In Ecclesiastes 1:2 and again in 12:8, we find this curious observation: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (ESV). Today, when we hear the word vanity, we think of pride, conceit, and an exaggerated opinion of and attention to oneself. But here in the book of Ecclesiastes, the word vanity is correctly understood as “meaningless,” as rendered by the New International Version: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”
Vanity is a key word in the book of Ecclesiastes, appearing 34 times. The original Hebrew word means “breeze,” “breath,” or “vapor” and speaks of the fleeting nature of things. It is translated as “meaningless,” “futility,” and “pointless” in various Bible versions. How did this biblical preacher’s determined search to make sense of life lead him to conclude that there is no meaning or purpose to human existence?
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes, who refers to himself as the “Preacher” (KJV, ESV) or “Teacher” (NIV, HCSB), is King David’s son Solomon. To understand Solomon’s ruling that “all is vanity,” we must study the phrase within its written context.
Ecclesiastes is unique from any other book in the Bible. Written by Solomon in the later years of his life, its central theme is the pointlessness of human activity and human goals apart from God. During this season of his life, Solomon attempted to understand life using human reason and intellect. His exploration stemmed from a perspective of worldly wisdom based on available information from the physical realm.
Solomon may have been out of fellowship with God when he wrote Ecclesiastes or thinking back on such a time. Like many worldly philosophers, separated from God and His divine revelation, Solomon concluded that nothing in life has significance. The human experience has no purpose. Solomon’s search proved futile based on one pivotal detail—his pursuit was limited to the finite span of life humans experience here on earth. Apart from God, His revelation of Himself, and His purposes, our lives are indeed vacant and void of meaning. Anything that lacks eternal value has no real value at all.
Ecclesiastes speaks to those times when life seems empty or doesn’t make sense. Our human experiences are often bewildering and confusing. Wicked people succeed while the righteous suffer, and horrible injustices are all around (Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1–5). Ultimately, life and all of our human endeavors are pointless in themselves. Like Solomon, if we look for meaning and purpose apart from God, our quest will end in frustration.
Only through a relationship with God in Jesus Christ do we discover our true purpose and destiny. God exists outside these momentary years of mortal life on earth, and in Him our future extends far beyond this finite world: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT).
We are made in the image and likeness of God to be His representatives on the earth (Genesis 1:26). In Him, we discover who we are and what we made for: “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT). In the eyes of God, every human life has tremendous value and significance. We are His most precious possessions and the center of His attention (Deuteronomy 32:10; Zechariah 2:8; Psalm 17:8). When God is present in our lives, He becomes our source and our treasure—the meaning and purpose of our lives. When we “think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth,” we discover “real life” that “is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2–3, NLT).
Just as many humans do, Solomon sought meaning in life outside of God’s will and apart from His presence. His search ended in vanity, or emptiness. But in Jesus Christ, who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), the believer’s search culminates in everything: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33, NLT). In the Lord, our work has meaning: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT).
Solomon closed Ecclesiastes in the same place he started. “All is vanity” bookends his journey, underscoring the emptiness and futility of life without God. When we focus only on this earthly life—“everything going on under the sun”—it does seem pointless, “like chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, NLT). But when we know God through a relationship with Jesus Christ, we receive abundant life in His kingdom and a heavenly treasure worth far more than all the world’s silver and gold (Acts 3:6; Matthew 6:19–21; 1 John 5:11–13).