2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
‘Vanity of vanities’—or, more literally translated, ‘vapor of vapors.’
There are few more potent and fecund metaphors for human life, activity, and thought than that of vapor, breath, or mist.
Life is like groping through a dense fog, which shrouds and veils reality, preventing us from seeing through to the heart of things. It is an experience of inscrutability: we can read neither the comings nor goings of being.
We can neither grasp nor control it. It slips through our fingers, eluding all of our attempts at mastery. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It leaves no trace or mark of its passing, but passes into nothing. It produces no lasting fruit nor gain, and has no permanent effects.
It is insubstantial, formed of nothing, and providing no bedrock for security against decay or change. Humanity’s attempts to fashion and understand the world for itself will all ultimately founder, as the unforgiving wind of time whisks away our kingdoms of dust.
It is this metaphor that lies at the heart of the book of Ecclesiastes: Ecclesiastes declares the ultimate futility of all of our attempts at building and figuring out the world for ourselves, comparing these to attempts at ‘shepherding the wind’. This is the character of life ‘under the sun’. Life lived beneath the veil of heaven is inescapably vaporous.
Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher is searching for some sort of ‘profit’—some sort of lasting fruit or mark for his labors under the sun—but finds none. His attempts to find ‘profit’ through pleasure (2:1-11), wisdom (2:12-16) and work (2:17-23) all prove futile. Whatever he does will ultimately fall apart: no labors seem to have a lasting effect on the earth.
The vaporous character of the worlds that man seeks to create for himself stand in marked contrast to the fixity and permanence of the world in which he finds himself (1:3-11). It is this contrast between permanence and ephemerality that manifests his activities as vapor. We might try to form and fill our own world, much as God formed and filled his world, but his will last, while ours will soon perish.
In this week’s lectionary reading, the political dimension of the vaporous character of human existence comes to the fore as the Teacher, traditionally identified with King Solomon, reflects upon the vaporous nature of his sovereignty and kingdom-building.
The Teacher sees his toil as king as chasing after wind and his kingdom as a vapor. Whatever rule he establishes must finally be entrusted to the hands of another, whose wisdom is far from guaranteed. Whatever control we establish and enjoy is temporary and will one day be forfeited, our labor and all of its fruits being caught up upon the winds of time and scattered abroad.
This crisis of wisdom was exemplified in the history of Israel itself. The kingdom that achieved the zenith of its glory through the reign of the wise King Solomon was riven in twain through the proud foolishness of his son Rehoboam.
In times of apparent stability, when we are tempted to enumerate and rest assured in our political and social gains, it is easy to forget that all of this is vapor, which could vanish like a morning’s mist. Our political labor must also be entrusted to uncertain hands, to persons who may abandon or destroy that to which we devoted our life’s efforts.
The Teacher’s message in these verses may strike a grim resonance in the hearts of many in contemporary Western politics. Whether it is American conservatives mourning the degradation of the Republican Party under the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump or European leaders scrambling to right the damaged and listing vessel of the EU following the broadside of the Brexit vote, many are currently experiencing the disorienting and tragic vaporousness of political realities and projects they have invested their lives in.
At such times we may be drawn to despair and a sense of the futility of our work, as the toil of generations evaporates before our eyes and we find ourselves powerless to arrest its disappearance. So often our lives are characterized by the frustration of trying to master or firmly lay hold of the vapor of our existence. Life becomes fraught with the failure of our attempts to shepherd the wind and gain leverage over our world and existence within it. Setting a Sisyphean task for ourselves, we condemn ourselves to constant defeat.
So what is the solution? When we take the true measure and account of our existence, and recognize ourselves as vapor—indeed, as vapor of vapors—we are no longer so tempted to live by sight. As we abandon our attempts at mastery and absolute human providence, we can begin to learn to live in reliance upon and thankfulness for divine providence.
No longer seeking for fixity and security in the creation itself, we are enabled to recognize our radical dependency, to gratefully appreciate the creation and our temporal blessings within it as gifts that can no more be grasped and secured than our breath, but which constantly arrive as a gracious divine bestowal.
Rather than investing all of our hope in doomed quests for human mastery, we entrust ourselves and our frail works to the One who exists beyond the vapor. We can store up treasures with God in heaven, above the insubstantial and ephemeral realm we inhabit.
Even when our human plans, knowledge, and actions vanish into nothing, God will always remain secure. The vapor of our labors will shift and disperse, leaving no trace of its departed presence, yet God never changes. We can never succeed in shepherding the winds, yet God is the rushing Spirit who makes the clouds his chariot.
As we seek security in God by faith and in prayer, rather than living by human sight and placing our ultimate hope in our works, world, and wisdom, we are freed to adopt a different posture towards our lives. While we continue to labor, we do so with a new sense of dependency and gratitude. The knowledge of God’s good providence in the vapor can rescue us from the despair that can dog us and rekindle a flame of hope in those trapped in the sterility of a nostalgic regret.
The message of Ecclesiastes is surprisingly life-affirming. Since we cannot control or master life, we should learn to live joyfully, thankfully, and dependently, receiving it as a gift from God’s hand, trusting him for eternal gain, and thanking him for the degree to which he establishes our works in time. We should allow ourselves to be dispossessed of our world, to receive the vapor anew with open and non-grasping hands. This is the way of true political wisdom and the surest way to restore hope in times of despair.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.