Imagine somebody came up to you and asked you about the meaning of life – what would you tell them? I have a feeling I would talk about God, sin, the cross, salvation, heaven, and hell. I would discuss the need for wholehearted devotion to God and the need to turn away from son. One word that would most likely not be part of my apology is the word ‘vanity’. And yet that is the very word that Solomon uses as a direct answer to that universial question concerning the meaning of life. If the wisest man that ever lived uses the word ‘vanity’, it is probably worth taking a closer look at.
Of all the books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes probably has the most depressing introducion:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
If these words came from anybody else’s lips, I might have reason to question them. These are not some words by a philosopher or wise-guy off the street; they are spoken by David’s son Solomon. Having been given the opportunity by God to ask for one thing, this young man realized his inadequacy to lead the kingdom of Israel and asked for wisdom. This wisdom came to define Solomon’s life and legacy. Because he asked for wisdom above anything else, God blessed Solomon tremendously in other areas in life as well. He spent his life bathing in wisdom, wealth, and pleasure, with access to anything he could possibly desire. Most people dream of living the kind of life Solomon led, and yet he himself came to the ultimate conclusion that it was all meaningless, futile, and worthless in the end. To see a man such as Solomon sound as depressed, frustrated, and disillusioned as he does in this book is sobering.
To pass by the vast scope of what Solomon calls futile would be foolish. He declares that wisdom, riches, hard work, wise living, pleasure – none of it leads to true fulfillment, all of it is ultimately meaningless. Ironically enough, our society spends the overwhelming majority of its time pursuing those very things. Not a day goes by in which I do not find myself presented with the lie that more money, more wisdom, more pleasure, more of the things I want, more hard work, or a greater morality will eventually result in a greater fulfillment in my life. And again I hear the voice in the wind that whispers, “meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
With the constant push to pursue, I need this daily reminder that everything is indeed futile. Who has not cheered for the winners of talent competitions and gameshows or stood in awe of those who display an extraordinary amount of wisdom and knowledge? In an age where wealth, wisdom, and accomplishment are worshiped as modern day idols, we need to engrain Solomon’s warning in our minds: everything is futile, chasing after the wind. As attractive as things may seem on the outside, they are ultimately empty and vain.
Before we sink into complete despair and conclude that nothing matters because everything is meaningless, we are offered a thread of hope in the midst of this gloom. Having completed his quest for meaning, Solomon draws one conclusion in chapter 12 that turns this book upside-down:
13 When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this [is for] all humanity. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.
Even though we are surrounded by all these meaningless and futile things, a ray of hope begins to shine through – one thing does matter, and that one thing is to fear God and keep His commandments. For me, this conclusion turns this book from utter despair to exuberant joy. Light shines all the more brightly in the midst of greater darkness. When I have agreed with Solomon that riches, wealth, pleasure, and all these other things do not offer true meaning or fulfillment, I am set free from the encroaching lies that beset me. With the darkness exposes for what it is, my eyes begin to see the light and I perceive that this Old Testament king was right – the only thing that really matters is fearing God and doing what He says. Any other pursuit will dissolve into nothingness, but a life lived in the fear of God is a life that is truly meaningful.
No, all that glitters is not gold – only the fear of God provides the meaning and fulfillment mankind searches for. But the only way we will truly understand that is if we see everything else for what it really is – vanity.