And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. Ecclesiastes 1:13 (KJV)
‘… all things that are done under the heaven’ seems to be a reference to v3; i.e., a reference to human labour. (Bartholomew, 104). The ‘labour’ in reference here can be labelled as the human condition. In other words, Qôheleth claims to investigate what the human condition is about; considering how it is seen as vanity.
The method that Qôheleth employs in investigating the human condition is ‘wisdom.’ (Seow, 120) Or ḥāḵmâ חָכְמָה (H2451). It is the same word we find in Proverbs. But the way the word is used in both books are fundamentally different. In Proverbs, the word has a positive meaning – because it is used with reference to divine wisdom. In Ecclesiastes, it has an autobiographical meaning, i.e., it is used with reference to Qôheleth’s wisdom. The implication – is ironic, the wisdom that one should trust as true – turns out to be very different from the wisdom of the Proverbs. (105) Eventually, Qôheleth labels the human condition closely to the curse of the Original Sin. (Gen 1-3) It is a God given exercise; futile – an evil, that humans are condemned to.
“The futility of life as it is characteristically lived out “under heaven” is captured here in terms of people trying to straighten what is twisted and to count that which is “lacking.” The key to understanding the first line is found in 7:13: “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” The emphasis there and in 7:14 is on accepting what comes from the hand of God rather than striving with it and struggling against it.” (Provan, 77) The phrase ‘sore travail that God has given’ does not really mean that God is malicious. It rather states that humans and their aspirations are always misaligned with the reality of existence. In its arrogance, whenever man tries to achieve beyond who and what they are destined for – the condition that they will always find themselves is in this God ordained travail.
Image: Catacomb of Saint Peter and Saint Marcellino, Rome, Italy. (4th century)
Bartholomew, C. (2009). Ecclesiastes, Baker Academic
Provan, I. (2001). Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs: The New Application Commentary, Zondervan
Seow, C.L. (1997). Ecclesiastes, Yale University Press