The writer of Ecclesiastes begins with the words, “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). Many of our modern translations use the word “meaningless” in the place of “vanity” but that choice of words doesn’t express the full force of what’s being communicated.
The Hebrew word used here is hebel (pronounced hevel) and its basic meaning is “puff of breath,” “wind” or “vapor”. Job uses this same word in Job 7:16. “I waste away; I will not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are but a breath (hebel).”
We see the same Hebrew word employed in Psalm 39:5ff. “Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; surely every man at his best is a mere breath (hebel). Selah. Surely every man walks about as a phantom; surely they make an uproar for nothing (hebel); he amasses riches and does not know who will gather them. ...With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity; You consume as a moth what is precious to him; surely every man is a mere breath (hebel). Selah.”
And again in Psalm 144:4 we read, “Man is like a mere breath (hebel); his days are like a passing shadow.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes uses hebel metaphorically and most often in its basic sense (as in Psalm144:4), stressing the brevity, the passing nature of all that exists “under the sun.” What makes things which are hebel meaningless is making them the object of our life’s faith, hope, trust and the chief object of our affections.
Puritan writer Ezekiel Hopkins had some poignant thoughts on Ecclesiastes 1:2.
“This text contains the true judgment of all things under the sun. Our great desire is happiness, and our great folly is to think we can obtain it by the enjoyments of this world. This makes men pursue pleasures, horde up riches, and court honors and promotions because they believe these can make them truly happy. They are leaky cisterns that cannot hold living water.
“In our perverted fancy, we look upon them as stable, permanent, and satisfactory. We consider them as the goal when they should only be used by us in our pilgrimage. We expect much more from them then they can yield, and so the vanity is not so much in the object but in our affection for it.
“To enjoy something is to cleave to it in love for its own sake. This should only belong to God. We ought to use things of the world only that we might arrive at the Creator. We may use them for our benefit, but we must alone enjoy him.
“What is gold and silver but diversified earth, and hard and shining clay? The richest perfumes are but the clammy sweat of trees. Softest silks are but the excrement of a vile worm. The most expensive wines are nothing but puddle water strained through a vine. Our choices delicacies are but dirt, cooked and served up to us. Fancy and custom have conspired together to cheat us.
“The truth is, the world is much better in show than in substance. How vain is the world at the hour of death! Nor can these earthly pleasures free us from our cares and crosses. In him alone can be found true rest and satisfaction. Let us cast our cares and burdens upon him who has promised to sustain us. Let us turn the stream of our desires heavenward where alone we can find permanent and satisfactory good. Let us walk humbly with our God.” (Ezekiel Hopkins as quoted in Voices from the Past by Richard Rushing)