Poetic Plight: Part 1 Ecclesiastes 1:2
Appearing five times in this verse, we find the word “vanity” is uttered 38 times when reading this book. Each time “vanity” is used in relation to “under the sun”. “Under the sun” is a phrase which speaks of the nature of man’s activities. Hence, we find the futility of the nature of man’s activities. “Vanity” has three specific usages:
“Vanity” means “futile” or “meaningless” focusing on the sin cursed universe. Obviously, all that would be ours and the desires of our heart are walled in by the curse of sin. Our only meaning for life comes when we are in right relationship with our Loving Father through Jesus Christ the Son, and secured by the believer’s everyday companion the Holy Spirit..
“Vanity” is a word that speaks of “fleeting”, “vapor like”, or “breath”. It is the transitory--not permanent--nature of life. This is not the “breath of life” that God breathed into man in Genesis 2:7. The intent of this word is not that everything is worthless but that everything is short-lived.
It seems Pastor James (4:14) understood this truth for he writes, “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” We may expect 70 years and if by strength 80 years (Psalm 90) and some live longer; however, we all know those who do not arrive at the first age destination, let alone see the century mark in age. Our prayer should always be Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
Let’s bring this to another level. There are specific needs of humankind that are to be met. Those needs take on various forms--hunger, thrist, shelter, clothing, emotional consolation, and others. These needs are to be met according to God’s law or they are sin.
There is, for instance, a difference between gluttony and moderation/temperance. Gluttony, known as one of the seven deadly sins, does destroy life--gluttony of drink (alcoholic and all it affects on ones body, family, work, social interaction), gluttony of food (leading to physical disease--obesity, heart issues, diabetic issues, etc.), gluttony of work (workaholic destroying mind, body, spirit of the person and its impact on family). Housing and/or clothing are always in need of repair or replacement over time. Physical love is fleeting in several ways. Our pleasures are but for a moment and then must be repeated to be sustained. With repetition comes familiarity and with familiarity often come boredom--’fleeting” is a good word fit for the flight of the pleasurable moment.
Vanity is a word that speaks of life’s unanswered questions as “incomprehensible”. There are questions in life for which there are no answers. Even answers attempted through hypotheses are often proved wrong in the experiments of life. Our only answer to life’s unsolvable questions is to trust the sovereign God by living our life in faith and obedience. God reveals what we need to know. As for what we cannot know, trust God for He continues to work precisely according to His perfect plan.
Solomon, who spoke 3,000 proverbs and wrote 1,005 songs, immediately moves from his self-introduction to his poetic plight. After having identified himself to the assembly/reader, he cries out from the very depths of his soul--”Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.” Poets are often internally motivated, creative and curious. They are geniuses at putting emotions into words. They are often optimistic, stubborn, detached, and trusting. Solomon would have some but not all these traits. Yes, he is a genius at putting emotions into words but that comes his God-given wisdom that drives his desire to research and learn. Stubborn? Yes. He doesn’t seem to give up the quest for answers as he experiments in a variety of options. Detached, no, he is invested in his quest for knowledge and in his interaction with the people he rules. What or Who is he trusting? Only God, it would seem, which we realize when we come to the end of Ecclesiastes. However, in these opening, poetic remarks he is frustrated with much, if not all, that he has found in his life search.
One can understand this first cry of his poem. He begins, not in optimism but in the emptiness of his search--“emptiness of futility... all is futile.”
It began as a thought as he went about his search for wisdom, as he carried out his daily responsibilities as king, as he sought recreation to recreate his energies, emotions, and expressions of life. As fulfillment and satisfaction were unreachable, his thoughts at first became mutterings under his breath.
The emptiness persisted. Solomon ruled over a great nation that required a large standing army and a bureaucracy of extensive government agencies. He lived in luxury and carried out costly building programs. These forced him to divide the land into 12 tax districts with overseers in each one. In time, the system became oppressive and corrupt (making Israel unhappy). His failure to be satisfied expanded as new things, new people, and new places were added to his schedule. Even his many foreign wives were the result of political motivations and not love.
As the emptiness, meaninglessness, and trying to catch the wind expanded, his thoughts and mutterings became words spoken from the abundance of his longing, forlorn heart. His words rang hollow in his own ears and became a howl in the ears of those who were his friends. Many of those friends were deserting the sinking man’s search for fulfillment as they were put off by the plaintive cry. His whining became shouting as he addresses the assembly; for his-soul’s greatest emptiness had consumed his greater optimism of the future.
Do you know a man or woman like this? I hope it is not you. Here is a man of bitterness instead of blessing. Here is a man of anger instead of praise. Here is a man of emptiness instead of the fullness of the abundance of life.
This opening statement of emptiness is placed where Solomon should be giving the testimony of his life. Here is where he lays bare his soul. Instead of a testimony of faith, his poem is the conclusion reached in all his experimentation and exercise of physical and mental energy in life. His testimony is that no matter where he looked or searched, no matter what he did, he found “absolutely nouh-thin’”--no sense of fulfillment, perpetuity, satisfaction. Everything disappointed. No lasting contentment. In his Thru the Bible commentary, J Vernon McGee wrote regarding Solomon’s statement in verse 2, “Solomon was the wisest of men, but no man ever played the fool more thoroughly than he did… He is the paradox of Scripture. The wisest man was the greatest fool.” I hope when people hear your testimony, they know you aren’t wasting your life on emptiness, futility, trying to catch the wind. Solomon’s lessons for his son (12:12) in this book are that life is “not in vain” if lived according to the will of God--lived in the love of God. Don’t miss that message in this book! Don’t miss that message in your life--live in God’s love and in His will.
As a follower of Jesus Christ who knows the fullness of life in Him, have you met one whose life is empty, pointless, unsatisfying?
Poet Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel” describes this type of life:
Most men eddy about
Here and there--eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and then they die---
If you know someone living a vaporous, fleeting life, have you invited them to a relationship with God. Have you invited them to know Jesus so that He can transform their life--soul, mind, and body--so that instead of being empty-handed, their cup will overflow…so that instead of their spirit wandering in a wasteland they will be anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit by the continual presence of God in all of life’s experiences and quests?
Solomon’s cry is not unlike that of so many in our world. “Empty!” “Futile!” “Vanity!” “Wasted days, weeks, months, years!” What brought about this futility? According to the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:20, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” As I said last week, “...we may have gained knowledge or acquired wealth but deep down inside for many there are questions unanswered, floundering fears, hapless hopes, and that one more thing to do or see…Admitting we don’t know it all allows us to live life without acting like we have all the answers. Admitting we don’t know or have it all, allows us to seek a Savior.” This is why, following their sin, Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden of Eden and Adam cursed to earn their bread by the sweat of his face (Genesis 3:14-19).
When you find one living with such emptiness, such meaninglessness, whose life is rushing toward an unhappy ending, show them the full life you have in Jesus Christ. Tell them you turned from your empty self and found by grace through faith God’s transformation of your life in salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. Tell them they can receive God’s grace and truth, completeness and perpetuity, and one day will know the answers to life’s questions--(I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a reflection that is a riddle...now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known”. Never forget that in this present life, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” (I Corinthians 8:3)
Like the longing-for-love lyrics of the Scottish song-writer-singer Donovan, Solomon is passionate in his cry that “trying to catch the wind” is without value or purpose. No matter how close we want to be to truth, love, hope, joy, peace, this unloving world cannot provide us what we seek. No matter how much we love this life, it cannot provide us the love, completeness, identity, comprehension, and wisdom that is found in the Son-shine of God’s love brought about by our reconciliation to Him in Jesus Christ our Lord.