Vanity of Vanities - What does the Bible say about Vanity?
Does the book of Ecclesiastes say life is worthless? Some people think so. Perhaps you have thought that. After all, in just the second verse of the book, Solomon made this famous statement: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). It can appear that Solomon had given up any hope of finding real meaning in life. But is that the point of the book of Ecclesiastes?
It is worth asking and answering that question for ourselves, because we, too, struggle through life’s ups and downs. Are you sometimes troubled with discouragement and depression? Do you wrestle—maybe even as you read these words—with anxiety and even despair? If so, you need to take a second look at Ecclesiastes. It can give you more encouragement than you may have realised.
Solomon had much to say about the frustrations of life in the flesh, and the despair that can come when we focus too much on the physical. Frankly, Ecclesiastes is ideally suited for our time, for we live in an age and generation obsessed with material comforts, yet perplexed that real happiness seems always beyond our grasp.
Truly, without God at the centre of everything we do, our lives do become meaningless and hopeless. But with God at the centre of our focus, our lives become an exhilarating adventure preparing us for an awesome future. That is the meaning of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Solomon wrote more about vanity than anyone else in the Bible and the word vanity is found in Ecclesiastes more than in all the other books in the Bible combined. Perhaps because Solomon had so much wisdom, had everything he ever wanted, and was at the height of power, he personally knew a lot about vanity from experience but he apparently humbled himself later (actually God did it for him) and so that is why he know so much about vanity as we will read from his many writings found in what is called the wisdom literature, primarily in Ecclesiastes although it is found elsewhere.
Solomon definitely recognised his responsibility to pass on important lessons to the next generation. That’s why Ecclesiastes was written. And that’s why it contains an honest and open account of the results of choices in life. Our youth need parents and mentors who also pass on life’s lessons. They need someone to help them see beyond the advertisements and commercial messages. Notice what Solomon tells young people: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgement. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 11:9–10).
Solomon encourages the young to have fun. Enjoy life! Set some goals and strive to accomplish them. See life as an adventure to relish and experience. But always remember, this is not the end. The first half of chapter 12 is devoted to exhorting young people to “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1) Why? Because youth is fleeting and old age will come soon enough! Before you know it, you’ll be confronted by a time when “the keepers of the house tremble… the grinders [or teeth] cease because they are few, and those that look through the windows grow dim” (v. 3). And you’ll also come face to face with having to give an account of how you spent your life.
Those of us who are older need to set the example. Are we living this way ourselves? Are we exercising self-restraint, learning from our mistakes, and growing to be more like Christ? Or are we just criticising young people and not showing a different way ourselves? These lessons apply to all of us. Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). It’s the same message as that of Ecclesiastes, and it applies to all of us, young and old.
Our life is “here today and gone tomorrow.” James explains that, asking, “For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). We will not live forever in the flesh. Physical life by itself is vain—it is temporary. But that doesn’t mean it should be spiritually, mentally, or emotionally empty and worthless. If we are walking with God and embracing His plan for us, that makes all the difference.
Notice what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 7:1: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” This scripture would be terribly depressing if it weren’t for its underlying truth. What does Solomon mean? The day of death brings the end of our race. It represents finishing our course. It means our preparation and training are completed, and we are ready to graduate to glorified spirit life. The day of one’s death represents the day that God says, “You are ready to be in My family forever!” We rightly mourn when a friend or loved one dies. But at the same time, what Solomon is saying should greatly encourage us—he’s talking about living for eternity.
In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon wrote, “It is beautiful how God has done everything at the right time. He has put a sense of eternity in people’s minds. Yet, mortals still can’t grasp what God is doing from the beginning to the end of time." God promises us something we cannot quite comprehend—eternal life in His Kingdom! And His timing as He leads us to that Kingdom is always perfect.
Is Ecclesiastes a bitter, desperate book about hopelessness? Absolutely not. It explains that after the end of physical life, we will have the opportunity to step into eternity. That is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. In conveying that message, the book offers specific warnings of how not to get caught up in the traps of the material world. As Solomon concluded, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
We are given this life as an opportunity to prepare for eternal life, and every day is a new day. No matter what failures we had yesterday, we can try again today. No matter what failures we had last week, this can be the beginning of a new week. No matter what frustrations we had last year, the Holy Days can serve as times to re-evaluate, recharge, refocus, and forge ahead.
Life wasn’t created to be meaningless. We weren’t made to be unhappy. God created us to relate to Him, walk with Him, talk with Him, and at the end of physical life to step into an eternal relationship with Him upon our resurrection and glorification.
Yes, this life is temporary. The flesh truly is vanity, meaning “here today and gone tomorrow.” But there is a big purpose for each day we draw breath. Let’s view every day as a gift to be cherished and valued. Let’s impart that mindset to our children, so they know how important they are to God. He loves them and wants them to be happy. And let’s make sure we are using this temporary life to prepare for our awesome, eternal future with God.
We all have it in us to be vain and be full of vanity. It is within our fallen nature but when God gives us His Spirit, He gives us a new heart, not one of stone but of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). God’s Spirit changes our hearts, we get a heart transplant, one that is bent toward pleasing God, toward obeying Him, and worshipping Him in spirit and in truth. In doing so, it is not done in vanity or vain. As Jesus said of the Father, it is “for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers.” Sources
Unshakable Hope: Building Our Lives on the Promises of God - Max Lucado
Making Sanity Out Of Vanity: Christian Realism in the Book of Ecclesiastes - Stanley D. Gale
Vanity of Vanities: Notes on Ecclesiastes - Andy Sochor