“‘Vanity of vanities,’ said the Preacher. ‘Vanity of vanities; it all is vanity.’”
The phrase, “vanity of vanities” becomes the tagline for this entire book, though again, if one just looks at bits and pieces and sections of the book, one misses the point. For, while the book begins with the phrase “vanity of vanities” it ends with the words: “this is the whole duty of man…” In other words, there is a transformation that takes place as one reads through this book from beginning to end — a structure that says, “Yes, there is meaning to life, but you will not find meaning in the things of this world; meaning is found in the intersection where the ordinary things of this world meet and find their meaning in the eternal matters, so fear God and obey his commandments.” Yet, to arrive at that conclusion in a meaningful way, Solomon must take us step by step through the ideas and worldviews that filled his life for many years — ideas and worldviews that remain today, thus making this journey a productive one.
So, let’s come back to this verse and its significance. What is vanity? The Hebrew word that is used in this context is הֶבֶל (hevel), a word used 86 times in the Old Testament. It is used to refer to breath (something that has no substance), to idols, to vain ideas and practices, and even to Abel (he would not survive to be the child of promise, that honor went to Seth). It refers to anything that truly has no substance or depth of its own — that has no lasting value.
And how Solomon’s words should speak to us here. We build homes, we build churches and other monuments. We also build collections of things, seek to accumulate wealth and prestige. We seek to make names for ourselves so that we will not be forgotten after we are gone from this world. Yet, these things are all fleeting in the eternal scope of things.
As a pastor, it weighs on my soul that when someone dies, a life lived well across sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years is summed up in a single column in the newspaper. Furthermore, it is abbreviated again for the tombstone. In our church’s cemetery, there are tombstones tracing back to the founding of our church almost two-hundred years ago. But what is remembered about most of those founders? Little more than the date of their birth and the date of their death. And that, too, in time will be forgotten as the stones weather away and eventually crumble. It is enough to depress even the most optimistic person.
And that is exactly Solomon’s point. Here is one of the most successful kings of Israel (in human terms) and his accomplishments are summed up in only a handful of chapters in the Bible. We know he built the Temple and massive palace structures, we know he was wise and have many of his proverbs along with an erotic love poem, and we know he was foolish enough to follow his many wives into their pagan practices. More is told about Solomon, but most of us skim over those chapters of the Bible and move on to “more interesting things.” And think about it, compared to many others in the Bible, we know a great deal about this man.
The point of this phrase is to help us keep perspective. It is easy to get caught up in the urgent needs of the present, but these are vain in the grand scheme of things. Whether the dishes always get done, or the house is perfectly vacuumed, or whether or not the lawn is always mowed just right, or whether we have the best job or work our way up the corporate ladder — whatever that may look like in your life, all of these things are passing. The only thing that is lasting is God himself and if you want to make a lasting contribution to this world, you will only do so by building his kingdom and not your own. Yes, your name will most likely be forgotten within a few generations, but if Christ’s name is not forgotten because of the commitments of your life, your labors will not be in vain. Otherwise, we say with Solomon, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”