Vanity, vanity, all is vanity — Ecclesiastes 1-3

So, today we bravely dive off into the book of Ecclesiastes! It’s not a book for the satisfied-with-the-status-quo. It’s challenging, starts you thinking, wondering what you’ve been doing and why. It’s philosophical in places and jolting in places. It’s the “no spin zone” of life, a no-holds-barred, bare-naked, and honest look at questions we often are satisfied to put aside…until we’re faced with our own mortality.

Ecclesiastes indirectly claims to be written by Solomon: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.…I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.” Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12 —  This makes sense, since it was Solomon who had access to the wealth, power, and knowledge to test the various proposed meanings to life that the “preacher” talks about. Solomon as a young man started off well, but the middle of his life and reign sadly quite poor. Though he was responsible for building the magnificent Temple of the LORD (probably fine enough to be considered a “wonder of the world”), he was tragically influenced by marrying wives from foreign countries presumably for diplomatic purposes. They pressed him for temples to worship their own gods, which he gave in to (1 Kings 11:1-8). This unfaithfulness became the reason for the division of the united kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 11:9-13), not really Rehoboam’s foolish tax policy (1 Kings 12:15). Although other portions of Scripture are silent on this matter, it would seem through the books of Proverbs and especially Ecclesiastes that Solomon may have reawakened to the wisdom of God in his latter days. The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to look at life more as something that has been experienced and something that may be expected coming to an end shortly — it reads like someone who is grappling with the reality his own morality and trying to share life’s lessons with younger people. And indeed, given this generation’s groping for meaning, this book should be really interesting reading and pondering for most.

In some respects Ecclesiastes may be thought of as the (very eloquent and poetic) report about a grand life experiment — “What’s it all about?” Now, you need to keep in mind as you read through it, it is mostly being written through an “earthly” lens. We’re used to reading Scripture that is being written from a “God-point-of-view”. We not only read of the history of Israel and others, but also get an inspired commentary about what’s really happening behind the scenes. Historical events are explained in terms of what God is accomplishing, and even the psalms of complaint are given godly answers afterward. Not so much in Ecclesiastes; that’s why I spoke of it as a “‘no spin zone’ of life, a no-holds-barred, bare-naked, and honest look”. Rarely in Ecclesiastes do we get a chance to see something from the eternal perspective, until the end. It is Solomon, the sophisticate, that is writing here, as if he were agnostic and unaware of any afterlife. In today’s reading, the first three chapters, Solomon kind of lays out the essence of his “existential angst” — his really big question, “What’s it all about?” So, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in the upright and locked position and that your seat belts are correctly fastened — here we go…

“’Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 1:2, 3 — Vanity means emptiness, worthlessness, vacuous. Solomon’s assessment of everything in this life, everything without God figured into the calculation, is meaningless. This gets deeper the farther into the book we get.

“That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10 — Our modern generation, owners of iPhones and passengers on airplanes may have trouble with this passage, but Solomon’s point is not that the day of invention was really past, but that the essence of life’s problems remain the same. As we read through Solomon’s litany of complaints about the difficulties of life, you’ll find them very familiar — even 3000 years later. And let’s face it, even our inventions are basically creative, recombinant mash-ups of things we’ve known about for a while — in many cases, just learning how to do what we have observed God’s natural world already doing.

“And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:13, 14 — Solomon notes that the works of men are vain and useless — they come with great effort and go with seldom a trace.

“And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” Ecclesiastes 1:17, 18 — Even the gaining of wisdom through much hard effort is often useless. Who can do it consistently? Moreover, the wise man and fool both (from a worldly perspective) end up in the same place, the tomb.

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility.” Ecclesiastes 2:1 — Pleasure is never enjoyed for very long, and even so, the point is…? Yeah, I know, to feel good; and the point is…? That’s the reason for being?

“Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 2:18, 19 — And does leaving a legacy have a point? More often than not, it gets squandered on frivolous things the accumulator would never have spent it on. So, the point is to spend it all now? Really? Overall, Solomon deals with pleasure, laughter, wine; the building of houses, vineyards, gardens, trees; the owning of servants, animals, riches, concubines, and more. He sought philosophy (2:12) but found that the wise man and the fool die alike — no advantage. Vanity!

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven– A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.” Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2 — Do you feel like singing a chorus of “Turn, Turn, Turn”? This is where the song made famous by the Birds (the rock group, not the animal) came from. It’s point, however, is not always clear — until you read all the way to end. At the end it appears to be saying that this crazy life, so full of vanity, is also full of a chaotic cycle of absurd opposites and extremes without meaning or order — have you ever noticed. You can laugh til your sides hurts and weep until you think your eyes are going to fall out in the same day — maybe within the same hour. When you think about it, you might want to say, “Get me off this crazy roller coaster!”

“I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?” Ecclesiastes 3:22 — The only thing that Solomon finds of worth from a sheerly worldly perspective is to simply be happy or content in daily activities, and not worry about tomorrow — right.

See you tomorrow, Lord willing.

About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the Rock Hill church of Christ in Frisco TX where I've worked since 2020. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, and the Lord's church.
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