“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.” Ecclesiastes 1:2–4

Devotions for my family, circa 1970, once trekked verse by verse through the book of Ecclesiastes. I still remember how my father illustrated the word vanity. He said the word meant something like soap bubbles. Soap bubbles float on the airy breeze, light as a feather, and shimmer in the sunlight with luminous, multi-colored beauty. A child’s favorite game is chasing after bubbles. But when the bubble is in hand, the child finds he has caught nothing. The faintest touch and the shiny orb explodes into nothingness.

After that Bible study, my father often used the phrase, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” when it fittingly described a celebrity misstep or when a person paid the price of fame. So much of a worldly man’s life could easily be described as “vanity of vanities.”

Webster’s defines vanity with a wide array of nuances. It is “emptiness; want of substance to satisfy desire; uncertainty; inanity. Fruitless desire or endeavor. Trifling labor that produces no good. Emptiness; untruth. Empty pleasure; vain pursuit; idle show; unsubstantial enjoyment. Ostentation; arrogance. Inflation of mind upon slight grounds; empty pride, inspired by an overweening conceit of one’s personal attainments or decorations.” Whew! It is interesting to me that a piece of furniture is called a “Vanity.” Theoretically, any piece of ostentatious furniture can be called a “vanity!”

Corollary words also are worth a peek. Webster’s defines vain as “Empty; worthless; having no substance, value or importance, ineffectual. Proud of petty things, or of trifling attainments; elated with a high opinion of one’s own accomplishments, or with things more showy than valuable; conceited. Showy. Inconstant, unsatisfying. False; deceitful; not genuine; spurious.” Vainglory he defines as “Exclusive vanity excited by one’s own performances; empty pride; undue elation of mind.” Moral of the story: stay away from anything vain!

To sum it up in simple terms, vanity is an appearance that distorts reality, vain is failing to achieve a purpose, and vainglory is arrogant pride. Solomon chooses vanity to describe the common and realistic view of life on earth when life loses its spice. Most of what mankind must do to live can feel pretty futile, and the struggle to merely survive can feel rather unrewarding. If believers are not careful, we can easily fall into the same rut of “stinkin’ thinkin’.”

King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes and the recipient of special wisdom from God, explains what he means as he expounds on the natural man’s life work. Depending on the context, vanity may refer to our brief time on earth—life is fleeting. Vanity may refer to the short-sighted nature of man—life is futile. And vanity may also refer to mankind’s limited knowledge—life is dimly lit. Vanity describes every natural man’s short-lived, short-sighted, and short-witted circumstance. Feelings are the only tool he has to make sense of his world—without God’s provision of insight through His Word. Vanity of vanities surely is true when God is not center focus.

Our sovereign God did not create anything in vain. 1 Timothy 4:4f reads, “For every creature [created thing] of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified [set apart, dedicated to God] by the Word of God and prayer.” Our passage in Ecclesiastes tells us that man “toils under the sun.” We must remember that God is not limited as we are, He is not “under the sun,” rather, He is over the sun! He alone can make sense of the vain circumstances in which we find ourselves.

If God makes nothing vain, then why does so much in your live feel in vain? The answer that accounts for all of the evil of this world is found in the book of Genesis. Because Adam and Eve sinned, all of his descendants are under the curse of sin (Romans 8:20). Adam’s sin is the source of our sin nature, the nature of the natural man. The ground, from which we make a living, and nature itself has been cursed along with our relationships. What more is there to life than ourselves, our work, our property, and our relationships? Is it any wonder that Solomon, the Preacher, starts his book off with the cry, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”?

When we leave God out of our thinking we are easily lost in the gloaming of lengthening shadows. A sense of emptiness and worthlessness to our efforts shoulders its way into our thoughts. Psalm 39:6 reads, “Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them.” No man can reach beyond his limitations (Ecclesiastes3:22, 6:12, 8:7).

Even worship can be vain. In Matthew 15:8f, our Lord quotes Isaiah: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 25:41ff).

When God is in His rightful place in your life, when He is both the means and the end of your life, then the “vanities”—the drudgeries, repetitions, defeats, and exhaustion of your life—will find their redeeming value. Your short-lived, short-sighted, and short-witted fears will be lightened (Matthew 11:28ff). When you find yourself asking “For who knows what is good for man in life…?,” read Ecclesiastes 7:1–14, where Solomon answers his question. Then read Ecclesiastes 12:13–14. Keep God your center focus! Trust and obey.