In the book of Ecclesiastes, the concept of “vanity” is central. The word translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word, “hevel.” Hevel is most directly translated as “absurd.” The connotation is not meaningless or ludicrous, but absurd in the sense of extremely perplexing.
In Romans 8:18-22, Paul speaks of the creation as being subject to “futility.” The Greek word used here is the same word the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, uses for “hevel.” While Ecclesiastes does not deny the validity of the truth found in the other Wisdom Books, Qohelet is very aware that the world in which we live is extremely complex and sometimes confusing.
To know wisdom is striving after the wind (1:17), pleasure is vanity (2:1), making great works is vanity (2:4), and having great possessions is vanity (2:7). Pursuing a legacy is vanity as a fool can squander what you build (2:20). Toiling for oneself is vanity (4:7). The increase of dreams and words is vanity (5:7). The accumulation of wealth is vanity (5:10).
Why are all these things vanity? Because death comes to all and renders the greatest achievements in this life vanity (9:2).
The contradictions of life are also vanity. That the appetite is never satisfied is vanity (6:7-9). Committing evil since there is no immediate consequence is vanity (8:11). That the punishment of the wicked falls on the righteous and the reward of the righteous comes to the wicked is vanity (8:14). Much wisdom and study is weariness as well (12:12).
Qohelet is weight down by the apparent lack of meaning in what can be attained in a life with so many contradictions. Vanity is the fact that things are not the way they are meant to be. Time and death render most everything done in this life as vanity.
So how does Qohelet invite us to respond?
First, we must acknowledge that we are not God. Man “does not know what is to be” (8:7). “However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (8:17). “Man does not know his time” (9:12).
5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
Since we are not God, we ought to fear Him.
God is the one you must fear.
Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Finally, because God is good, we are not only to fear Him but to trust Him in the midst of the seeming vanity of all things.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
The righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God.