Ecclesiastes 1:2 sets the theme and tone for this entire book, written in Solomon’s words in the most poetic fashion. I much prefer the King James Version of this verse. Compare it with the New International Version.
KJV – Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
NIV – “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Maybe it’s just me, but vanity sounds a lot more interesting than meaningless. The word appears 37 times in Ecclesiastes, whether you choose to translate it as ‘vanity’ or as ‘meaningless’, and 5 times out of that 37 come from this one verse alone. In Hebrew this word means a ‘light wind’, and it is perhaps interesting to note that name Abel comes from this word. It means something temporary, a fleeting moment, leaving behind nothing, unsatisfying and related to sin. Prior to writing the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon was King over Israel (1:12), and he has returned broken, to mourn and record his folly and mistakes. Verse 17 – Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. Chasing after vanity; chasing after that which is meaningless.
Oh, how I love the word ‘vanity’, and how it is used in this context. It’s not just vain, it’s vanity. Solomon speaks of the vanity of all things in the world, with a great due of sorrow and some degree of helplessness in his tone. Vanity of vanities! All is Vanity! Solomon was a wise man. He was sophisticated, and he was a poet. He knew how to use the device of repetition aptly to emphasize his point. Vanity of vanities can likely be compared to holy of holies in Exodus and servant of servants in Genesis 9:25 – it was a commonly use Hebrew idiom to repeat in that manner to signify something in the highest degree. On top of using that idiom, Solomon repeated the idiom, increasing the emphasis, and ended it off with ‘all is vanity’. Breaking it down, what Solomon was really saying is simple. The highest of vanities (idiom), no, the highest of the highest of vanities (repeated), everything belongs to the highest of the highest of vanities.
Everything is vanity; everything is meaningless; everything is but just a fleeting moment, passing us by completely, leaving behind nothing. It leaves us empty, unsatisfied and even defiled. In saying that everything is vanity, Solomon throws in all his possession into the equation. What is everything? Everything is basically anything that is not nothing. All that glorious moments and grace and victories, all the wealth and riches, all the reputation and titles – they were meaningless. But perhaps because this was Solomon, who was known even till today for his wisdom, that it becomes important to note that Solomon was also referring to wisdom as meaningless. Verse 18 – For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Solomon goes on in Chapter 1 and 2 of the book to highlight that wisdom is meaningless, pleasures are meaningless, wisdom and folly are meaningless, and even toil is meaningless. 2:23 – All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night he does not rest. This too is meaningless.
Analysis: Solomon the preacher
Solomon was described as preacher and teacher, or leader in this passage, and his wisdom was famous even during his time. Yet we see here a Solomon who has matured greatly from the youth who became King, and with cruel realism puts it in harsh words for whoever’s willing to listen – Everything is meaningless, everything is vanity. Everything will be forgotten in days to come, and what we have today will count for nothing one day. Why miss those glorious days? Why dwell in riches and luxury? Why, when all these will leave one day and leave you feeling horribly empty, broken and defiled?
Contentment is perhaps the one lesson that we’re told to learn from this epic, and easily highly negative verse. Read with me Ecclesiastes 2:24-26.
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
1 Cor 1:25 – Paul writes that worldly wisdom amounts to folly in God’s kingdom, and folly is, really, nothing in God’s kingdom.When the wisest man ever says something like wisdom is vanity, you’ve really got to take him seriously.
Solomon warns in the book of Ecclesiastes of what will happen if you get too hung up over things and possessions, and in this verse especially, cries out desperately at the vanity of everything. In subsequent chapters he offers more hope to this bleak outlook of vanity and oblivion; although he begins the book by cruelly outlining to everybody what we’re in store for. A few days ago I posted on 1 Timothy 6:7 – For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. Can we not be so hung up over our past glory and wealth? Are we able to find contentment from the little that we have?
In times of decisions, remember this poetic verse: Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanities!