Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ESV
Ten years ago, I graduated high school. With aspirations for studying the Scriptures and writing books, poems, stories, or really anything of significance, I instead spent much of my time becoming moderately proficient at Halo 3 and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong, the LORD was merciful on me in high school to keep me from many activities that could have done me a great deal of harm. But still I wasted so much of my time, so today I would like to give you the message that I would give eighteen-year-old me.
THE VANITY OF LIFE
The primary message of Ecclesiastes can be summarized as follows: everything under the sun is vanity. Once we understand what Solomon means by vanity, we will begin to understand why some consider Ecclesiastes to the be the most depressing book of the Bible. Other English translations of vanity include meaningless, futility, a vapor, or the merest of breaths. Hopefully, those words capture the idea. Vanity in Ecclesiastes is meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, worthless, fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow, transient, and momentary. To say then that the connotation is negative is an understatement.
So what does Solomon describe as being vanity?
Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is meaningless. Sex is a vapor. Laughter is momentary. Everything is pointless, like chasing after the wind.
Come on, Solomon. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?
The remainder of these verses give a brief summary of Solomon’s reasoning behind his conclusion: why is everything vanity?
First of all, the sun has been rising and setting since the world began, but we humans can barely manage to live to be 100-years-old. Even the greatest of us cannot beat these inanimate objects. Alexander the Great accomplished enough for history to permanently remember him as being great, but despite the vastness of his empire and the brilliance of his leadership, his body is now nothing more than dust, just like the poorest of peasants under his rule. But the sun that beamed upon his head over the Persian desert is still the same more than 2000 years later.
Although it doesn’t presently benefit him, Alexander is at least remembered today. Solomon reminds us in verse 11 that the same cannot be said for the majority of people. Even though we often live as though we are the center of the universe, the harsh reality is that within a hundred and fifty years hardly anyone will remember that we ever existed, while even fewer will know or care anything about us. This is difficult for most of us to hear because we want to believe that our name and legacy will live beyond us, but while I am thankful for my great, great grandfather, I know nothing about this essential limb of my family tree except that his name was Floyd.
With such a harsh reality attempting to stare us in the face, we shouldn’t be surprised at humanity’s obsession with heroes. Superheroes, for example, allow us to imagine the fantasy of being great, of being more than human, of having a clear sense of meaning and worth. Driving home from the latest film, we don’t immediately begin talking about what we would do as a regular person living in a super-powered world. No, we identify first with the heroes, the larger-than-life characters, the ones who have left normalcy in the dust.
Ecclesiastes feels depressing because its goal is to destroy the fantasy world that we have made for ourselves. We cover ourselves with an onslaught of entertainment in order to hide from the terror of silence, that sinking feeling in our gut whenever we get a momentary glimpse at our own mortality. The looming inevitability of death can keep us grounded in reality like nothing else can. It reminds us that because our days are short, they should not be wasted. Because we are not promised tomorrow, we should make the most of today. Truly Moses was right when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Unfortunately, the thought of death is also unpleasant. It reminds us that we are finite instead of infinite, that we are creatures instead of gods. So we hide ourselves from the inevitable, and often waste the precious amount of time that we have been given.
HOW TO WASTE YOUR LIFE
Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes how he chased lasting purpose and meaning under the sun. He does this by pursuing many things that we often make the supreme goal of our lives. His conclusion after each is that nothing but vanity can come ultimately from living for (fill in the blank). Allow me then to describe three of these pursuits and why they lead to a wasted life. We will then conclude by looking upon the one goal of life that will never result in a vain and wasted life.
First, and probably most often, people pursue their own self-interests as the supreme goal of their life. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-actualization are the gods we serve. Decisions and plans are made with self primarily in mind. To be fair, within a post-modern and materialist frame, self-interest makes sense. If life doesn’t have a Creator or an ultimate purpose, then I don’t have a purpose. I only know that I am here now and that I might not be tomorrow, so why should I not try to do and get everything that I want? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, right?
Unfortunately, simply from a practical standpoint, we tend to be terrible judges of what is actually good for us. For instance, much debate has raged around a study that suggested that there are three steps for avoiding poverty: graduate high school, get a full-time job, and get married and have a family. The study found that of all the people surveyed who completed those three steps (in that order) only two percent lived in poverty. The debate surrounding the study is whether the relationship between the steps and avoiding poverty is of causation or correlation, and of course, even if it is causal, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the statistics indicate a clear benefit from doing hard things like holding a job and maintaining a family. Yet selfishness can very easily whisper in our ear that graduating high school isn’t worth the hassle, that working a job that you might not enjoy isn’t a valuable use of time, or that settling down with a spouse and kids is too much work. The point is that we rarely understand what is truly good for us.
A subcategory of self-interest is the pursuit of pleasure. Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure is found in chapter two, where he claims that he did not deny himself anything that his eye wanted. Do you want a good home? Solomon built a palace. Want a nice garden? He planted entire forests and designed whole parks. Want to avoid physical labor? He had 35,000 servants. How about sex? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Does music make you happy? His personal singers would act as his ancient iPod. Since this is the Bible, you might expect Solomon to claim that none it gave him the pleasure that he was looking for, but instead he says, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). He sought pleasure and found it. The problem was that pleasure alone didn’t last. Pleasure is a momentary vanity; therefore, it fails royally whenever we make it our lifelong goal.
Another route of self-interest might be the pursuit of self-actualization. This is the general path of many philosophies and religions. The overall goal is to keep improving yourself, to continue mastering yourself, your desires, and your passions. While this sounds great in theory (and the Bible certainly calls us to be self-controlled and disciplined), it too is vanity as the main goal of life. The sobering fact is that you will never fully become the person that you aim to be. Illustrative of this point is the title of a blog post I read a couple of months ago that was something along these lines: “If the you from 5 and 10 years ago was an idiot, what does that say about present-day you?”
Second, many are tempted to pursue wealth as the driving force of their life. Money, possessions, and the power that surrounds them are quite appealing. If anyone had the right to speak about the effects of money, it is Solomon. If the accounts of 1 Kings are correct (and since they are within the Bible, let’s go away and make that assumption), then some have estimated Solomon’s networth to be around $2.1 trillion, making him the richest man to ever live. To put this in perspective, Rockefeller comes in at number two with a networth of $600 billion.
So what does the richest man to ever live say about money? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (5:10). Notice that Solomon isn’t calling wealth or money evil. In fact, he goes on to say in verse 19 of the same chapter that it is a gift of God whenever anyone is able to enjoy the wealth and possessions given to him by God. But sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy the wealth that they acquire, and in verses 1-6 of chapter six, Solomon claims that it is better to be miscarried in your mother’s womb than to have blessings and not be able to enjoy them. But that is how the love of money works. You become so obsessed with having more that you cannot enjoy what you already have.
Finally, we might try to our family the goal of our lives. This is a particularly difficult one to grasp because it feels like the right thing to do and Hollywood seems hell-bent on teaching this valuable lesson (at times…). And of course, the Bible calls us to love our families well. Paul tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Clearly, family is serious business, but still it is not ultimate. If this sounds wrong, just consider the clear reality. If your spouse is the center of your life, what happens when he or she passes away, or worse if they betrayed you and left you alone? If your kids become your reason for living, what if they die, or what happens when they get married and have families of their own? As much as I love my wife and daughter, they are not God. If I make them my gods, they will be crushed under the weight of my expectations for them. Family is not eternal and will eventually fail, so family cannot replace God.
Of course, there are plenty more things that people make the goal of their lives, but we don’t have time to even attempt addressing such a never-ending list.
TO LIVE IS CHRIST
Take a moment to notice that self-interest, wealth, and family are not evil things. Each is a good gift given by a good God. The problem comes whenever we make them our gods, whenever the gifts usurp the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf. Or we could say it is as ridiculous as writing and giving a thank you card to the gift itself instead of the giver. Doing so is foolish, as insane as trying to catch the wind in your hand.
This is why Solomon repeats throughout Ecclesiastes that true and lasting enjoyment of life is a gift from God. Enjoyment cannot be earned or bought. It is a gift that can only come from the hand of the Giver. Therefore, Solomon is constantly trying to force us to fix our hope above the sun, beyond this life, and onto the Author of life. All is vanity under the sun. A life lived exclusively under the sun is a wasted life, but a life given over to God is a life of true and lasting joy.
The Apostle Paul famously expresses a similar message in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Often it is the second part of that verse that sticks out in our minds. We quote it as a reminder whenever we start to cringe at the thought of leaving this world. It comes with a lump in our throat as we hear stories of martyrs for Christ throughout history. Indeed, the blessed hope of the Christian faith is that Christ will return to resurrect our bodies so that we will live forever in His presence. Yes! Let “death is gain” be the Christian’s dying words! But the first phrase is just as important: “to live is Christ.”
What does Paul mean by saying “to live is Christ?” He means that all of life belongs to Christ. Our very state of existing is now the property of Christ. As Christians, we have been bought by God with a price, so we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That price was the very death of God upon a cross as a substitute for us. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).
As a Christian, your life is not your own; it belongs to God. This is why Paul tells us twice to glorify God in everything that we do, in our eating or drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31) and in our words and deeds (Colossians 3:17).
And why would we not want to do so?
He is Author of life (Acts 3:15).
“In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
All of creation was created by Him, through Him, and for Him, so that He is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:15-20).
The universe itself is upheld by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).
And one day, every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will proclaim Jesus as Lord and bow before Him to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
If living for the gifts of God is utter foolishness, then living for the Giver Himself is the wisest action we can take. But having God be the great purpose of our lives is for our good as well as His glory. After all, if we long to live for something greater than ourselves, who fits that category better than God! If we want to live lives that matter and have a real purpose, where else can we turn except to Him who formed all of existence?
But practically, how can we live for God’s glory?
If you are not a Christian, then the path toward living for God’s glory begins with repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). First, repentance is far more than simply apologizing for sin. Repentance is the heart-broken confession of sin, followed by turning away from it. Repentance is the renouncing of sin. Second, believing the gospel means understanding the good news that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection saves us from our sins. The gospel is that even though we deserved the full and just wrath of God for our sins, the death of Jesus paid that penalty completely and gives to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. The good news is that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children (Ephesians 2:1-10).
If you already a follower of Christ, other than continuing to repent and believe the gospel, here are some basic actions for being a disciple of Jesus. These basics are pray, know the Scripture, love the church, and obey Scripture.
Relationships cannot exist without communication, so how can we have a relationship with God without speaking to Him in prayer?
With God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we can quickly find ourselves praying to a god fashioned within our minds if we are not rooted and grounded in the Bible.
Many claim to love Jesus but can’t stand the church. The church, however, is the body and bride of Jesus. You can’t love Jesus and not love His church.
Finally, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This does not mean that you will ever perfectly obey in this life, but it does mean that you should want to obey the commands of God.
Of course, living a life for God’s glory does not mean that you must be called to full-time ministry; instead, serve God wherever He places you in life. If you are a nurse, then be a nurse to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). If you are a mechanic, then be a mechanic to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so. In other words, be missional where you are and with what you are doing.
If that sounds like a boring and inconsequential life, consider the first 300 years of Christianity. Throughout that time, Christians faced some of the worst and most intense persecution found throughout history, and yet by the early 300s Rome had its first Christian emperor and in 380 Christianity was the official religion. How did Christianity become so powerful even in the midst of persecution? Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes that Christianity spread on the backs of ordinary and long-forgotten Christians, slaves and business-people alike, who took the good news with them wherever they went. Of course, Acts also tells us this fact as well: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). After Stephen’s death and Christians became persecuted in Jerusalem, many fled the city, but they did not stop sharing the gospel.
The world’s greatest empire was overcome by normal and ordinary believers living their common and seemingly un-noteworthy lives for God’s glory. May we too give our lives to that one focus. After all, nothing else comes close to the value, meaning, purpose, and worth of exalting the name of Jesus Christ.