Solving the problem of vanity
Go with me, if you will, to the book of Ecclesiastes.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)
Now, let’s skip ahead to Ecclesiastes 2.
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 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. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
When my wife and I bought our current home, I was pretty excited that the entire backyard is wrapped with a tall, white vinyl fence. The house directly behind us is fairly close, so I was pleased to have a little privacy. We had a dog when we first moved in, so I knew we’d have a place for him to run around without running into the street. Best of all, I thought, I’ll never have to paint this thing because it’s vinyl.
After we got settled, I decided the fence could use a good washing. It was green in places, tree sap had fallen all over it, and more than a few birds had desecrated it, so I got out the pressure washer and went to work. I started in the morning, and by the evening, I was discouraged to see I had cleaned only a relatively small fraction of the entire fence. I realized it was going to take longer than I anticipated. But it needed to be done, so I continued to work at it little by little throughout the remainder of the Summer.
By the end of the project, the work became quite tedious. You probably know the feeling. The first time I fired up the pressure washer, I thought, Okay, let’s do this. Clean fence, here I come. The last time I fired up the pressure washer, I felt much more internal groaning than enthusiasm, but at least I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was almost finished.
Do you know that feeling of satisfaction you get after you’ve completed a project? I certainly had that feeling once I was finished with the fence. And it lasted only as long as it took me to walk to the place where I had begun washing the fence and realized it needed to be washed again.
Would you like to guess which book of the Bible comes to my mind most every Spring and Summer as I’m washing that fence all over again? Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? (Ecc 1:2, 3).
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is addressing the problem of futility. This is a universal problem. Every people of every generation has faced this same dilemma. How can life or anything we do in life have any meaning if the end is the same for all mankind? (Ecc 7:2). According to Solomon throughout this book, it doesn’t matter whether we are wise or foolish, righteous or wicked, rich or poor, accomplished or not, the same event happens to us all (Ecc 2:14). We all die.
With this thought in mind, Solomon says, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc 2:17). In other words, we have a better chance of catching the wind in the palm of our hands than finding satisfaction in anything we do under the sun. Why? Our satisfaction will always be temporary, our work will never be done, and we eventually die, rendering our accomplishments personally useless.
The paradox of progress
If anyone understands this dilemma, it should be 21st-century Americans. We occupy a very unique place in history. We are the wealthiest people in the history of the world. And if you are thinking to yourself, Not me. I’m not wealthy, let me challenge that thought.
If we compare our net worths or annual incomes to the most wealthy in America—say, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos—then no, we’re not rich. I’m not anyhow. But maybe we need to think differently about wealth. What if we stop comparing ourselves to other people living in this country today? What if we stop thinking about net worth and annual incomes? Instead, what if we think about wealth in terms of quality of life?
Take King Solomon, for instance. He was once the wealthiest man Israel had ever known—possibly the wealthiest man on earth in his day. In 1 Kings 3, God says to Solomon, “I give you both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days” (1Ki 3:13).
Yet, there were quite a few material things Solomon didn’t have. He didn’t have running water. He didn’t have electricity. He didn’t have a climate-controlled house. He didn’t have refrigeration. He didn’t have a comfortable car to take him a mile a minute anywhere he wanted to go. He didn’t have a phone in his pocket to send a message to anyone in the world. I’m certain he had nice clothes for the time period, but I’m guessing you and I are more comfortable in the winter than he ever was. I’m sure he had access to physicians, but healthcare in those days can’t compare to what we have today.
We can go back just one-hundred years, and the richest men on the planet did not have the quality of life we have today. Laying aside net worth and annual income, based on quality of life, I’m richer than John D. Rockefeller. I doubt anyone has ever looked at me, the clothes I wear, or the car I drive, and thought to themselves, He must be rich. But I am, and so are you.
Why, then, does study after study show Americans are a discontented, dissatisfied people? In his book, The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook makes the same point I’ve made about our wealth and quality of life. For example, writing in 2003, he notes that 95 percent of all Americans have central heat. Two generations prior, only 15 percent of Americans had central heat. Today, we enjoy better homes, better transportation, better working conditions, many more daily conveniences, and much higher disposable income, yet the volume of diagnosed cases of clinical depression has risen ten times what it was fifty years ago.
Easterbrook concludes that depression “has been rising in eerie synchronization with rising prosperity.” The very things that should be making our lives easier and more satisfying are, in fact, making us more miserable, which is precisely what Solomon discovered.
All is vanity
I love the book of Ecclesiastes, if for no other reason, its message and themes are timeless. To summarize the primary problem Solomon addresses in this book, we may struggle to find meaning in this life because everything, including ourselves, has an expiration date. Everything is perishable. Everything is bound by the confines of time. Nothing, it seems, can last forever. All is vanity (Ecc 1:2). All is a vapor. It appears, then quickly vanishes. Try your best to reach out and take hold of it, and it slips right through your fingers.
In Ecclesiastes 1, Solomon begins by highlighting the monotony of life. When I finish washing my fence, I may feel accomplished, but any sense of satisfaction is short-lived because the fence won’t stay clean. Soon enough, I’ll have to do it all over again. Even if I wash it a thousand times and maintain the cleanest fence in the entire neighborhood, sooner or later, I’ll die. In chapter 5, Solomon says:
As a man came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? (Ecclesiastes 5:15, 16)
When we set out to do a task, we’re motivated by the prospect of finishing that task. We want to enjoy the feeling of a job well done. We’re pursuing that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but whatever we gain is always short-lived. The sun rises, and the sun goes down (Ecc 1:5). Tomorrow, the sun will rise, and the sun will go down. My favorite analogy here is in verse 7. “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecc 1:7). No matter how long the stream flows, it never runs out of water. No matter how long the stream flows, the sea never overflows. Ultimately, nothing changes.
There is no remembrance
Instinctively, I think we sense the futility of our efforts, so many people strive to make a name for themselves, to be remembered for something. We strive to build a lasting legacy. We want to be famous now and celebrated for generations to come. If I know cleaning my fence is a perpetual, futile pursuit, which will necessarily come to an abrupt end one day, perhaps I can be known as the guy with the cleanest fence in the community.
Solomon says, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc 1:11). If I make a name for myself as the guy with the cleanest fence, what great thing have I achieved? Any neighbors, who once marveled at my fence, will soon join me in returning to the dust. After a few short years, no one will remember. Even if they do, no one will care.
My example is ridiculous, of course, so I’ll borrow one from Matthew McCullough. Consider the award-winning news anchor, Brian Williams. At one time, his evening broadcast was the most-viewed news program on television. One publication listed him as the 23rd most trusted person in America—that is, until he was caught lying. You may remember he got caught making up stories about near-death experiences on Iraqi battlefields while reporting ten years earlier.
What could possibly drive a man with Brian Williams’s level of success, number of accomplishments, and impressive reputation lie to make a handful of stories a bit more sensational? He sensed what Solomon teaches us here in Ecclesiastes. One’s legacy will never be great enough to overcome its inherent futility. Though we know this is true, many still try.
For many others today, what we accomplish in this life is a means to a different end. In other words, we’re not working for a sense of satisfaction from the work itself, and we’re not necessarily trying to make a name for ourselves. We’re working for the weekend, if you will. We’re like the rich man in Luke 12, who produced plentifully and said to himself, “You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Lk 12:16, 19). In short, some people live for pleasure, and work along with any wealth the work produces are just means by which they obtain that pleasure.
As we come to Ecclesiastes 2, we see that Solomon attempted to find meaning in pleasure as well. He says, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’” (Ecc 2:1). Since his work and legacy proved meaningless, maybe he could find satisfaction in materialism and simply having a good time. He builds houses, vineyards, gardens, and parks for himself. He has slaves to serve him. He has power. He has more money than he knows what to do with. He has entertainment at the snap of a finger. He even has what Sigmund Freud believed was the very essence of happiness—physical gratification.
Some people might read this and think, If only I had what Solomon had, I would surely be satisfied. But think back to what I said before. We have all of this and much more. Our homes are more comfortable and convenient. We may not have full-time servants, but we probably hire people to do all kinds of things we either can’t do or don’t want to do. We also have technology to make things altogether easier. We hardly need servants. We have much more entertainment at our fingertips than Solomon had.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say we’re positively destitute compared to Solomon. Could we find satisfaction if only we had more money and access to more of life’s pleasures?
I’d like to read to you from a recent article by Tim Challies. Coincidentally, he published this article the same week we started our study of death. He writes:
Why is it that the 1% of the 1% almost always seem to veer from their core businesses into attempts to prolong their lives indefinitely? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is invested in Altos Labs which is attempting a kind of “biological reprogramming” to extend lifespans. Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page were instrumental in launching a business called “Calico” which is carrying out studies that may eradicate all disease. PayPal’s Peter Thiel is a big supporter of the Methuselah Mouse Prize foundation which means to dramatically improve health and longevity. Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin has decided it’s likely that people born today will live to the age of 3,000 and is already participating in experimental treatments he believes may slow his body’s aging.
Challies is talking about some of the richest people on the planet. If they see something they want, they buy it. If they find something that might give them pleasure, they get it. They’re successful. They’re accomplished. They’re famous. They’re wealthy. According to the hedonistic worldview, they already have everything that could satisfy a person. Why, then, do they all feel drawn to spend time, money, and effort in these various endeavors to extend their lives?
The first part of the answer is, these things haven’t satisfied them, so they need more to time to pursue meaningful satisfaction. But even if they do feel satisfied for the moment, they know they will die, and death takes it all away.
I hated all my toil
I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. 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. (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11)
Why? Solomon goes on to say, “How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecc 2:16). Furthermore, he says, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me” (Ecc 1:18).
The glaring problem is death. It taints everything. It brings down the value of anything we think has value.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
Ever since I was a boy growing up in the state of Georgia, watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard every Saturday, I have often dreamed of owning a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger. I’m not even a car guy, but I’ve always thought that owning that car would be a lot fun. Let’s say I finally get one. I buy it and drive it home. Later that day, I head to the doctor’s office to receive some test results, and my doctor starts using words like Stage 4, inoperable, and terminal. Before I heard his grim news, that Charger was the most precious material possession I owned. After his news, though, the value of that car dropped to practically nothing.
Death reduces everything to vanity, which is yet another reason we may avoid confronting death. We’d like to believe that next job or promotion will bring us meaningful, lasting satisfaction. We’d like to believe we’ll finally have contentment if only we make a little more money or have a little more free time to do the things we enjoy doing. But death says it won’t ultimately matter because all of these things are fleeting. They can’t last.
From the hand of God
Oddly enough, though, you may remember it was Solomon who said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:2). That’s pretty strange advice coming from a guy who claims death robs everything of meaning. If anything, you would expect him to be like the philosopher I cited last time who told people to live in denial of death. He concluded that life is altogether meaningless because we die, but we may as well pretend otherwise. We may as well push mortality from our minds and carry on as though life does have meaning.
Solomon doesn’t agree. Solomon wants us to confront death because he wants us to see the vanity of life. As we examine the world around us and evaluate our own lives, he wants us to be as dissatisfied and disillusioned as him by everything that is done under the sun (Ecc 1:14). Why?
Glance down to the end of Ecclesiastes 2. In a surprising change of tone, Solomon says:
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, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24, 25)
How does Solomon go from the despair of verse 23—“all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation” (Ecc 2:23)—to verse 24, where he says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil”? (Ecc 2:24). Keep in mind, he’s not taking the denial approach because he later tells us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning,” and, “Sorrow is better than laughter (Ecc 7:2, 3). He wants us to confront death. He wants us to see the vanity it creates. So, how can he possibly suggest we can and should enjoy the things of life?
Solomon uses a key phrase here to indicate he’s shifting his perspective. He’s now looking at life from a different angle. He says, “This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Ecc 2:24). What’s the difference? Before this point in the book, he was examining a hypothetical world where God doesn’t exist. He was showing what life would be apart from a sovereign Creator, who providentially rules the universe. He was showing what life is under a secular worldview, and it’s all meaningless.
Notice verse 25 again: “For apart from him—that is, God—who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecc 2:25). If there is no God, the entirety of life is vanity. Life is merely a cosmic accident that will eventually come to an end. There can be no inherent meaning in anything. But if there is a God, not to mention an existence outside of time and space, then things do have meaning, and we can, consequently, enjoy them.
God intentionally created this world, and he created this world with a purpose. Furthermore, the existence of God and his divine purpose means (1) things do have value because God gives them value, and (2) their value extends beyond the boundaries of time because we will exist beyond the boundaries of time.
Under a secular worldview, we die, then comes nothing. Under a biblical worldview, it is appointed for man to die—even death has a divine purpose—and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27). Paul says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body—we could also say under the sun—whether good or evil” (2Co 5:10).
In other words, death doesn’t eradicate the past or its consequences. It may destroy my body. It may destroy the fence I worked so hard to clean. It may destroy my dream car. But I’ll still be accountable for all of it. How did I use my body? How did I use my time? Was I a good steward by taking care of my fence, or had I let my fence become an idol?
Eat, drink, find enjoyment
This is the message of Ecclesiastes. Believe it or not, Ecclesiastes is a very evangelistic book, at least at the most basic level. Solomon is imploring particularly young people to acknowledge our Creator and trust his divine purpose. He wants to lift our heads above the fog of time-bound life under the sun and see that there is more to the world than meets the eye. If we believe in God, if we trust in God, we can enjoy the things of life. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 5:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
With God, life has meaning. With God, life has pleasure and enjoyment. With God, life has satisfaction.
If Christ has not been raised
Solomon, of course, takes the discussion only so far. After reading Ecclesiastes, we may be tempted to think that overcoming futility is simply a matter of changing our mindset. As long as we think there’s a God and a purpose behind all things, problem solved. No, changing our mindset doesn’t objectively solve the problem of futility. Merely changing our mindset is no different than the philosopher who says we should just pretend we don’t have a problem.
Whether we change the way we think or not, the problem remains. We will die. That’s the problem that has to be solved to restore meaning in life. But how?
Quickly, go with me to 1 Corinthians 15. Chances are, we’ll come back to this chapter later in our study of death, but I would like to highlight a couple of Paul’s points today.
As you likely know, the apostle Paul is defending the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection in this chapter. He begins with a simple summary of the gospel, then he proceeds to explain and defend the resurrection of our bodies on the basis of Christ’s resurrection. Since Christ was raised, we, too, will be raised. Put another way, since Christ defeated death, we don’t have to.
Alternatively, notice what Paul says would be true if Christ was not raised from the dead. Glance down at verse 14. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1Co 15:14). So much for believing in God. Do you see how Paul seems to be picking up the discussion where Solomon left off?
We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only—or hope only under the sun, as Solomon would say—we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
Solomon says death creates a major problem for us. Namely, it robs life of meaning. He, then, says God and only God can restore meaning to life. Look to him. Trust him.
Paul takes the discussion a bit further. He tells us how God restores meaning to life. He restores meaning by conquering death itself. Through the sinless life, substitutionary death, and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, death is defeated. So, those who are in Christ, joined to him by faith, no longer contend with the looming problem of death. Death is ultimately swallowed up in victory (1Co 15:54). In fact, the Christian can go as far as to taunt death as Paul does, saying, “O death, where is your sting?” (1Co 15:55).
“Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co 15:57).
Then again, if Christ is not raised, death isn’t defeated, our sin still remains, death is still a problem, life is still vanity, and Christians are the most miserable people on the planet. Why? While everyone else knows death is a problem, and many are trying to create a solution for themselves, Christians think the problem is already solved when it isn’t. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Co 15:17).
Your labor is not in vain
We know, however, Christ did rise from the grave, so what does that mean regarding our apparent problem of futility? Notice the last line of this chapter. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1Co 15:58). In short, Christ restores meaning to our efforts under the sun. Our lives will, indeed, have significance even beyond the grave.
Though Christ has defeated death, restoring purpose to life, this doesn’t mean we have the liberty to become hedonists. Elsewhere, Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). The conclusion of Ecclesiastes says, “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” (Ecc 12:13, 14).
Let me summarize this last point. Believers in Christ can and should enjoy our work, our wealth, and our possessions, but we should always remember that (1) these things are gifts from God, and (2) he gives them to be used for his glory. If we fail to recognize the former, we are bound to become ungrateful or worse. If we fail to do the latter, well, God will bring every deed into judgment (Ecc 12:14).
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