What Does Ecclesiastes 1:2 Mean?
“Vanities of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2).
All is Vanity
Ecclesiastes begins with “All is vanity” (1:2) and ends with the same declaration (12:8). The book states powerfully and repeatedly that everything is meaningless (“vanity”) without a proper focus on God. Ecclesiastes reveals the necessity of fearing God in a fallen and frequently confusing and frustrating world.
People seek lasting significance, but no matter how great their accomplishments, they are unable to achieve the significance they desire. What spoils life, according to Ecclesiastes, is the attempt to get more out of life—out of work, pleasure, money, food, or knowledge—than life itself can provide. This is not fulfilling and leads to weariness, which is why the book begins and ends with the exclamation “All is vanity.” This refrain is repeated throughout the entire book.
No matter how wise or rich or successful one may be, one cannot find meaning in life apart from God. In Ecclesiastes, the fact that “all is vanity” should drive all to fear God, whose work endures forever. God does what he will, and all beings and all of creation stand subject to him. Rather than striving in futile attempts to gain meaning on our own terms, what truly is significant is taking pleasure in God and his gifts and being content with what little life has to offer and what God gives.
Meaningless Without God
The Preacher says that everything is meaningless without a proper focus on God. This theme is established and explained in 1:4–11, with verse 4 providing the thesis: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” People are temporary, but the earth is lasting. Ecclesiastes 1:5–7 gives examples of systems or aspects of the earth that demonstrate this truth. Verses 5 and 6 establish two central metaphors that run through the rest of the book: the wind and the sun. They appear throughout the book in the phrases “striving after wind” and “under the sun.” These metaphors emphasize two things: the lasting significance of the earth, and humanity’s ephemeral nature by comparison.
People would like to do something new, to be remembered for making a significant contribution to the world; they long and strive for lasting significance but cannot attain it (1:8–10). Our efforts are like striving after the wind— attempts for immortality that inevitably fail. One cannot catch the wind—it is here one minute and gone the next, just as fleeting as a human lifespan. All that is done “under the sun” suffers the same fate. We labor under the sun, but will never have the significance or impact that it has. No matter how great their accomplishments, humans will not achieve the lasting significance they desire. Ecclesiastes 1:11 drives home this conclusion when it says that few people make any significant impact on the course of world history, as most live and die in obscurity. Verse 11 drives home the point introduced in verse 4.
In Ecclesiastes 1:3 the Preacher asks, “What gain is toil?” This question is repeated throughout Ecclesiastes (3:9; 5:15; 6:11; 10:11). The Preacher questions the significance of people’s work and asserts the pointlessness of life and creation. His pronouncements are not meant to leave us in despair, unless ofcourse we are try to finding meaning in life apart from God. Rather, these pronouncements are meant to jolt us out of futility and to long for grace and to enjoy an ultimate and lasting significance.
Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden, creation has been placed under the curse of the fall (Rom. 8:20–21). For Adam in particular, the ground he was charged with cultivating would instead produce thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17–18). This theme of futility can be traced throughout Scripture, as “futility” can characterize nearly anything pursued apart from God. Without God, our thoughts and attitudes are futile (Ps. 94:11; Isa. 16:6, Jer. 48:29–30; Luke 1:51–52; Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:17–18). Without God, our work is futile (Ps. 39:6; 127:3; Hab. 2:13; James 1:11). Without God, our religious activities are futile (1 Kings 18:29; 2 Kings 17:15; Isa. 1:13; 16:12; Jer. 10:5; Acts 5:36–38; Col. 2:20–23). Even Christian religious activities can be futile apart from God (John 15:5; 1 Cor. 3:12–15; Titus 3:9; Heb. 4:2; James 1:22– 24). Without God, even our very lives are futile (Job 7:6–7; 14:1–2; Ps. 39:4–5; 89:47; Isa. 40:6–7; James 4:14). Ultimately, God wants to deliver us from the futility that pervades our lives (2 Tim. 2:21; 1 Pet. 1:18), and eventually, he will succeed in doing so by bringing his presence to earth as completely as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). Then, nothing will be done in futility, for nothing will be done apart from God’s loving presence in all of glorified human life.
Life as a Vapor
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were subjected to death and decay as a result of the fall. In Genesis 4, their firstborn son, Cain, kills their second-born, Abel. Abel, whose name in Hebrew, hebel, is in fact the word for vanity in Ecclesiastes, is born and dies within 6 verses. His life is but a vapor, a breath exhaled on a cold morning. In Genesis 5, the pace picks up and we rapidly meet men who have sons, grow old, and die—vapor after vapor after vapor. Human mortality is established early on in Genesis.
In Ecclesiastes 1:2, the Preacher (Hebrew Qoheleth) twice employs the phrase “vanity of vanities.” The Hebrew term translated here, hebel, can refer to vanity, breath, mist, or meaninglessness and is used more than 30 times in Ecclesiastes.
Longing for Grace
Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8 highlight the futility of life and creation that we all feel. Due to the tyranny of time that erodes and replaces all that distinguishes human accomplishment, our work can be summarized as “nothing new” (1: 9) and nothing remembered (1:11). There is a cyclical, rhythmic element to creation that appears futile. Seasons always change. The streams continue to flow, though the ocean never fills. Generations come and go and repeat the mistakes of the past. Meanwhile, the earth stands still and mocks any idea of progress. The passage evokes a longing for grace and meaning. This blanket observation of the futility of human accomplishment makes the heart long for the stark contrast of Jesus’ work for, in, and through us that is new and will be forever remembered. When we come to believe in Jesus—partaking of the new covenant that gives new birth, new life, and a new commandment—we enter into a new workforce. Now what we do matters, as it is done for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God (e.g., Matt. 25:40; 26:10–13). In Christ, our labor is not in vain (Psalm 112; 1 Cor. 15:58).
Ultimate and Lasting Significance
Ultimate and lasting satisfaction is found only in Christ and in enjoying God’s gifts through him (Rev. 22:17). Apart from the mystery of our union with Jesus, even the best gifts of creation will fail us. If we neglect God in our pursuit of joy, everything good in life— e.g., health, possessions, sensual pleasures—slips through our grasp or fails to satisfy. But if we see that what we have is God’s provision and give “thanks to God the Father”—ultimately through Christ (Col. 3:17)—for all his gifts, then whatever we receive from him is seen as a gift that brings true joy—joy in God. In Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Our labor in the Lord has meaning even when it doesn’t feel like it: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Ecclesiastes is consistent with the rest of Scripture in its explanation that true wisdom is to fear God even when we cannot see all that God is doing. We can leave it to him to make sense of it all.
Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness of living without God. We see that God created the world and called it “good.” But despite this original goodness, humanity fell into sin, and all creation was subjected to the curse of God. This brought into the world meaninglessness, violence, and frustration. Graciously, God did not leave his creation to an endless round of meaninglessness. God’s response to sin is to redeem, renew, restore, and recreate. The Bible traces this history of salvation from beginning to end. While this process starts immediately after the fall, God’s rescue mission culminates in Jesus Christ, who has rescued us from the meaninglessness of the curse that plagues us. Christ rescues us from the vanity of the world by subjecting himself to the same vanity of the world. He who is God chose to subject himself to the conditions of the world under covenant curse in order to rescue the world from the effects of that curse.
This article first appeared on Crossway.org.