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Vanity of Vanities

Your Life is not Meaningless!

Solomon

by Dennis Pollock

Ecclesiastes is a unique book in the Bible. It is loved and valued by Christians, and yet its opening statement is one with which nearly every believer would strongly disagree – at least as it pertains to their own life. Solomon starts with this depressing thought: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Another Bible version puts it this way: "Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless." Of course this is NOT what Christians believe. If the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveal anything, surely they demonstrate that we have great value in the eyes of our Creator, and that the life we have in Christ has incredible purpose and meaning. So why would Solomon write that everything is vanity?

With all Solomon's wisdom and wealth, he was a troubled man much of his life. His great intellect and keen, philosophical mind kept him from being satisfied with all the things in his life that most people on the earth consider the apex of success and achievement. Fame, riches, intelligence, women, power – king Solomon had it all, and yet he went through life wondering why he felt so empty and his life seemed so pointless.

Throughout this strange little book Solomon goes on to elaborate on some of the reasons for his disillusionment. In the first chapter he writes:

What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?  One generation passes away, and another generation comes… The sun also rises, and the sun goes down… The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north… there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-10)

Life is just so repetitive! Generations come and go, the seasons pass and come again, and the earth goes on. How meaningless do men’s projects look in light of this! Solomon was an ambitious guy, with a heart for building and creating. Being a king and incredibly wealthy, there was almost no limit to what he could accomplish. Yet his complex and philosophical mind wanted some assurance that the things he built and the projects he completed would have some lasting and permanent meaning to them. But as he carefully observed and pondered the course of human existence, he could find no such assurance.

The Great Quest

This restless, troubled king decided to go on a quest. He writes: "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised" (Ecclesiastes 1:12,13). Solomon became a researcher, determined to discover an approach to life that would bring satisfaction and meaning. He had resources few men had, possessing more gold and wealth than he knew what to do with, and unlimited power over the nation he ruled. He reigned during a time of peace, so there were no wars or invading nations to divert his attention. If any man should have been able to discover the meaning of life, king Solomon should be able to do it.

His first efforts led him to an area that is widely respected to this day – the area of knowledge and learning. Solomon writes: "I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised" (Ecclesiastes 1:12,13). Today, the realm of education and knowledge are held in great esteem. And while education is important, still the accumulation of knowledge and the pursuit of education do not in themselves bring satisfactory answers to life's deepest questions. We might suppose that it is the uneducated and poor people of the world that suffer with depression and thoughts of meaninglessness. Yet one study that tracked suicide rates among the occupations found that doctors, mathematicians, and scientists were about twice more likely to commit suicide than average. Authors were 2.6 times more likely, and dentists five times more likely. Clearly possessing education and intellect do not preserve you from the "all is vanity" dilemma.

Solomon tried many other "research experiments" in the laboratory of life in his quest to find meaning and solve the vanity issue. He pursued humor, and wrote: " I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—“Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?" (Ecclesiastes 2:1,2). Humor has long been a major pursuit of men and women. From the time the television was invented, comedy programs have been a standard feature of TV programming. From the Jack Benny Program and the Milton Berle Show to the nasty little sex-saturated sit-coms of today, Americans have loved to sit down in front of their televisions and be made to laugh. Solomon must have sought out some of Israel's best comedians, read some of the funniest Jewish literature, and gathered some of the funniest companions in his research, but in the end the answer was still the same: "this also was vanity."

The frustrated king turned his attention to alcohol, writing: "I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine." Solomon drank himself silly, but he was no ordinary drunk; he was a research drinker. What was the wine's effect? How did it affect his perspective of the world? Did it bring the answers he sought? But Solomon found no relief from the relentless pressure of what he perceived to be a meaningless life. Like the Rolling Stones' famous song, he was forced to declare, "I can't get no satisfaction."

He became a workaholic, writing, "I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them" (Ecclesiastes 2:4,5). Turning his relentless energy and drive to buildings and agricultural pursuits, he accomplished great and impressive projects that would have been a huge source of pride to most men, but not poor Solomon. Despite his accomplishments the sorrowful king still couldn't escape that ever-present, nagging feeling that something was amiss. It robbed him of his joy, drained him of all pleasure and pride, and left him sitting on his golden throne in frustration and emptiness.

Wives, wives, wives

Solomon & wives

In his great quest to find purpose and meaning, Solomon attained to everything men and women have always wanted, lusted for, and fought for. If ever it was possible to "have it all" surely he had it all. And yet all was not enough. Some men size up their wife's physical flaws and aging appearance, and imagine that if they could just have a beautiful woman to make love to at their every desire, life would surely be perfect. Solomon drank deeply from this well. He stated: "Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure…" (Ecclesiastes 2:10). This included women. Some folks collect stamps, some collect coins, but Solomon collected wives (and semi-wives, called concubines). But not just any women would do. His collection included the most beautiful women in Israel. By the time his collection was complete he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He could have a different woman every night for over two years and still not have to repeat any. How many men would consider this the perfect life! Surely such a man must be the happiest guy that ever lived! – But it wasn't so. Solomon's gloomy assessment of all his "research" was this: "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Solomon's Problem

What was it that troubled Solomon so much? We find the answer in certain gloomy statements scattered throughout the book. It seems the problem lay in the fact that whatever wealth you may amass, whatever greatness to which you may attain, whatever projects you may accomplish, the day will come when you will grow old and die, and leave it all behind. Here are some of his pessimistic declarations about the inevitable and universal reality of death:

  1. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (Ecc 3:19)
  2. It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked… This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. (Ecc 9:2,3)
  3. Surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. (Ecc 9:4)


Death really bothered the great king. Sure, he had it wonderful now, with his wives, his wealth, his golden cups, his slaves, and his musicians. But the passing of time was bringing his pleasure, his reign, and his life to an end. Solomon was no dummy. He knew full well that the wrinkles would appear, the body would weaken, and one day death would come knocking on his door. And all would be left behind. He wrote with more than a trace of sadness, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Eternal Life - God's answer to man's dilemma

You may wonder, "Why didn't Solomon look forward to heaven?" The answer is that in those days there was no widespread knowledge of the afterlife among the Jews. God had revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and had given them laws to keep and promises of blessings in this life to those who did. But references to the afterlife in the Old Testament are few, scattered, and veiled. There were no plain references to heaven. For this reason many of the Jews believed that this life was all there was. Serve God and receive your blessings now, but don't expect anything beyond that. Or, as Solomon would put it, "a live dog is better than a dead lion."

When Jesus came along, He spoke quite clearly on this issue. In His teaching He used the phrase eternal life over and over again:

  1. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14,15)
  2. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. (John 10:27,28)
  3. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)

And with this amazing gift Jesus provides us through His substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection, we are given a bonus: our lives now burst with meaning and purpose. All is not vanity; indeed nothing is vain to those who are in Christ Jesus. Our good works are being recorded in heaven and will net us amazing rewards in the next life – a life far more beautiful and joyous than our best moments in this present one.

The apostle Paul is an interesting contrast to King Solomon. Like the ancient king, Paul also was a brilliant man with a razor-sharp mind and a philosophical bent. But there the similarities end. Paul was never rich, indeed he sometimes lacked even the basic needs of life. He didn't have 700 wives; in fact he had none at all. And he spent much his time either in jail or running from the authorities. But strangely you don't find him lamenting about how meaningless his life was. Because of his rock-solid faith in Jesus Christ you instead find him declaring, "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Again he writes, "Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13,14).

All is vanity? Not for Paul. And not for you or me, if we are in Christ Jesus.

For a full listing of all devos (written and audio) go to our Devos Catalog Page.

     

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