Vanity of Vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:1–2)


If you were a highly successful individual, what advice would you give others to help them achieve the good life?

Walk the aisles of your local bookstore, scan its shelves, and you will discover book after book offering answers to that question. They reveal the seven habits of highly effective people, how to win friends and influence people, the secrets of finding the love you want and keeping the love you find, not to mention how to think and grow rich. Each one is written by an effective, friendly author who has been lucky in love. And if the author was not rich before writing the book, he or she probably has made a bundle post-publication.

What you will not find in any of those books, however, is what you find in the second verse of Ecclesiastes, namely, a healthy cynicism about life. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2).[1] The never-ending supply of self-help books blithely assumes that the good life is defined in tangible terms, as the acquisition of greater health, more wealth, and better relationships. The horizon of such books is earthly and temporal. But what if earth and the present time are ultimately unsatisfying? What if they are in vain? Those are the questions the Preacher dares to ask.

Who is this Preacher? He is not, as you might expect from his title, an ordained religious leader. In Hebrew, his title is Qoheleth (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). Etymologically, this title is related to the verb qhl, which means, “to gather,” and the noun qahal, which means “assembly.” So, as Choon-Leong Seow puts it, Qoheleth probably means “‘Gatherer’ or ‘Collector’—whether of wisdom, wealth, or people.”

Additionally, he is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “the son of David” refers to Solomon, except in three instances (2 Sam. 13:1 [twice] and 2 Chron. 11:18). Along with his father David, Solomon is the only king to reign over all Israel from Jerusalem; after his death, the kingdom divides into two hostile monarchies. And, as you read Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:11, you cannot help but notice the similarities between the Preacher and Solomon. Both are wise, both are wealthy, and both achieve great things in this life. Not surprisingly, then, both Jewish and Christian traditions identify Solomon as the Preacher. Oddly, though, Ecclesiastes does not. For some unstated reason, it evokes Solomon’s experiences without explicitly naming him.

Now, you might think that a highly successful individual like Solomon would have a bit more positive advice than this “All is vanity” business. And yet, who else but a person like Solomon could make that point with any credibility? Only the truly wise know the limits of wisdom. Only the fabulously wealthy know the emptiness of riches. Only the wildly successful know that such success does not necessarily make life good. The Preacher stands on the highest peak of human experience and realizes that it is not high enough to reach heaven and eternity.

Blessed, then, are those who, like the Preacher, are cynical about earth and the present time and look farther along the horizon for something more, for only they will find it.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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