What does vanity mean? What is the biblical definition of vanity? Why is this sin?
Vanity of a person is seen as having excessive estimation (overestimation) of one’s self, abilities, looks, or other attributes that makes them have an excessive belief in their own abilities or attractiveness to others. Perhaps this was the reason that a certain piece of bedroom furniture is called a “vanity,” because it has a mirror and focuses on the person looking into it. The Bible has a lot to say about vanity as we shall see.
The Vanity of Riches
Vanity is an emptiness or uselessness of things and Solomon wrote more about vanity than any other author in the Bible and more so in Ecclesiastes where vanity is mentioned 32 of the 35 times in the Bible. One such example of the futility or vanity of riches is when “a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Eccl 6:2) because “sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Eccl 2:21).
The Vanity of Life
In Ecclesiastes 6:3-4 in regards to a man’s life, “the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered” and so Solomon wrote “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl 2:17) since “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity” (Eccl 2:15) and “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:14). The psalmist saw the same brevity of life and wrote “Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man” (Psalm 89:47)!
Mankind’s Teachings in Vain
There is also something that is vanity or done in vain and that is teaching manmade religious rules. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day saying “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9). Elsewhere Jesus said they “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). The commandments of mankind are flawed but the law of God is perfect and only it can convert the soul (Psalm 19:7). This is Paul’s reason for “holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil 2:16).
Israel’s Failed Mission
Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations around them as Isaiah wrote, “Israel, in whom I will be glorified. But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:3-4) but when they fell into idolatry, Jeremiah wrote that “the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman” (Jer 10:3). Some in the first century church were also failing God as Paul wrote that “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1st Tim 1:6-7).
If you are living a life outside of faith in Christ then your life is all vanity too. It will pass away and be of no use beyond the grave. You will be judged for everything you have done in this life and without the blood of Christ, you will have to pay for your own sins after death. For others who have repented and trusted in Christ, nothing is done in vain as Paul wrote “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon.