Announcement of Theme: “All is Vanity!” or “What Profit is There?” (1:2-3)

1:2 “Vanity of vanities,” says Qoheleth. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” 1:3 What profit does man have in all his labor which he toils under the sun?

Without warning, Qoheleth grabs our attention with a disturbing declaration (verse 2) and then a haunting question (verse 3). These two verses are both saying the same thing in two different ways. The rhetorical question, “What profit does man have in all his labor? (None!),” is an emphatic way of saying, “All is vanity (profitless)!” Like “holy of holies” (the most holy), “vanity of vanities” is the Hebrew way of expressing the superlative. This superlative expression is uttered twice for emphasis. And we already know that these are the words of Qoheleth. So the phrase “says Qoheleth” is redundant in terms of adding information. But not so in terms of adding weight to the claim being made. All this gives the declaration “all is vanity” a force that no attentive audience can miss. It also increases the force of the sentiment implied in the rhetorical question: “There is no profit--whatsoever!--under the sun.”

These twin verses forcefully announce the theme of the speech. We know 1:2 expresses the theme because it is repeated verbatim at the end of the speech in 12:8. The only difference is that “vanity of vanities” is uttered only once there. Besides, the phrase “all is vanity” is repeated exactly several times in the speech (1:14; 2:11,17; 3:19). As James Crenshaw puts it, “this unforgettable refrain unifies the entire book: from first to last nothing profits those who walk under the sun” (1987: 35). Also, the alternative expression of the theme in 1:3 is repeated thrice in the same form, “What profit does man (or the laborer) have?” (3:9; 5:16; 6:11). It is repeated once plainly as, “There is no profit under the sun” (2:11). We have not even mentioned the many instances when a specific item, such as wealth, is labeled as “vanity.”

What then is the meaning of the theme? Is it pessimistic, as assumed by most interpreters? The Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel. Its basic meaning is breath (Isa 57:13). It can also refer to condensed breath, that is, the fleeting vapor that we see when someone breathes into cold air (Prov 21:6). It appears and disappears. Qoheleth is saying that everything we work for in this life is vaporous--fleeting! Why then do we translate hebel as “vanity,” which carries the idea of profitlessness as well as worthlessness and futility?

In some contexts in Ecclesiastes the word is best left translated as “fleeting.” The best examples are: “all the days of your fleeting life” (9:9) and “the prime of life is fleeting” (11:10). In these contexts, the brevity of the prime of life or of life itself is presented as a matter of fact. There is no implication that life or the prime of life is profitless simply because it is fleeting. The message is: make the most of life and, especially, the prime of life because it will soon be gone.

In 1:2-3, however, “all is vaporous” answers the question, “What profit does man have in all his labor?” Thus “all is vaporous” here means “all is profitless.” Qoheleth is thus saying that everything is profitless because everything is transitory. How is this so?

The Hebrew word yitron, translated here as “profit,” is a term referring to net gain (cf. Fox 1999: 112-113). The root meaning of the word is “excess over.” When used in the context where two items are compared, that is, one has an “excess over” the other, the meaning is “(has) advantage or excel (over)” (2:13, 5:9; 7:12; 10:10,11). When no such comparison is made, as is the case here, the “excess over” refers simply to net gain or profit (also 2:11; 3:9; 5:16). Profit refers to the net gain over expenditures made over a period of time, often called the fiscal year. An organization may be recording a profit if it balances its accounts in the middle of the fiscal year. But it may be bankrupt by the end of it.

Qoheleth has in mind a “fiscal year” that lasts from our birth all the way to our death when he asks, “What profit does man have?” This can be inferred from the very next verse (1:4): “a generation goes and a generation comes….” It is confirmed by 12:7, which explicitly puts death as the context for declaring (again) “Vanities of vanities, all is vanity” in 12:8. When we balance our accounts at our death, what will we have gained from all our labors since the day of our birth? Nothing. Thus in 5:15 Qoheleth reminds us that just as we all came into this world naked we will all go away naked. We will take with us nothing from the fruit of our labors. He asks, “So what is the profit to him who toils for the wind?” (5:16).

Thus Qoheleth is not saying that there is no profit whatsoever to our labors. There is immediate (transitory) profit. Otherwise we will not labor at all. But in the light of death there is no ultimate (eternal) profit. For instance, in 2:13-14 and elsewhere in the speech (7:12,19; 8:1; 10:10), he acknowledges the value of wisdom and the advantage of laboring with wisdom. A wise man will do better in life than a foolish one. But the wise man must die like the fool and leave behind all the fruit of his labors. So he declares that even wisdom is (ultimately) profitless (2:14-17).

The translation “labor” (or “toil”) captures the idea inherent in the Hebrew word `amal: man’s work is physically or emotionally burdensome, or even both. In 2:22-23 a man’s “labor” is described as a “painful and grievous” task that he “strives” at; “even at night his mind does not rest.” If yitron is the profit, `amal is the “investment.” There is no ultimate profit to our burdensome investments!

The phrase “under the sun” occurs 29 times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Old Testament. But it is adequately attested in other writings of the ancient biblical world. In the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic we find this statement: “Only the gods [live] forever under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but the wind” (Pritchard 1969: 79). In a Phoenician inscription there is a contrast between “the living under the sun” and the dead who are “with the shades” (662). This phrase thus refers to the realm of human life and activities in this world as opposed to the hereafter.

There is no reason to suppose that Qoheleth uses this phrase differently. This is rather clear when he describes the living as “those who move about under the sun” (4:15) and the dead as those who “will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun” (9:6). Seow (1997: 104-105) is undoubtedly correct when he argues that this phrase does not have the exact same meaning as “under the heavens,” which is very common in the Old Testament but occurs only 3 times in Ecclesiastes (1:13; 2:3; 3:1). Both phrases mean “this world.” But “under the sun” refers to “this (temporal) world,” as opposed to the netherworld, whereas “under the heavens” refers to “this (geographical) world,” with no reference to the hereafter.

Thus “under the sun” does not just indicate the realm (of the living) in which everything is ultimately profitless. It also makes reference to the transitoriness of human life in this world. Qoheleth’s distinct preference for this phrase over “under the heavens” is surely not accidental. Thus “under the sun” further clarifies that Qoheleth has death and ultimate profit in mind when he asks rhetorically, “What profit does man have?” How then do we feel about our burdensome investments (`amal) under the sun? The rhetorical question of 1:3 prods us to ask whether the transitory profits we laboriously pursue after in this world is really worth it. But we tend to evade this unpleasant question. In this speech Qoheleth wants us face it honestly for our own good.

We can now see that translating “all is hebel” as “all is vanity (profitless)” is most appropriate here and in similar (but not all) contexts in the speech. It forcefully sounds out the warning that everything under the sun is ultimately worthless, and so living for the things of this world is futility. Hence the theme of Ecclesiastes in and by itself is not pessimistic. For to say that all our labors are profitless, in the sense that we take nothing with us when we die, is not being pessimistic but simply realistic.

exposition on this section continues on next page


Blogger Tarcisius said...

Excellent commentary on Qoheleth, paying particular attention to the linguistic nuances of Qoheleth.

3:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home