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Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 New English Translation (NET Bible)

Introduction: Utter Futility

“Futile! Futile!” laments[a] the Teacher.[b]
“Absolutely futile![c] Everything[d] is futile!”[e]

Futility Illustrated from Nature

What benefit[f] do people[g] get from all the effort
which[h] they expend[i] on earth?[j]
A generation comes[k] and a generation goes,[l]
but the earth remains[m] the same[n] through the ages.[o]

Footnotes:

  1. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Heb “says.”
  2. Ecclesiastes 1:2 sn See the note on “Teacher” in v. 1.
  3. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Heb “futility of futilities.” The phrase “absolutely futile” (הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, havel havalim) is a superlative genitive construction (GKC 431 §133.i). When a plural genitive follows a singular construct noun of the same root, it indicates the most outstanding example of the person or thing described. Examples: קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים (qodesh haqqodashim, “holy of holies”), i.e., “the most holy place” (Exod 26:33); שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים (shir hashirim, “song of songs”), i.e., “the most excellent song” (Song 1:1); אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הַאֱדֹנִים (ʾelohe haʾelohim vaʾadone haʾedonim, “the God of gods and Lord of lords”), i.e., “the highest God and the supreme Lord” (Deut 10:17). See also R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 17-18, §80; IBHS 154 §9.5.3j.
  4. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Although כֹּל (kol, “everything, all”) is often used in an absolute or comprehensive sense (BDB 481 s.v. כֹּל 1), it is frequently used as a synecdoche of the general for the specific, that is, its sense is limited contextually to the topic at hand (BDB 482 s.v. 2). This is particularly true of הַכֹּל (hakkol, BDB 482 s.v. 2.b) in which the article particularizes or limits the referent to the contextual or previously mentioned topic (e.g., Gen 16:12; 24:1; Exod 29:24; Lev 1:9, 13; 8:27; Deut 2:36; Josh 11:19 [see 2 Sam 19:31; 1 Kgs 14:26 = 2 Chr 12:9]; 21:43; 1 Sam 30:19; 2 Sam 17:3; 23:5; 24:23; 1 Kgs 6:18; 2 Kgs 24:16; Isa 29:11; 65:8; Jer 13:7, 10; Ezek 7:14; Pss 14:3; 49:18; 1 Chr 7:5; 28:19; 29:19; 2 Chr 28:6; 29:28; 31:5; 35:7; 36:17-18; Ezra 1:11; 2:42; 8:34-35; 10:17; Eccl 5:8). Thus, “all” does not always mean “all” in an absolute sense or universally in comprehension. In several cases the context limits its reference to two classes of objects or issues being discussed, so הַכֹּל means “both” (e.g., 2:14; 3:19: 9:1, 2). Thus, הַכֹּל refers only to what Qoheleth characterizes as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel) in the context. Qoheleth does not mean that everything in an absolute, all-encompassing sense is futile. For example, the sovereign work of God is not “futile” (3:1-4:3); fearing God is not “futile” (2:26; 3:14-15; 11:9-12:1, 9, 13-14); and enjoying life as a righteous person under the blessing of God is not “futile” (2:24-26; 11:9-10). Only those objects or issues that are contextually placed under כֹּל are designated as “futile” (הֶבֶל). The context of 1:3-15 suggests that 1:2 refers to the futility of secular human endeavor. The content and referent of 1:3-15 determines the referent of הַכֹּל in 1:2.
  5. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn The term הֶבֶל (hevel, “futile”) is repeated five times within the eight words of this verse for emphasis. The noun הֶבֶל is the key word in Ecclesiastes. The root is used in two ways in the OT, literally and figuratively. The literal, concrete sense is used in reference to the wind, man’s transitory breath, evanescent vapor (Isa 57:13; Pss 62:10; 144:4; Prov 21:6; Job 7:16). In this sense, it is often a synonym for “breath” or “wind” (Eccl 1:14; Isa 57:13; Jer 10:14). The literal sense lent itself to metaphorical senses: (1) breath/vapor/wind is nonphysical, evanescent, and lacks concrete substance thus, the connotation “unsubstantial” (Jer 10:15; 16:19; 51:18), “profitless” or “fruitless” (Ps 78:33; Prov 13:11), “worthless” (2 Kgs 17:15; Jer 2:5; 10:3), “pointless” (Prov 21:6), “futile” (Lam 4:17; Eccl 1:2, 14; 2:1, 14-15), (2) breath/vapor/wind is transitory and fleeting—thus, the connotation “fleeting” or “transitory” (Prov 31:30; Eccl 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; 11:10; Job 7:16) and (3) breath/vapor/wind cannot be seen thus, the idea of “obscure,” “dark,” “difficult to understand,” “enigmatic” (Eccl 11:10). See HALOT 236-37 s.v. I הֶבֶל; BDB 210-11 s.v. I הֶבֶל. The metaphorical sense is used with the following synonyms: תֹּהוּ (tohu, “empty, vanity”; Isa 49:4), רִיק (riq, “profitless, useless”; Isa 30:7; Eccl 6:11), and לֹא הוֹעִיל (loʾ hoʿil, “worthless, profitless”; Is 30:6; 57:12; Jer 16:19). It is parallel to “few days” and “[days] which he passes like a shadow” (Eccl 6:12). It is used in reference to youth and vigor (11:10) and life (6:12; 7:15; 9:9), which are “transitory” or “fleeting.” The most common parallels to הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes are the phrases “chasing after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, reʿut ruakh) in 2:11, 17, 26; 7:14 and “what profit?” (מַה־יִּתְרוֹן, mah yitron) or “no profit” (אֵין יִתְרוֹן, ʾen yitron) in 2:11; 3:19; 6:9. It is used in reference to enigmas in life (6:2; 8:10, 14) and to the future which is obscure (11:8). It is often used in antithesis to terms connoting value: טוֹב (tov, “good, benefit, advantage”) and יֹתְרוֹן (yoteron, “profit, advantage, gain”). Because the concrete picture of the “wind” lends itself to the figurative connotation “futile,” the motto “This is futile” (זֶה הֶבֶל, zeh hevel) is often used with the metaphor, “like striving after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, reʿut ruakh)—a graphic picture of an expenditure of effort in vain because no one can catch the wind by chasing it (e.g., 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). Although it is the key word in Ecclesiastes, it should not be translated the same way in every place. sn The motto Everything is futile! is the theme of the book. Its occurs at the beginning (1:2) and end of the book (12:8), forming an envelope structure (inclusio). Everything described in 1:2-12:8 is the supporting proof of the thesis of 1:2. With few exceptions (e.g., 2:24-26; 3:14-15; 11:9-12:1, 9), everything described in 1:2-12:8 is characterized as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel).
  6. Ecclesiastes 1:3 tn The term “profit” (יֹתְרוֹן, yoteron) is used in Ecclesiastes to evaluate the ultimate benefit/effects of human activities, as is טוֹב (tov, “good, worthwhile”) as well (e.g., 2:1, 3). While some relative advantage/profit is recognized (e.g., light over darkness, and wisdom over folly), Qoheleth denies the ultimate advantage of all human endeavors (e.g., 2:11, 15).
  7. Ecclesiastes 1:3 tn Heb “the man.” The Hebrew term could be used here in a generic sense, referring to the typical man (hence, “a man”). However, it is more likely that the form is collective and that humankind in general is in view (note NIV “man”). Note the reference to “a generation” coming and going in the next verse, as well as v. 13, where the phrase “the sons of man” (= humankind) appears. In this case the singular pronominal suffix and singular verb later in v. 3 reflect grammatical agreement, not individuality.
  8. Ecclesiastes 1:3 tn The use of the relative pronoun שֶׁ (she, “which”)—rather than the more common אֲשֶׁר (ʾasher, “which”)—is a linguistic feature that is often used to try to date the book of Ecclesiastes. Noting that שֶׁ is the dominant relative pronoun in Mishnaic Hebrew and that אֲשֶׁר does not appear as frequently (Jastrow 130 s.v. אֲשֶׁר), many scholars conclude that אֲשֶׁר is early and שֶׁ is late. They conclude that the use of שֶׁ in Ecclesiastes points to a late date for the book. However, as Samuel-Kings suggest, the שֶׁ versus אֲשֶׁר phenomena may simply be a dialectical issue: אֲשֶׁר is commonly used in the south, and שֶׁ in the north. The use of שֶׁ in Ecclesiastes may indicate that the book was written in a northern rather than a southern province, not that it is a late book. This is supported from related Akkadian terms which occur in texts from the same periods: אֲשֶׁר is related to ašru (“place”) and שֶׁ is related to ša (“what”).
  9. Ecclesiastes 1:3 sn The Hebrew root עָמָל, (ʿamal, “toil”) is repeated here for emphasis: “What gain does anyone have in his toil with which he toils.” For all his efforts, man’s endeavors and secular achievements will not produce anything of ultimate value that will radically revolutionize anything in the world. The term “toil” is used in a pejorative sense to emphasize that the only thing that man obtains ultimately from all his efforts is weariness and exhaustion. Due to sin, mankind has been cursed with the futility of his labor that renders work a “toilsome” task (Gen 3:17-19). Although it was not yet revealed to Qoheleth, God will one day deliver the redeemed from this plight in the future kingdom when man’s labor will no longer be toilsome, but profitable, fulfilling, and enjoyable (Isa 65:17-23).
  10. Ecclesiastes 1:3 tn Heb “under the sun.”sn This rhetorical question expects a negative answer: “Man has no gain in all his toil.” Ecclesiastes often uses rhetorical questions in this manner (e.g., 2:2; 3:9; 6:8, 11, 12; see E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech, 949).
  11. Ecclesiastes 1:4 tn The participle הֹלֵךְ (holekh, “to walk, to go”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). The root הָלַךְ (halakh) is repeated in this section (1:4a, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 7c) to emphasize the continual action and constant motion of everything in nature. Despite the continual action of everything in nature, there is no completion, attainment or rest for anything. The first use of הָלַךְ is in reference to man; all subsequent usages are in reference to nature—illustrations of the futility of human endeavor. Note: All the key terms used in 1:4 to describe the futility of human endeavor are repeated in 1:5-11 as illustrations from nature. The literary monotony in 1:4-11 mirrors the actual monotony of human action that repeats itself with no real change.
  12. Ecclesiastes 1:4 tn The participle בָּא (baʾ, “to go in”) emphasizes continual, durative, uninterrupted action (present universal use of participle). The term is repeated in 1:4-5 to compare the futility of secular human accomplishments with the futile actions in nature: everything is in motion, but there is nothing new accomplished.
  13. Ecclesiastes 1:4 tn The participle עֹמָדֶת (ʿomadet, “to stand”) emphasizes a continual, durative, uninterrupted state (present universal condition). Man, despite all his secular accomplishments in all generations, makes no ultimate impact on the earth.
  14. Ecclesiastes 1:4 tn The term “the same” does not appear in Hebrew, but is supplied in the translation for clarity and smoothness.
  15. Ecclesiastes 1:4 tn The term עוֹלָם (ʿolam) has a wide range of meanings: (1) indefinite time: “long time, duration,” often “eternal” or “eternity”; (2) future time: “things to come”; and (3) past time: “a long time back,” that is, the dark age of prehistory (HALOT 798-99 s.v. עוֹלָם; BDB 761-63 s.v. III עלם). It may also denote an indefinite period of “continuous existence” (BDB 762 s.v. III עלם 2.b). It is used in this sense in reference to things that remain the same for long periods: the earth (Eccl 1:4), the heavens (Ps 148:6), ruined cities (Isa 25:2; 32:14), ruined lands (Jer 18:16), nations (Isa 47:7), families (Ps 49:12; Isa 14:20), the dynasty of Saul (1 Sam 13:13), the house of Eli (2 Sam 2:30), continual enmity between nations (Ezek 25:15; 35:5), the exclusion of certain nations from the assembly (Deut 23:4; Neh 13:1), a perpetual reproach (Ps 78:66).
New English Translation (NET)

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