Refrains are an effective rhetorical device. They allow a speaker to emphasize for her audience an important idea or concept by repeating the same line over and over again at various portions of a speech. This is particularly effective in the setting where the audience is listening, without the benefit of seeing a manuscript with italics, bolds, underlines, or whatever else she may use to indicate “hey, this is important!” Think “I have a dream,” or “Yes, we can!”
Since Solomon dubs himself “the Preacher” (Ecc 1:1), we shouldn’t be particularly surprised to find him using this rhetorical device as he continues in his discourse in Ecclesiastes 2. What exactly is his refrain? We see it eight times in this chapter:
“this also was vanity” v. 1
“all was vanity” v. 11
“this also is vanity” v. 15
“all is vanity” v. 17
“This also is vanity” v. 19
“This also is vanity” v. 21
“This also is vanity” v. 23
“This also is vanity” v. 28
Vanity Cannot be Grasped
The Hebrew word for vanity means vapor—something ethereal, visible perhaps, but it slips through your fingers when you try to grab hold of it. Chapter 2 is not the first time Solomon describes something on this earth as vanity, or grasping for the wind, and it’s certainly not the last. But in some ways, the contrast of the end of the chapter with the preceding verses helps us to better understand some of the ultimate points that Solomon is making in the entire book.
This Also is Vanity
So what are the things that are vanity? A hedonistic approach to life, whether through physical pursuits of pleasure or building the life of luxury through endless hours of work. Vanity exists in the fact that at the end of life, no matter what life you lived, death meets us all in the same way. Because even in the pursuit of happiness, it cannot be grasped, even by the end of life.
Vanity because even if you pour your soul into all you do, once you are gone, someone else will get it—without having done any of the work. That even in the pursuit of those pleasurable things, the work is burdensome, sorrowful.
Is it me, or does this sound a lot like life today? I’m going to follow my heart (the “bodily” agent through which he is exercising “wisdom”) to whatever it tells me I should do. I’m going to work hard, play hard, and build up a good life for myself. Okay, so maybe many millennials are rejecting this approach to life, but what about later in the chapter when Solomon is considering wisdom, folly, and madness? The pursuit of self-improvement? Still following our hearts? At the end of the day, while it seems like there is something that might be there, it cannot be grasped. Vanity.
From the Hand of God
So where’s the good news? “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2: 24-25, ESV.
But wait a second. Didn’t Solomon just say that the pursuit of pleasure and work was vanity? How can there be nothing better than this?
There’s a subtle shift. It goes from “me” and “I” focusing on finding pleasure, luxury, work, etc., in order to grab hold to meaning in my life and looking to God, for He is the one who infuses what we are doing with meaning. Apart from God, we cannot grasp the very things we are so quick to seek out for ourselves in desperation.
Which brings us to the last utterance of the chapter’s refrain. What also is vanity? What is it that Solomon darkens the brief ray of light he briefly broke through with? That the one whom is favored by God gets knowledge, wisdom, and joy, but the sinner is busy laboring only to give to the favored one. This sounds harsh. But I think it goes back to the breakthrough verses above. We’re all engaged in the hustle of life—but what makes all the difference is whether we recognize that God is a part of it.