VANITY OF VANITIES
Adapted from a sermon preached on 27 May 2001, at the PCC Evening Service


“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)


The book of Ecclesiastes was no doubt written by King Solomon, the wisest king who ever ruled Israel. In the first verse of the book, the writer describes himself as the “Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” A little later, in verses 12–13, he writes:

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.


This certainly fits the description of Solomon, who was the son of David, and was declared as the wisest men who ever lived (1 Kgs 4:31). At the time of the writing of Ecclesiastes, he was probably already an old man, and he writes in retrospection of his own life (see chapter 12).


Now, Solomon was not only the wisest king, but also the richest and most glorious king who ever ruled in Israel. Under his dominion, the nation of Israel extended from Egypt to the Euphrates, or in other words, the entire piece of land, which God promised to Abraham (cf. Gen 15:18–21; 1 Kgs 4:21, 24).


During his reign, there was peace and prosperity all round. Yet, writing towards the end of his life, he declares repeatedly: “Vanity of vanities,… all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2; 12:8).


If you know anything about the book of Ecclesiastes at all, I am sure you would know that this is the theme of the book: “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” In fact, after stating this theme, Solomon goes on to prove his assertion with the entire book of Ecclesiastes. But what does Solomon mean?


Vanity of Vanities


The word “vanity” (Heb. hebel) occurs a total of 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. It literally means “vapour” or “breath” in the Hebrew. If you have been to a cold country in winter, you will notice that when you breathe, your breath is visible, but it disappears almost immediately. So it is very transient, it appears to have no weight, nor substance. This is the idea behind the word “vanity.”


Or if you have never been to a cold country, I am sure you have stood before a mirror, and breath onto it. What happens when you do so? The mirror fogs up before you. But does it remain fogged up for long? No, it clears very quickly. And it leaves no stains and no traces behind. The mist on the mirror may be described as a vanity.


So the word “vanity” speaks of what is worthless, meaningless, purposeless, and temporal. To pursue vanity is to chase after the wind. To say that something is a vanity is to say that it is a waste of time to pursue it, and meaningless for you to have it.


But Solomon is even more emphatic. He says, “Vanity of vanities.” Now, this is like saying: “Emptiest of empty,” if there can be such an idea. The way in which it is written is the same way in which the most holy place in the Tabernacle or the Temple is described in the Scriptures. In the KJV and in many other translations, it is described as “the Most Holy Place,” but a literal translation should rather be “the Holy of holies.” That is to say the very, very, holy place, the absolutely holy place. The Holy of holies is so holy that only the high priest may enter, and that only once a year with the blood of atonement for himself and for the people.


So “vanity of vanities” would mean absolutely, utterly, completely, unreservedly, meaningless. Now, you can imagine that if we know anything that may be so described as vanity of vanities, we would not want to spend our effort to get it. In fact, even the world would regard anyone who pursue anything so meaningless to be silly and wasting his time. We would agree, for example, that it would be silly for someone to develop affection for his shadow and to grieve when the shadow is annihilated by light. It is meaningless to develop affection for shadows. And again, we would think that someone is out of his mind if every time he goes to the barber, he would bring a bag to collect every strand of his hair so that he has bags after bags of hair in his house. That exercise is meaningless. It is vanity, if not vanity of vanities.


Unless we are out of our minds, we would not do what may be described as meaningless, much less what is vanity of vanities—what is absolutely meaningless.


But here’s a problem. Solomon, the wisest man, tells us: “All is vanity….”


All is Vanity


What could Solomon mean? How could everything be meaningless? It sounds so fatalistic, does it not? It seems like Solomon is saying that life is meaningless and everything else is meaningless. Does he really mean it? Surely he does not mean to say that everything is meaningless? Could it be that this is the sinful reflection of an old man suffering the pains of old age and desiring to die? It cannot be. These are the words of a preacher who is seeking to teach the truth. In fact, towards the end of the book, Solomon repeats this verse: “Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” (Ecc 12:8). And then as if to tell us that what he says is true, he declares:

And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth (Ecc 12:9–10).


So, what does Solomon mean to convey when he says “all is vanity”? Well, he does not leave us to guess. In the verses following, he explains firstly, that all human endeavours are meaningless (cf. Ecc 1:3–4), for no one lives long enough to enjoy the fruit of his labours. Though the earth remains unchanging, one generation after another pass away, and soon all men will cease to enjoy any of the fruit of any man’s labours. Secondly, that even the processes of nature are meaningless (Ecc 1:5–7), seeing there is no nett gain. The sun goes down, comes up and goes down again. The wind appears to whirl about continually. The water in the earth simply gets cycled round and round. Thirdly, work and knowledge are meaningless (Ecc 1:8–11). There is nothing new under the sun. It is true that in the last century, man has invented many new things: quite unlike the time of Solomon. But how often are new things invented, and how many of these things have real and lasting significance? Solomon tells us that there is no remembrance. There is nothing of real and lasting significance.


Continue reading through the book, and you will no doubt be convinced that, for Solomon, all of life is vanity. Read on to chapter 2, and you will find Solomon declaring that pleasure and entertainment are meaningless. Read chapter 3, the process of life is meaningless. Read chapter 4, and you will find that work and advancement are also meaningless. Move on to chapter 5, and you will see that riches are meaningless, and so on, until you reach the last chapter.


But Solomon was the wisest man, and a worshipper of Jehovah, a God-fearer, a believer or, we may say, an OT Christian. How could he have such a fatalistic, negative attitude towards life? Surely our perception and reading of him must be wrong.


Under the Sun


Surely, there is something in his message that we missed? And because we miss that something we come to a wrong conclusion of the attitude of Solomon? What is that something? Let’s look at the verses again and I’ll show you.



“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3).

“That which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc 1:9b).

“Behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11b).

“Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun” (Ecc 2:17–20).


Now, do you see it? Do you see a phrase appearing over and over? This phrase, “under the sun” is the key phrase in the whole book of Ecclesiastes. You cannot understand this book unless you first notice the phrase “under the sun.” This phrase occurs no less than 27 times in this book, and in every chapter except in the concluding two chapters. What does Solomon mean?


What does it mean by “under the sun” but everything that is visible to the eye? Solomon is saying that if this world is merely physical, and consists only of things that are visible and tangible, and so there is no God, no soul, no spiritual realm, then truly everything is a vanity of vanities, everything is utterly meaningless.


Have you ever taken a hard look at your life and considered your very existence? Almost 20 years ago, I reached a time of crisis in my life when I looked at myself and wondered why I existed at all. I wondered what the meaning of life was. I was not sure if God existed, and so my life was merely a physical visible one. So I held to Darwinism, to the theory of evolution. But then I asked myself: If man evolved from lower life forms, as the evolutionalists say, then, wouldn’t I be just an animal like a dog, a cat, a rat, or even an ant on the table, or a cockroach in the drain? I looked at the birds, and wondered within myself—if I am just an animal, then my life is much less meaningful than that of the birds. If what is under the sun is all that there is to life, then being able to fly like the birds, to enjoy myself briefly and then die would surely be more desirable than having to take examinations year after year. Oh but even then life would be meaningless. What is the use of enjoying life for a brief while and then becoming nothing?


If all there is to life is what we see under the sun, then nothing that is done by men would be of any real significance at all. If it is true that we came about by a cosmic accident, and we are alive because of this accident, that is, life is simply accidental, then what is the difference whether we are alive or not?


If all there is to life is what we see under the sun, then what is the difference between me and a rock? The only difference is that I move and eat and suffer and die, but the rock does not. I am just a more complex blob of chemical than the rock, and long after I am disintegrated into dust, the rock would still be one piece. So much for the idea that man is a significant being.


But you say, “Wait a minute! I am an emotional creature with an intelligent mind.” But if all that there is to life is what we see under the sun, then you have no soul; then what is intelligence and emotion? They are but purely bio-chemical reactions. A cockroach will have similar kinds of reaction when you try to stomp it.


So then, if all there is to life is what we see under the sun, then nothing that we achieve is really important, because everything is temporal, and all is gone when we die. Even if we consider the fact that the works of our hands may benefit our next generation, it would still be meaningless because the next generation will also die, and soon the whole human race will be no more—after all if we came by accident, then we would probably be destroyed by an accident. Perhaps a meteoroid will collide with the earth, or perhaps the sun will burn out, or perhaps it will destroy itself with its nuclear arsenal. So then, if all there is to life is found under the sun, then life is a vanity of vanities, life would be utterly meaningless.


Our Spiritual Response


But is life really that meaningless? Thank God that it is not! The fact is that there is more than life under the sun. We have a soul, God exists, and He will bring everything into judgement one day. This is what makes life meaningful.


Like a master teacher, Solomon drives to despair anyone who is tempted to think that all that there is to life is seen under the sun. But lest we leave the book of Ecclesiastes in despair, he concludes with the final words:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Ecc 12:13–14).


All of life finds its meaning in the fact that God exists and that He will judge us for all aspects of our lives. Or, to put it in another way: How we live matters because there is a living and true God who will judge us for our lives at the end of our earthly journey. Or, to put it in yet another way: The significance and meaning of all and every aspect of our lives is determined not by our enjoyment or the praises of man, but whether God our creator is pleased and glorified.


What is this fact to us?


In the first place, every person who does not believe in the existence of God must logically come to the conclusion that life is vanity of vanities as painted by Solomon. If there is no God, there is absolutely no meaning or purpose in life. Nothing you have and nothing you do in this life will have any meaning at all if there were no God. You can bring nothing you have into this world with you when you die because you yourself become nothing if there were no God. And nothing you do in this life, whether you may think it is good or bad, has any meaning, because one day everything will return to lifeless dust and there will be no memory of what you have done.


But what if a person believes in the existence of God, but does not believe that He is the God of the Bible or in the Lord Jesus Christ? He is a ‘freethinker’ or he believes in any of the other religions in the world? Well, I submit to you that there is no essential difference—he is without God. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians reminds them that they were at one time without Christ, and while they were without Christ, they were without God in the world (Eph 2:12).


The Lord Jesus Christ tells us: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). The Apostle John tells us: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Jn 1:18).


To be without Christ is to be without God, whatever you may think. God is a holy God. A god who is not pure and holy, and not most glorious cannot possibly be God. And if God is pure and holy, then how dare corrupt and sinful man come into His presence? Will you dare to go into the presence of God who sees all things and knows your heart more than you do? Knowing that all men fall short of the glory of God, will you dare to go into the judgement seat of God alone? I dare say that the torment of your conscience will be so great if you come before God yourself, that even before God pronounces His sentence you would be pleading: “Lord I am guilty, sent me away from thy presence, send me to eternal damnation, anything but to stand before Thee, Thou who art a holy God.” Without Christ, God is a consuming fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God who is angry because of our rebellion against Him. Let no man presume that God will receive him as would a benevolent father his child, should he attempt to come into His presence without Christ.


Thank God that He has provided a way for us to come into His holy presence, for Christ shed His precious blood to pay for the sin of all who would call unto Him in repentance and faith. He is sitting at the right hand of the throne of God, ready to receive all who will come to Him to plead for forgiveness. He says: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me: and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn 6:37). All who will come unto Christ and embrace Him as Saviour and Lord will have Christ as their Advocate before the Father.


In the day of judgement, we shall be ushered before the tribunal of God. And we shall see Christ sitting at the right hand of the throne of God, for all judgement has been committed to Him.


If you are covered by the blood of Christ, then will Christ arise and stand at the right hand of God and receive you as He did when Stephen was martyred. Then you shall hear the beautiful words of the Lord: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” But woe are you if Christ remains seated to pronounce judgement upon you.


Oh, will you not consider your life? Will you not seek Christ while He may be found? We will all stand before the judgement seat of Christ, or else all of life would be vanity of vanities and we may as well end our life than suffer meaninglessly. But the question is: Will Christ be seated as your prosecutor or standing as your lawyer when you stand before the tribunal of God? I pray that the latter will be the case.


But what about you who know Christ, who have humbly put your trust in Christ: who know that the blood of Christ covers you despite your imperfection and rebellion against Him? How should the fact that without Christ all things are a vanity of vanities affect our lives? How should the fact that we will be called to the judgement seat of Christ when we shall be judged of everything in our lives, whether good or evil, affect how we live?


I believe it should remind us once again that we are but pilgrims in this world, heading for our eternal home. Therefore we must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We must not lay up treasures upon the earth where moth and rust doth corrupt. Rather we should give great priority to the things of eternal values. It is sad to know Christians who are very zealous when they are young believers. But as they grow in maturity and in the faith, they become indifferent and begin to be bogged down by the cares of the world. Sometimes, they may not even realise it, and they may even excuse themselves for their lack of zeal in the things of God, thinking that their excuses are valid. Slowly through the numbing of their consciences, their career, their education, their houses, their cars, their eating and drinking, their clubs, etc., become more important in their lives than Christ and His church. By and by, without even realising it, they become Sunday Christians, and begin living like the rest of the world, chasing after vanity of vanities. They have become secret atheists who, if they do not repent, will perish with the world.


Conclusion


Dearly beloved, will you not sit down to take stock of your lives. How many things are vanities in your lives? Do you have them or do them for practical reasons or to facilitate your pilgrim journey, or are they there because they are the fashion of the world? May we live our lives with the knowledge that God will call us to account for every aspect of our lives.


Friends, if you do not know Christ, will you not seek Christ while He may be found or risk living an entire life in vanity, and dying only to face the wrath of the Lamb? Amen.


J.J. Lim