Vanity of Vanity, says the Preacher, all is Vanity. The scholars tell us that the word for “vanity” is “vapor, breath”. Like when you exhale on a cold day and you can see your breath vapor but it quickly dissipates into the air. Or steam vapor coming out of boiling pot of water. It looks real, like you could touch it, hold it, but you can’t. It actually is real, but it is made up of gases, not solids, so it has no definite shape and form.
“Life under the sun” is like that, according to the Preacher. That phrase refers simply to life on earth, life as we know it and observe it. It is like chasing the wind, but you can’t catch it. He often talks about a man working hard all his life achieving wealth, and yet he dies, not knowing who will even get his wealth or how they will use it. We value riches, money, wealth, things, houses, cars, possessions, etc. and they seem so important to us while we are living, but all that is meaningless, empty, like a vapor once we die. A thousand years from now all those things will be deteriorated because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
Everything under the sun seems so important, but is really nothing in the big picture. We are nothing important in the history of earth. Life goes on, century after century. History repeats itself. Mark Twain said “history doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes”. That is true. An actual event in history is never repeated, but something very similar always occurs later. Usually because people don’t learn from history. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. “Get out of Russia before winter”. Neither Napoleon or Hitler followed that and it led to their downfall. Rivers flow continually into the seas but the sea level remains the same basically. Imagine pouring water non-stop into the bathtub. It would flood your house. The Mississippi River alone, not even the biggest river, dumps water into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of almost 600,000 cubic feet per second! Add all the other rivers to that. How do the seas not overflow? Of course, we know it is the rain cycle that prevents that. But the Preacher’s point is that this cycle has continued as long as the earth has existed. We are insignificant in the big picture. Most of us don’t change much of anything by our accomplishments, but even the greatest men and women don’t control life under the sun. Men work, live, achieve, accumulate, and die. Some are remembered in the history books, but most are forgotten quickly.
The Preacher came to this conclusion by experience. We think the Preacher is Solomon. He was the wisest and richest man on earth. 1 Kings 4 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. We usually think of his wisdom relative to ruling his people, like when he wisely settled the dispute between the two women over whose baby had died in the night. But he was also a naturalist. One can see some of that in Proverbs when he talks about ants and other animals. How would you like to be able to answer any question about any subject on earth? Solomon could, as evidenced by the visit by the Queen of Sheba. But in Ecclesiastes 1 he says that even such vast knowledge and wisdom is meaningless in the big picture. How will that knowledge and wisdom help you when you die? Men after you will always be discovering and gaining knowledge and wisdom that makes yours obsolete. So he tried riches (chapter 2). Imagine that you were rich enough to buy or build anything you wanted. But would those things mean anything to you after you die? You can’t even control how they are used or spent after you die. So he tried pleasure. Wine, women (from the men’s perspective), song, dance, laughter, orgies, sex, lust, etc. The hedonist philosophy of life. Eat, drink, and be merry. But will any of that pleasure last after you die? The pursuit of pleasure is also meaningless in the big picture. There is a time for all events that we experience under the sun (chapter 3). The Byrds made that chapter famous in the song “Turn, turn, turn”. Almost sounds like Calvinistic predestination of events, but that’s not it. The point is that events will just come and go, in cycles of sadness/laughter, etc. but those events won’t really matter in eternity.
Then he adds, Ecc 3 11 “He (God) has made everything [ap]appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, [aq]yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” The word “eternity” changes the whole picture. The ability of man to think about eternity, life after death, is what makes us different from the animals. I believe that is what is meant when God said that he made man “in his own images”. Animals experience life under the sun just as we do, but they never contemplate where they came from, or why they are here, or where they will spend eternity. All men thing about those questions at one time or another in their lives, even atheists. The Bible often speaks about the earth lasting forever, but we will not last forever on earth. So the only things that we do while on earth that really matter are the things that affect our eternal destiny, or the eternal destiny of others.
After chapter 3 the writer elaborates over and over that same these of life under the sun if vanity. He could have just gone directly to his conclusion in chapter 12 “13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” The fear of God will lead one to obey God and thus make his life under the sun meaningful as it relates to eternity. Instead he gives some logical, pointed observations that reinforce his statement about the vanity of life under the sun. I encourage you to read chapter 4-12 to see all those observations.
Some say the book is depressing. Well life under the sun on earth without a view of living for eternity is depressing. Even if you are trying to live a righteous life, the righteous often suffer while the wicked prosper, so that can be depressing also. But the author encourages the reader to enjoy life under the sun as a gift of God even while he lives for eternity. He gives hope that there is life after life under the sun.