What is All Vanity?

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. – Eccl 1:1

I’ve started on Ecclesiastes today and it once again brought up old questions about the nature of the book. The typical approach is to say that Solomon wrote the book at the end of his life, looking back at how much he’d wasted and missed by living what is essentially a hedonistic life. There is merit to this approach but there are problems too. One of the big problems is that there is Aramaic in the book. Solomon wouldn’t have written in Aramaic, it points to a post-exilic (at least) editing.  Also, the author identifies himself only as “Qoheleth” which can be “Teacher” or “Collector” but he never specifically identifies himself as Solomon. He does say that he “have been king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Eccl 1:12) and that he had “acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before” him (Eccl 1:16) which rather sounds like Solomon. However, who ruled in Jerusalem before Solomon? Only David and is that really something to brag about? Being wiser than one other king?

So if Qoheleth isn’t Solomon, then what is all this “vanity of vanities” stuff about? It could be some other hedonist who figured it out late. I don’t think it is important to nail down which king in Israel it was. And as far as the post-exilic part, it could be that it was a work that was edited after the exile.

What still isn’t setting quite right with me is what this “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” stuff is about. Is Qoheleth saying all of life is vanity? I have this theory that I’m going to test as I read more of the book. I think the author is talking about a life of riches and affluence, lived apart from God specifically. True, any life lived without God is vanity and chasing after the wind, but I think Qoheleth is pointing out specifically that a life of luxury doesn’t make it any better.

This is not terribly different from the way I’ve understood the point of the book previously, it is just a slight change of emphasis. If the book is about the futility of a life of power and wealth without God, I don’t think it implies that the converse is true. A life of poverty without God isn’t great either. However, people often think that if they just had what “those people” had they’d be happy. So Qoheleth is saying that he’s had it all and it is just as pointless as any other way of living if you don’t have God.

Well, we’ll test my theory as I read through the book.

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  • […] didn’t take much reading for my theory on Ecclesiastes to be tested. In chapter 6 Qoheleth talks about toil, the working man’s […]

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