In the first two chapters—and only there—the speaker adopts a royal persona (“the son of David, king in Jerusalem”), thus the traditional identification of Solomon as the author. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Why, wondered early readers, would Solomon say that?
Early Jewish interpretation, preserved in an Aramaic paraphrase (the Targum), provides one answer: ”When Solomon the King of Israel foresaw, by the spirit of prophecy that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son would be divided with Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that Jerusalem and the holy temple would be destroyed, and that the people of Israel would be exiled, he said by the divine word, ‘Vanity of vanities is this world! Vanity of vanities is all which I and my father David strived for. All of it is vanity.’”
Well, even if we don’t follow the Targum in making Solomon a prophet, the Targum’s picked up on one of the book’s central themes: our works don’t last. They turn out to be no more substantial than hebel (‘breath’, ‘vanity’, etc.). Recall Shelley’s Ozymandias with its line “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
So what? Perhaps (1) O Hearer, if this is Solomon’s verdict, what does this say about the toil you’re investing in your more modest projects? And (2) O Hearer, perhaps Solomon will help you properly evaluate the conspicuous consumption practiced by the movers and shakers in your time?
What do you see?