Friday, October 28, 2016
The Vision (10.30.16): Vanity of Vanities
Image: Fall leaves, North Garden, Virginia, October 2016
Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday morning's opening sermon in the Ecclesiastes series.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
Ecclesiastes 1:2 offers an inspired, albeit bleak, assessment of human life. Five times in this verse, we see the use of the word “vanity.” It is a favorite word in this book as a whole, appearing again and again, nearly 40 times.
The Hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel. It is also used for wind or breath. So, it means something that it light, of little substance, and of brief duration (see Currid, Ecclesiastes: A Quest for Meaning? pp. 15-16). The OT name “Abel” comes from this word, and Abel lived a brief life, cut short by his own brother.
He uses it here in a superlative sense, as also in the Holy of Holies (the holiest place), or the Song of Songs (the best of songs). But here, vanity of vanities, or most meaningless of the meaningless, most fleeting of the fleeting, emptiest of the empty. When he says, “all is vanity” he is saying that life is meaningless, life is purposeless.
It recalls that great line from Shakespeare’s MacBeth:
Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The Australian Pastor Peter Barnes in his little book on Ecclesiastes, captures the natural despair that many feel when he writes:
We are constantly being exhorted to make a difference, but the reality is that the world hardly seems much different because we have heeded the alarm clock, eaten breakfast, said good-bye to the family, boarded the train [got in the car], put in our eight hours’ work, returned home, all in order to flop down in front of the television set. There is activity and apparent change, but no sense of getting anywhere. The world at large remains much the same (Both Sides Now, pp. 9-10).
Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!
This book is going to tell us about what life is like apart from Christ. It is going to tell us about sin, sinful longings, and sinful attitudes with the precision of a Puritan divine. “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). But it is also going to point us toward a Redeemer. He is the “one man among a thousand” (Ecclesiastes 7:28) who gives meaning and purpose to our lives.