Vanity of Vanities

by Ed Gallagher

There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God.

Ecclesiastes 2:24
Isaak Asknaziy, Vanity of Vanities, nineteenth century, Wikimedia Commons

This lesson introduces the Book of Ecclesiastes and considers ways of interpreting it. 

Do you think of your life as full of meaning or as devoid of meaning? If you wanted to take a skeptical look at human life, how would you argue for the meaninglessness of life? Does the expression “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” resonate with you? 

Some people think that the book of Ecclesiastes is a strange book, especially for the Bible. What about Ecclesiastes strikes some people as strange? It appears much more negative and pessimistic than people are accustomed to associating with Scripture. Its most famous words are “vanity of vanities,” seeming to imply the futility of life. Some passages appear unorthodox (3:16–22; 7:15–18). 

So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity,” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet.

Moby Dick, chapter 96

On the other hand, some people have found in Ecclesiastes the clearest expression of truth (as the examples from Moby Dick and You Can’t Go Home Again show). Why does the message of the book find such a positive response from some people?  

So far as I can see from nine years of observing you, yours is the way of life, the way of thought, of feeling, and of acting, of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I know of no better way. For of all that I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth–and also earth’s highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could only say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.

George Webber to the fox, in the Novel you Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe, Chapter 47

The title of the book, “Ecclesiastes,” is a Greek word related to the word for church, ekklesia, meaning “assembly.” So, the word Ecclesiastes means “assemblyman,” or “leader of an assembly,” i.e., Preacher, Teacher. This Greek word translates the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which means the same thing (“assemblyman”) and appears several times in the book (1:1, 12; 7:27; 12:8–10). Usually Solomon is identified as Qoheleth, because the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes remind readers of Solomon, but the book never names Solomon.

But we should notice that Qoheleth (= Solomon?) is not actually the author of the book. Read Ecclesiastes 1:1–2 carefully, along with 7:27, and 12:8–14. Qoheleth speaks in the first-person throughout the book (see, e.g., 1:12ff.), but at the very beginning of the book and its very end, Qoheleth is referred to in the third person (‘he’, instead of ‘I’). This happens once in the middle of the book (7:27), showing that someone else must be the actual author, and this other person, this “frame-narrator” (as he is sometimes called) has quoted Qoheleth for most of the book. The frame-narrator introduces us to Qoheleth, quotes him extensively, and then appends some of his own thoughts at the end of the book. (For more on the authorship of Ecclesiastes, see this post.)

Read 1:2–11. What is Qoheleth trying to say? To what extent do you agree?  

Qoheleth evaluates many different things throughout the book as vanity (hevel in Hebrew). This words appears 38x, by far the most of any OT book (only 73x in entire OT). The basic meaning of hevel is “vapor or smoke.” What do you think Qoheleth means by using this term? It could indicate the fleeting or transitory nature of things, or perhaps their meaninglessness or uselessness. (He often joins hevel with another phrase, “striving after wind”: 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9; cf. 4:6.) Note also that Qoheleth’s perspective is “under the sun” (e.g. 1:3, and 29x throughout the book). 

How does this perspective help you to evaluate your work-life, family-life, church-life, the culture around you, sports, politics, the economy, etc.? How long will the work that you have spent your life doing outlive you? Ask Ozymandias. How many generations of your descendants will remember your name? 

Read 2:12–17 on wisdom. Do you think Qoheleth has a point, or is he overly pessimistic? What is wisdom good for, and what is it not good for?  

Read 2:24–26. What is the view of life Qoheleth is promoting here? We could call this “contentment,” in full recognition of the futility of much of what we do, but also enjoying what God allows us to enjoy. In these verses, who is the person who concentrates on “gathering and collecting”? The sinner (v. 26). Qoheleth advises us to spend less time “gathering and collecting” and more time enjoying. Unfortunately, our society gives us the opposite advice. 

This statement about contentment is echoed throughout the book: 3:12–14, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10. This sentiment appears so frequently that it must be one of the major themes of the book. This is not a book about the meaninglessness of life, it is a book about finding contentment in what God allows, recognizing that we control basically nothing in this life, and we can predict very little (see, e.g., 9:11–12). 

This contentment comes with the acknowledgment of four dominant realities: 

  • God is the single, indisputable reality, the Creator of all and the One from whom all of life comes as a gift, including its—for Qohelet—burdensome nature.
  • God’s ways are not always, if ever, understandable.
  • on the human side, “what is done under the sun” doesn’t add up at all, in that the way things should be are not always—if ever—the way things actually are
  • the great equalizer is death, which happens to all people alike. (Remember that Qoheleth’s Old Testament worldview means that he is not thinking of resurrection; the dead reside in Sheol. This helps to explain 3:16–22. See also 2 Tim 1:10.) 

The end of the book, provided by the frame-narrator (12:9–14), affirms the message of Qoheleth, and boils down that message to one verse (12:13; cf. 3:14; 5:1–7). 

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

Conclusion

The message of Qoheleth is a message that people need to hear right at this time. Striving after stuff is often striving after the wind, fleeting as smoke. We need to find contentment in what God allows us to do, we need to fear God, and we need to recognize that everything else is vanity!

Additional Questions for Discussion

Read Ecclesiastes 1:2–11. Do you think Ecclesiastes reflects reality, or is it too pessimistic?

Read Ecclesiastes 3:16–22. What do you think this book is trying to say about everyone’s fate? 

When Ecclesiastes says that “everything is vanity” (1:2; 12:8), what do you think it means, and do you agree? Would you prefer to nuance that statement at all? 

Reflect on Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12–14, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10. How do these sentiments cohere with the more negative statements expressed throughout the book? Judging from these passages, what is the message of Ecclesiastes? 

Read Ecclesiastes 12:9–14. This passage provides an evaluation of the words of the Preacher (or Teacher = Qoheleth in Hebrew), which have occupied the previous 12 chapters. What does this passage say about the words of the Preacher? 

Additional Resources

There are two excellent videos on Ecclesiastes from The Bible Project, an introduction to the book and another focusing more on the themes. 

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