“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity… I have seen everything that is done under the son, and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14). Welcome to the world of Ecclesiastes. It is initially a very disorienting world, one that seems dark and depressing with phrases like “I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’” (2:2) and
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity (3:19).
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 (9:11).
It’s difficult reading as one pillar of purpose and meaning after another is pushed over by a persistent Preacher. Pleasure, he says, it’s vanity. Wisdom? It’s vanity, too. Work? Family? Wealth? Vanity, vanity, vanity.
What’s going on? In a word, wisdom.
The author of Ecclesiastes, through his guest Preacher, is teaching us wisdom, offering us Scripture’s compliment to the moral universe of Proverbs. Last month we heard the book of Proverbs exhort us to gain wisdom through the fear of the Lord, a wisdom that would result in the good life. So, fear the Lord, live in line with His moral universe, and you’ll enjoy success and peace. Scorn the Lord by living a selfish and prideful life and you’ll wind up in shame and ruin.
Ecclesiastes responds, “Not so fast. It doesn’t always work that way. Yes, fear the Lord. Yes, align yourself with His moral universe by hearing His Word and following His statues. This is good and will tend to bring good things, but life is far too complex and chance-ridden to give you any guarantees.” Thus the Preacher’s refrain, “All is vanity.”
The word is hevel in Hebrew. It means vapor or breath. Life is hevel, vapor/breath. It is fleeting and temporary, even enigmatic and unpredictable. It’s like seeing your breath on a cold day and trying to grab it; there’s nothing in your hand. Things in life are like that. They can’t be held. Pleasure, wisdom, work, wealth, even family, they’re all hevel, nothing but breath or vapor. They simply won’t last. Time will erase them. Death will take them. Or tragedy will befall them.
The Preacher calls it all striving after wind. Wind can’t be caught; it can’t be held. So, the things we set up to last won’t; the things on which we think we can rely will fail. Time, chance, and death will take them all. ALL. Your job may be yours for decades, but eventually somebody else will sit in your desk or harvest your field or drive your route. Your house may be yours for years, but eventually somebody else will eat supper in your kitchen and watch TV in your family room. Your wealth may comfort you for a time, but eventually the name on the account will change. Your name may be known by your community for a time, but eventually you will be reduced to the dash between the dates on your headstone. There is simply no place under the sun you can turn to for permanence. It’s all hevel, breath, vapor.
Why is the Preacher doing this? Is he driving us all to be nihilists despairing of all meaning or hope? Is he trying to leave us utterly depressed? No. He’s driving after sober wisdom. He’s trying to help you see the folly of closing your hands around anything under the sun. Close your hands around your job and you’ll be left with nothing. Close them around your wealth and you’ll see it all vanish or pass to another. Close them around your health and it will evaporate with age or disease. Any attempt to grasp anything under the sun will fail. It will either be ripped from your grip or your grip will slip. The things under the sun, like the wind, cannot be kept.
Wisdom teaches us to make a sober and honest assessment of life under the sun. In fact, wisdom teaches us to accept it, not as nihilists or perpetually depressed slugs, but as thankful creatures of God. Wisdom calls us to live life with open hands, to receive our daily bread from God (even the daily difficulties) with thanksgiving, knowing that we will enjoy or endure them for a time, and a fleeting one at that.
So the Preacher says repeatedly,
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God… (2:24)
There is nothing better for [the children of man] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man (3:12-13).
In other words, delight in your life with open hands. Linger over your coffee. Savor your wine. Delight in a child’s laughter. Treasure your husband or wife’s quirks. Appreciate your work. Enjoy your hobby. Stand in awe of beauty. Laugh heartily. These are God’s (temporary) gifts to you. They will be yours only for a time and then they will be gone.
And fear the Lord. This fear, as we learned from Proverbs, entails a proper recognition of our place in the universe. We are not God. We do not get to define good and evil, right and wrong. We do not get to define reality and the universe. As creatures, and fallen ones at that, we must have these defined for us. So, Proverbs invites us to humble ourselves before God so as to learn His definitions, accept them, and apply them to our lives.
And while Ecclesiastes echoes this instruction, it reminds us that the enigmatic nature of life (hevel) leaves us no guarantees. Life must be lived with open hands. So Ecclesiastes draws to a close as the Preacher concludes and the author offers the final word:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).
Fear God. Keep His commandments. This is our calling. And know that God is just. He will sort everything out when He comes (thus the words about judgment). He will blow away the hevel (vapor/breath) and establish His kingdom forever, a kingdom that was announced in Christ – “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Permanence has arrived; eternity has come. It is not found in anything under the sun; it is found in the Son, Jesus Christ.
Despite the hevel, we, through fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments, can live well in this enigmatic world, not with hands closed around the things under the sun (a futile fool’s errand!), but with open, thankful hands receiving the temporary gifts of God and with faith firmly fixed on the permanent promises of life in the Son, Jesus Christ. – Pastor Conner