Vanity of Vanities

“Vanity of vanities… all is vanity.” So states Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest king the nation of Israel has ever known, in his second biblical book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes. This is the first of two significant conclusions he comes to in the book, the disheartening result of a series of experiments in which he sought unbridled pleasure and prosperity (chapter 2), and came up empty.

King Solomon, however, is not alone in his assessment. H.G. Wells, famous historian and philosopher, said at age 61: “I have no peace. All life is at the end of the tether.” The poet Byron said, “My days are in yellow leaf, the flowers and fruits of life are gone, the worm and the canker, and the grief are mine alone.” The literary genius Thoreau summed it up this way: “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” (Morning Glory, May 29, 1993) The common thread in each of these opinions is that life is, by its very nature, full of sorrow and suffering, and is at best, unfulfilling. It is a hopeless philosophy which leaves man without a reason to live.

So, how does Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, explain this dilemma? The key to the answer rests in the phrase “under the sun,” found in verse two of chapter one. Solomon is examining life from a human perspective. The great majority of his discourse (chapters 2-10) is taken up in a discussion of living life “under the sun,” an exercise in futility (Ecclesiastes 8:15-17), fatalism (Ecclesiastes 9:10-12) and folly (Ecclesiastes 10:5-6). Not until chapter 11 do we begin to see any positive meditation or optimism.

Solomon’s second conclusion is found in the last two verses of the last chapter in his discourse. He sums up his thoughts with two cautions and an observation: “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.” 

What is the secret to living life “under the sun” in a successful manner? The answer is viewing life from an eternal perspective. When we “fear God and keep his commandments” with an awareness that we will one day stand before God, life is no longer empty. Living has purpose, desperation vanishes and human fulfillment becomes reality.

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