Cold weather has a funny way of making our breath visible. Every time we exhale, we see the vapor of our breath appear for a moment and then vanish. “Vapor” is the word Solomon uses in Ecclesiastes to characterize this present life (1:2). This word doesn’t mean “vain” in the sense of “meaningless.” It means that everything is passing, and everything is hard to grasp. Vapor is here one moment and gone the next, and you can’t hold it in your hand. It’s gone before you have the chance to look at it and truly understand it.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon points out that life is vaporous in many ways, but three stand out in the beginning of the book. First, Solomon comments on wisdom itself. Solomon suggests that it may be tempting to think that wisdom has an answer for every circumstance, but he reminds us that wisdom has its limits in this life (and this coming from one of the wisest men to ever live). There are many things that cannot be fixed or corrected, and many things that cannot be discovered or explained (1:15, 18). In this way, wisdom is fleeting and incomprehensive—that is, it’s helpful only until it isn’t, and it goes only so far. True wisdom involves admitting wisdom’s limitations.
Second, Solomon comments on material pleasures. He describes how he indulged himself with wine, houses, gardens, pools, herds, flocks, and people in his life (2:1–8). Yet these things never truly fulfilled him. He came to understand that material pleasure, though not meaningless, was nevertheless a passing feeling, and that feeling wasn’t substantial. Lasting, unending pleasure—true and ultimate joy—isn’t available by pursuing the material things of this world. The pleasures of this life are a vapor.
Third, Solomon comments on work. He points out that work is a vapor because life ends in death. There is no telling to whom our profits will go at the end of our lives. Moreover, the worker engages in tasks that are often wearisome, difficult, and sorrowful (2:23). And all this for what? Rewards that we can’t enjoy beyond our imminent death. Our culture calls this “the rat race.” Work is a vapor.
At this point, we might expect Solomon to cynically comment that life isn’t worth living, but Solomon isn’t a cynic. He’s a realist. Solomon never makes things out to be worse than they are—he simply helps us understand what it means to live our lives in this fallen world. There’s joy and meaning to be found in this life, but we must see this life for what it is: a vapor. So what does Solomon advise? He encourages us to enjoy daily life with those we love, please God, and trust God’s providence (2:24–26; 9:7–10). In other words, he prompts us to faith. This side of redemptive history, that faith is much clearer because we know that our Lord Jesus Christ has redeemed us from a vaporous existence. We will, in the end, dwell with Him who grants us eternal life and everlasting joy forever.