‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’ These words, along with ‘to everything there is a season’, are among the most famous in the Book of Ecclesiastes, part of the Old Testament. The Bible is full of well-known quotations which are often cited in a way that floats quite free of their original context; so what does ‘Vanity of vanities’ and ‘all is vanity’ actually mean?
There’s a simple answer to this, but it’s also – like many simple answers – imperfect. But let’s begin with this answer, in any case:
1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
In summary, the Preacher who is the author of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything we do is ‘vanity’: empty, futile, and short-lived. It doesn’t matter if you’re wise or a fool, ultimately, because everyone ends up dying. The author goes on to encourage wisdom as something to strive for in order to ensure a well-lived earthly life, but he is sceptical of whether it carries any long-term benefits beyond this life.
‘Vanity’ here, then, is not quite the same thing as ‘conceitedness’: we’re not talking about the kind of vanity where people are obsessed with their appearance and keep checking themselves in the mirror, although there’s a faint sense of that meaning of ‘vain’ here. But ‘vain’ also means ‘futile’ or ‘pointless’, as the English phrase ‘in vain’ denotes. And we all know what it means if we do something in vain.
Curiously, the word ‘vanity’ in ‘Vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ is an imperfect English rendering of the original Hebrew. The Anchor Bible produced in the mid-twentieth century, for instance, translated the original word as ‘vapor’, giving us ‘A vapor of vapors! … All is vapor.’ Which is still poetic, but unlikely to catch on in such a way as to rival the majesty of the King James translation of 1611.
Smoke, vapour, vanity … they are all an attempt to grasp the (suitably elusive) meaning of the original Hebrew, but they all capture something of the original’s emphasis on emptiness. ‘Vanity’, indeed, means ‘emptiness’: it’s from the Latin word vanus denoting a state of emptiness. And the formation ‘X of Xs’ is a peculiarly Hebrew idiom denoting a maximum: compare, in this connection, ‘King of Kings’ or, indeed, ‘Song of Songs’, another name for the Song of Solomon (Ecclesiastes, like the Song of Songs, is attributed to Solomon, the ‘son of David’, even though both were written some time after the time of Solomon).
The key point, then, is that although it sounds like ‘Vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ is calling out the conceited self-indulgence of humankind, this is only because of the baggage that our English word vanity brings with it. As Isaac Asimov points out in his brilliant Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov (September 19,1973), it might be more accurate to paraphrase the meaning of ‘Vanity of vanities’ as ‘All is nothing … nothing means anything.’
And Ecclesiastes is a book preoccupied not with God and the heavenly, but with earthly or temporal things in this life. But the author is interested in them only because he wishes to highlight the emptiness of them, the ‘vanity’ at the heart of them.
The significance of this message – which has struck a chord with readers and listeners down the ages – is that, even though the ‘Preacher’ who wrote Ecclesiastes was not King Solomon, he is attributing this sentiment to him. Even a mighty king with as many wives and concubines as he could wish for, with as much wine as he can drink and as much food as he can eat, is ultimately discontented because he sees through everything. All of it is, fundamentally, for nothing. It’s all empty, meaningless. ‘Vanity of vanities.’
This is one of the many reasons, along with its peerless poetry, why Ecclesiastes is one of the more accessible books of the Bible: its message has remained the same as when it was written more than two millennia ago. The Existentialists of the twentieth century were merely rediscovering what those who’d gone before had already realised: that life doesn’t appear to come with any in-built meaning. We have to create some kind of meaning and purpose for ourselves. After all, the earth has been here long before us, and will endure long after we have gone:
1:3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 1:4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
And, as the Preacher continues, he expresses another sentiment which has been often quoted:
1:9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
‘There is no new thing under the sun’ or ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (as it’s often repurposed): what is the point of striving to do anything, then? All is vanity.
Everything man does is ultimately futile, for the world continues to turn and the sun rises and sets as before, and man cannot alter things in any meaningful way. The preacher tells us that he set out to learn great wisdom and knowledge, but this has come at a great cost: the more you know, the sadder you become.
In light of the meaninglessness and futility of all human endeavour, he tells us that we should strive to enjoy the simple pleasures found in life: eating and drinking, and taking enjoyment in our work.
Thought to have been written between 300 and 200 BC, the Book of Ecclesiastes is an example of biblical ‘wisdom literature’, which is usually attributed to Solomon. One of the most valuable qualities of Ecclesiastes, along with its remarkable poetry, is its honesty about the way the world works: its author urges us to accept what we cannot alter, even though this often means having to swallow some rather unpalatable truths about the way the world works. Time is against us, the powerful want to keep the poor and downtrodden in their place, and whatever we do, the sun will continue to rise and set, and everything will go on without us. Or, as Tennyson would put it much later, in his In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850),
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Man weaves his petty cells, spawning the generation that will succeed him, and that is all that will last of him. All is vanity, then?
Indeed, throughout Ecclesiastes the Preacher’s advice might be aligned (tentatively) with Stoicism and Epicureanism: try to accept what you cannot change and control your response to things which should make you angry or unhappy, and strive to attain a moderate amount of pleasure from the simple things life affords you in the present moment.
Although the author of Ecclesiastes makes reference to God and the importance of belief, it’s unusual for the tone of scepticism which pervades it: ‘vanity of vanities’, everything is ‘vanity’, pointless and ultimately meaningless, and happiness, whilst worth striving for, is evanescent and difficult to attain.