Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 reads - "That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after."
Solomon, in 1:9, explained why "all is vanity." There is nothing new under the sun! The cycles of the Earth will continue indefinitely; history will continue to repeat itself. There are no new thoughts; there is no new anything! In his vanity, man thinks that he discovers new things and conceives new ideas, but these things are not really new. For example, what about airplanes? Airplanes are relatively new, right? Not really, for they are just another form of transportation, and we've had many methods of travel from the beginning (not to mention the fact that birds have flown from the beginning!).
Not only is man plagued by the simple truth that nothing he does is new, all that man does is overshadowed by the fact that his efforts will soon be forgotten. Other than a few notable exceptions, how many of the multiplied millions who have lived are really remembered from 200 years ago? 500 years ago? 1000 years ago? Of course, whether anything we do is ever remembered by any other human being is irrelevant. Everything we do or think is eternally significant because it is remembered by the Lord (cf. II Cor. 5:10).
Solomon began writing about the vanity of wisdom in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 - "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. I communed with my heart, saying, 'Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.' And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."
Solomon started with the futility of wisdom but would later touch on many other subjects (e.g., pleasure, physical labor, etc.). Certainly a king with his immense wealth and wisdom (cf. I Kings 3:12,13) was especially qualified to investigate such matters.
Solomon affirmed what most never realize: Without God in the picture, it is a "burdensome task" for man to find any true purpose in life. One would be better off attempting to catch the wind! Of course, such is a useless endeavor. The wise king maintained that all of the physical works done by man are futile and meaningless; there is nothing of lasting, redeeming value that man has ever achieved or done.
What does Solomon mean by stating in 1:15 - "What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered"? It is pointless to try to straighten that which has always been "crooked", and no one can count what isn't there. In other words: The works of man (from a physical perspective) have always been futile (i.e., "crooked"). This cannot be changed--not even by one with great wisdom! Not even Solomon could find purpose and value in that which is "lacking" any!
He mentioned his pursuit of wisdom first (in 1:17), perhaps because it seems to be the most logical starting point for making sense of life. But, he was not against considering other alternatives that might hold the answer (e.g., madness, folly, pleasure, etc.).
The first chapter concludes with him acknowledging the futility of acquiring wisdom; it generally only leads to more suffering. Our world is full of so much wickedness that, in many ways, it is blessed to be ignorant.
We will continue this study tomorrow.