All Is Vanity?

By Francine Grace Tan, Class of ’19

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In “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Thomas Chalmers suggests that all men live in a state of constant desire. It is impossible not to desire something, even for a single second. In our fallen condition, the object of our hearts’ desires will always be the sinful allurements of the world. Chalmers illustrates this with the picture of a boy, who runs after the childish desire of pleasure until he grows discontented. He turns from pleasure to run after the more sophisticated desire for money. Having grown disillusioned with the emptiness of wealth, he sets his heart on the quest for power. In this endless transition from one desire to another, the heart is left empty. Nevertheless, the boy – now a man – is still left with desire and he cannot stop desiring. Chalmers then notes (1855), “The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by that which is more worthy than itself?”

Ecclesiastes is one of the books in the Bible that encapsulates the search for meaning in life while contributing to the doctrines of man, salvation, and future judgment. King Solomon wrote this book around 940–932 BC. Surrounded by more success, opulence, and pleasure than most people could ever imagine, Solomon hits rock bottom in his miserable existence. Thus, he begins a spiritual odyssey to return from the quagmire of nothingness – a search for meaning in life.

The word “vanity”[1] occurs 34 times in Ecclesiastes and is the theme that permeates the book. “Vanity” is identical with the name “Abel” or Hebel (Genesis 4:2), which means “vapor” or “breath” and is used metaphorically to describe anything transitory, frail or unsatisfying. Solomon says, “A generation passes away and another generation comes along” (1:4), that “there is no memory of former things” (1:11), and that as a person “came” into the world at birth, “so shall he go” out of it taking nothing with him (5:16). In chapter 3 (verses 1-15), Solomon lists some things that continually change: People are born, then they die; plants are planted, and then pulled up; things are built up, then torn down. There are seasons to weep and times to laugh, periods to mourn, and so on. Life arcs back and forth. Nothing remains forever. Because of this, Solomon concedes that everything is nothing, and mankind’s existence is ephemeral against the backdrop of the permanence of the world.

While some perceived this book as mere skepticism, Gleason Archer argues that Ecclesiastes was written “to convince men of the uselessness of any world view, which does not rise above the horizon of man himself. As a result of careful examination of one’s environment, it leaves us hungry to know God – the only thing that satisfies” (Archer, Kaiser, & Youngblood, 1986).

Solomon begins with the pursuit of wisdom in hopes to find the answer to his most basic question: What is the purpose of life? However, Solomon’s exhaustive search for answers meets with failure. In our own times, another very knowledgeable man has undertaken a similar task. World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking investigates the origin of the universe while seeking to disprove the existence of God. Yet, like Solomon, he has failed (Hawking, 1992).

When life’s most profound problem remains unsolved, Solomon turns to another potential means for defeating depression and death: unfettered pleasure. Just like erudition, pleasure did not provide Solomon answers to his questions. Solomon also realizes that his obsession over his life’s work is a vanity since his son, Rehoboam, will inherit the kingdom of Israel. He says in 2:11, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Because everything in the old, cursed creation ends in death, there is no real gain under the Sun.

Having talked and shared the Gospel to students on campus for the past few months, I think we’re living in a time when G.K Chesterton’s dictum has proven to be true. Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of an exhausted array of indulgence with nothing left to expend or experience. Yet, the pursuit of ultimate hedonism isn’t new, as the Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

 

Leo Tolstoy underscores this similar search for meaning in a meaningless world in his “Confession”:

“Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? How can man fail to see this? And how do you go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid” (Tolstoy, 1882).

 

Nonetheless, the despair and hopelessness of Tolstoy is not a particular one. Many are looking for a reason for living that will plumb the depths of our passions and sustain us until we breathe our last.  Prophet Hosea in the Bible described a similar people in his time who ate but never had enough, who drank but never had their fill, and who prayed to gods who could not save:

“They will eat but not have enough; they will engage in prostitution but not flourish, because they have deserted the Lord to give themselves to prostitution; old wine and new wine take away their understanding. My people consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God” (Hosea 4:10-12).

After an exhaustive search for meaning in wisdom, pleasure, wealth, and power, Solomon himself recognizes that everything is vanity because nothing can fill the God-shaped void in man’s life. If we have been made by God and for God, and if knowing and following God is the essence of life, then any other kind of life is a departure from our original design and purpose. Thus, by definition, nothing else can fully satisfy us. Echoing C.S Lewis in his most well-known book, Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

In the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon redefines the meaning of life as such: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole essence of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, cf: 1 Timothy 6:6). Why does he call people to fear God and keep His commandments if all is meaningless? Because this life is filled with meaning only when we cease to pursue meaning “under the Sun” and instead seek out meaning “under heaven” and recognize that the essence of man is to fear and obey God.

Solomon writes, “Everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). But when the Word becomes flesh, dwells among us and offers us salvation, life is but a shadow of the glories to come in heaven, which is only accessible through Christ. When Christ bids us to follow Him, He says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26, cf: Matthew 13:44-52Philippians 3:8-11) This spiritual exchange does not mean that what we have right now is something good and the salvation Christ offers is better. Rather, Christ is saying, “This is loss, this is liability, it is not profit and it is not good.” So, what gain does man have in all his work under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3) We gain the one true God and the knowledge of Christ. We call that identification with Christ (Galatians 2:20). Second, we gain the righteousness of Christ. We call that justification (Romans 5:1). Third, we gain the power of Christ. We call that sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:301 Thessalonians 4:3). Fourth, we gain the suffering with Christ. We call that participation (Romans 6:5-8, 1 Peter 4:13). And ultimately we gain the glory of Christ. We call that glorification (Romans 8:18-302 Thessalonians 2:14). That’s the pearl of great value, that’s the eternal treasure in Heaven, and the greatest gain.

 

F.B. Meyer wrote (1984), “We may know Him personally intimately face to face, Christ does not live back in the centuries nor amid the clouds of heaven, He is near us, with us, compassing our path in our lying down and acquainted with all our ways. But we cannot know Him in this mortal life except through the illumination and teaching of the Holy Spirit. And we can surely know Christ not as a stranger who turns in to visit for the night or as the exalted king of men, there must be an inner knowledge as of those whom He counts His own familiar friends, whom He trusts with His secrets who eat with Him of His own bread. To know Christ in the storm of battle, to know Him in the valley of shadow, to know Him when the solar light radiates our faces or when they are darkened with disappointment and sorrow, to know the sweetness of His dealing with bruised reeds and smoking flax, to know the tenderness of His sympathy and the strength of His right hand, all this involves many varieties of experience on our part. But each of them like the facets of a diamond will reflect the prismatic beauty of His glory from a new angle”.

 

This is exactly why the Apostle Paul says he counts everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:21, 3:8). Life is sweet because we gain Christ and with every glimpse of unmerited grace, we are pushed to heighten hope for something beyond our life under the Sun now.

Although some claim to have let go of the search for meaning and say, “I’m satisfied with not knowing,” many still relentlessly pursue it. The cries of the human heart can only be intoxicated for so long. When we are finally sober, the search for significance, purpose, and meaning continues, as our hearts are restless until they find rest in God.

The Old Testament says, “‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love’” (Joel 2:12-13). Even now, God seeks your heart, your soul and your all, and I hope you’ll see that your heart’s desire is meant to be supplanted by that which is more worthy – God Himself.

 
Works cited:

Archer, G., Kaiser, W., & Youngblood, R. (1986). A Tribute to Gleason Archer (1st ed.). Chicago: Moody Press.

Chalmers, T., & Hanna, W. (1855). A selection from the correspondence of the late Thomas Chalmers (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Bros.

Hawking, S., & Hawking, S. (1992). Stephen Hawking’s A brief history of time (1st ed.). New York: Bantam Books.

Meyer, F. (1984). Devotional commentary on Philippians (1st ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.

Tolstoy, L. (1882). A Confession (1st ed.). Dover Publications.

[1] “Vanity” in the Hebrew Bible is also translated to “emptiness” or “enigma,” and in this context, it refers to the futile emptiness of trying to make sense out of life apart from God.

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