As you might have noticed, Ecclesiastes is totally obsessed with this word. He can't get enough of it. It's his catchphrase. What "D'oh!" is to Homer Simpson, "All is vanity!" is to Ecclesiastes. But there's a problem—the word "vanity" is sort of a weird way to translate the Hebrew word, hevel, which means something closer to "mere breath" (as the scholar Robert Alter translates it). Yeah, "vanity" has more of a ring to it than "mere breath"—but that's the truth.
And another issue with the word "vanity" is that it has too many negative connotations. It's like saying "Everything is fake!" or something like that. But the actual meaning of the world is a little more subtle—"insubstantial" might be the best way of phrasing it. Things that are full of "vanity" aren't bad; they're just ephemeral, fleeting: not worth getting attached to. There is a bit of absurdity and futility mixed up in it, but it's not the same as what "vanity" implies, even though that's the classic translation.
Just a Slog through the Fog
That's all well and good—but why "mere breath"? Why does Ecclesiastes think that breath or wind or fog provide good metaphors for everything? Well, the simplest answer is because everything fades away. It's like if you're standing outside on a cold day and you can see your breath going out and dissolving—Ecclesiastes means something close to that.
Also, the word hevel means breath that's already been spent—so you could call it a "waste of breath" (though that's probably too negative too). But there's another word for breath—ruah. And ruah is the breath of life. You could say that hevel is breath on its way out (being wasted or spent) and ruah is breath that's still giving power and strength to life, keeping it working.
One of the paradoxes of vanity, however, is that when you recognize that everything is like a dissolving fog, and that nothing will last, not even your own body, you can live a life without being attached to anything, and without worrying about the past and future (since you know that they're just more vanity).
"Chasing after Wind"
The words translated as "chasing after wind" actually, literally, mean "herding the wind"—an impossible task. It's a bit like herding cats.
Yet, the word for "wind" used here is—get ready—the same for the word for "spirit" or soul in Hebrew. That's why the King James Bible translates it as "vexation of spirit." The "wind" is the ruah, the breath that God breathes into Adam when he makes him come alive. So, Ecclesiastes isn't only saying that living a life of worldly attachment and delusion is like trying to herd the wind. It's also like trying to herd the spirit, the basic energy of life, to go a certain way. It's an impossible task for a human. You need to let things happen, and have the courage to accept what comes.
Even searching after wisdom can be a form of "chasing after wind":
And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (NRSV 1:17-18)
The idea of trying to "catch the wind" or "chase the wind" shows up everywhere, in poetry, music, and books. We mention Donovan's song "Catch the Wind" in our Chapter 1 summary. If the world is like breath that keeps dissolving, and the spirit or life-force that powers all the living things in the world is something that we can't hope to try to herd or organize ("man and beast" are made from the same spirit, says Ecclesiastes), we need to accept whatever situation we're in and just deal with it as best we can.
"Under the Sun"
The words "under the sun" are probably Ecclesiastes's third favorite phrase, after "chasing the wind" and "vanity." There's more than one catchphrase for this guy. In one of the Bible's most famous passages, he writes,
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (KJV 9:11)
Basically, whatever happens "under the sun" is the same as whatever is happening in the world—our world, the world of the living. Yes, it is the world of vanity, where everything is just a waste of breath. But the world that is not under the sun is Sheol—the Hebrew underworld. Yet Ecclesiastes doesn't think of Sheol as an afterlife; it's a term he uses for non-existence.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (9:9-10)
Ecclesiastes also says that he thinks it's better to have never been born than to come out into the world that exists "under the sun" and fail to enjoy the good things (6:3). But, an important Rabbi says that the fact that our life exists "under the sun" is meant to imply that something exists above the sun: God and Torah.