| 1 The words of Qohelet [the Teacher/Preacher][i], David’s son[ii], king in Jerusalem:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, Vanity of vanities.
In Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, a traveler tells that he saw a ruined statue in the desert consisting only of two “vast and trunkless legs” lying near a shattered head sunk in the sand. Nearby, on a pedestal were the words, ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
But, says Shelley,
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This monument to a once great, but now forgotten king and his kingdom, marks only the futility of his hubris. Whatever kingdom he once ruled is now just sand and dust.
This poem highlights the overall theme of Ecclesiastes.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. Or in Hebrew, “havel, havelim.”[iii]
This is a phrase that shows up a lot in Ecclesiastes. In fact, it is the theme of the book. Vanity of vanities—merely a breath, as the Old Testament scholar Robert Altar translates this.
This is a disturbing notion for us. We want to think that all of our life counts toward something. More than once I have heard people say, “Everything happens for a reason,” meaning that there is some grand, overarching plan guiding our life.
But what if there isn’t? What if there is no grand plan? What if none of what we do means anything? What if, like Ozymandias, after you were gone all that you did just disappeared into the desert of eternity?
I know this is not a pleasant thought, but it an important one. Qohelet will confront us with many unpleasant thoughts as we journey with him, and this is the main one; how are we to live our lives if we assume that what we do does not really matter in the long run?
Would you live your life differently? If you knew that everything you ever did would all be forgotten ten years after you die, what would you do differently?
We are going to explore that idea for the duration of Lent. It will be difficult going at times, but stick with it. In the end, I think you will find that this will be a hard, but very rewarding journey. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t want to turn on the light too early. Sometimes we have to wander about in the dark to really appreciate the light. The jazz great Thelonious Monk once said, “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.”
Thoughts and Questions
- Do you assume that your life has a greater meaning? If so, why?
- If you learned today that there is a God, but that God really does not have a plan for your life, would you do anything differently in the future? What would you wish you had done differently?
- Robert Altar translates “havel havelim” as “merest breath” not “vanity of vanities.” Vanity implies futility. But breathing is anything but futile. We do it every moment of every day we are alive. No one breath matters to us. But taken as a whole they are all important. If I try to hold on to one breath, I will die. Only if I breath in and out on a regular basis can I exist. What happens when we cling too tightly to things in our life?
[i] Who is this speaking? Traditionally the writer of Ecclesiastes has been called the Preacher or the Teacher, and was recognized as Solomon, the son of David. There are few problems with this however.
First, in Hebrew he calls himself Qohelet. This comes from the Hebrew root QHL which means “to assemble” as in to bring people together. It does not really mean preacher, and nowhere else in the Bible is it used that way. So from here on out, I’m going to follow the advice of Robert Alter, a great scholar of Hebrew, and call the writer by his Hebrew name, Qohelet.
[ii] Qohelet claims to be the son of David, Solomon. Now Solomon was known for his great wisdom, and Qohelet certainly thinks of himself as a writer of wise words. So traditionally the book has traditionally been assumed to have been written by Solomon, even though Solomon’s name never appears in the book itself.
However, the language of the book is from the third or fourth century BC, long after Solomon. (Imagine Thomas Jefferson writing that something was “really groovy,” and you can see the problems Hebrew scholars have with attributing this to Solomon!)
It could be that the writer saw himself in the line of David. Or that the writer is assuming the role of Solomon, something that writers would do back in the day. But most scholars today do not believe that King Solomon wrote this book.
[iii] These Hebrew words have been translated in a variety of ways. The most common has been “Vanity of vanities,” found in the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version. Rabbi Shapiro translates this as “Emptying upon emptying.” Robert Alter uses the phrase “merest breath.” This is probably the closest to the original Hebrew word “hevel” which literally means exhaled breath, vapor or mist, and is the translation I will (mostly) use for the rest of the devotions.