“Vanity of Vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Who is this preacher that made such an audacious statement? None other than King Solomon, whose resume includes the title “the wisest man who ever lived.” He is also the author of the book of Ecclesiastes and the book of wisdom, Proverbs. His other works comprise the poetic Song of Solomon and contributions to the book of Psalms.
1 Kings 4:31-33 reveals Solomon’s additional intellectual pursuits and accomplishments:
For he was wiser than all men—than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five. Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish.
The book of Ecclesiastes is unique amongst the sixty-six books of Holy Writ. It is written from more of a human perspective of life, rather than a divine one. Solomon speaks of human existence in Ecclesiastes as “under the sun.” It concentrates on man’s major pursuits, while struggling with our fleeting lives here on earth. Though it does include some theology, a humanistic view weaves throughout the entire narrative. Some are perplexed by this. But no need to worry. God’s Word is true, even when human limitations or error are presented.
God saw fit to include a human viewpoint in Scripture and I, for one, am glad He did. The Hebrew word for vanity, in this context, simply means “breath” or “vapor.” Vanity, according to Ecclesiastes, reveals the emptiness of life that plagues mankind apart from God, who is “above the sun.” In other words, all our searching for a sense of permanency is nothing more than a puff of steam. Here today, and poof, gone tomorrow. James 4:14a concurs, “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
Throughout the text, Solomon struggles with how the past determines, to a great degree, the future. Generations seem bound to repeat the same vain pursuits of preceding generations. Solomon presents a cyclical view of life, where one generation merely repeats the same folly as previous generations. We must remember, however, this is all done “under the sun.”
It is interesting to note, as well, that after Solomon speaks of the brevity of our life here on earth, he tackles the four main pursuits of mankind―pleasure-seeking, materialism, position, and education. Throughout the book, Solomon uses these four quests to reinforce his primary argument that “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Because his father David was a “man of war,” King Solomon was afforded the luxury of being a “man of peace.” As a result, Solomon was able to pursue these subjects the way a scientist studies research material. Would these four pursuits give some measure of meaning to life? Keep in mind, unlike most of us, he had incredible resources available to afford the experiment.
Solomon’s first pursuit was pleasure-seeking. He experimented with the philosophy of hedonism, where pleasure is the measure of all things. Hedonism, particularly for men, is an appealing alternative to the demands of life. It helps men escape the realities of responsibility that are associated with Biblical manhood. Some men in America live in a fantasy world of sensuality, which seeks to assuage their sense of incompetence and mask their fear of death. Other men attempt to vicariously live their lives through Hollywood celebrities or heroic sports figures. Rather than bridle their sensual passions and lead courageously with the Word of God, far too many men routinely fail when duty calls. Due to the moral compromise inspired by hedonistic self-gratification, men, in general, have lost the moral authority to lead. Feminism is more than happy to fill the void.
Whatever Solomon saw, he indulged. He did not withhold anything from his appetites. He followed this hedonistic course with “eyes wide open,” to test if pleasure was the meaning to life. This man knew life was short. He wanted to know whether pleasure, unrestrained and uninhibited, could fulfill man’s limited engagement here on earth. It did not. His conclusion: “This also is vanity.”
The failure of hedonism is partially due to its arbitrariness. What brings pleasure to some may bring great pain to others. The world loves the “whatever floats your boat” mentality, until it sinks someone else’s boat. Like all sin, hedonism promises fulfillment but never delivers on its pledge. It fascinates then assassinates. Think about all the sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS cases, and other maladies pleasure left out of the equation. The problem with feeding the beast of lust is that it can never be satisfied. Like fire, it will demand more (Proverbs 30:16). It will consume everything in its path, including the souls inflamed by its passions. Perhaps it was the deceptive, destructive pursuit of hedonism that led Solomon to warn, “Hell and Destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Proverbs 27:20).
From there, Solomon shifted his considerable talents to empire building. He turned his undivided attention to all the trappings of materialism. He was the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of his age. He became a workaholic. Some in America pursue this course with a vengeance, while others count on the government to steal from the producers to enhance their laziness by living off the government dole. Not good for the economy or slothful souls, but at least political parties are guaranteed future votes.
What ended Solomon’s materialistic pursuit? The usual suspect. Death! It finally dawned on him. It is as if he thought, why knock myself out with all these great work projects? At some point, I’m going to shuffle off this mortal coil and what will happen to all that I have accomplished? Will it go to the foolish or to the wise? Will they squander it, like the Prodigal Son, or will they increase my possessions after I am gone.
The church, unfortunately, is not exempt from the trappings of materialism. In some circles, it has become a gauge to measure our spirituality and godliness. This is an amazing situation, especially, when one considers the Bible strictly forbids this mentality amongst Christians. 1 Timothy 6:3-10 warns:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
According to those who make merchandise of men’s souls by deceptively mishandling the Word of God for filthy lucre’s sake, our faith is weighed in the balance by how much prosperity we can amass on earth. Does God truly use this criteria to judge whether our faith is genuine or not? The question is rhetorical and yet a lot of Christians still fall prey to these seductive doctrines. It is this “Gospel of Self-improvement” that has turned the Gospel of the Kingdom into the great “American Gospel Enterprise.”
This partly accounts for the church’s lack of resolve to fight the battle and to make the necessary changes that will help turn the tide of evil in America. Christians who fight against sin, Satan, and this illegitimate world system often experience loss. Obviously, if materialism is the heaven-sent sign of God honoring someone’s faith, who in their right mind would risk loss? If Christian sacrifice to advance the Kingdom of God is viewed as jeopardizing the blessings of God, how many would sacrifice. The answer is not many.
Perhaps it is high time the church reexamine her priorities. Are we more concerned about the acquisition of wealth than we are being the salt and light our dark nation needs in this desperate hour? Our answer will determine whether or not we secure a future and a hope for our posterity.
To temper this view, please keep in mind God is not against His people obtaining wealth. He is concerned that wealth does not obtain His people. In fact, God’s Word declares, “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:18).
If we come into wealth by diligent labor, the purpose for our riches is to advance the kingdom of God. We must be rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:17-19). What Solomon discovered, however, was different. He was trying to keep up with the material Joneses. Thus, his wealth never solved the problem associated with vanity. It only left his soul empty and unfulfilled.
Undaunted by the failures of pleasure and wealth, Solomon tried his hand at position-seeking. Surely fame, power, and influence would alleviate the underlying sense of vanity that gnawed at the souls of men.
In verse nine of chapter two, God’s Word states, “He became great.” Solomon became a man of great personage that wielded considerable sway in the affairs of men and nations. 1 Kings 4:34 reveals, “And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon to find out if the reports of his fame were true, the Bible records, “There was no more spirit in her” (2 Chronicles 9:4). Solomon blew her mind as he, with great wisdom, answered all her probing questions.
We can be assured that many others courted his favor, vied for his endorsements, and sought a privileged place in his kingdom. Presumably, many wanted to associate with this powerful, influential man. Though it may have temporarily boosted his ego, Solomon found, to his utter amazement, that all the power in the world was powerless to satisfy his restless heart and troubled mind. This vexation only served to reinforce vanity’s grip upon his soul.
Finally, Solomon turned to education as the cure-all for mankind. America is famous for this pursuit. Whenever there is a problem with our social order, politicians trot out education as the all-encompassing solution to what ails us. We spend more money per student then any “first world” nation and yet we are on the low end in results. Though a good education is certainly beneficial, C. S. Lewis noted, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
Solomon set his sights on becoming a learned philosopher. He became a man of letters. He distinguished himself as a man who gave himself to the study of wisdom, folly, and madness (Ecclesiastes 7:25). He wanted to know the reason for the things in life. Though he concluded that wisdom is beneficial and that wisdom far excels folly as far as light excels darkness, there is still an inherent defect. There was something missing in his pursuit of wisdom that led him back to vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:12-14).
Again, Solomon is faced with the notion that the same fate that awaits the wise is the same fate that awaits the fool. We all have to cross that great threshold and leveler of mankind―death. Ah, there is the rub for Solomon. Why strain his brain trying to be wise and understanding, when in the end he is no better off than one who squanders his talents, skills, and abilities to become a fool? Both will die and soon be forgotten.
How many years does it take for a wise man’s name to fade into obscurity? To be nothing more than an entry in some vital statistics book or a footnote in history? Such were the melancholy thoughts that drove Solomon to despair.
According to Ecclesiastes, everything Solomon gave himself to ended with futility. Everything he sought to hold on to or hoped would add substance and lasting value to his life, evaporated before his eyes like the morning mist.
If we deceive ourselves into believing that these four pursuits, pleasure-seeking, materialism, fame, and knowledge, will unlock the mysteries of life, what happens when we step into eternity? What happens to our memories of pleasure, our accumulation of wealth, our standing in the community, and our great learning when we pass from this life into the next? What becomes of all the mastery that we worked so hard to obtain? How many generations does it take to squander our accomplishments? How many years does it take for our posterity to squander our riches and resort back to poverty?
By now you may be thinking, “What a bleak and fatalistic view of life. What is the use?” Well, before you seek to get off this seemingly endless treadmill to oblivion, I would encourage you with a revelation. The truth is, the God who created the universe, purposely subjected His creation to vanity. That is right. In Romans 8:20, the Word of God states, “For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope.”
Did you catch that? This life was made subject to vanity. Vanity is now king of the world and we are all his loyal subjects. Notice that God did not do this willingly. It is the consequence of the Fall. God created man, Adam and Eve, to be His Vice-Regents over His paradise. Man, instead of remaining faithful to that call, rebelled and committed high treason against the Creator. Sin, death, and hell fell upon man like a ton of brick. The world, as a result of man’s treachery against God, was plunged into the dark void of vanity. Since the Fall in the Garden, man has wandered aimlessly about, trying to find meaning and a sense of permanence in a world that can only heap more vanity upon our empty souls and longing hearts.
Keep in mind, God did this to instill in His creation a hope. You may be thinking, “What possible hope is there in a life that has been subject to vanity?” The answer is plenty. The God who knit us together in our mother’s womb, subjected creation to vanity with a hope. It is a hope that man will one day awake from the spell that sin has cast over us and finally recognize that life does not work apart from God. Everything done “under the sun” is meaningless apart from Him. Blaise Pascal got it right when he stated, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
Man’s ultimate need should reveal mankind’s primary pursuit. We need God to save us, deliver us, and heal us. We need God to be our source of our life in this poor, fallen world subject to vanity. Otherwise, we will continue on the same treadmill of sins lies, and folly experienced by those who have gone before us. We need the Lord to break the chains to avoid the same fate of eternal destruction that generation after generation has suffered since the beginning of time.
My friend, it was the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ that broke the power of sin, death, hell, and the grave. Jesus delivered us from vanity. It is Jesus who breaks the endless cycle of sin and the circular life worldview that preoccupied Solomon. By God’s grace, we can be set free from repeating the same folly over and over again. It is the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ alone that brings to man a progressive life view that is actually moving forward and upward in a meaningful way that will last forever.
How about you my friend? Are you tired of plotting, only to find life slipping through your hands in disappointment? Are you sick of banging your head off of the same old wall with nothing of lasting value to show for it? Are you fed up with expending so much energy, only to find everything you worked for disappearing like the morning mist before your very eyes? Do you desire to get off the endless treadmill that has led you to repeat the same destructive behavior over and over again which inevitably will lead to your eternal demise?
Listen carefully to these words from Psalms 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Unless your life is submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, you can labor, but in the end, find nothing but vanity for all your troubles.
My friend, you can actually gain everything this vain life has to offer and yet Jesus asks this profound question, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” Jesus taught there is a cross road in this life. He stated, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” Matthew 7:13, 14).
There is the way of the fool who builds his house on sand and travels down the wide road to destruction (Matthew 7:24-28). There is the way of the wise who builds his house upon the rock and travels the narrow way that leads to eternal life. Most live “under the sun” subject to vanity, death, hell, and the grave. Some look “above the sun” and find the true Son and they are set free. Which one describes you my friend?