“There is vanity which is done on the earth where there are righteous ones who have thrown down on them as if their deeds were wicked; and there are wicked ones who have thrown down on them as if their deeds were righteous. As I said, this also is vanity.”
This is a theme that we have seen several times in this book. Sadly, it happens in life enough that it seems clear to Solomon that it needs to be addressed. But sometimes, at the heart of the matter, the wicked seem to be rewarded and the righteous seem to be punished. As is sometimes said, “no good deed goes unpunished.” This is vanity…or as Rabbi Shalom Yitzhaki (Rashi) worded it, “There is a futility which confounds mankind…”
Indeed, this futility does compound mankind until we recognize one great truth. We are not righteous…no not one (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:10). We are wicked sinners…every single one of us…you and me both. And when the judgment of the wicked gets poured down on our heads the best that we can rightly say is, “Dear Lord, I deserve this and so much more.” And, when even the smallest good thing happens in our lives, the best that we can rightly say is, “Dear Lord, this is but from your abundant grace and it is not what I deserve.”
Were we to receive what was just, this earth would be Hell — stripped of all light and good things — with no hope of deliverance. As terrifying as this world can be at times, it would be worse…infinitely worse. All good — in the life of both the Christian and the non-Christian is an expression of God’s grace. Yet, how often we take that grace for granted and do not marvel in wonder at why God would extend grace to sinners such as we are.
We’ve been told a lie. Our society has told us that we are not so bad. It has told us that if we work hard, provide for our children, are faithful to our spouses, and obey the civil law (at least when the authorities are watching) that we are basically good people. Basically moral, yes, but not basically good. The Pharisees were basically moral people but Jesus called them children of the Devil (John 8:44). As John Newton rightly wrote… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Do you know what a wretch is? Do you know that Newton was not just talking about himself? The words speak of you and me.
So, when we pursue sin, we demonstrate the hold that worldly wickedness has on our lives. When we choose not to fight to resist sin (I mean, really resist it), we demonstrate that we don’t care. And, when we do resist sin, it is a clear demonstration of God’s grace at work in us through faith and there is no credit that we can claim of our own.
I have said many times that what bothers me is not so much the Christian who sins — we all will so long as we are in this fallen world — what bothers me are those who profess to be Christian and think they are without major sin and Christians who do not grieve over and repent of their sins. That’s when they become dangerous because clearly they do not understand grace. Solomon is right, as they see the world, it is something that is vanity and confounds all expectations.
And, so as a sinner writing to sinners, my prayer is that we keep this great truth of our unworthiness before our eyes. We owe everything to Christ and to God’s grace who saved us because he ordained that we be in Christ. That, my friends, must be our starting point because unless we start there we shall not repent when we sin. Unless we start there we will not have a godly hatred for our sin. And unless we start there we will never appreciate God’s amazing grace.
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ said the Preacher. ‘Vanity of vanities; it all is vanity.’”
The phrase, “vanity of vanities” becomes the tagline for this entire book, though again, if one just looks at bits and pieces and sections of the book, one misses the point. For, while the book begins with the phrase “vanity of vanities” it ends with the words: “this is the whole duty of man…” In other words, there is a transformation that takes place as one reads through this book from beginning to end — a structure that says, “Yes, there is meaning to life, but you will not find meaning in the things of this world; meaning is found in the intersection where the ordinary things of this world meet and find their meaning in the eternal matters, so fear God and obey his commandments.” Yet, to arrive at that conclusion in a meaningful way, Solomon must take us step by step through the ideas and worldviews that filled his life for many years — ideas and worldviews that remain today, thus making this journey a productive one.
So, let’s come back to this verse and its significance. What is vanity? The Hebrew word that is used in this context is הֶבֶל (hevel), a word used 86 times in the Old Testament. It is used to refer to breath (something that has no substance), to idols, to vain ideas and practices, and even to Abel (he would not survive to be the child of promise, that honor went to Seth). It refers to anything that truly has no substance or depth of its own — that has no lasting value.
And how Solomon’s words should speak to us here. We build homes, we build churches and other monuments. We also build collections of things, seek to accumulate wealth and prestige. We seek to make names for ourselves so that we will not be forgotten after we are gone from this world. Yet, these things are all fleeting in the eternal scope of things.
As a pastor, it weighs on my soul that when someone dies, a life lived well across sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years is summed up in a single column in the newspaper. Further more, it is abbreviated again for the tombstone. In our church’s cemetery, there are tombstones tracing back to the founding of our church almost two-hundred years ago. But what is remembered about most of those founders? Little more than the date of their birth and the date of their death. And that, too, in time will be forgotten as the stones weather away and eventually crumble. It is enough to depress even the most optimistic person.
And that is exactly Solomon’s point. Here is one of the most successful kings of Israel (in human terms) and his accomplishments are summed up in only a handful of chapters in the Bible. We know he built a the Temple and massive palace structures, we know he was wise and have many of his proverbs along with an erotic love poem, and we know he was foolish enough to follow his many wives into their pagan practices. More is told about Solomon, but most of us skim over those chapters of the Bible and move on to “more interesting things.” And think about it, compared to many others in the Bible, we know a great deal about this man.
The point of this phrase is to help us keep perspective. It is easy to get caught up in the urgent needs of the present, but these are vain in the grand scheme of things. Whether the dishes always get done, or the house is perfectly vacuumed, or whether or not the lawn is always mowed just right, or whether we have the best job or work our way up the corporate ladder — whatever that may look like in your life, all of these things are passing. The only thing that is lasting is God himself and if you want to make a lasting contribution to this world, you will only do so by building his kingdom and not your own. Yes, your name will most likely be forgotten within a few generations, but if Christ’s name is not forgotten because of the commitments of your life, your labors will not be in vain. Otherwise we say with Solomon, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
“Thus, I became great and I did more than all of those who were before me in Jerusalem. Indeed, wisdom accompanied me. All that my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold any joy from my heart from all of my toil and this was my share from all of my labors. Then I turned away from all the work my hands had done and from my exertions in doing it and I beheld that all was vanity and exasperates the spirit; nothing was gained under the sun.”
It is true, there is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from the completion of hard day’s work. One of the things I enjoyed, during the little over a decade that I installed carpet vocationally, was that by the end of the day, I could look back with satisfaction at the transformation that we wrought in a person’s home…new carpet will do that. Solomon is saying to us, “look folks, I understand the satisfaction — the joy — that comes from one’s labors and from the pursuit of every earthly pleasure that is under the sun, but…”
It’s always the “but” that gets to us, isn’t it? It’s that little detail that puts everything into perspective. These things are good, but… And he is saying that he knows the joys and pleasures that come from these earthly things, but if one simply is living for such pleasure then your labors are in vain. New carpet gets dirty when it is walked on and it gets yellowed and stained over time. New construction breaks down. People grow old and die. Endeavors fade and people’s memories are short. They are vain and all of these pursuits will exasperate your spirit if this pursuit is an end unto itself. If you are pursuing God first, and these labors are a means to an end, then we have a different conversation entirely.
There is a saying that floats around American circles periodically that goes: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” In other words, the process of learning that comes along with striving for a goal is more valuable to you in the long run than the goal itself. And, while I do not wish to discount the value of learning “along the journey,” we must remember that without eyes set clearly on the goal, the journey, no matter how valuable in the short run, will be of no lasting value because it is set entirely in earthly things that fade and disappear. For the believer, the goal is the glory of God and the journey we are on only makes sense in light of that goal. Else, at the final judgment we will look at all we accomplished and say, “It was vanity.”