Ecclesiastes opens with the well-known refrain “Vanity of vanities” (1:2), and understanding this phrase is key to understanding the message of today’s passage and the rest of the book. Contrary to what many interpreters maintain, the phrase is not an assertion that life is meaningless or that our labors in this fallen world are ultimately pointless. Instead, it is a saying that helps us put our lives in the proper perspective.
The English term “vanity” in Ecclesiastes 1:2 translates the Hebrew word hebel, which means something like “vapor” or “breath.” In the book of Ecclesiastes, it points to that which is fleeting or temporary, like a puff of vapor or a breath. In addition, that which is fleeting is hard to grasp or capture, so the term hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes can also refer to realities beyond our understanding. Certain things ultimately escape our full comprehension despite our ability to understand them to some degree. As we will see as we return to Ecclesiastes again and again this year, many aspects of life are hebel to the Preacher who wrote this work. Much of life escapes our understanding, for we do not always see how everything in our lives fits into the grand story that God is telling with His creation.
This notion that there are aspects of life beyond our grasp stands out in today’s passage. In verse 3, for example, the Preacher asks what human beings gain by their labor. He is not asserting the meaninglessness of labor; rather, his point is that at least from a purely earthbound perspective, no one receives a lasting reward from his work. True, labor provides us with an income that allows us to enjoy many good things in life. Yet that enjoyment is fleeting. The old saying that “you can’t take it with you when you go” has an element of truth to it. No one takes his wealth with him in death. It is left behind for others. This is not necessarily bad in itself, for Scripture tells us that a good man leaves an inheritance for his “children’s children” (Prov. 13:22). Nevertheless, if we look at things only from the perspective of this life, it can be strange and hard to understand why we labor to build something that we ultimately leave behind to others.
The answer, of course, is that we are not to look at things only from the perspective of this life. Ecclesiastes repeatedly uses the phrase “under the sun” (even in today’s passage; 1:3, 9), inviting us to consider whether there might be another life that is not “under the sun,” a reality that gives meaning to that which escapes our full understanding.