Ecclesiastes begins with the rather disconcerting exclamation, “Vanity of vanities, … vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The exclamation is made more disconcerting by the place of Ecclesiastes in the canon. In the canons of both Jews and all major Christian groups, Ecclesiastes follows immediately after the Book of Proverbs. Tradition, in fact, claims the selfsame author, Solomon, for both books. While Solomon extols the virtues of wisdom in the Proverbs, however, he seems actively to disparage it in Ecclesiastes. The word commonly translated “vanity” in English translations of Ecclesiastes is rendered as ματαιότης in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, a translation used by most of the Greek-speaking early Christian communities. As the New Revelation of Christ sheds light on the Old Covenant, the use of this word in the writings contained in the New Testament necessarily holds value for any attempt to interpret Ecclesiastes.
According to Strong’s Concordance, the word ματαιότης refers to “what is devoid of truth and appropriateness,” with secondary and tertiary meanings indicating “perverseness” and “depravity” as well as “frailty” and “want of vigour.” The word’s stem, μάτη, refers to folly. The word occurs three times in the New Testament. In Romans 8:20, ματαιότης is translated by the ESV as “futility” in the course of St. Paul’s discourse on the hope and eager anticipation experienced by creation as it awaits salvation. Until the fulfillment of this salvation, says Paul, the creation is subject to ματαιότης. In Ephesians 4:17, the ESV again translates ματαιότης as “futility” in Paul’s admonishment to the Christians, “that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” This thought continues in the following verse (4:18), where Paul states, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” Finally, in 2 Peter 2:18, the ESV translates ματαιότης as “folly” in St. Peter’s warning against false teachers “speaking loud boasts of folly.” In each instance, the apostles use the word ματαιότης in a condemnation of false or worldly wisdom which cannot bring salvation. In Paul’s uses, the wisdom referred to is the wisdom of the pagans. In Peter’s, it is the wisdom of Christian heretics.
An examination of these New Testament uses of ματαιότης sheds some light upon the message of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. It is not wisdom itself which is vain. On the contrary, both the biblical and post-biblical Christian traditions have identified wisdom, σοφία, with the divine. Solomon himself did so in Proverbs 8:22-31. It is, rather, the wisdom of the world, the wisdom which leads from God rather than to God, that is referred to. This “wisdom” is perhaps more properly referred to as wisdom falsely so-called, about which Paul warns in Colossians 2:8. True wisdom, as Solomon makes clear at the close of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is that which leads man to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Far from vanity, this is the very reason for which man was created.