Ecclesiastes 1:2
Vanity of vanities, said the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
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(2) Vanity of vanities.—This verse strikes the key-note of the whole work. In using this expression we mean to indicate the opinion that the unity of the book is rather that of a musical composition than of a philosophical treatise. A leading theme is given out and followed for a time. Episodes are introduced, not perhaps logically connected with the original subject, but treated in harmony with it, and leading back to the original theme which is never lost sight of, and with which the composition comes to a close (Ecclesiastes 12:8).

The word translated “vanity” (which occurs thirty-seven times in this book, and only thirty-three times in all the rest of the Old Testament) in its primary meaning denotes breath or vapour, and is so translated here in some of the Greek versions (comp. James 4:4); so in Isaiah 57:13. It is the same word as the proper name Abel, on which see Note on Genesis 4:2. It is frequently applied in Scripture to the follies of heathenism (Jeremiah 14:22, &c), and also to the whole estate of men (Psalm 39:5-6; Psalm 62:9; Psalm 144:4). The translation “vanityis that of the LXX. We may reasonably believe that St. Paul (Romans 8:20) had this key-note of Ecclesiastes in his mind.

“Vanity of vanities” is a common Hebrew superlative, as in the phrases “Heaven of heavens,” “Song of songs,” “Holy of holies,” “Lamentation of lamentations” (Micah 2:4, margin).

Saith the Preacher.—Heb., said. The Hebrew constantly employs the preterite when English usage requires the present or perfect. In the case of a message the point of time contemplated in Hebrew is that of the giving, not the delivery, of the message. So “Thus said Benhadad,” “Thus said the Lord” (1Kings 20:2; 1Kings 20:5; 1Kings 20:13 and passim) are rightly translated by the present in our version. In the present case this formula is one which might conceivably be employed if the words of Kohéleth were written down by himself; yet it certainly rather suggests that we have here these words as written down by another.

Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanity, &c. — Not only vain, but vanity in the abstract, which denotes extreme vanity. Saith the Preacher — Upon deep consideration and long experience, and by divine inspiration. This verse contains the general proposition, which he intends particularly to demonstrate in the following book. All — All worldly things; is vanity — Not in themselves, for they are God’s creatures, and therefore good in their kinds, but in reference to that happiness which men seek and expect to find in them. So they are unquestionably vain, because they are not what they seem to be, and perform not what they promise, but, instead of that, are the occasions of innumerable cares, and fears, and sorrows, and mischiefs. Nay, they are not only vanity, but vanity of vanities, the vainest vanity, vanity in the highest degree. And this is redoubled, because the thing is certain, beyond all possibility of dispute. 1:1-3 Much is to be learned by comparing one part of Scripture with another. We here behold Solomon returning from the broken and empty cisterns of the world, to the Fountain of living water; recording his own folly and shame, the bitterness of his disappointment, and the lessons he had learned. Those that have taken warning to turn and live, should warn others not to go on and die. He does not merely say all things are vain, but that they are vanity. VANITY OF VANITIES, ALL IS VANITY. This is the text of the preacher's sermon, of which in this book he never loses sight. If this world, in its present state, were all, it would not be worth living for; and the wealth and pleasure of this world, if we had ever so much, are not enough to make us happy. What profit has a man of all his labour? All he gets by it will not supply the wants of the soul, nor satisfy its desires; will not atone for the sins of the soul, nor hinder the loss of it: what profit will the wealth of the world be to the soul in death, in judgment, or in the everlasting state?Vanity - This word הבל hebel, or, when used as a proper name, in Genesis 4:2, "Abel", occurs no less than 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and has been called the key of the book. Primarily it means "breath," "light wind;" and denotes what:

(1) passes away more or less quickly and completely;

(2) leaves either no result or no adequate result behind, and therefore

(3) fails to satisfy the mind of man, which naturally craves for something permanent and progressive: it is also applied to:

(4) idols, as contrasted with the Living, Eternal, and Almighty God, and, thus, in the Hebrew mind, it is connected with sin.

In this book it is applied to all works on earth, to pleasure, grandeur, wisdom, the life of man, childhood, youth, and length of days, the oblivion of the grave, wandering and unsatisfied desires, unenjoyed possessions, and anomalies in the moral government of the world.

Solomon speaks of the world-wide existence of "vanity," not with bitterness or scorn, but as a fact, which forced itself on him as he advanced in knowledge of men and things, and which he regards with sorrow and perplexity. From such feelings he finds refuge by contrasting this with another fact, which he holds with equal firmness, namely, that the whole universe is made and is governed by a God of justice, goodness, and power. The place of vanity in the order of Divine Providence - unknown to Solomon, unless the answer be indicated in Ecclesiastes 7:29 - is explained to us by Paul, Romans 8, where its origin is traced to the subjugation and corruption of creation by sin as a consequence of the fall of man; and its extinction is declared to be reserved until after the Resurrection in the glory and liberty of the children of God.

Vanity of vanities - A well-known Hebrew idiom signifying vanity in the highest degree. Compare the phrase, "holy of holies."

All - Solomon includes both the courses of nature and the works of man Ecclesiastes 1:4-11. Compare Romans 8:22.

2. The theme proposed of the first part of his discourse.

Vanity of vanities—Hebraism for the most utter vanity. So "holy of holies" (Ex 26:33); "servant of servants" (Ge 9:25). The repetition increases the force.

all—Hebrew, "the all"; all without exception, namely, earthly things.

vanity—not in themselves, for God maketh nothing in vain (1Ti 4:4, 5), but vain when put in the place of God and made the end, instead of the means (Ps 39:5, 6; 62:9; Mt 6:33); vain, also, because of the "vanity" to which they are "subjected" by the fall (Ro 8:20).

Vanity of vanities; not only vain, but vanity in the abstract, which notes extreme vanity, especially where the word is thus doubled; as a king of kings is the chief of kings, and a servant of servants is the vilest of servants, and a song of songs is a most excellent song.

Saith the Preacher, upon deep consideration and long experience, and by Divine inspiration. This verse contains the general proposition, which he intends particularly to demonstrate in the whole following book.

All, all worldly things, and all men’s designs, and studies, and works about them, is vanity; not in themselves, for so they are God’s creatures, and therefore good and really useful in their kinds; but in reference to men, and to that happiness which men seek and confidently expect to find in them. So they are unquestionably vain, because they are not what they seem to be, and perform not what they promise, content and satisfaction, but instead of that are commonly the causes or occasions of innumerable cares, and fears, and sorrows, and mischiefs; and because they are altogether unsuitable to the noble mind or soul of man, both in nature or quality, and in duration, as being unstable and perishing things. And this vanity of them is here repeated again and again; partly, because it was most deeply fixed and perpetually present in Solomon’s thoughts; partly, to show the unquestionable certainty and vast importance of this truth; and partly, that he might more thoroughly awaken the dull and stupid minds of men to the consideration of it, and might wean men’s hearts from those things upon which he knew they excessively doted. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher,.... This is the preacher's text; the theme and subject he after enlarges upon, and proves by an induction of particulars; it is the sum of the whole book;

vanity of vanities, all is vanity; most extremely vain, exceedingly so, the height of vanity: this is repeated, both for the confirmation of it, men being hard of belief of it; and to show how much the preacher was affected with it himself, and to affect others with the same. The Targum reads, "vanity of vanities in this world"; which is right as to the sense of the passage; for though the world, and all things in it, were made by God, and are very good; yet, in comparison of him, are less than nothing, and vanity; and especially as become subject to it through sin, a curse being brought upon the earth by it; and all the creatures made for the use of men liable to be abused, and are abused, through luxury, intemperance, and cruelty; and the whole world usurped by Satan, as the god of it. Nor is there anything in it, and put it all together, that can give satisfaction and contentment; and all is fickle, fluid, transitory, and vanishing, and in a short time will come to an end: the riches of the world afford no real happiness, having no substance in them, and being of no long continuance; nor can a man procure happiness for himself or others, or avert wrath to come, and secure from it; and especially these are vanity, when compared with the true riches, the riches of grace and glory, which are solid, substantial, satisfying, and are for ever: the honours of this world are empty things, last a very short time; and are nothing in comparison of the honour that comes from God, and all the saints have, in the enjoyment of grace here, and glory hereafter: the sinful pleasures of life are imaginary things, short lived ones; and not to be mentioned with spiritual pleasures, enjoyed in the house of God, under the word and ordinances; and especially with those pleasures, for evermore, at the right hand of God. Natural wisdom and knowledge, the best thing in the world; yet much of it is only in opinion; a great deal of it false; and none saving, and of any worth, in comparison of the knowledge of Christ, and of God in Christ; all the forms of religion and external righteousness, where there is not the true fear and grace of God, are all vain and empty things. Man, the principal creature in the world, is "vain man"; that is his proper character in nature and religion, destitute of grace: every than is vain, nay, vanity itself; high and low, rich and poor, learned or unlearned; nay, man at his best estate, as worldly and natural, is so; as even Adam was in his state of innocence, being fickle and mutable, and hence he fell, Psalm 39:5; and especially his fallen posterity, whose bodies are tenements of clay; their beauty vain and deceitful; their circumstances changeable; their minds empty of all that is good; their thoughts and imaginations vain; their words, and works, and actions, and their whole life and conversation; they are not at all to be trusted in for help, by themselves or others. The Targum is,

"when Solomon, king of Israel, saw, by the spirit of prophecy, that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son would be divided with Jeroboam, the son of Nebat; and that Jerusalem, and the house of the sanctuary, would be destroyed, and the people of the children of Israel would be carried captive; he said, by his word, Vanity of vanities in this world, vanity of vanities; all that I and my father David have laboured for, all is vanity!''

{b} Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

(b) He condemns the opinions of all men who set happiness in anything but in God alone, seeing that in this world all things are as vanity and nothing.

2. Vanity of vanities] The form is the highest type (as in the “servant of servants” of Genesis 9:25, the “chief over the chief” of Numbers 3:32) of the Hebrew superlative. The word translated “vanity,” identical with the name Abel or Hebel (Genesis 4:2) means primarily a “breath,” or “vapour,” and as such becomes the type of all that is fleeting and perishable (Psalm 62:9; Psalm 144:4). It is uniformily translated by “vanity” in the English Version of this book, which is moulded on the Vulgate as that was upon the LXX. The other Greek versions gave “vapour of vapours” (Hieron. in loc.) and this may perhaps be regarded as, in some respects, a preferable rendering. The watchword of the book, the key-note of its melancholy music, meeting us not less than thirty-nine times, is therefore, whether we take it as a proposition or an exclamation, like that of the Epicurean poet “Pulvis et umbra sumus” (Hor. Od. iv. 7. 9), like that also, we may add, of St James (James 3:14) and the Psalmist (Psalm 90:3-10). In the Wisdom of Solomon apparently written (see Introduction, chap. v.) as a corrective complement to Ecclesiastes we have a like series of comparisons, the “dust,” the “thin froth,” the “smoke,” but there the idea of ‘vanity’ is limited to the “hope of the ungodly” and the writer, as if of set purpose, avoids the sweeping generalizations of the Debater, who extends the assertion to the “all” of human life, and human aims. It is not without significance that St Paul, in what is, perhaps, the solitary reference in his writings to this book, uses the word which the LXX. employs here, when he affirms that “the creature was made subject to vanity” and seeks to place that fact in its right relation to the future restitution of the Universe (Romans 8:20).Verses 2-11. - PROLOGUE. The vanity of all human and mundane things, and the oppressive monotony of their continued recurrence. Verse 2. - Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (comp. Ecclesiastes 12:8). "Vanity" is hebel, which means "breath," and is used metaphorically of anything transitory, frail, unsatisfying. We have it in the proper name Abel, an appropriate designation of the youth whose life was cut short by a brother's murderous hand. "Vanity of vanities," like "heaven of heavens" (1 Kings 8:27), "song of songs" (Song of Solomon 1:1), etc., is equivalent to a superlative, "most utterly vain." It is here an exclamation, and is to be regarded as the key-note of the whole subsequent treatise, which is merely the development of this text. Septuagint, ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων; other Greek translators, ἀτμὶς ἀτμίδων, "vapor of vapors." For "saith" the Vulgate gives dixit; the Septuagint, εϊπεν; but as there is no reference to any previous utterance of the Preacher, the present is more suitable here. In affirming that "all is vanity," the writer is referring to human and mundane things, and directs not his view beyond such phenomena. Such reflection is common in sacred and profane writings alike; such experience is universal (comp. Genesis 47:9; Psalm 39:5-7; Psalm 90:3-10; James 3:14). "Pulvis et umbra sumus," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4:7. 16. "O curas hominum! O quantum est in rebus inane!" (Persius, 'Sat.,' 1:1). If Dean Plumptre is correct in contending that the Book of Wisdom was written to rectify the deductions which might be drawn from Koheleth, we may contrast the caution of the apocryphal writer, who predicates vanity, not of all things, but only of the hope of the ungodly, which he likens to dust, froth, and smoke (see Wisd. 2:1, etc.; 5:14). St. Paul (Romans 8:20) seems to have had Ecclesiastes in mind when he spoke of the creation being subjected to vanity (τῇ ματαιότητι), as a consequence of the fall of man, not to be remedied till the final restitution of all things. "But a man will say, If all things are vain and vanity, wherefore were they made? If they are God's works, how are they vain? But it is not the works of God which he calls vain. God forbid! The heaven is not vain; the earth is not vain: God forbid! Nor the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor our own body. No; all these are very good. But what is vain? Man's works, pomp, and vain-glory. These came not from the hand of God, but are of our own creating. And they are vain because they have no useful end That is called vain which is expected indeed to possess value, yet possesses it not; that which men call empty, as when they speak of 'empty hopes,' and that which is fruitless. And generally that is called vain which is of no use. Let us see, then, whether all human things are not of this sort" (St. Chrysostom, 'Hem. 12. in Ephes.'). 27 צ She looketh well to the ways of her house,

        And eateth not the bread of idleness.

Although there exists an inner relation between 27a and Proverbs 31:26, yet 27a is scarcely to be thought of (Hitzig) as appos. to the suffix in לשׁונהּ. Participles with or without determination occur in descriptions frequently as predicates of the subject standing in the discourse of the same force as abstr. present declarations, e.g., Isaiah 40:22., Psalm 104:13. צופיּה is connected with the accus. of the object of the intended warning, like Proverbs 15:3, and is compared according to the form with המיּה, Proverbs 7:11. הליבה signifies elsewhere things necessary for a journey, Job 6:19, and in the plur. magnificus it denotes show (pompa), Habakkuk 3:6 : but originally the walk, conduct, Nahum 2:6; and here in the plur. walks equals comings and goings, but not these separately, but in general, the modi procedendi (lxx διατριβαι). The Chethı̂b has הילכות, probably an error in writing, but possibly also the plur. of הלכה, thus found in the post-bibl. Heb. (after the form צדקות), custom, viz., appointed traditional law, but also like the Aram. הלכא (emph. הלכתא), usage, manner, common practice. Hitzig estimates this Chethı̂b, understood Talmudically, as removing the section into a late period; but this Talmudical signification is not at all appropriate (Hitzig translates, with an incorrect rendering of צופיה, "for she sees after the ordering of the house"), and besides the Aram. הלכא, e.g., Targ. Proverbs 16:9, in the first line, signifies only the walk or the manner and way of going, and this gives with the Kerı̂ essentially the same signification. Luther well: Sie schawet wie es in jrem Hause zugeht [ equals she looks how it goes in her house]. Her eyes are turned everywhere; she is at one time here, at another there, to look after all with her own eyes; she does not suffer the day's work, according to the instructions given, to be left undone, while she folds her own hands on her bosom; but she works, keeping an oversight on all sides, and does not eat the bread of idleness (עצלוּת equals עצלה, Proverbs 19:15), but bread well deserved, for εἴ τις οὐ θέλει ἐργάζεσθαι, μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω, 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

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