Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

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.

9 thoughts on “Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

  1. Hi Dan,

    Ecclesiastes is a puzzling book. R. B. Y. Scott remarked, IIRC, that it is the strangest book in the Bible. It’s not strange in the way Revelation is strange, it’s strange because so much of it simply doesn’t seem to fit. Yet so many people tell me it’s one of their favourite books, so thanks for writing about it (although I’m going to offer a somewhat different approach to it below).

    But here the Preacher uses the metaphor of vapour to constantly point to the fleetingness of human life under the sun.

    There’s a problem with your basic premise here: it doesn’t work. “Vanity” cannot mean “fleeting” throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Here’s why:

    1. It isn’t easily derived from the phrases employed as parallels to הבל (heel) in Ecclesiastes (e.g. Eccl 2:21; 4:8; 6:2; etc.).

    2. “Fleeting” simply doesn’t fit as a valid conclusion to many of the teacher’s observations (“the teacher” is a translation of the Hebrew “Qohelet” used to identify the speaker of most of the words of the book, but not the source of the words in the prologue and epilogue of the book). It implies that the teacher’s concerns are ultimately unimportant because they’re only temporary (e.g. Eccl 2:15). In Eccl 3:19, how is death ‘fleeting’? In 11:8 how is “everything that is to come” ‘fleeting’? It goes against the teacher’s point to read הבל in 8:14 as ‘fleeting’ when the verse is obviously about the perceived injustice of the circumstances described. These are not ‘fleeting’ but they are ‘senseless’.

    3. The LXX consistently translates הבל with ματαιότης (mataiotēs). This does not mean ‘fleeting’ (and if the translators of the LXX had wished to express this notion there were other terms available such as πρόσκαιρος [proskairos]). The same point can be made for terms chosen in other early translations.

    So it doesn’t clarify the main thrust of the book of Ecclesiastes to say everything is fleeting.

    Rather, הבל is employed as a metaphor throughout the book and we ought to recognise that a single English term is unlikely to do it justice everywhere it occurs. Nonetheless, since the teacher’s concern as a wise man was to make sense of the world around him — to discover what profit there is in all that we labour to do (1:3), the suggestion of Michael V. Fox (followed by many other scholars) that the term should be understood to mean ‘senseless’ (Fox uses ‘absurd’ but admits that, in light of changing English usage of this term, ‘senseless’ captures the sense he is after) fits the context well. Life simply doesn’t make sense and his sense of justice is violated by the fact (see Eccl 7:15; 8:14).

    So for the teacher, any attempt to make sense of the world failed. In spite of all his endeavours driven by the most profound Solomonic wisdom, he could not make sense of it, as summarised in the repeated refrain of the book. The advice he drew from this conclusion was simple: “make the most of your life, enjoy it when you can, because I can’t offer any definitive advice on how to live that will guarantee a good life.”

    But that is not the end of the matter. The final word of the book is not left to the teacher, it comes from another voice in Eccl 12:9–14. This voice agrees with the teacher: the world makes no sense, and man’s endeavours to make sense of it, to work out how to make life worthwhile, are doomed to fail. We don’t need to repeat the teacher’s quest, he’s done it for us, and shown it to be futile.

    This final voice has something to add, something the teacher didn’t consider. And that is that God has spoken (the teacher never includes God’s words in his attempts to make sense of the world), God has told us what to do, and so this final voice tells us: in spite of the apparent senselessness of the world, we are to fear God and obey him.

    • Hi Martin, I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I remember working through Fox’s technical commentary when I preached Ecclesiastes many years ago, and being persuaded by his argument that over all “absurd” was the best ET available for ‘hebel’. Obviously don’t recall the reasons all these years later, but found it him strong at the time. Interesting to see he might go for ‘senseless’ now.

  2. Hi Sandy,

    When Fox says ‘absurd’ he means it in the sense used by the French philosopher Albert Camus. The problem with the term “absurd” is that its meaning in English has shifted and so what we commonly mean by “absurd” is not what Fox (or Camus) meant. Consequently, Fox suggests “senseless” is a close equivalent in meaning in modern English.

  3. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the thorough reply! It’s fantastic to be able to have the insights of someone who has been able to spend such a large amount of time meditating on the book of Ecclesiastes.

    I was wondering if you would mind fleshing out a little bit more of the concept of senselessness please to make sure I understand you correctly. In particular, how do you see the Teacher’s use of הבל sit against Camus’ notion of the absurd (i.e. are there any differences)? In what ways is this different to the historic translation of the metaphor as vanity?

  4. Hi Dan,

    I’m no scholar of Camus, so I depend on Fox’s explanation:

    The essence of the absurd is a disparity between two phenomena that are supposed to be joined by a link of harmony or causality but are actually disjunct or even conflicting. The absurd is irrational, an affront to reason, in the broad sense of the human faculty that seeks and discovers order in the world about us. (Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions, p. 31)

    Discovering this “order in the world about us” was the purview of the sages in the ancient world. There was the expectation that the universe obeyed a moral law in which good was rewarded and evil punished, and that the sage ought to be able to tap into this in order to find reward in life. The absurdity, for Qohelet, arises in his discovery that there is no such connection. The race is not always to the swiftest, sometimes the wicked live long and full lives.

    In this manner, “incomprehensible” goes part way toward what Qohelet means, but it is too clinical, too detached. Qohelet is not happy with the incomprehensibility of existence, he’s angry, annoyed, frustrated, etc (just look at the language he uses — e.g. “this is a sickening evil”). “Senseless” is thus meant (for me, I can’t speak for Fox) to capture both the fact that he cannot make sense of the world according to the expectations wisdom has for the world (specifically the notion often found in Proverbs and expressed by Job’s friends) that good results in good and evil in evil, as well as his emotional response to this apparent injustice in the world.

    This, I think, makes the best sense of the metaphor in most instances in Ecclesiastes. “Vanity” — the traditional translation — can’t be used any longer because it has come to mean “self pride” which is quite different from its older meaning. Although the older meaning doesn’t do justice to the term either since “empty” or “worthless” or “futile,” while all negative, all express a certain conclusion about the matters under investigation.

    The NIV’s “meaningless” also expresses too great a certainty: to judge things to be “meaningless” may express a negative assessment of the world, but it assumes that you can unequivocally reach a conclusion. That’s more than I think Qohelet would claim: his is more an acknowledgment that the honest sage has to throw his (or her) hands up in the air and declare that the answers are unavailable to them.

    “Senseless” thus also fits better with human experience (I think). While Paul tells us that all things work together for the good of those who believe, he has to tell us that because it often isn’t readily apparent. There’s no biblical guarantee that we will reach a point in our lives where we can look back at the difficult times and remark, “Now I see what God was doing, now I see the good!”

  5. Pingback: why all is not fleeting in qohelet/ecclesiastes | “shields-up”

  6. Thanks for the article, Dan. Very insightful, especially on the issue of how to live in light of what the Preacher says. “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.” Very helpful.

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