“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV). The Hebrew word for “vanity” used in this verse literally means “vapor” or “breath.” It can also be translated “meaningless,” “emptiness,” or “futility.” This preacher is Solomon, and he is telling us that, after exploring all the world has to offer, he has found it amounts to nothing. It is pointless to chase worldly goals because they disappear with our last breath. That foundation helps us understand the other ways the word vanity is used in the Bible.
Romans 8:20 says that all creation was subjected to vanity because of God’s curse. When Adam sinned, God cursed all that He had made (Genesis 3:17–19). In other words, perfection was lost. All of creation is now falling short of its original purpose; rather than working in harmony with God and creation, inhabitants of the earth have turned on each other and against God. We still reel from the effects of that curse. Everything meant to be right side up is upside down. The chaos and insanity of the world as we know it are due to the fact that God has subjected creation to vanity until the time when it will be set free (Romans 8:21).
When vanity enters our personal lives, it brings with it pride, jealousy, envy, strife, haughtiness, and many other negative things. Vanity devalues what’s important and puffs up what is trivial. Vanity peppers the mind with nervous questions: “How do I look?” “What will people think of me?” “Why wasn’t I honored instead of him?” Proverbs 16:18 warns that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” but vanity rarely listens to warnings.
A person consumed with vanity is self-absorbed and preoccupied with his or her own opinions, issues, and desires. At the root of all vanity is self, which demands to be protected at all costs. Self cannot co-rule our lives along with the Holy Spirit. God will not share His throne. That’s why Jesus calls us to die to self in order to follow Him (Luke 9:23). Vanity is an enemy of the Spirit and must be constantly brought to the cross and crucified (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1–6).
King Saul let vanity rule his life until it destroyed him. Strikingly handsome, gifted, and chosen by God, Saul had the potential to be a world-changer (1 Samuel 9:1–2). Humbled at first that he should be God’s elect king (1 Samuel 9:21, 10:21–22), Saul soon let vanity go to his head (1 Samuel 13:8–14). His vanity decided that he was important enough to disregard the command of the Lord and make things happen in his own way. Because of this, God removed His blessing and His Spirit from Saul so that the remainder of his reign was plagued with jealousies, murder, and discord (1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10–11).
Vanity can cause us to become impressed with our own greatness, achievements, or attractiveness. Left unchecked, vanity decides that we, like Saul, are important enough to disregard God’s commands and make things happen in our own way. We read, “Thou shalt not . . .” in Scripture but think, “That’s for other people.” If we are confronted about our sin, we get offended at the one confronting us.
The defense of vanity sounds something like this:
“I know I shouldn’t be doing X, but I’m really a good person.”
“I know what the Bible says, but I think . . .”
“We all have our own personal truth. My truth is that . . .”
Vanity played a role in the first sin in the Garden of Eden, and it continues to be the root of most sin today. Satan introduced vanity with the words, “Has God really said . . .?” (Genesis 3:1). Eve saw that the forbidden fruit was beautiful, tasty, and appealing, and vanity began to stir within her. The desire for pleasure and personal promotion displaced God in her heart. Still today, sin occurs when we allow our own opinions to trump God’s Word. When vanity rules us, God does not. When God rules us, vanity has to go.