One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite jokes concerned twin boys, one an incurable pessimist and the other an indefatigable optimist. Trying to determine the cause of their respective outlooks on life, a psychologist placed the pessimistic boy in a room full of toys and the optimistic boy in a room filled with horse manure. True to form, the pessimistic boy began to whine because his favorite toy was not among the toys in the room. The optimistic boy, on the other hand, climbed atop the manure pile and began to burrow furiously in the mound. “With all this poop,” he exclaimed, “there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”
When we read Ecclesiastes, our most likely first impression of the Preacher is that of a very pessimistic boy. Despite a room stocked with great wisdom (1:12–18), pleasure, and wealth (2:1–11), the Preacher cannot find his favorite toy. As far as he is concerned, the room is empty of the one thing he wants. “Vanity of vanities,” he cries out, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). This—the vanity of life—is the Preacher’s main theme, stated at the beginning and end of his book (1:2, 12:8), just to make sure we get the point.
But what precisely is the point? The word vanity is somewhat misleading, for its primary meaning in contemporary English is “excessive pride, especially in your appearance.” When the Preacher speaks of the vanity of life, however, he is not speaking about such arrogance at all. The New International Version, attempting to be helpful, translates verse 2 in this way: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” But this is not quite right either. The Preacher is not a dour philosopher muttering dark, despairing thoughts about the senselessness of human existence.
So again, what precisely is the Preacher’s point? To answer that, we need a brief lesson in Hebrew vocabulary. According to Choon-Leong Seow, “The Hebrew word hebel, which is translated here as ‘vanity,’ has no single English equivalent. The literal meaning of the word is ‘vapor,’ ‘breath,’ ‘air,’ ‘steam,’ or the like. The word is most commonly used metaphorically for things that are ephemeral, insubstantial, delusive, or unreliable. Qohelet uses the word to speak of the fleeting nature of life (6:12; 7:15; 9:9). This is consonant with the usage of the word elsewhere in the Bible (Pss. 39:5–6, 11; 62:9; 94:11; 144:4; Job 7:17; 9:29). That does not mean that human life is ‘vain’ in the sense of being meaningless or worthless, but that it is ephemeral and unreliable.”
In other words, what the Preacher is saying is this: “Poof! Poof! Everything goes poof!” Human life, worldly wisdom, earthly wealth, sensual pleasure—Poof! And it’s gone. People come and go. The sun rises and sets. The winds blow thither and yon. Every river runs into the sea. People talk—“blah, blah, blah”—without saying much. And what is worse, the future forgets the accomplishments of the past. “Poof! Poof! Everything goes poof!”
Except God. In Ecclesiastes, God is never hebel; he never goes “Poof!” He is neither ephemeral nor unreliable. By relentlessly driving us to the conclusion that human life is hebel, the Preacher drives us into the arms of him who alone can insure that we have not lived life in vain. “Everything is vanity!” seems at first like a counsel of despair, but in reality, it is a realistic foundation of our eternally optimistic hope for God.
 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.