“Vapour of vapours,” says the Preacher; “vapour of vapours, all is vapour.”
Perhaps there are few more potent and fecund metaphors for human life, activity, and thought than that of vapour, breath, or mist. Life is like groping through a dense fog, which shrouds and veils reality, preventing us from seeing through to the heart of things. It is an experience of inscrutability: we can read neither the comings nor goings of being. We cannot neither grasp nor control it. It slips through our fingers, eluding all of our attempts at mastery. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It leaves no trace or mark of its passing, but passes into nothing. It produces no lasting fruit nor gain, and has no permanent effects. It is insubstantial, formed of nothing, and providing no bedrock for security against decay or change. Mankind’s attempts to fashion and understand the world for himself will always ultimately founder, as the unforgiving tide of time demolishes his kingdoms of sand.
It is this metaphor that lies at the heart of the book of Ecclesiastes: Ecclesiastes declares the ultimate futility of all of our attempts at building and figuring out the world for ourselves, comparing these to attempts at ‘shepherding the wind’. This is the character of life ‘under the sun’. God established a firmament, a veil between heaven and earth, and life lived beneath this veil is characterized by vapour.
Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is searching for some sort of ‘profit’ – some sort of lasting fruit or mark for his labours under the sun – but finds none. His attempts to find ‘profit’ through pleasure (2:1-11), wisdom (2:12-16) and work (2:17-23) all prove futile. Whatever he does will ultimately fall apart. None of our labours will have a lasting effect on the earth. The vaporous character of the worlds that man seeks to create for himself stand in marked contrast to the fixity and permanence of the world in which he finds himself (1:3-11). It is this contrast between permanence and ephemerality that manifests his activities as vapour. We might try to form and fill our own world, much as God formed and filled his world, but his will last, while ours will soon perish.
Some have read the message of Ecclesiastes as a dark and depressing expression of what the world looks like without God. I disagree with these readings. Ecclesiastes is founded upon a profoundly Christian vision of creation. The world that we live in is created out of nothing. It is held in existence by God’s Word and animated by his Spirit or breath. Our being is that of words carried on the wind, not of beings formed of some secure and self-existing ‘stuff’. Life within God’s world is lived out beneath a firmament, a veil that shrouds the realm of God’s presence. Beneath this firmament, human life, action, and thought are vaporous. To compound all of this, following the Fall, humankind labours under a curse, and the creation is subject to futility.
I find this message to be one of the most encouraging in the Bible. So much of our lives are characterized by the frustration of trying to master or grasp the vapour of our existence. Life becomes fraught with the failure of our attempts to shepherd the wind and gain leverage over our world and existence within it. Setting a Sisyphean task for ourselves, we condemn ourselves to constant defeat.
So what is the solution? When we take the true measure and account of our existence, and recognize ourselves as vapour (indeed, as vapour of vapours), we are no longer so tempted to live by sight. Fortunately, living by sight is not the only option. The person who trusts God’s Word and lives by his Spirit is living according to the deepest reality of God’s world: words on breath. The person who lives by faith is living according to one who does not live under the firmament, but is in heaven above the veil, above the vapour.
As we forfeit our attempts at mastery and absolute human providence, we can live according to God’s providence. No longer seeking for fixity and security in the creation itself, we can recognize the creation as a gift that can no more be grasped than our breath, but which constantly arrives as the divine bestowal of life. We can store up treasures with God in heaven, above the insubstantial and ephemeral realm of the vapour. Our human plans, knowledge, and actions may fail, but God’s word will always remain secure. The vapour will shift and disperse, with no trace of its departed presence, yet God never changes. We can never shepherd the winds, but God is the Spirit and makes the clouds his chariot.
As we seek security in God and his word by faith, rather than living by human sight and seeking security through our works, world, and wisdom, we are freed to adopt a different posture towards the creation. The message of Ecclesiastes is profoundly life-affirming. Since we cannot control or master life, we should live joyfully and thankfully, receiving it as a gift from God’s hand and trusting him for eternal ‘gain’. We should constantly allow ourselves to be ‘dispossessed’ of our world, to receive the vapour anew with open and non-grasping hands. This is the way of true wisdom and the path to genuine joy.
Lord, make me to know my end,
And what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am.
Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my age is as nothing before You;
Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor. Selah
Surely every man walks about like a shadow;
Surely they busy themselves in vain;
He heaps up riches,
And does not know who will gather them.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.
Deliver me from all my transgressions;
Do not make me the reproach of the foolish.
I was mute, I did not open my mouth,
Because it was You who did it.
Remove Your plague from me;
I am consumed by the blow of Your hand.
When with rebukes You correct man for iniquity,
You make his beauty melt away like a moth;
Surely every man is vapor. Selah