The word vanity has its origins in Greek and Hebrew. In the old testament, the Hebrew word “Hebel” is commonly used in reference to vanity. This word is literally translated to vapor or breath. The word is a metaphor for the fleeting and transient nature of human life, accomplishments, and possessions. In the New Testament, “matoiotes”, a Greek word for worthlessness and emptiness is used to refer to vanity.
From the Hebrew definition, vanity means the fleeting or transient nature of life. In Greek, vanity means worthless and empty. By combining the two definitions we can say vanity is a metaphor of how human life and possessions are worthless.
Vanity in the Old Testament
In both the Old and New Testaments, the term vanity has been used as a warning against pursuing selfish ambitions and worldly pleasures. The excessive pursuit of material possessions has also been portrayed as vanity because it often reflects a tendency of getting consumed with the temporal and superficial aspects of life as opposed to focusing on the eternal and spiritual realities.
The Book of Ecclesiastes introduces the phrase “vanity of vanities” in reference to the futility of worldly pursuits.
Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2
The theme of vanity of vanities remains constant throughout the book of Ecclesiastes as King Solomon reflects on his accomplishments, wisdom, and experiences. Solomon examines pleasure, labor, wealth, and other aspects of life and his verdict is they are transient and are therefore vanity of vanities. Before closing the book in chapter 12, Solomon makes the following remarks;
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
Even though the theme of vanity is more prominent in Ecclesiastes, we can still see it playing out in other passages of scripture. One of the prolific examples is King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In Daniel 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar boasting of his mighty achievements and the great kingdom. He attributes these achievements to his wisdom and power. God humbles Nebuchadnezer by reducing him to a state of madness and the Greek king starts living like a wild animal until he eventually recognized God’s sovereignty.
The story of king nebuchadnezzar reveals what Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes. Even though Nebuchadnezzar had all the wealth and power, the fact that he didn’t have a relationship with God and thought he was the source of success cost him everything. Just like Solomon said, Nebuchadenzer soon realized that all was vanity. To further illustrate this point, his kingdom was eventually restored to him when he recognized God.
Another example is King Hezekiah of Judah. Just like King Nebuchadnezzar did, Hezekiah falls into the vanity of earthly pursuits. He proudly displays his accomplishments and treasures to the emissaries from Babylon. God speaks to Hezekiah through the prophet Isaiah telling him that all he displayed to Babylon would be carried off to Babylon and that the king of Babylon would also make king Hezekiah’s descendants Eunuchs (2 Kings 20:12-18). Before this incident, Hezekiah had a close call but his remorse turned God’s wrath. However, this time around, his pride had the best of him and even after the prophet gave the warning, all he said was
“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” (2 Kings 20:19). He didn’t even try to appeal to the mercy of God like he did earlier.
Vanity in the New Testament
Vanity was one of the thematic areas in the preachings of Jesus. He admonishes his disciples to make God’s kingdom and its pursuit a priority as opposed to pursuing material possessions and other temporary pleasures. Here is one such scripture:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Mathew 6:19-21
The message Jesus was conveying is the vanity of seeking material possessions that easily decay (or lose value) at the expense of pursuing godly things which have eternal value. In Mathew 6:33, he explicitly asks his disciples to focus on God’s kingdom and other things will be added.
Jesus not only taught about the theme of vanity but he also embodied it in his life. Even though his ministry needed resources, he was not consumed with the pursuit of earthly possessions. From the very onset, the devil tried to tempt him with wealth and glory but Jesus wouldn’t budge (Mathew 4:1-11). At one point, a young man was interested in joining Jesus but Jesus made it clear that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Mathew 8:20). Another illustration is when he was told that his family was looking for him and his response was that his family was those who were doing God’s will (Mark 3:35).
Apostle Paul also taught about the vanity of life in several of his Pauline epistles. In the book of Timothy, he says for the rich to be warned about the vanity of earthly possessions.
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to set their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 1 Timothy 6:17
He also warns the church not to be consumed by the pursuit of wealth because:
“those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” 1 Timothy 6:9-10,
In summary, both the Old and New Testaments agree on the concept of prioritizing heavenly pursuits as opposed to earthly ones. Even though the word vanity is only common in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the theme is present throughout the Bible. Christians should therefore understand that even though we live in the world, our focus should not be on the world but on the things above. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 4:18, earthly things are temporal but heavenly things are permanent.