What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 is one literary unit that provides the introduction to the entire book. There are two words or phrases that appear in the first two verses that are repeated often in the book of Ecclesiastes. The first is “vanity,” which appears 38 times. Like the name of the preacher, Qoheleth, the word “hevel” translated “vanity,” is also a word with diverse meanings. The word literally refers to a vapor or breath. Like that puff of smoke that comes out of your mouth on a cold day, the preacher is telling us that life is elusive, temporal, and brief. This is amplified by the phrase “vanity of vanities,” which like “holy of holies,” heightens the meaning of the word beyond what it means by itself. So life is enigmatic; it’s unsubstantial; you can’t get your hands on it; it slips away; like breath, it disappears as suddenly as it comes. The way it is used here is to emphasize the temporary nature of life in this world, but also the absurdity or futility of life apart from God. The fact that life is transitory is taught in Psalm 39:5 where it says that life is a mere breath. James 4:14 confirms that life is as a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”