Vanity of vanities
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)
Thus begins the spiritual journal of the richest, wisest and most famous man of his time. And yet Solomon’s project is to tell us about “life under the sun” (a phrase we will consider shortly). But for now let’s note that Solomon’s perspective is limited to the present. If all we have is the ‘here and now’ then life is “vanity of vanities.”
Interestingly, the word for “vanity” is actually the name Abel. We met him very early in the bible. He was the first righteous offspring of Adam and Eve. There would have been great expectations for this offspring of the woman. And yet, instead of bringing life to the world, he is the first to die – slain by Cain, his brother.
What a picture of this fallen world! High hopes cruelly dashed. Life under the sun promises much but delivers death. And so the name “Abel” becomes synonymous with “vanity”, with “meaninglessness.” When things go wrong, we might cite “Murphy’s law”, but a Hebrew would say “Abel.” And if things were really rough it would be “Abel of Abels!” This is the outlook of Solomon.
Here is a sobering thought – if anyone was going to find purpose in “life under the sun” it would be Solomon. He had all the wealth, power, sex, wisdom and achievements he could possibly pursue. And pursue them he did. First he tried wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18). Then came pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Then work (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26). Then riches (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20). Then family (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12). Nothing satisfied.
What else do you think Solomon should have tried?
I remember hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes as a younger man and commenting to my friend “That man just needed a girlfriend.” I wonder what that revealed about me? Whatever we think Solomon needed, that’s where we think life is found.
Well I was wrong about Solomon needing a girlfriend. 1 Kings 11:3 tells us he had 700 wives and 300 concubines! Solomon never did anything in halves. And after sucking the marrow from all of life, his conclusion was this:
“all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4,16; 6:9)
Both “vanity” and “spirit” can mean “breath or wind”. A more modern translation calls Solomon’s pursuits “a chasing after the wind.” It’s like trying to catch your shadow. The goal is always out of reach and the ending is always empty.
This is life under the sun. And Solomon lays bare its pointlessness. Every time we are tempted to say “Yes, but what about this?” Solomon replies “Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Vanity!” The reader is brought to despair along with Solomon and yearns with him for a life that is not just “under the sun.”
But for that to be a real hope and not just wishful thinking there will have to be an answer to Abel.
Such fulfilment is exactly what Jesus brings. As the Offspring of the woman, He is the true Righteous One. Though He too was slain, He rose again to bring hope to our death-bound world. He is filled with the Spirit of Wisdom (as we saw in Proverbs). And He will give His Spirit to all who seek Him.
Life is not found in sex, money, power, fame, family or accomplishments. Such things are a chasing after the wind. Yet Jesus stands as the Fulfilled Man – Filled Full with the Life-Giving Spirit and overflowing to us. To those weary of “life under the sun” He says:
“If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit”. (John 7:37-39)
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