‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
That’s probably one of the best-known phrases from the book of Ecclesiastes…
But what exactly is vanity? Ordinarily when we think of vanity, we think of quality mirror-time. Singer-songwriter Carly Simon exposes the operating principle of vanity in the line to her 1973 song, ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you’.
That’s the vanity we know, where all roads lead to self. Vanity is about me looking good and wanting others to think so as well. The vanity mingled among the vanities noted in Ecclesiastes, however, [means] … empty, meaningless, pointless, hopeless. Like trying to herd a collection of cats; the effort will be frustrating, the outcome futile. Like trying to get water from a rock, it won’t work.
When we apply that to life, vanity speaks to what works and what doesn’t. In this sense, Ecclesiastes is eminently practical. It is refreshingly candid in its assessment, mincing no words. Either something works or it doesn’t. No spin. No positive light. Just stark reality. As the late sports commentator Howard Cosell would have put it, ‘telling it like it is’. That’s how Ecclesiastes operates.
Before we put aside the common meaning of vanity though, the writer of Ecclesiastes would have us pause. The meaning of the word that first occurs to us has to do with self — self-glory, self-absorption, self-service. To be vain is to be myopic to myself.
The writer exposes that sort of vanity to be the very conspirator at the helm, foolishly seeking, pursuing that which can never satisfy…
‘Under the sun’
Ecclesiastes looks at life from an observation deck situated ‘under the sun’. What exactly does the writer see? He sees the same things you do.
Do you ever scratch your head to wonder why the relationally challenged and administratively inept person often gets the promotion over the dedicated and capable person who relates well with others?
The writer of Ecclesiastes documents the same thing: ‘Again 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 favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all’ (9:11).
That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, is it? The larger army is supposed to emerge as victor in the war; the fastest person is supposed to win the race, right?
One of America’s bright hopes in the 2008 summer Olympics was Tyson Gay. He held the distinction of reigning world champion in the 100-metre sprint. In the Olympic qualifiers for the 200-metre sprint, he pulled a hamstring and didn’t even make it to that event in Olympic competition. The race he did run in Beijing, he ended up losing in the semi-finals.
When he ran the 400-metre relay, his team dropped the baton. The world’s fastest man never even made it to a final in the Olympics. That’s more typical of life as we know it. The ‘supposed to’ of life does not happen as we would expect. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes describes for us.
It gets even more confusing when we bring God into the picture. We believe in a personal God who is intimately involved in human affairs, whose providence governs all that comes to pass. We believe that God ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). Yet the writer of Ecclesiastes can see us as victims of time and chance, not beneficiaries of the hand of God, in service to the outworking of his plan.
When we factor in what we know of a sovereign God who delights to give good gifts to his children, a God who deals in righteousness, who is perfectly just, loving, the God for whom nothing is impossible, we scratch our heads in search of any rational explanation of life’s calamities and inconsistencies.
Listen to the thought process of Ecclesiastes and hear the confusion, callousness and cynicism: ‘In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise’ (7:15-16).
We observe the same thing as Ecclesiastes as we chart the course of life. The missionary who commits his life to helping others, giving his life for the sake of the gospel, ends up being brutally murdered by those he tries to reach. You would think God’s hedge of protection would be especially dense around such a one.
Conversely, the despotic dictator who rules his people with an iron fist and seems to indulge in everything counter to God, ends up living long and well. Try to make sense of that! That’s exactly what the writer of Ecclesiastes challenges us to do — to figure it out…
Life under the sun doesn’t add up. It defies common sense and contradicts religious sensibilities. Something is amiss.
What exactly is this ‘under the sun’ that serves as the context for what the writer sees, the matrix for the outworking of life? Genesis 3 gives us the background. With Adam’s disobedience, all the created order fell under the dominion of sin. Sin polluted, perverted and damaged everything.
The world became dysfunctional. Weeds grew. Anger festered. People killed. Like dark, billowing clouds blot out the warmth and light and beauty of the sun, the glory of God became obscured and the normalcy of people in relationship with God became abnormal, even adversarial. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes observes.
The Fall, as recorded in Genesis 3, is no mere page of dry history or ephemeral theological concept. It’s where we live and move and have our being. What the writer records in his observations of life is a diary of our own existence, expressive of frustration and splotched with tears…
Much of life’s offerings are nothing more than anaesthesia, dulling the pain of a meaningless existence, or distractions keeping us from becoming overwhelmed by the senselessness and hopelessness of it all.
The writer of Ecclesiastes expresses this as a ‘striving after wind’. Twice he employs the expression in the opening chapter: ‘I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind’ (1:14); ‘and I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind’ (1:17).
Could a phrase better express the futility to life than ‘striving after wind’? You can’t see what you’re doing. You can’t do what you’re trying to do. And why bother in the first place?
Life under the sun is played out on a merry-go-round, where you are ever moving but never getting anywhere…
Yet as pessimistic as Ecclesiastes seems, we actually find it a place of great hope and spring of life. The observations it makes are real and they are sobering.
The answer, though, is not to find the silver lining or hope for better days, or to settle for some semblance of sanity. The answer to the pessimism is not contrived optimism through positive spin or pious platitudes. The answer is redemptive reality.
Back when colour television was just making its way into homes, as a pre-teen I was desperate to have one. My family, though, did not share my zeal. Determined, I noticed in the back of one of my comic books the solution to my problem.
There was an advertisement for a product to turn my TV’s black and white picture into full and living colour. I ordered it without delay. When it arrived in the promised six to eight weeks, I tore open the package to discover a translucent film with directions to cut it to the size of my television screen and place it over the top.
The film had three parallel bands of colour, blue at the top, yellow in the middle and brown at the bottom. The sad part of the story is that I was actually happy with it, convincing myself it made a difference.
We can employ the same tack in dealing with life under the sun, denying reality or dressing it up in an effort to make it something it is not.
Here’s where we find the genius and hope of Ecclesiastes. Not in denying reality, but in redeeming it, where ‘under the sun’ holds the harsh reality but not the answer.
The answer is not found in reformation but in transformation, and that not in ourselves but by the redemptive plan and hand of God.
In a seeming senseless and irrational world, Ecclesiastes allows us to make sanity out of vanity.
Extracted from the author’s book Making sanity out of vanity — Christian realism in the book of Ecclesiastes, EP Books; 176 pages, £6.99; ISBN: 9780852347454
Stanley D. Gale