Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 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. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
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 —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. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 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. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 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. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
The Hebrew word from which we get "vanity" in the NRSV here, or in other places, "meaningless," is hevel. And the literal meaning of that word is "vapor" or "smoke."
How does that change the beginning of Ecclesiastes for you?
Vapor, nothing but vapor, says the Teacher,
Vapor... All is vapor.
Or as the Message bible puts it: Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
Vanity or meaninglessness makes it sound as if everything is silly or pointless.
But instead the Teacher here in Ecclesiastes is telling us something we already know. Everything is fleeting. Ephemeral. Transient. Temporary.
Reading this opening of Ecclesiastes might sound rather hopeless. The entire book is strange and sometimes cynical.
But it is also wise and full of depth and the reality of life.
It tells us that whatever we are holding onto too lightly is only going to last for its time. (as another famous part of this book tells us).
But we know something - someone else - that is permanent. For all time. Not fleeting. Not temporary. Not ephemeral.
Not vapor or up in smoke.
You are the one I can count on, O Timeless One. Help me not to attach myself to things that cannot last. Amen