Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
In the first century, a fight broke out between rabbis at the Jewish Council of Jamnia. The issue? Should Ecclesiastes be removed from the generally accepted books of the Old Testament.
Few modern Christians would have the audacity to pose such a question. Yet from its bleak pessimism (e.g. 3:19) to its seeming encouragement of unbridled pleasure seeking (e.g. 9:7-10), or the fact that little is made of God’s dealings with his people until that point, the thoughts contained within its few pages can be troubling to say the least.
How then should a Christian read Ecclesiastes? The key to its message lies in the first few verses. ‘Vanity’ is repeated five times in the opening line (in much the same way that “king of kings” means the greatest king). The ESV footnote shows the Hebrew word translated ‘vanity’ in the ESV is hebel, and can variously mean vapour (Prov 21:6), vanity (Prov 31:30), temporality (Ps 144:4), and even be a derisive term for the lack of substance of the idols of the nations (Ps 31:6). But here the Preacher uses the metaphor of vapour to constantly point to the fleetingness of human life under the sun. This gives the book a stark realism about many common sources of worth (2:1-23), but it can also be a comfort, especially when confronted with great evils (8:10-13).
This clarifies the main thrust of the book. Ecclesiastes is no longer an extended study in the utter futility of life without God (although at points that might be an implication). Rather, the Preacher seeks to give wisdom on how to live well in a world where the only constant is that everything changes. The question in 1:3 is a real one: can a person gain anything if everything on this earth is fleeting?
On initial reflection, we’d be tempted to answer with a resounding “no”. After all, if nothing in this life lasts, what gain could possibly be had?
And yet, throughout the rest of the speech, the Preacher gives a more complex answer than this by taking the listeners on a journey. At points, he demolishes the human pretense that our accomplishments will make a lasting difference in the world. After all, everything is utterly fleeting. Other times, he affirms the goodness of wise living and the evil of folly since every situation we find ourselves in will not last forever (3:1-11) and the future cannot be predicted (10:12-14).
Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that wise living in a fleeting world consists of fearing God and accepting the life we find ourselves in as his gift. Rather than despising what he has given us by grasping for more, we should wisely enjoy the things of this life while we have them.
However, we can say more than the Preacher. With the coming of Jesus, our view of the world shifts from the utter fleetingness of life under the sun. In Christ, we find a new lasting life. There are the slightest of hints of this when the Preacher reflects on God’s work (3:14-15), but it comes to fulfilment particularly in the resurrection of Christ. Jesus has ushered in a new era where death will no longer have any sting, and where we now participate in the lasting “work of the Lord” which will continue into the full revelation of the kingdom (1 Cor 15:54-58). Therefore, we have a wisdom beyond that of the Preacher by which we can dedicate our lives to lasting things, rather than trying to make the best of the passing ones.
Yet we still need to hear the truth that everything under the sun is utterly fleeting. Until Jesus does return, we find ourselves still having a foot in the world where nothing stays constant and death touches all.
To those outside the kingdom, Ecclesiastes brings the challenge of whether gaining the whole world is really worth it, not just because the soul is more important, but because since the world is fleeting, it cannot be gained (cf. Mark 8:36). For those within the kingdom, the fleeting things of this world continue to be given to us as the gracious gifts of our unchanging Father. Paul reflects on this fact: we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing from it, and therefore the way to gain while we wait for true life comes through godliness with contentment, since God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17, cf. 1 Tim 6:6-19).
“Vanity of vanities; utterly fleeting” is not the cry of those without God. May this thought from the Preacher push us to live the lives we do have as the gift of God while we long for and work towards the day when Christ will completely bring in his eternal kingdom.