How Everything is Vanity | The Book of Ecclesiastes
Imagine this. The wisest man whoever lives comes to town and you get to go hear him give a talk. You’re excited because you think that now he’ll be able to bring everything together, make sense of it all, provide some secret that we haven’t uncovered yet. But the first thing he says is that everything is vanity and he repeats that throughout his whole hour long talk.
You leave and as you process it you think that you must be missing something, he’s the wisest man who ever lived. So you start to think and puzzle. And you start to wonder maybe what he says and what he means are two different things. Maybe he’s trying to do something with words. Maybe he doesn’t actually believe that everything is vanity but in order to get us to understand that he has to tell us that everything is vanity. Maybe the fact that you’re spending so much time thinking is part of the point.
This is exactly what is going on with Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes opens up with Solomon declaring, “Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity.” And this is repeated throughout the book.
But Solomon doesn’t actually believe that everything is vanity at least not in the way that you might think and there’s reasons in the text that indicate that for us, but the first thing to understand is that Ecclesiastes is a riddle.
You see, Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, that is it’s designed to make the reader wise and as any great artist or author knows you don’t make people wise simply by giving them simple facts to memorize. Sometimes you learn things better when they’re difficult than when they’re easy.
In the introduction to the book of Proverbs Solomon gives us a list of the ways that he will teach wisdom and one of them is by means of riddles.
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
And this is because sometimes hard intellectual work Will do a better job of working wisdom into us then clear statements. Later in Proverbs were told that it is the wisdom of God to hide things and the wisdom of kings to search things out.
Ecclesiastes is a Riddle
So how is it that Ecclesiastes is a riddle. Well, it’s a riddle because it was written with a great contradiction a paradox that needs to be resolved. Solomon, the wisest man whoever lives, says that everything is vanity. Now that’s a riddle because the wisest man knows better than everyone else that the world is not vain.
The Bible up to Ecclesiastes as well as after it communicates that it is not vain. Everything from God redeeming the slavery of Joseph where he will say to his brothers that what they meant for evil God meant for good, to David declaring that the heavens declare the glory of God, to Paul in Romans saying that God works everything for good.
So if Solomon knows that everything is not in vain why does he say that it is?
Cain and Abel
To understand this we have to understand the allusion that is in the word vanity. The Hebrew word is hevel and it means a breath or vapor/mist. But the first use of in the Bible is Abel, like Cain and Abel. This word is Abel’s name, the exact same word. And for obvious reasons.
Abel’s life was mist. He was here and then he was gone, murdered by his brother. And it is this story that Solomon is alluding to. And if we look closer at the Cain and Abel story, we’ll see exactly why Solomon calls everything Abel.
Now, we all know the story. Abel offers a more acceptable sacrifice to God, Cain is mad and kills his brother. But the narrator describes the death of Abel in an interesting way. Genesis 4:11-12 says “And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.”
Twice the narrator describes the blood of Abel in the ground. Later, in the Book of Leviticus, the sin offering is described in the same way, the blood of the animal is to be poured out on the ground.
So what the narrator in Genesis is indicating is that not only does Abel offer a sacrifice, but he himself is a sacrifice. That is, his death was not a futile, a vain murder, but a sacrifice, an acceptable gift to God. And this is what Solomon is alluding to by using that term 38 times in Ecclesiastes, the main thematic keyword.
Everything this is vanity, mist, vapor in the way that Abel was. Everything is Abel. Everything is hevel in the sense that everything is a sacrifice, a gift to God. Sacrifices and gifts are indeed lost, you give them away, but not in a worthless way. They are given for the pleasure of the one to whom we sacrifice and give our gifts. That is how everything is Abel