In his classic work, Pilgrim’s progress, John Bunyan escorts us to Vanity Fair. The Fair, he says, is open for business year round. And it’s not a new business, but was established from ancient times.
The Fair offers all the wares and services typical to mankind, some inherently dishonourable, some not. But all the offerings share a common description — they are vanity.
This sounds like a page right out of Ecclesiastes: ‘And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
‘Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun’ (2:10-11).
We all agree that work is good in God’s eyes, don’t we? How then can it find a place in Vanity Fair among ‘lusts, blood and bawds’? Marriage, money and homes are good things, aren’t they? How is it they are listed by Bunyan on the directory of the market places of Vanity Fair?
Like ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and ‘exotic dancers’, we can under-stand how undesirables and depravities set up shop in the Fair and attract those like them. But children and possessions! — What place do they have among the unsavoury and immoral?
The point is that even that which is good and noble can be corrupted and misused. The knife that saves life on the surgeon’s table can be used to take it by the hand of rage. Family is a good thing, a blessing of God to be protected and nurtured. Yet when family becomes an end in itself, a substitute for God, it then finds its place in the aisles of Vanity Fair.
Who is the proprietor of Vanity Fair? Bunyan identifies a partnership of Beelzebub, Apollyon and Legion. These three are one, a sampling of names given in the Bible, identified for us by God as the prince of this fallen world, the god of this age, whose goal it is to prompt us to indulge in that which is false, having an appearance of worthiness, even godliness, but is a vain offering, devoid of power for life…
The devil hawks a vain thing, something appealing to the senses, even sensible to the independent mind, but empty of promise and destructive to life, a placebo at best, a poison at worst …
The market of Vanity Fair may offer milk and bread but its calories are empty and nutrients non-existent.
Against the din of Satan’s incessant shouts urging us to enter the shop and spend the currency of our labours according to the acumen of our own assessments, the counsel of God directs us to listen to him, eat what is good, delight ourselves in what will truly satisfy and find life itself.
This is ultimately through his covenant faithfulness realised in the Son of David, in whom is bound the wisdom of God.
It should be apparent by now that Vanity Fair is spread before us ‘under the sun’, its wares a vain offering ‘lighter than vanity’, as Bunyan puts it; expressed by the Preacher as ‘vanity of vanities’, the emptiest of empties.
Ecclesiastes escorts us through the aisles of Vanity Fair, pointing us as a tour guide through a marketplace of alleged answers to life, means to fulfilment, and escapes from the angst of a frustrating life, which fill the shelves waiting for purchase.
But, as a father taking his child by the hand, our God takes our hand in his to guide us through the shams and scams of life under the sun, with the goal of finding life, hope, meaning and purpose in him.
In this tour conducted by Ecclesiastes, we are exposed to virtually every area of life in which we might seek to find sense and significance, at the behest of the hawkers of Vanity Fair — family, friends, money, possessions, sex, entertainment, education, status, religion, social causes, physical fitness and beauty.
Throughout, Ecclesiastes alerts us to the folly and shows us how to reclaim life from the vanity under the sun, so that we might be kept from striving after wind, and instead may find where our life and labour are not in vain.
Taken from the author’s new book Making sanity out of vanity: Christian realism in the book of Ecclesiastes (EP; £6.99/$11.99, ISBN: 978-085234-7454)