“In vain! In vain! It’s all in vain!” the Teacher’s words declare; “All things are futile and in vain, like vapor in the air.”
This is the first post on Ecclesiastes, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Ecclesiastes 1, preceded by a brief reflection.
In the days leading up to the Second World War in 1939, Nazi Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact. Shortly thereafter Hitler invaded Poland and the war was on. France and Great Britain quickly entered in support of Poland. And notwithstanding the non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany, there was some question as to what Stalin’s Russia would ultimately do. It was against this uncertainty that a few weeks later Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, gave a radio address in which he addressed this uncertainty with his now famous description of Russia as, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It was an apt description of a country and a leader that were notoriously difficult to figure out. Of course, Russia eventually joined with the allies when Hitler recklessly invaded it in 1941. Still, Stalin was a brutal dictator who, after the shooting war was over, helped set the stage for the cold war with the West.
Churchill’s characterization of Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” is in many ways an apt description of the book of Ecclesiastes. For it is a confusing and sometimes controversial book. It starts with uncertainty about whose words we are reading. We do know that there are two people heard in Ecclesiastes: 1) the Author, whose words appear at the beginning in verse 1:1, and the conclusion in verses 12:9-14; and 2) the Teacher, whose words appear in the intervening verses 1:2 to 12:8, which comprise the bulk of the Book. There is no indication as to the identity of the Author, but there is strong evidence that the Teacher is Solomon, although even this is far from certain.
Authorship aside, Ecclesiastes starts with the Teacher striking the strange and enigmatic theme: “In vain! In vain! It’s all in vain!” the Teacher’s words declare; “All things are futile and in vain, like vapor in the air.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) In the King James Version, the verse is translated, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Most translations follow the lead of the KJV and use the phrase “Vanity of vanities.” I don’t like this interpretation because the term vanity has two meanings, and the one that is most familiar to us, ‘excessive pride in oneself,’ is not what this verse is about. Rather, it is the other definition of vanity, namely ‘futility,’ which is closer to the actual meaning of the verse. But even this needs some explanation.
The Hebrew word that is translated as vanity is ‘hebel’, which literally means wind or vapor or breath. This term hebel appears roughly 40 times in Ecclesiastes – sometimes literally and other times figuratively. To add to the complexity, it has at least three different figurative/metaphorical meanings depending upon the context: 1) unsubstantial, pointless, in vain, or futile; 2) transitory or fleeting; and 3) hidden, difficult to understand, or a puzzle/enigmatic. The context for its use in Ecclesiastes 1:2 is the first – unsubstantial, pointless, in vain, or futile.
But the real rub comes with the first thing the Teacher names as futile, namely, work. “What does a person gain from working everyday?” the Teacher asks rhetorically. (Ecclesiastes 1:3) He answers this by pointing out that: Generations come and go and others take their place, and what is here today will soon be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:4,11); Things just keep repeating themselves over and over again, but we are never satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:5-9); there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:10); and everything we accomplish is futile, like “chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
But is work truly futile? Is it pointless and in vain? Is this what the Teacher has in mind? If so, then it is a very sobering thought indeed. Yet it seems to me there are at least two ways of understanding the import of the Teacher’s words: a) the inherent value of work; or b) our attitude towards work. Some commentators suggest that the Teacher is talking about the inherent value of work itself, and is simply taking an honest and unvarnished look at the reality of work, and that any intrinsic value it may have is fleeting at best. No wonder that Ecclesiastes can seem so depressing. But while this may be a very natural reading of Ecclesiastes 1, I don’t believe the Teacher’s words are primarily about the inherent value of work itself. Here are three reasons.
1) Our survival depends upon work. Unless we are rich or provided for by someone else, then we will perish if we don’t work. It is part of the divine order of things – God worked six days in creation, and he also assigned work to the Adam. Work is as much a part of life as is breathing, resting, and eating. The Teacher compares work to the repetitiveness of the sun rising and setting, the winds blowing, and rivers endlessly flowing. (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7) But these too are critical for life. God created us as a people who need food, clothing, and shelter. He could have created us differently, but he did not. Work is essential to life.
2) There is no alternative to work. If work is futile, what is the solution? Normally, when something is said to be futile it is for the purpose of ending it. Perhaps you are having a dispute with an unreasonable and hard-hearted individual and a friend advises you that your arguments are futile? If you listen to your friend, you stop. Is this what the Teacher is advising us to do – to stop working? If so, we might as well stop breathing, and sleeping, and eating.
3) Almost no work is truly futile. Truly futile work brings to mind the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, whom you may recall was sentenced by Zeus to the endless task of pushing a massive boulder up a hill, only to have it slip from his grasp when near the summit forcing him to go down the hill and try again. An endless cycle of effort and failure for all eternity. The perfect image of futility – never ending and never accomplishing anything. But in the real world, there is simply too much work that is meaningful and anything but futile. Consider just a few: a doctor caring for suffering patients; a lawyer fighting for basic human rights; an immigrant advocate assisting those fleeing persecution; a missionary sharing the good news with the lost; or a stay-at-home parent lovingly raising children. Futile work? I think not. And if this is the Teacher’s point then he and I are living in different realities.
So, if the Teacher is not speaking about the inherent value of work, then he must be speaking about our attitude towards our work. And here I believe we are on solid ground. For the bigger picture of Ecclesiastes is how to find meaning and purpose in life. When read in this light, Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, has wisdom for us – namely, that work is a good servant but a bad master.
1) Work is a Good Servant. The issue here is one of gratitude for the work we have. Work takes effort, but we get so much back. For rightly understood, work is a gift – not only that we have work, but that we have the requisite strength and ability, and that through our work are able to support our lives and the lives of others. Indeed, work is a primary way we live, love, and serve other people. If we really bought into the despair that some might read into the words of the Teacher, we could spend our working years angry and frustrated. But looking honestly at what we receive from our work can enable us to be grateful and enjoy the work that we have.
The Teacher validates this when he speaks to finding enjoyment in our work in Chapter 5. “I have seen personally what is the only beneficial and appropriate course of action for people: to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work on earth during the few days of their life that God has given them, for this is their reward. To every man whom God has given wealth and possessions, he has also given him the ability to eat from them, to receive his reward, and to find enjoyment in his toil; these things are the gift of God. For he does not think much about the fleeting days of his life because God keeps him preoccupied with the joy he derives from his activity.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
If we are not careful, we can miss the richness of what a life of work offers. Ronald Rolheiser put it this way, “Many … deeply regret that during the healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing. Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger. One of the demons we wrestle with during our adult years is … a joylessness bordering on anger for, ironically, being burdened with the privilege of health, work, and status.” (Sacred Fire).
Work can be monotonous at times, but yet it can be wonderfully rich. In the Teacher’s words,
“The sun arises every day and sets upon its wane; Then hurries back to where it starts to once more rise again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
“The wind blows strongly to the south, then turns round to the north; Around and round the wind goes out, before returning forth.” (Ecclesiastes 1:6)
“All rivers flow into the sea, and yet it never fills; Returning to the river’s source, the water once more spills.” (Ecclesiastes 1:7)
Ironically, the metaphors the Teacher uses for the monotony of work richly show its value. If the sun did not reliably rise every day, or if the winds did not distribute the equatorial heat, or if there was no rain to replenish the rivers, then there would be no life. The same is true of work.
2) Work is a Bad Master. The issue here is one of keeping a proper perspective on our work life. The danger being that work can become an idol. Tim Keller defines an idol as “anything that is more important to you than God. … anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” He names our work as one such idol, “the human heart [can] take good things like a successful career … and turn them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives because we think they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” Furthermore, “More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance.” (Counterfeit Gods)
The Teacher clearly puts a damper on those who would turn their work and career into an idol. For one thing, he tells us to keep in mind that in the long haul everything we do will be forgotten. “For generations pass away and others take their place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4); and “There’s no one who recalls to mind the things of long ago; nor will someone in future times recall what we now know.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Moreover, whatever we accomplish is really not that new at all. “The thing that once before has been is what again will be; Beneath the sun there’s nothing new, that anyone will see.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9); “Is there a thing that one can say, ‘Look! This is new, for sure?’ For long ago in ages past such thing was done before.” (Ecclesiastes 1:10). As John Mark Comer wrote, “No matter how smart or hard working or gifted or charismatic we are, there will always be somebody better than us.” (Garden City, 173) Futility does not come in our work per se, but in finding our self-worth in our work.
The End of the Matter
[Spoiler Alert] For those who haven’t read to the end of Ecclesiastes, you might want to stop here. Because in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, we hear the voice of the Author who summarizes all that the Teacher has said. “Having heard everything, I have reached this conclusion: Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man. For God will evaluate every deed, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
The end of the matter is that God is the only one and only thing that is permanent and never-changing. All else is impermanent and destined to pass away. It is only by trusting in him through faith, hope and love, mediated through our work, that we find purpose and meaning that is imperishable.
1 What follows are the Teacher’s words –
the sayings that he spun;
While king within Jerusalem,
and David’s heir and son.
2 “In vain! In vain! It’s all in vain!”
the Teacher’s words declare;
“All things are futile and in vain,
like vapor in the air.”
3 What can a person hope to gain,
from working every day;
Beneath a hot and blazing sun,
while toiling away?
4 For generations pass away,
and others take their place;
The earth however changes not –
forever fixed in space.
5 The sun arises every day,
and sets upon its wane;
Then hurries back to where it starts,
to once more rise again.
6 The wind blows strongly to the south,
then turns round to the north;
Around and round the wind goes out,
before returning forth.
7 All rivers flow into the sea,
and yet it never fills;
Returning to the river’s source,
the water once more spills.
8 Now everything is wearisome,
no matter what is tried;
No ear can ever hear enough,
no eye is satisfied.
9 The thing that once before has been,
is what again will be;
Beneath the sun there’s nothing new,
that anyone will see.
10 Is there a thing that one can say,
“Look! This is new, for sure?”
For long ago in ages past,
such thing was done before.
11 There’s no one who recalls to mind,
the things of long ago;
Nor will someone in future times,
recall what we now know.
12 O onetime I, the Teacher, ruled,
When king of those in Israel,
and sovereign over them.
13 I set my mind to study all,
and everything that’s done.
O what a burden man must bear,
which God has laid upon.
14 I’ve looked at all that has been done,
beneath the sun so fair;
And each of them is meaningless,
like chasing swirling air.
15 What’s crooked can’t be straightened out,
or undergo repair;
Nor can whatever’s disappeared,
be counted like it’s there.
16 I thought, “I’ve learned much more than kings,
Jerusalem has known;
I’ve gained much wisdom in my time,
and knowledge on my own.
17 And so I looked how wisdom’s path,
compares to foolish ways;
But this as well I found to be,
like chasing wind and haze.
18 For with great wisdom there comes much,
frustration, grief, and pain;
Whenever knowledge is increased,
then woes and sorrows rain.