2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon speaks as ‘the Preacher’, not as the king of Israel. He uses the vast experience of his life as a wise, wealthy and powerful king to teach his listeners valuable lessons about life. The Spirit of God, in His infinite wisdom, uses Solomon’s failures and sinful ways to grant us object lessons about the tragedy of pursuing carnal pleasures. Ultimately, the lesson is that a life lived apart from God is vanity.
The word “vanity” (hebel) is used five times in this one verse. Four of those occurrences are in a twofold repetition of a Hebrew superlative construction, “vanity of vanities”. The Hebrew word for “vanity” can mean “vapour”, “breath”, “emptiness” or that which is “futile”, “fleeting”, “transitory”, etc. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the word “vanity” appears about 38 times. It refers to something without real substance, value, permanence, significance or meaning. Generally, it appears to imply that which is both transitory and futile. It emphasises how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one is in possession of them. The concept is given greater stress by the repeated use of the superlative, “vanity of vanities”.
Solomon states most emphatically that “all is vanity”. He said this not in reference to the physical universe, but to all the activities of earthly life. This he explained in the next verse with a rhetorical question: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (v. 3). Solomon is not a complete pessimist; he is only driving home the point that people gain no ultimate advantage or profit from all their toil. Human effort to obtain satisfaction apart from God only produces a sense of vanity at the end. There is no discernible advantage to our struggle and toil in life when we look at life merely in terms of earthly values.
Whether he considers his wealth, his works, his wisdom or his kingship, Solomon comes to the same sad conclusion – all is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (1:14; 2:11). The Bible repeatedly reminds us that life without God is meaningless and full of vexation. So Solomon advises all his readers at the end of this book, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). The vanity and vexation of this life should lead us to the reality of the abundant life that God provides through Christ and His truth.