Pentecost Season: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, Vapor of Vapors!


Prayer: O Most Holy and Wise God, all authority and power in heaven and earth belong to You. May we see Your wisdom as You order the world according to Your divine purposes. Amen.

Sermon:  People of God, William Ernest Henley once said: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”[1] Henley embraced the idea that man is in charge. He is the pilot when it comes to his destiny. He is controlling every step of his life. He is unhindered by outside forces. Man is the great I AM.

If man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, then there is no need for the triune God. He has mastered his ways, he leans on his own understanding and he believes that he can construct his future on the basis of his past.

However, the book of Ecclesiastes tells a different story. In fact, it tells an exactly opposite story. It says that the idea of being in control of your life is a myth. It simply does not exist. It is true we can prepare for life, we can study with the hopes of knowing certain things better than others, we can save money in the bank, make intelligent investments, but according to Solomon, it is all vapor.

The reality of the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes is that no matter how much we try to get a good grasp of our lives, we are only grasping at vapor.

Before we elaborate further on Ecclesiastes 1, it is important to understand this linguistic question right at the beginning.  We know that the son of David is Solomon. Solomon’s perspective of life is a very mature one. He has gone through various stages.  II Kings 11 gives us a tour of Solomon’s apostasy, which can be summarized in two words: Immorality and Idolatry.

Though Ecclesiastes begins dark, it has a bright future. The words of Solomon are a “repentant rejection of his previous apostasy.”[2] We understand Solomon’s repentance when we read his words in verse 2. Vanity  of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Traditionally, the Hebrew word “hebel” has been translated as “vanity” or “meaninglessness.” But Solomon does not have that in mind. If life is completely meaningless or if all we do is vanity, then this undermines the beautiful redemptive history of the church. It undermines the celebratory nature of our gathering on this Lord’s Day, it undermines our feasting, and it undermines the fruit of the labor that we bring in our tithing. If our labor is vanity and meaningless, then why does God take pleasure in our gifts to Him?

The reality is that translating “hebel” as “vanity or meaninglessness” is inappropriate. A better way of understanding “hebel” is the Hebrew concept of vapor.  “When Solomon says “all is hebel” he is not saying that everything is conceited, vain, or vacuous.”[3] Life is not empty. Life is actually quite full. We see this throughout Ecclesiastes. In chapter 3 Solomon says that we are to be joyful in our labor. We are to eat and drink with joy, taking pleasure in our toil for this is God’s gift to us.

So it is absurd to declare what God gives to us as gifts and label it as meaningless or empty.

Solomon, the preacher understands “hebel” as “vapor.” He is echoing in his wisdom the wisdom of the book of James. James writes that “you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” We do not know what tomorrow will bring. Our lives are completely and totally outside our control. The concept of control is as Pastor Jeff Harlow says, “a myth.”

In fact, there is an instance of “hebel” or “vapor” in the early chapters of Biblical History. It is the story of “Abel.” The word “Abel “is the English translation of the Hebrew word “hebel.” Abel was Adam and Eve’s second son. Abel was also the very first death recorded in the Scriptures. He was killed by his ungodly brother Cain. Abel, which means “vapor” was the first to die. Adam and Eve had been thrust out of the garden because Adam wanted to grab wisdom. He wanted control of his life by possessing the knowledge of good and evil. Hence, they were thrown out of the garden.

With the birth of their two sons, perhaps they thought they could have some comfort and purpose. But their first son Cain crushes Abel.  Abel is now a mere memory; he is a vapor that appears and then vanishes. His lifeless body lay and death is introduced. His life ends for no good earthly reason. He could have been the faithful Adam that his father wasn’t, but now all hopes are gone.

Commentators dispute whether Abel was named after his death. The Bible tells us about the naming of Cain, but nothing about the naming of Abel.  It is possible that Adam and Eve named their dead son after his death. Thus, Abel or the Hebrew word “Hebel,” which means “vapor” became a “sobering wake-up” call to Adam and Eve. Life is a vapor; a wisp. Things were out of their control.”[4] Their own son’s life was outside their control.

This is life under the sun. It is Abel, a vapor. Adam and Eve were left with only two options. “They could jettison their trust in the goodness and love of God or they could (abandon) all hope of comprehending and controlling the world and more completely place their faith in God.”[5]

This is the lesson of Ecclesiastes: “When everything is hebel ‘(vapor)’, the only thing left is faith in the Lord, the covenant-keeping, promise-honoring God.” This is the lesson that Adam learned, that Noah, Abraham, Moses, all the patriarchs, the prophets and certainly the great King Solomon. Have we learned that lesson?

This is the point of verses 3-11. We desire to leave a lasting legacy through our efforts and labor, but tomorrow we may die. Life is outside our control. The world is much bigger than we are. History is much greater than we are. Verse 4 says: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” The world is unpredictable. The sun, the wind and the streams go through their normal liturgy, but we are finite. We cannot know the process of our lives.

In Genesis we read that we are from dust and from dust we will return. We are vapor. We can make our plans today only to see them shattered tomorrow. So, why do we wake up each morning? We wake up each morning because though we are not in control, we trust on the One who is.

Verse 9 reads: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Concluding his thought, Solomon tells us that “main features of the universe are the same; Things animate and inanimate remains as they were from the beginning.[6] The laws of the heavenly bodies, the courses of the seasons, the arrangements relative to the animal world, the chemistry of the creation have never changed.”[7] There is nothing new under the sun.

In fact, at the end of the day, “life can look like a tragedy and only by faith we can endure it.”[8] We are limited creatures. We may advance in technology, but we will still have the same problems. We may have five minutes of fame, but tomorrow we will be forgotten. You may say: “But look at this new insight into philosophy!” Solomon responds, “Yes, but there are new insights into philosophy all the time. What makes yours unique?” “But look at this new technology. We will be able to travel to Brazil in 3 hours.” Solomon answers: “There is nothing new about that. People have been going from point A to point B ever since the beginning of time.” “So what if you get there faster? Every day you are creating more things to keep you occupied.” What’s new, except a new look, a more elaborate cover, a sweeter drink, a different looking toy? There is nothing new under the sun!  It’s all vapor, says the preacher.

How many of us can say that our lives today is exactly what we envisioned 10, 20 years ago? Some of us never imagined that our theological convictions would lead us to a Reformed church; some of us never imagined living where we live today; some never imagined we would have the jobs we have today.

Contrary to William Henley, we are not the masters of our fates or captains of our souls, we are wholly dependent creatures.

So how are we to live?

First, we are to acknowledge that Yahweh controls all things by the Word of His power. Sometimes life is not going the way we expected it to go. We don’t understand why things happen the way they do, but we must understand that God knows why things happen the way they do.

Secondly, will we continue to cover our ears and believe that we are in control of everything? Let’s face it: We are control freaks! Everything needs to fit our schedules. Are we going then to collapse in despair since we have no control? Or will we take heed to the point of Ecclesiastes and cast ourselves in the goodness and love of God who controls all things?

Brothers and Sisters, life is not futile. Do not give up hope. We have seen the end of the story.

Christ, the greater Solomon and the greater Son of David is putting all His enemies under His feet. His kingdom will not be stopped by men in Washington, or Iran or North Korea.

In the Kingdom of God there is no futility or meaninglessness , but delight and jubilation. So let God control what we cannot.

Labor on. Eat your food, drink your wine with joy, love your children, honor your father and mother and obey God’s commandments for this is the end of the matter.

In The Name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] A Quote from his power “Invictus.”

[2] Douglas Wilson, Joy at the end of the Tether, pg. 10.

[3] Jeffrey Meyers, A Table in the Mist, pg. 43.

[4] Meyers, p.45.

[5] Ibid. pg. 45.  I substituted the word “jettison” for “abandon.”

[6] II Peter 3:4.

[7] Charles Bridges, Ecclesiastes Commentary, pg. 14.

[8] Jeff Barlow, sermon on Ecclesiastes 1:1-11. See

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Ecclesiastes, Sermons/Pentecost. Bookmark the permalink.

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