“Vanity of vanities,” is one of those phrases. The word “vanity” is found over 35 times! That’s a lot given the length of the text. Vanity is not a word we use all that often, so some translations have chosen other encouraging synonyms like, “meaningless”, or “useless” or one of my favorites, “nothing but smoke”. To add to that, another popular phrase the author uses to describe life is “chasing after the wind.” Have you ever tried to chase the wind? Take my word for it, you’ll never catch it.
One verse that pretty much sums up the theme of Ecclesiastes is this one: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV). Doesn’t that put a smile on your face? Who let this crazy talk into the Bible?
We’ve tried to make sense of this enigmatic book and have found that the key to understanding this less than enthusiastic approach to life is found in yet another repeating phrase found in the book. It’s right there in the verse just referenced. Perhaps it stood out to you. If you miss it then Ecclesiastes is a one-way trip to depression and despair, and I’m pretty confident that’s not God’s destination for us.
The key phrase is “under the sun”. It’s found almost as often as the word “vanity.” So, what is the author getting at with that phrase “under the sun”?
I think the phrase calls us to consider our approach to this world. It causes us to wonder what the meaning of life is if there is nothing but this “under the sun” existence. Now, of course, we know that there are lots of things above the sun – innumerable stars, other galaxies, planets, and who knows what else – but since Ecclesiastes is in the Bible it’s best for us to think of some spiritual interpretation of “under the sun.”
We’ve concluded that this key phrase is calling us to consider life’s meaning if what we see and touch and hear is all that there is. It’s an approach to life that believes there’s nothing more to life than atoms, and molecules, and DNA. It’s asking us what the meaning of life is if there is nothing above the sun – not stars, galaxies, and planets, but God and eternity. If “under the sun” is all there is then don’t we all have to agree that life is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes is primarily a description of life without God. It leads us to despair only to point us to a better way of life. A life lived in awareness of things we cannot see. A life of hope and meaning because there’s more to this world than what’s “under the sun.” Ecclesiastes whets our appetite for what is real and eternal - the above-the-sun God who turns meaninglessness into meaning and despair into hope.