The words of the Teacher,a son of David, king of Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’
Ecclesiastes 1: 1-2
Everything is vanity of vanities – utterly meaningless, perfectly useless, and totally futile? It is amongst the best known phrases in the Bible, yet as Christians we often have no idea what to make of it.
It is not a motto we print on posters of sunsets or in birthday cards, and yet Jews have always read Ecclesiastes with joy as they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles every year.
It is not a philosophy we want to proclaim when as Christians we know that God has created everything with order and purpose; even if our day-to-day lives can feel mundane, monotonous and even meaningless at times.
And tempting as it is, we cannot write it off as a “foil” where most of Ecclesiastes is seen as the depressing, “wrong” way that non-Christians see the world, which is then put right in the last chapter. The reason for this is because we are told that “The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” (12: 9-12)
The word translated as “meaningless” or “vanity” is, in the original Hebrew, “hebel”. It is a very important word in Ecclesiastes, appearing 38 times, and in some ways, holds the key to its meaning. “Hebel” actually means a breath, or vapour, or wind. Think of a cold, autumn morning, when you can see your breath for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Think of wisps of smoke, clinging to the air for a moment, then dispersing and disappearing. Think of the soap bubbles children blow with huge excitement, then the bubbles pop and vanish into nothingness. Ralph Erskine, in his poem Smoking Spiritualised, captures the idea nicely:
And when the smoke ascends on high,
Then thou behold’st the vanity
Of worldly stuff,
Gone with a puff.
Thus think, and smoke tobacco.
It is not that there is no meaning to anything. It is the problem of trying to attach eternal meaning to things which are transient and fleeting, like the wind, like the bubble, like smoke. Trying to hold onto a puff of smoke forever would be futile, even laughable. This sets the thinking behind Ecclesiastes, and how we can understand it as Christians seeking to glorify God, enjoying living in His world under the sun.
Reflection: What in your life do you find most difficult to acknowledge will not last? What does Jesus offer us that is different? (See John 3:16)