A casual reading of Ecclesiastes may leave one feeling discouraged or even depressed. Surely Solomon is wrong, isn't he? Life isn't vain--is it? I believe that this preacher from nearly three thousand years ago is indeed stating a truth about life, but his viewpoint is purely secular. That is, without God in the picture, yes, everything is meaningless! No matter what a person can accomplish or possess, it's all pointless from the physical standpoint. But, with God in one's life, there is purpose, as Solomon explains at the end of the book (cf. 12:13,14).
In Ecclesiastes 1:3-8, he proceeds to illustrate some of the infinite vanities of life - "What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."
Solomon begins supporting his theme by inquiring about the physical world. Is there any real profit therein? Even if one gained possession of the entire world, what would it really profit him? (cf. Matt. 16:26). Such a one would soon die and be replaced by another. People come and people go, but the Earth outlives us all. Nothing really changes from one generation to the next.
When Solomon stated that "the earth abides forever", he used the Hebrew word olam, which means an "indefinite period of time known only by God." Solomon is not trying to declare that the Earth will never be destroyed, but that it will remain indefinitely; that is, as long as God allows it to remain (cf. II Pet. 3:9ff). Note that the word olam is used to describe other things that have already ceased--for example, the Sabbath (Exo. 31:16,17), the Passover (Exo. 12:14), the religious use of incense (Exo. 30:8), burnt offerings (Exo. 29:42), and the priesthood of Aaron's descendants (Exo. 40:15). These things all continued until God said, "No more," but none of them continued perpetually or forever.
In Ecclesiastes 1:5-7, Solomon brings up three examples to show that there is nothing really new and that all things follow the same basic pattern. First, he mentions the continual and repetitious cycles of the sun. It hurries across the sky only to rise again and repeat the same cycle. Second, the example of the wind, which continues to blow in its circular path for no apparent reason. Third, the rivers flow to the sea but the sea is not full, and the water returns from where it came. None of these things are ever really completed or finished.
This leads him to declare in 1:8 that "all things are full of labor." All things are wearisome. Although the creation is active in so many diverse ways, nothing is ever really accomplished. Ultimate fulfillment never comes. Mankind, consequently, like the creation in general, will not find satisfaction in physical terms.
Friends, as we continue considering some great truths from the book of Ecclesiastes in the coming days, may we always be thankful that God has not left us to grope in the dark for answers about life! We do not have to rely on our limited powers of observation and investigation in a futile effort to acquire happiness by our own devices. Praise be to God that He has revealed Himself and His purpose for our lives via the Scriptures--without such, truly all would be vanity!