Vanity Fare (1)
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1.8, 9
A world without God
Ours is a disenchanted, secular age, a world which has relegated God and spiritual matters to the Wunderkammer of history.
We will not understand the weirdness, violence, narcissism, and sensuality of the times in which we live until we accept that, for most people, even for many if not most of those who profess some measure of belief in Him, God simply does not matter. He is strictly pro forma; our allegiance to Him is merely perfunctory; He’s a good luck charm we call on from time to time, but don’t really expect to deliver on anything that matters.
Ours is a world without God. The modern age celebrates its liberation from such things as revelation, divine Law, spiritual vision and discipline, or any moral restraints on human freedom. It regards itself as magnanimous in tolerating those who yet believe, though its patience can run short at times. It worships at the altar of reason, science, and technology, for it finds in these the promise of maximum freedom, prosperity, indulgence, and length of life.
Ours is an age in flight from God, and it is our duty and calling who yet believe in Him, to make sure we understand the times, so that we may know what God requires of us for His glory and our good (1 Chron. 12.32).
A conscious rebellion
The modern age, and with it, the age of secularism, began around the middle of the 18th century in France, with a conscious decision on the part of certain free thinkers to rid themselves and the world of God.
Atheistic intellectuals called philosophes, fed up with the hypocrisy of the age, resolved to establish a new paradigm for thought and life. Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, and Voltaire, among others, pooled their considerable intellectual powers to the task of rethinking the world without God, without angels and demons, and even without the Church, and considered that they were quite original and doing a very good thing. Together, they created an Encyclopedia of all knowledge, in which they rewrote the history of ideas and things from a strictly this-worldly perspective. They announced the birth of the Age of Enlightenment, and provided a palette from which subsequent scholars and thinkers repainted all of learning and life without need of or reference to God.
To appreciate the success of their endeavor, only consider the curricula of public schools and universities in our day. Some acknowledgement of God may be allowed, but only as a historical or literary curiosity; the rest of a student’s education during those formative years proceeds without any reference to or need for Him.
Been there, done that
But what the philosophes failed to note was that there is nothing new under the sun. The experiment of living apart from God had been tried many times before, and always with the same dismal result. A world without God does not lead to greater freedom, prosperity, and enjoyment, but to disappointment, despair, and death. With respect to the project of rejecting God and throwing off His authority, humankind has often been there and done that, but always to its own chagrin and dismay.
The Bible records an early effort at living apart from God, together with an honest assessment of the endeavor. King Solomon learned the hard way that life without God is a vanity fare of emptiness, uncertainty, and death. The first years of his reign over Israel were a model of the divine economy functioning and flourishing through the institutions of human culture and society (cf. 1 Kings 1-10). Having gained the wisdom of God to rule his people well, Solomon governed the nation with one eye fixed on the will of God – “under the heavens,” as he put it – knowing that this was the way to wisdom and success. Everything to which he put his mind or hand prospered, and the people of Israel and the surrounding nations flourished right along with him.
But sometime late in his reign, Solomon strayed from the path of trusting in God into an experiment of living “under the sun,” the results of which were disastrous. The book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s account of his sortie into a kind of secularism. He wrote it as a plea to his son, confronting his narcissistic and materialistic leanings, and pleading with him not to repeat his father’s terrible mistake of living as though God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.
Solomon ultimately recovered from his errant ways; his son, Rehoboam, would not. The book of Ecclesiastes outlines the folly of thinking that we can make our way in this world without reference to God – “under the sun”, as Solomon says. It can thus help us understand the folly of our own secular age, and consider what we who live “under the heavens” must do to turn our generation’s thoughts to God once again.
1. What is secularism? Why do secular people consider that faith in God is not necessary?
2. How can you see that secularism has powerfully shaped the way people live? Which aspects of the secular worldview to most often encounter in your daily life?
3. As Solomon expressed it, what’s the difference between living “under the sun” and living “under the heavens”?
Next steps: Have you identified your Personal Mission Field? Watch this brief video (click here), then download the accompanying worksheet, and discover the calling God has for you in this secular age.
T. M. Moore
For a more complete study of the book of Ecclesiastes, download our Scriptorium series on Ecclesiastes by clicking here. Ecclesiastes is an excellent book to share with an unbelieving friend, as it confronts all the idols and vain hopes of unbelief, exposing their folly and holding out the hope of life in God alone. We’ve prepared a verse translation of Ecclesiastes which is suitable for sharing with believers and unbelievers alike. Order your copy of Comparatio, by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.