The book begins abruptly by announcing that it is written by Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem. Some commentators dispute this, claiming evidence that it was written as late as the third century before Christ. I cannot grasp how their speculation profits anyone who is sincerely looking for truth about how to live a life that glorifies God and is profitable for themselves. The message is what is important, and ultimately, the message is from our Creator, who inspired it and desires our growth and His glorification.
The first 11 verses act as an introduction, providing several terms that dominate the theme of the book. Three terms particularly important to grasping Ecclesiastes' message are contained within the first three verses: "vanity," "profit," and "under the sun."
"Vanity" (Hebrew hebel) is a vivid metaphor used 33 times in the book. Literally, it suggests a breath, something akin to vapor, like one's breath on a cold day, or a puff of smoke rising from a fire. Smoke and breath not only disappear quickly, but neither can they be grasped and held on to. Thus, vanity aptly portrays life as being insubstantial, rather flimsy, and passing.
One of the more vivid explanations is that "vanity" suggests the scum that remains when a soap bubble bursts against a hard surface. Of what value is such a thing? Surprisingly, vanity has some value in life.
The New International Version translates Ecclesiastes 1:2 as, "Meaningless! Meaningless! says the teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." The Message Bible renders it, "Smoke, nothing but smoke. There is nothing to anything—it's all smoke." In the New Testament, James 4:14 describes human life similarly: "For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away."
While it makes for an arresting opening, vanity is not useless to God's purpose. We have to grow to understand that, as things stand in His purpose, vanity plays a vital role. The apostle Paul states in Romans 8:18-21:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility [vanity, KJV], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Without a doubt, life is difficult, and the vanity that Paul mentions plays its part in the difficulty. It seems apparent from Genesis 3:14-19, where God enumerates the curses following Adam and Eve's sin, that He not only pronounced man's subjection to a measure of vanity but activated it at that time. God deliberately subjected the creation to futility as a reminder that sin is the source of the difficulty as well as an obstacle to be overcome for the purpose of growth into His image. We must recognize it and deal with it.
Despite Solomon's exclamation, Ecclesiastes contains sufficient evidence that he never completely lost his view of God, as the book's last paragraph is witness. Instead, he clearly demonstrates that for those who believe God, vanity does not have the last word. Therefore, we can glean a great deal of hope from Ecclesiastes.
Notice how Paul considers the sufferings that this world and nature impose on us and concludes that they are insignificant compared to what lies ahead if we overcome their vanities. In fact, in Romans 8:19, he personifies the creation as burdened and groaning right along with us because of the futility imposed on it, saying that it, too, looks forward to its release from what the Creator subjected it to.
Since God purposefully subjected the physical creation to vanity, therefore we can honestly conclude that all this vanity is a reality that serves our overall good in preparation for the Kingdom of God. It is a challenging obstacle. In His wisdom, He has determined we must first experience the emptiness of life without Him, become thoroughly disillusioned with what it has to offer, throw it off, and depart from it. The sufferings that vanity imposes help us to make a true assessment of the value of His grace and goodness, as well as truly and zealously commit ourselves to Him and His purpose. In such a circumstance, vanity will not have the last word.