‘a miserable toil.’ The supposition being, every labour has a result – a gain. But the kind of labour Qôheleth seems to suggest here only results in misery. The word ‘under’ is taken from taḥaṯ תַּחַת. And it has an interesting meaning. As a conjunction it means ‘instead’ or ‘in lieu of.’ (H8478)[3] The imagery on can paint here is of a farmer labouring on the field, but instead of relying on the natural processes of sun, rain, wind, et cetera, he uses all artificial means. As a consequent, his labour always results in more trouble, and misery. Metaphorically, all human labour that replaces the sun (the Son of God) as its source of substance, the result will always be troublesome.


As human beings, labour is probably the most honest thing allotted to our lot. We are sustained by an honest day of work. We sleep in the comfort of a hard day’s labour. We built our lives, we share love, and help others through labour and pain. But then there is labour which is a fool’s toil. Quite similarly, there was labour in Eden, and then there was labour cursed to our very being after the fall. Qôheleth doesn’t seem to be speaking of labour as something negative. But he seems to be pointing us towards the reality of labour. And that, all of our labour neatly fits the second category when its motivation is not born out of the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Father. 

Image: George Frederic Watts, Jonah (1894)




Ecclesiastes: 1:2 | Word Study

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Eccl. 1:2 (KVJ)

The word ‘vanity’ is derived from hebel הֶבֶל (H1892), it means vapour, or breath. Its root word hāḇal הָבַל (H1891) means ‘to act emptily.’ Vanity is so defined as, ‘emptiness or vanity; figuratively something transitory and unsatisfactory.’

If we were to refer to other parts of the Bible wherein this word has been used, we can observe that it is used as something opposite to the substance of God.


They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. Deu 32:21 (KJV)

And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them. 2 Ki 17:15 (KJV)

Anything that we try to substitute God with, is eventually empty and transitory. This logic follows vanity to be unsatisfactory; its like a business deal, an occupation, a project, wherein one labours but it results in nothing close to what one anticipates.


Surely every man goes about like a phantom; surely he bustles in vain; he heaps up riches not knowing who will haul them away. Ps 39:6 (BSB)

In sum, vanity can be said as a state of total depravity. (Ps 94:11, Jer 17:9) This is a state that both man, and nature share in common ever since the fall. (Gen: 3:17, Rom 8:20) Perhaps, the reason why Qôheleth would call everything under the sun as vain in the next verse.

The word ‘saith’ is derived from ‘āmar אָמַר (H599), meaning ‘to say, utter, speak.’ It is a word used with a great latitude; i.e., it can have a width of meanings attached to it. But it is interesting to note that this is perhaps the same word that we can find throughout the creation verses as well. It makes one wonder if there is any relevance to it. But amidst the list of English words, we have for this translation, the meaning ‘to charge’ seems to be of relevance here. One could say, Qôheleth is charging believers to take wisdom and understand the state of reality we exist in; that it is counter-opposite to what our faith and our Creator demands. The truth-statement being: without YHWH all is vain.


In the literal sense, hebel does mean ‘breath or vapour.’ We gather this from Isaiah 57:13. But traditionally, hebel has also been used in a variety of ways – each carrying slightly different meaning. In Ecclesiastes though, the word has to be understood metaphorically. (Bartholomew, 2009, 90) Because it is used with a width of meaning, much like the way it has been used throughout the Old Testament. (Seow, 1997, 102) One non-controversial way to conclude here is to speak of hebel as a tensive symbol; wherein, one needs to read it as metaphorical and symbolic in nature. (Miller, 2002, 152)

Qôheleth associates hebel with the idiom ‘pursuit of wind;’ which means ‘an activity with no chance of success.’ (Seow, 122) In effect, hebel is spoken of as a great evil (2:21), a terrible business (4:8), and a terrible sickness (6:2).

But the ‘all’ in ‘all is vanity’ does not extend this condition to the divine realities of life. Hebel is a description of the human condition; that all of human activities, labour, and human experiences are at the end of the day – just a vanity of vanities.

Image: John Martin, Jonah Preaching before Nineveh (1840)


Bartholomew, C. (2009). Ecclesiastes, Baker Academic
Miller, D. (2002). Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work, Academia Biblica
Seow, C.L. (1997). Ecclesiastes, Yale University Press