Fleeting and perplexing—these words best sum up the concept of vanity that the Preacher emphasizes in the book of Ecclesiastes. Even the greatest achievements and successes of life are “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 2:1–11), not in the sense of being meaningless but in the sense of being fleeting. Such things, from the perspective of this world, do not last. In fact, for most of us, they will be forgotten not long after our deaths. Indeed, there is a proper time for us to die (3:2), at which point there will be nothing more we can accomplish. With regard to our life spans, we have no real advantage over the beasts of the field. Like them, we live for a brief window, and then we die (vv. 19–20). While we can, we are to enjoy life with our spouses and our labor, for death finally comes to all, and these enjoyments in our brief life spans do not continue in the longer period of time in which we lie in the grave (9:9–10). Youth is a day of strength, but it will not last, for old age comes to all. All is vanity—it flowers for a time and then goes away (12:1–8).
Life is also vain in the sense that it is perplexing. We pursue knowledge and wisdom, thinking that it will be a blessing, but all too often we find that the more we know, the more confused and sorrowful we are (1:18). Riches promise satisfaction, but if we love them, they will not satisfy us. Even if we do not love them, they cause us many worries we did not have before (5:10–11). To some, God grants wealth and honor but not the power to enjoy them; a stranger who has not earned them may enjoy them (6:1–2). One would think that in the Lord’s universe, righteous men would prolong their lives by their righteousness and wicked men would have theirs cut short by their evil, but the opposite is all too often the case (7:15).
But the Preacher’s solution in all of this is not to throw up his hands in despair. The answer, rather, is to find certainty in God and His Word (12:13–14). The Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). He is bringing every deed into judgment, whether good or evil, whether hidden or known to all. The good things we do that time forgets and that people never see—God sees them, and He will reward us. The success of the wicked and the downfall of the righteous—God will not abide these forever, but He will reverse them at the last day. There is one certainty in this uncertain world—our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Let us fear the Lord, repent of our sin and trust in Him alone, and live a life of gratitude shown by keeping His commands. For those who do this will enjoy Him for eternity.