At some point in life every thinking person is confronted with the most existential questions to infiltrate the mind; what is the purpose of it all, what is life and is it worth it? All around us people are asking and not finding answers and in many instances people are propelled beyond despair, beyond reason, beyond hope. You could reasonably expect that this would be the predicament of the average person, of those not concerned with abstract, high-order thinking but you would not have thought such is the situation of the most gifted minds among us. But you would be wrong. Some of the very ablest, most gifted and enlightened minds have evaluated what they see as pertaining to man and his place under the sun and have concluded just like King Solomon, "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Is it really true that no matter how you look at it, no matter from what perspective you view it and irrespective of your personal convictions and proclivity, you are forced to conclude that Solomon was right and life's meaning and tenor are all resoundingly futile?
Lots of educated people agree with Solomon.
There are many in the scientific community, and in the fraternity of philosophers, and in the corridors of our most esteemed learned institutions that whole-heartedly accord with Solomon's views and they don't just believe them in theory but engraft such views into their everyday lifestyle. If you believe that life and all its concomitances are unfailingly pointless then there is no need for discipline, decency, moral uprightness, fairness and equity for there is no final accounting and you can abandon yourself to an orgy of selfishness and excess without consequence.
When people have agreed with this Solomonic assertion of vanity they move on to purge themselves of all goodness, and truth, and take hold, with fervour, the low-life to which fallen man has descended and relishes and has no desire to escape from. In truth man then becomes a repository of the gall of bitterness and a source of extremely toxic wickedness typical of the Satanic curse. In referring to the antediluvian world the Bible described similar citizens like this, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." (Genesis 6:5)
Many people today believe that partying and boozing and gluttony is what life is all about for today we live and tomorrow we die; and that is that. Here I could quote you names of famous people who concur with this but that would be to no avail for they are so many. In truth Solomon believed in this philosophy too for here is what he says, "Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?" (Ecclesiastes 3:22) Solomon was wrong in his perception for there are many things better than self-aggrandisement and his lifestyle was the proof of his error. No wonder he died miserable and pathetic at the ripe age of eighty even though he was gifted with so much.
To those who believe that partying and boozing and gluttony is what life is all about can be added another group; the sex addicts. It is truly amazing but enlightening how little the lessons of history have been learnt for Solomon was the prime example of someone who was addicted to sex for he had a harem of one thousand women, yes 1000, and wealth can't done and the highest, most prestigious position in the kingdom and yet he was overcome with the futility of it all. Here is how the Bible puts it, "And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart." (1 Kings 11:3) Remember that these were not 1000 women during his lifetime but 1000 women on call, ready to service Solomon whenever he so wished. Not only that but some of these women were "exotic" beauties from abroad, "But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites." (1 Kings 11:1)
So you see there is nothing surprising about the present promiscuous generation of sex addicts, sexual predators, loose-living, immoral, licentious deviants for Solomon been there and done that and he bemoaned its pointlessness. There is nothing strange with some married people not understanding or caring about fidelity and trust or some single people not valuing themselves for who they are and the contribution their chastity and virtue can make to a fulfilled and happy life. They all consent to Solomon's theory that life is fruitless, a waste of time and utterly useless and thus to be consumed with reckless abandon. In King Solomon's own words, "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit." (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
King Solomon's decline from a righteous, godly king to a broken, disillusioned philanderer took some time and in the end he was inconsolable. It is hard to understand at which point Solomon fell from grace but his fate was irrevocably sealed when he turned to idolatry and erected false gods everywhere to please his women.
But what did Solomon mean with his Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher talk; did he actually lose all semblance of spirituality and saw nothing but gloom and doom and hellish perdition?
Here is how John Gill in his Bible Commentary commented on this text:
"This is the preacher's text; the theme and subject he after enlarges upon, and proves by an induction of particulars; it is the sum of the whole book; vanity of vanities, all [is] vanity;
most extremely vain, exceedingly so, the height of vanity: this is repeated, both for the confirmation of it, men being hard of belief of it; and to show how much the preacher was affected with it himself, and to affect others with the same. The Targum reads, "vanity of vanities [in] this world"; which is right as to the sense of the passage; for though the world, and all things in it, were made by God, and are very good; yet, in comparison of him, are less than nothing, and vanity; and especially as become subject to it through sin, a curse being brought upon the earth by it; and all the creatures made for the use of men liable to be abused, and are abused, through luxury, intemperance, and cruelty; and the whole world usurped by Satan, as the god of it. Nor is there anything in it, and put it all together, that can give satisfaction and contentment; and all is fickle, fluid, transitory, and vanishing, and in a short time will come to an end: the riches of the world afford no real happiness, having no substance in them, and being of no long continuance; nor can a man procure happiness for himself or others, or avert wrath to come, and secure from it; and especially these are vanity..."
Adam Clarke in his Bible Commentary commented on this verse by paraphrasing thus:
"O vain deluding world! whose largest gifts Thine emptiness betray, like painted clouds, Or watery bubbles: as the vapour flies, Dispersed by lightest blast, so fleet thy joys, And leave no trace behind. This serious truth The royal preacher loud proclaims, convinced By sad experience; with a sigh repeats The mournful theme, that nothing here below Can solid comfort yield: 'tis all a scene. Of vanity, beyond the power of words To express, or thought conceive. Let every man Survey himself, then ask, what fruit remains Of all his fond pursuits? What has he gain'd, By toiling thus for more than nature's wants Require? Why thus with endless projects rack'd His heated brain, and to the labouring mind, Repose denied? Why such expense of time, That steals away so fast, and ne'er looks back? Could man his wish obtain, how short the space For his enjoyment! No less transient here The time of his duration, than the things Thus anxiously pursued. For, as the mind, In search of bliss, fix'd on no solid point, For ever fluctuates; so our little frames, In which we glory, haste to their decline, Nor permanence can find. The human race Drop like autumnal leaves, by spring revived: One generation from the stage of life Withdraws, another comes, and thus makes room For that which follows. Mightiest realms decay, Sink by degrees; and lo! new form'd estates Rise from their ruins. Even the earth itself, Sole object of our hopes and fears, Shall have its period, though to man unknown."
Is it true then that all is vanity?
YES if you are without spiritual values and have no hope beyond this troubling and fleeting existence. King Solomon was told that his earthly kingdom, which he so treasured and which it was his greatest wish to pass on to his sons and their posterity, was to be given to his servant and all that he had accomplished diminished to naught. When all that you work for, all that you treasure, all that you hold most dear crumbles into dust then for you, truly, all is vanity. This is the dismal state of all those who take their eyes off God and focus instead on earthly things.
BUT NO all is not vanity, most assuredly not if you are spiritual and your focus is on God whose commands you obey and whose blessings permeate your life. The Bible tells us this, "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth." (Colossians 3:2) To be earthly minded is death and unhappiness and loss of purpose and vanity. Solomon disconnected with heaven and so had nothing other than the inferior and transient material things, things he possessed in abundance, but things that can never satisfy the innermost longing.
But believers are happy NOW and full of joy and anticipate a blessed and eternal future with God. For believers life is far from vain for Jesus Christ came on the scene to give us a great and worthwhile life now, "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)
Good, worthwhile, joyful living now is only part of it.
The Bible says, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Corinthians 15:19) Believers have sure hope also in THE LIFE TO COME , "But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." (1 Corinthians 2: 9) A great life now and the promise of an even better one to come. DOES THAT SOUND TO YOU LIKE VANITY?
Books by this author (non-fiction except indicated otherwise)
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Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2013
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