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Vanity of Vanities

In Ecclesiastes, vanity has more to do with frustration, fruitlessness, futility, and failure.

We mentioned last time that in the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon brings to bear phrases and terms and scenarios that give us perspective and sharpen the visual acuity of our faith as God Himself ministers to us. These expressions capture life in a fallen world and resonate with our common experience. Not only do they set the tone, they set the stage for another reality, a redemptive reality. 

Probably the best known phrase associated with Ecclesiastes is the one that opens and closes the discourse of the Preacher. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2; 12:8). Often, we associate vanity with conceit, where we think highly of ourselves and believe others should share our opinion. 

But in Ecclesiastes, vanity has more to do with frustration, fruitlessness, futility, and failure. We will see this vividly at play across the various dimensions of life addressed in the book. Best laid plans come to naught. Cosmetic efforts to hold time at bay ultimately fail. Escape through pleasure only blinds to the inevitable. Seeking meaning through religion comes up empty. And where is God in all this? It’s hard to tell. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Another expression found in Ecclesiastes that sets the tone has to do with the setting, the milieu, in which we experience vanity. After opening with his observation that all is vanity, the Preacher introduces us to this second phrase: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3). The collective answer of Ecclesiastes is not a happy one, at least to all appearances. 

“Under the sun” speaks to the created order. All of life transpires under the sun that brings us warmth and light. But for the Preacher the expression conveys another reality. The world in which we live is a fallen world. Sin has entered in to the created order, bringing disorder, dysfunction, decay, and death. Thorns infest the ground, and we are afflicted by them. 

We live in a broken world. What God created and declared “good” has become fraught with misery. Certainly, the world retains much beauty and delight, but it is infected by sin. Like a disease that ravages the human body, keeping it from vigor and functioning as it should, the world is disabled. Things do not work as they should. 

This new reality is observed by the Preacher: “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11). Such talk arrests us. Surely, God’s world is not governed by time and chance. Is it? 

“Under the sun,” we experience “vanity,” and our efforts amount to “a striving after wind,” another phrase that describes what it’s like to try to find stability, meaning, purpose, and value in the course of our lives. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). The mythological figure of Sisyphus comes to mind, relegated to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, never achieving his goal. 

At the outset, we noted that not only do these expressions set the tone, they set the stage for another reality, a redemptive reality. While the present creation is described as being subject to futility (Rom. 8:20), there is in store a new creation. Against the bleak backdrop of this fallen world, the apostle whets our appetites: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). 

The source of this new creation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His redemptive work has to do not merely with personal salvation but with a new creation, something even now inaugurated and will one day be consummated. That means our efforts in His name are not futile, as the apostle reminds us: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). 

  1. What phrases does Ecclesiastes provide us to assess the fallen world in which we live?
  2. How do we know these assessments are not God’s final answer?

"Heavenly Father, Sovereign Lord, grant me grace to rest in You, to trust You when things do not make sense to me."

For further study, see Stanley D. Gale, Making Sanity out of Vanity: Christian realism in the book of Ecclesiastes (Faverdale North, Darlington, England: EP Books, 2011). 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Books, a division of Good New Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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