“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” What does king Solomon mean when he utters these words? What does it mean to say that all things are vain? When we usually think of vanity, we think of one who admires themselves perhaps a little too much, one who can’t stop taking selfies of themselves or won’t stop bragging about their own accomplishments. Others think that vain pursuits are meaningless things, that they are empty and void of any substance. But vanity, as it is used here, is something more than these options. It isn’t to say that all things are meaningless, nor is it to say that all things are done just out of self-gratification. Rather, here it is used as a way to say that all things are frustrated, all endeavors to find ultimate meaning in this life fall short. They may go forward, but they will not come to a complete and happy conclusion. Somewhere along the line, it all gets derailed.
Now Solomon is no mere spectator watching from the sideline and giving his thoughts on the meaning of life. No, this man, granted wisdom from God, sets out to systematically unpack and unravel this life that we are given to live. When he declares, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” he does so as one who diligently sought out anything that would last, anything that would lead to success that wouldn’t be frustrated and fall short. He explores wisdom and pleasure and the arts and hard work and honor and prestige in desperate hope that there might be something here under the sun that might provide the stable footing to establish lasting truth and meaning in our lives. He had everything at his disposal to do it. He had wealth and power. He was the king after all, and yet he cannot find what he looks for. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Solomon speaks a truth that not many want to hear. He looks over all he has done and accomplished and ends up saying, “I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it” (Eccl. 2:20). In other words, he has studied and worked and planned, and in the end, he will die and someone else will benefit from it all. Or as my grandmother used to remind me, you can’t take it with you. So, what is the point of the work, what is the reason for the toil? If you are working hard to scrape and grind away to build up a fortune or amass wisdom or design a lasting legacy, you will not be the one to enjoy it in the end. Life then becomes a drudgery of work and no joy, of toil for ends that you don’t receive. This is why it is vanity. This is why it is frustrated and broken.
Now we know this. We all know that death will be the line that all our work comes to an end, so then what? Think about it. I have had more than one conversation with brothers and sisters in Christ who have been given the duty of being the trustee of their parent’s estate after they passed. These saints worked long and hard throughout their lives. They amassed some sort of an inheritance that they could leave to ones they love. And then the fighting begins. There is mistrust and arguments as old regrets and grudges are brought up. Debates over fairness reign, and I’ve even had on person tell me that they were pretty sure that when everything was settled, they would most likely no longer speak to their siblings. The wounds were that deep, that lasting, and all over what? Over the sweat and toil and years of labor from their mother or father. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Now there is something terrifying about confessing the vanity of one’s life. It is a conclusion that can haunt one’s dying days. To be at the end, to know that you do not have many more days left and to look around and wonder, even then, what it was all about, is scary. We want our lives to be lives of impact, to have meaning beyond the days that we walk this earth. You then begin to wonder, have you squandered your time? Have you wasted the blessings and talents that you possess? And so perhaps you begin to dig deep, to make new resolutions, so that your life won’t be a chasing after wind. But this is the very trap of your life, the trap of all of our lives. Out of fear of a vain life you strive even harder dig even deeper to come only to come to the same vain end, you spiral in on yourselves with no end in sight. Well, no end but the grave where others will haggle over what you leave behind, and your legacy will be forgotten in time.
And so, the wise king offers you some good advice today. He says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I say, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25). In all the comings and goings of this world, in all the battles of good and evil that mark your lives, your lot, your area of governance is actually quite small. You don’t have to create meaning in the world. You don’t have to find the solution to all the wrongs in your life or the lives of others. You don’t amass wealth or become the wisest or even the most virtuous. No, instead he says you can simply eat, drink, and enjoy your work. These are things that focus on the immediate, the here and now. And there is something powerful in this, something that brings freedom and joy.
See, if this world is marked, as Solomon says, by vanity, your call isn’t to fight against it or somehow correct it. For the truth of the matter is, you can’t. In the end it all ends up frustrated. Solomon will go on to say, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” but you are not the controller of the times or the seasons. You can have joy though. You can have meaning and purpose to your life. You can eat and drink and enjoy your work. Not looking beyond them to some cosmic greater good, just enjoying the moment that you have, making use of the time you are given.
This world is vain, the solution to it, the way out of it isn’t something you do at all. This world is frustrated and corrupted by sin. It can’t be fixed by just tweaking the edges or improving one little piece after another. The solution is to destroy it altogether and rebuild it completely. And that is what has begun in the coming of God’s Son. There justice was focused on his perfection as he died for you sins. There freedom was unleashed as the tomb burst open and life and promise was made to a vain world. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. But there will be something more. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. There will be a resurrection of the dead, a glorious reunion with those you’ve loved and lost, a welcome into paradise purchased by the blood of the Lamb.
Living in that promise in the midst of a world of vanity is not to be sentenced to prison but to be set free. By faith you know it is vain, and by faith you trust that there is more to come. You then are free to eat and drink and work. You don’t have to work for the new for it is a free gift of God. Instead you can care for the ones sitting next to you. You can love those in your life. You can enjoy your vocation as you rest in the gifts of God.
Money, wealth, wisdom, power, prestige, legacy, these things may come to you, or they may not. But none of them will provide anything of lasting worth. Cheer up, it’s all vanity anyway. But in Christ, in his love, his gifts, his promises and forgiveness, there is something more. There is hope, and boldness and joy, eternal joy.