The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does it profit a man for all his toil at which he labors under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)
This is certainly an odd way for a book of the Bible to begin! Right away the tone is set; this will be an honest and hard look at life. The word ‘vanity’ (Hebrew hebel) has the sense of a breath or a vapor, something that is transitory and ultimately lacking in substance. The book begins with a declaration that everything is as a passing breath; a mist. It is never-lasting.
So then, the author (likely Solomon) asks, what is the point of life? What is the purpose of men and women? What value do people have? For what do they expend their time and energy “under the sun” (meaning during their time on earth)? If all is vanity, a passing vapor, what is the point of anything? If a person cannot lay their hands on anything of any lasting value, what is the point of living?
These are tough questions; a tough way to begin. However, establishing the ‘vain’ and transitory nature of life is crucial to the Judeo-Christian worldview, and its ultimate hope. The trick, though, is not to read the end into the beginning, but to read Ecclesiastes as it unfolds, struggling along with the author on his pursuit of meaning, a journey of doubt, despair and discovery.
Yet knowing the end reinforces the beginning. If life “under the sun” is but a vapor, offering no real meaning, it stands to reason we must look ‘beyond the sun’ for something permanent to give us value.
I look forward to sharing these thoughts over the coming days.