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For who knows what is good for man in life all the days of his vapor-like life in which he works

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like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him

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under the sun?


For no one knows (except God) what is good for man during the course of his life which is as frustrating as a vapor, and which is characterized by so much hard work which accomplishes nothing.

And no one can give a man any assurance that his accomplishments will be preserved after he is gone from this life.


1: “in which he works”

At first this seems like a strange choice of words for this context. It appears he is referring to the days through which we “pass,” and many versions translate it as “pass” or “spend,” but the meaning of the word lends itself poorly to that usage. The word means “to accomplish, to work, to make, to do, to produce, to bring about.” It has some secondary uses such as “to observe a religious festival, to appoint someone to a position.” You will notice that all of the meanings mentioned so far have a very active quality; such action causes or brings about a result. There are more possibilities which form a long list; most of them follow the same idea of activity and effort, but two of them sound a bit different and those are the words “become,” and “come to pass.” In the latter case the preferred interpretation is “bring to pass” but “come to pass” was apparently acceptable in certain contexts. I contend, however, that the ancient Israelites would have kept in mind the root meaning of the word and the meaning it usually conveys. If they could have known English, they might say that “come to pass” fits in this context, but in the back of their mind they would be thinking about the rest of the meaning of the word, the part that involves effort. That makes this word hard to convey in English without sounding strange. Most of the English versions fail to point toward activity and effort, but make it sound like this life is something we endure. While that is true, Solomon seems to be painting a picture here of a life full of effort and troublesome toil. The difficulty for translators comes from the fact that the phrase “all the days of his vapor-like life” introduces a temporal aspect. Yet the word shadow is used to describe a verb which seems to point toward how hard we must work. That is exactly what the author intended. He wanted us to see life as something full of effort, yet the results are like a vapor or a shadow.

Therefore, I am convinced this is not a statement about our passage through time but about the lack of impact from our efforts. It is not the way life passes by that is like a shadow, it is the effort involved in trying to make a living.

In conclusion, we have a temporal aspect introduced by the phrase “all the days of . . . life” and we have a verb which points toward a life full of lots of hard work. Such duality was precisely the intent of the author, Solomon.

2: “what will happen after him”

They knew back then what we know now, that the next generation will not care as much about our accomplishments as we do, so they will likely change or ignore what we have done. The generation after that will likely make even more changes. Granted, there are a few types of accomplishments that cannot be taken away, such as the eternal results of serving God by serving others. But from a strictly physical and financial perspective, we all know that our accomplishments will not last very long after we are gone.

The problem with dedicating our time to serving God and serving others is that we also need to eat and pay our bills. I think quite often about the fact that it is a direct result of Adam and Eve’s sin that life is full of struggle and effort. The kind of work that is necessary and unavoidable is the kind that is also the most frustrating and futile.