The Book of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

The book of Ecclesiastes is the work of an individual known as Qoheleth who was searching for meaning in life. Confronted with inconsistencies, inequalities, and other things that to him were absurd, Qoheleth tried to make sense of life and its mysteries.

The main theme of the book is expressed by the word “vanity”: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This cry, found throughout the book, reflects the futile effort at understanding the things of God through human wisdom. Qoheleth said: “I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done in the world” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). What he discovered was that it is futile to try to understand the mysteries of life apart from God.

In his search for meaning and in his attempt at trying to make sense of life, he discovered that without God all endeavors are futile, that life is empty and meaningless, and that human wisdom leads to skepticism.

The author of Ecclesiastes used his own personal experience to show that all human efforts and earthly goals, when pursued for selfish desires and unbridled ambition, only lead to dissatisfaction and emptiness. This is the premise he introduced to the reader in the first chapter of the book. Qoheleth speaks of the futility and meaninglessness of all human endeavors and occupations. In his quest for answers, Qoheleth discovered that any attempt at finding an answer to the ultimate meaning of life through the acquisition of wisdom or knowledge provides no answer, and, in fact, it only increases the sense of futility and inadequacy.

To better understand the message of Ecclesiastes, it is important to acquire a background about the book and its author.

The book receives its name from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint the book is called ekklesiastes, a word that means “assembly, congregation.” The name of the book in Hebrew is “Qoheleth.” The name comes from the word “qahal,” and it means “one who assembles.”

The title of the book has been taken to mean either, “one who collects wise sayings” or “one who addresses an assembly.” The author has been called “a preacher” or “a speaker.” Thus, the title implies that Qoheleth was the leader of an assembly, one who assembled a group for the purpose of addressing it.

In his book, Qoheleth describes himself as “the son of David and king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). This veiled reference to Solomon (Solomon’s name does not appear in the book) serves to emphasize that the one who is speaking was one who possessed wisdom and enjoyed the pleasures of life.

Most scholars agree that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes, but he is the central figure of the book because the unknown author, Qoheleth, used him as a literary device to present his message to the reader.

The book of Ecclesiastes has a message for today’s society. Every day and everywhere we see many examples of what this book is conveying to his audience. People today seem to be reliving the life lived by Qoheleth. People work hard at trying to be happy in life. They buy things, change lifestyles, and seek after unending sources of pleasure in order to find happiness. However, in the end, many of these people do not find the happiness they seek, rather, it eludes them in spite of their efforts and hard work.

In western societies many people believe that career, success, and personal achievements are the most important goals in life and that achieving these goals is crucial for attaining a happy life. It is in light of these achievements that people are judged to be successful.

People today search for happiness and the true meaning of life in different ways: in satisfying physical desires, in material possessions, in wisdom and even in religious experiences. This is what Qoheleth did: “I determined that I would examine and study all things that are done in this world. I have seen everything done in this world, and I tell you, it is all useless” (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).

In his search for life’s supreme good, Qoheleth, examined and studied every thing and experienced everything: drinking, possessions, wealth, power, pleasure and he concluded that, no matter what he did, the end of life was the same for everyone. He also discovered that no matter what he did or who he was, no matter how good or how badly he behaved, or how wise or how foolish he was, there was no ultimate good in life.

What people must learn today, as Qoheleth learned many years ago, is that life without God is empty and meaningless, that wealth and power, pleasure and possessions, position and prestige cannot make anyone happy.

Qoheleth has a very important lesson to teach people today. We must learn from him.

Posts on Ecclesiastes:

1. The Book of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities

2. The Book of Ecclesiastes: In Search of a Better Life

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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5 Responses to The Book of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities

  1. >Dr. M:In his search for meaning and in his attempt at trying to make sense of life, he discovered that without God all endeavors are futile, that life is empty and meaningless, and that human wisdom leads to skepticism.Dr. M,I take issue with this approach. I’ve done a bit of research on Qohelet and also on his key word, hebel variously translated as “meaningless”, “vanity”, etc. I suggest that hebel is something of a descriptive term used to help understand the instability of the world. For Qohelet hebel is inherent in the world – it is built into it such that one can never find the “sure thing”. I find no indication from Qohelet that having God as a part of one’s life is a magic door that helps us escape the hebel that is a part of our world and that continually frustrates meaning. Hence, even one who has God may still experience the same frustrations that Qohelet experienced. Having God is not a formula or an escape clause.Furthermore, not only is God not an escape from hebel but is, himself, one of the chief proponents and causes of it. God is the Creator and essentially the one responsible for this mess. Consider:What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 1:13I have seen the burden God has laid on men 3:10I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him 3:14God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless (hebel), a grievous evil. 6:2Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. 7:13-14The above passage from chapter 7 goes to my point about God does not help us escape hebel, but is himself sovereign over the hebel that frustrates our happiness and pursuit of meaning. 8:17 also goes to this point:Then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.Despite this passage Evangelicals and Conservatives in the 20th century continually insist that Qohelet is telling us that having God in one’s life makes life more meaningful. There is something at work here that goes beyond the text. I think it goes back to Nietzsche and then works its way through the various strands of Existentialism. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre and others explored the nature of meaning and human purpose. For many they found what I think Qohelet finds: No inherent stability and frustration. Then we have the rise of Atheism. All things considered I think Christians seized on a great marketing opportunity. If all these thinkers and movements deny a meaningful life Christianity (particularly Evangelicalism) will develop the ultimate apologetic: God can provide your life with meaning. This became the ultimate god-of-the-gaps philosophy.I’m a bit offtrack now. I’m not suggesting that your approach is rooted in a desire to plug God into the void. But I do take issue with the suggestion that having God in your life ipso-facto results in a more meaningful life, and I particularly take issue with the suggestion that we can find this in the text of Qohelet.


  2. >Dear Jonathan,Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I appreciate the manner in which you contrast my post with texts from the book.There is no doubt that the book of Ecclesiastes reflects a pessimistic view of life, that the author has seen injustices and inequalities in his society. But his negative conclusions came about because of his effort to understand the mysteries of life by human wisdom alone: “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). And this is precisely the problem of theodicy.When humans seek to understand everything in the world, the good and the bad, they come to the conclusion that things are habel. And as Qoheleth said: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).There are many verses that say that some of the answers Qoheleth was looking for were to be found in God:For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God, 2:26 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil– this is the gift of God, 3:13 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work– this is a gift of God, 5:19Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do, 9:7So, even Qoheleth sees that God gives good gifts to people. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens only see evil in the world, they see inequities and enigmas everywhere and they end up with the pessimism of Qoheleth and they become skeptics like he was. If God is the cause of habel and “responsible for this mess,” as you wrote, then Dawkins and Hitches are right.But I refuse to believe they are right. If evangelicals continue to insist that “having God in one’s life makes life more meaningful” is because they have a good reason to proclaim this great truth. Jesus said: “I have come in order that you might have life–life in all its fulness” (John 10:10).Claude Mariottini


  3. >Dr. M,Thanks for the reply. It’s always a pleasure!I want to clarify that my argument is purely based on the Qohelet text. I’m suggesting that we cannot establish from the Qohelet text that having God in one’s life will in any way excuse one from the effects of hebel. A theodicy that suggests that life is more meaningful with God in one’s life may be true, but it cannot be taken from the text of Qohelet.First of all, the three passages you noted above (2:26, 3:13, 5:19, 9:7) are reflections of God’s sovereign control. They do not imply that a person has escaped hebel. On the contrary, it simply means that God has given them some goodness to enjoy and they should seize the opportunity. In these four verses God is “gifting” these things (3:13, 5:19), the person is under God’s “favor” (9:7) and these good things of life (and most specifically the enjoyment of them) are only available to “the one who pleases God” (2:26). There is no sense in these verses that “having God in your life” (as we Evangelicals think of it) will result in these gifts/favors/pleasure from God. It is still up to God’s sovereignty.In my first comment I suggested that God was at the center of hebel and was the one responsible for the instability of the world. This is a subtle but profound theme in Qohelet, and I think that the verses you cite fit well with this interpretation. A person simply does not know whether they will have good things or bad things and whether or not they will be able to enjoy them. The best thing to do is enjoy them. (“So I commend the enjoyment of life” 8:15, crf. 2:24, 3:12, 3:22)At bottom, I am revolting against the notion that the Qohelet text suggests that God is the missing variable in the formula that results in a meaningful life. I suggest that this is our 20th century, Evangelical reading-back-into the text. Again, it may be true that those with God in their lives live a more meaningful life, but I don’t know that this is a teaching of Qohelet.”All is hebel” (1:2, 12:8) No one escapes!


  4. >Jonathan,Thank you again for your comment. You wrote: In these four verses God is “gifting” these things (3:13, 5:19), the person is under God’s “favor” (9:7) and these good things of life (and most specifically the enjoyment of them) are only available to “the one who pleases God” (2:26). That is precisely what I am trying to communicate. Life is habel for those who do not please God. If people do not please God, they will never enjoy life as God meant for them to enjoy it.Even Christians experience habel in their lives but “All is habel” is only for those who are in search of God. The words of Qoheleth reminds me of what I wrote about Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Atheist.” In times of need, even an atheist wishes there was a God somewhere. Qoheleth was a man in search of a better life. The answer to Qoheleth’s problem can be found; too bad that he lived a few centuries before the answer to his question was revealed.Claude Mariottini


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