All is Vanity - Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (Part 2)
Now, I'd like to divide the passage up and look at it in sections to look a bit closer at what these verses are saying to us...
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
The NIV says in verse 2: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
These two verses are the introduction to the whole book and it gives two pieces of information: firstly, the author and secondly, the major idea of the book.
The author is called the preacher or in the NIV he is called the teacher. He is a son of David and king in Jerusalem. Traditionally he has been identified as King Solomon and I think that makes the best sense. Although the book itself never says that the author is Solomon.
But what is more interesting (at least I think) is the major idea of the book. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What is Solomon saying? The word ‘vanity’ in the ESV or ‘meaningless’ in the NIV translates the Hebrew word ‘hebel’. This word is difficult to translate because it can mean different things in different contexts.
The literal meaning is ‘vapour’. Its describing something that is fleeting and will not last or doesn’t have substance. Psalm 144:4, for example, says: ‘Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.’ When it says ‘breath’ that is the Hebrew word hebel. So, it can mean something that is not going to last.
But hebel can also sometimes mean something that doesn’t make sense. Chapter 8 verse 14 is an example: Ecclesiastes 8:14
14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
Solomon isn’t saying that this is something that doesn’t last, he’s saying that this is something that doesn’t make sense, its absurd, its hebel.
Of course a third meaning of hebel is just the way that it is translated: something that is meaningless or vain. We see this in chapter 2:1-2:
2 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
Solomon’s point here is that pleasure is something that will never satisfy and in that way it is meaningless or vain because you can never be satisfied with pleasure you always want more.
So, the word hebel has a variety of meanings. It can mean meaningless, vain, absurd, or something that does not last.
And so the major idea of this book is that everything is hebel. Everything is meaningless or fleeting or just doesn’t make sense. But remember that the focus of the book of Ecclesiastes is on this world alone. He’s not talking about seeing things with an eternal perspective, he’s describing the world as if this is the only thing that is.
When we think about it like that we can see that what Solomon is saying is true. Why do we spend so much time and effort and heartache to work so hard so that we can have a nicer house when one day we will die and we won’t be able to enjoy it. Why do we work so hard to make a name for ourselves when a hundred years after we’ve died no one will even remember who we were or anything that we did. When we think about this life alone we can agree with Solomon when he says vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
But this is not a reason for despair. This is a reason to change our perspective. Jesus said in Matthew 6:19–20
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
This life is hebel and its treasures are too. Money, cars, houses, reputation, accomplishments are all passing away like vapour. But the next life is not hebel, heaven is eternal. And the treasures that we will get in heaven will last forever. So, let’s not invest our lives in the things of this world, let’s live our lives in light of God’s coming judgment and invest them in what will bring us eternal rewards that come from the hand of God.
There’s a pastor in the States that Julie and I like to listen to called David Platt. And he uses the illustration of a hotel room. He says that if you are staying in a hotel you don’t invest a lot of money trying to make the room really really nice because you know that you’re going to leave soon. This life, this world, is like a hotel room. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Heaven is where we’ll stay forever, so let’s not focus our lives on the things of this world that are passing away. Let's invest our lives on things that will gain us those eternal rewards so that when Christ returns He will say to us "Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. " (Matthew 25:21). Let’s not waste our lives on things that are hebel.