In general, women process—sometimes in their heads, often out loud. A good listener helps as she verbally thinks through issues or probable means to solve problems. Men process, too, but usually in their heads as they formulate an answer to a conundrum or a project. Solomon processes his ponderings about life in Ecclesiastes, wondering what is truly meaningful. He starts exclaiming, “All is vanity,” and ends with a defining principle. We will see where he got to at the end. However, his route to get there reveals a look at the ways of wisdom.
Where Does Ecclesiastes Say 'All Is Vanity'?
Five times in the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon says the exact phrase, “All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2,1:14; 2:17; 3:19; 12:8) Yet when we look closer at the words of this book of wisdom, Solomon calls several other endeavors vanity (see Ecclesiastes 2:19, 2:23; 4:4, 4:8, 4:16; 6:2; 11:8). From this, we can surmise the activities in those passages are included in Solomon’s statement. The word “vanity” itself appears five times in Ecclesiastes 1:2. It occurs in 29 other verses across Ecclesiastes’ 12 chapters.
What Is the Context of Ecclesiastes 1:2?
Before we reflect on what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, it will be good to look at what he requested of the Lord. In 1 Kings 3:3-14, Solomon, who “loved the Lord” and walked in the statutes of his father, David, went to Gibeon to sacrifice to God. God appeared to him in a dream and asked Solomon, “Ask what I shall give you.” In an amazing display of humility, Solomon asked God for “an understanding mind to govern Your people, that I may discern between good and evil,” Solomon’s request pleased God. He not only gave him “a wise and discerning mind.” He also gave him what he had not requested: “both riches and honor.” The proviso, however, was the Lord would lengthen Solomon’s days if he would “walk in His ways, keeping My statutes and commandments,” as his father, David, walked.
Solomon had the world at his fingertips. He had access to everything the world had to offer. God equipped him with everything, and he was, as we say, “at the top of the mountain.”
However, with his riches was wisdom. A mark of wisdom is pondering life’s meaning and the implications of either stewarding or squandering what we’ve been given.
Solomon gained recognition for his exceptional wisdom and reasonable judgments (1 Kings 3:16-28, 1 Kings 4:34). In writing Ecclesiastes, an older Solomon used his vast experience and wisdom to warn younger people. He begins the book by establishing his credibility: “The words of the Preacher (Collector, Convener), the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Preacher, as used here, also means “collector” or “convener.” He was a collector of wisdom and convened readers to hear his findings in this book. He shared the wisdom he had collected thus far in his life.
Solomon realized the nature of his expectations, and in Ecclesiastes 1:2, he said, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Does 'All Is Vanity' Mean That Nothing Matters?
To understand this statement, we need to look at what Solomon says about God’s position in our lives and His purpose. Who are we without God? What is life without God? What do we esteem? Does anything matter apart from Him? Does what I eat or drink matter for eternity? Do many spouses? Do many treasures? What happens at the end of life? What endures? Our frame, if you will, encompasses all we hold dear. Why do we work so hard... and for what?
Everyone seeks to know the purpose of life. Tension builds throughout Ecclesiastes as the “Preacher” considers all his ways and actions. What, in the providence of God, matters? When Solomon adamantly declares, “All is vanity!”, what does he mean by all?
By all intents and purposes, this book is a biography of what Solomon considered a vain life. “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
He tested pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He did great works (Ecclesiastes 2:4). He acquired many possessions (Ecclesiastes 2:7-8) and considered them his reward for all his toil (Ecclesiastes 2:10). He questioned his wisdom, for a fool would come to the same end as a wise person (Ecclesiastes 2:15). He said, “How the wise dies just like the fool” (Ecclesiastes 2:16), and he “hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:17) and despaired (Ecclesiastes 2:20). His heart and thoughts started turning toward his Creator when he said, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:9-13).
In our day, unbelievers commonly assume a person’s existence precedes their purpose. They think we come into the world without a predetermined, objective purpose, and it’s up to us to find (or create) meaning. Under this view, life’s meaning is subjective; it hinges on a person’s opinions and preferences, not truth. As such, life considered subjectively can be as meaningful or meaningless as a person desires. But, if this is the case, there is no ultimate true meaning, and everything becomes objectively meaningless. When we regard our broken world, we see that in action. It doesn’t make sense. God alone can provide life with objective meaning; without Him, it is worthless. Solomon concluded that life is to function according to God’s decree.
Everyone thinks they want to be like Solomon—a person of vast wealth. Yet why? At the end of it all, life without God is vanity, a striving after the wind. There is no satisfaction apart from God, for, as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Through his process, Solomon never recanted his faith in God. Instead, his faith shined as he realized how God alone is the purpose of life!
The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the basic words of Solomon’s conclusion, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Solomon wrote it as, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
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Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.
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