What did Solomon mean by the word vanity?

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Vanity

Solomon the wise wrote, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The word “vanity” means “breath,” or “vapor.” This word reveals the theme of the whole book of Ecclesiastes. It occurs 37 times in Ecclesiastes and but 33 times elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Solomon stated his experience with the material things of life: “I said in my heart, “Come now…therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanityI made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards… I made myself water pools… I acquired male and female servants… Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces…”

“So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem… Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure…Then I looked on all the works that my hands had doneAnd indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).

Solomon tested each experience, each undertaking, and each pleasure. But he found all the joys of life to be mere “wind,” “breath,” or “a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). For this reason, he confirmed the uselessness and disappointing end of all human effort unless it was related to God.

By the word vanity, Solomon tried to show that external experiences cannot fulfill the inner hungers of the heart. Material blessings, do not grant true happiness. A sincere approach to God is not made through the external senses, but through an inner relationship with Him. For God is spirit (John 4:24), and must, therefore, be approached by man’s mind not senses. Only in such a relationship can man find fulfillment and joy.

The word vanity is used also of “idols” as things vain and without value, and of their worship (2 Kings 17:15; Jeremiah 2:5; 10:8). Some say that in Ecclesiastes there is not a word against idolatry, yet the word vanity in there is one commonly used of idols and their worship. Solomon stressed that anything man may strive for instead of his Creator and listening to Him is “vanity.”

The Whole Duty of Man

Therefore, Solomon concluded, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13,14). Thus, anything man may seek in place of God and obedience to Him is “vanity.”

It is man’s duty, his destiny, to obey God, and in so doing he will find supreme happiness. Whatever his portion may be, whether in failure or success, it remains his duty to offer a loving obedience to his Creator. God reads the hidden motives of people’s hearts; He knows how much of the light of truth has entered their hearts, and for every light He will hold them responsible (Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5).

God’s commandments can be shown in different ways—as loving God with all the heart and one’s neighbor as oneself (Luke 10:27), or believing on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and loving one’s brethren (1 John 3:23), or keeping the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17). After all, the Ten Commandments are merely the expansion of the two principles, love to God and love to man (Matthew 19:17–19; 22:36–40; Romans 13:8–10).

Love Leads to Obedience

In the New Testament, Paul stressed the need to obey God, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). Also, the apostle James (James 2:10–12) and the apostle John (1 John 5:3) affirmed the same truth. In the great day of the last judgement, it is those who have done the will of God who will enter His kingdom (Matthew 7:21–27).

To confess loyalty to God and at the same time disobey one commandment that His love may ask of humans is to reject the reality of that loyalty (John 15:10; 1 John 2:3–6). Thus, to disobey is to worship God in vain or in vanity (Mark 7:7–9). For in the day of judgement, every man will be rewarded “according to his works” (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12).

God Gives the Victory

Satan claims that the requirements of God are too hard to keep and that men cannot reach the ideal of Christian perfection. But the good news is that God gives man the ability to obey Him and to fulfill his destiny. Paul declares, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). When the divine commands are faithfully followed, God makes Himself responsible for the triumph of the work that is carried out by the believer. Thus, in Christ, there is power to perform every duty.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). As man abides in Christ daily through the study of His Word and prayer, the Lord dwells in him and gives him the power and strength to obey. In this way, man becomes a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The reflection of the Christian graces is the ultimate proof of discipleship. As the believer yields to God, the Holy Spirit will produce the works of righteousness in his life and he will obey God’s commandments (John 13:35; 1 John 5:3).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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