When interpreting this “vanity of vanities” mantra, it is important to keep in mind both the scope of “vanity” (everything “under the sun”) as well as the final point of the whole book: “fear God and keep his commandments.” By relentlessly emphasizing that nothing in life will yield certain meaning or ultimate satisfaction (“all is vanity”), Ecclesiastes forces us to see our need to engage in something that transcends this world—that is, fearing and obeying God. With the final reminder that “God will bring every deed into judgment,” we realize that everything is not ultimately pointless to God. He will evaluate some things and say, “That’s good!” He will evaluate other things and say, “That’s bad!” It is only life “under the sun” that does not contain the key to its own meaning. Meaning enters only with God.
Here are six take-aways from the theme of vanity in Ecclesiastes:
1. Life makes no sense apart from God.
With this understanding of Solomon’s theme of vanity, it becomes clear why it is appropriate for us as Christians to also affirm, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” It is another way of saying, “Life makes no sense apart from God.” We find a parallel to this idea in 1 John 2:17: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” The first part of that verse any atheist will also affirm; but with it, they must also confess that life is ultimately absurd, that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that life is no better than death. But the second part of that verse is the hope of every believer, and the assurance that while life “under the sun” does not provide the key to its own meaning, there is meaning in the fact that people who live “under the sun,” can enjoy eternal fellowship with God: “he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”
I like the way J. Stafford Wright explains it:
The Christian answer is that the universe does make sense. There is a plan and a purpose that has its center and its climax in Christ. We as Christians have been predestinated to be an integral part of that plan. We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). But not even to Christians has it been given to comprehend the plan. Not even a Christian can explain how everything that comes into his life takes its place in the plan. But, none the less, all the time he is trying to catch a glimpse of a certain wholeness that will link together all his individual experiences. But again and again he is driven back to the position of Romans 8:28: “We know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.” . . . . The Christian attitude then is one of faith and confidence. The Christian says, “I know that all these things must play their part in God’s total plan. I long to know what the plan is and to see it as a whole, and I shall always go on trying to see it. But in the meantime I will live my life one day at a time, believing that in the common round of life I am doing the will of God. I will be content with what God gives me and take my life from the hand of God.
2. Since sin is the ultimate cause of our misery, the conquering of sin will be the only cause for our joy (1 Corinthians 15:56).
Sin brought misery into this world, and happiness will not be restored where sin continues.
3. To say, “I can’t see where this is going,” is to admit our finiteness but to say, “This isn’t going anywhere” is to assert our faithlessness (Ecc. 12:15; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 4:16-18).
As Christians, we feel a subtle lure to be God’s Public Relations Liaison—the unfortunate person whose job it is to explain and defend the blunders of some dignitary. It works this way: God allows something bad to happen to one of his children—such as a car accident, a difficult breakup, a financial hardship. Convinced that God can do no wrong, we begin looking for and guessing at the greater good behind the tragedy. Maybe we got into that accident to avoid some greater catastrophe. Maybe we broke up with that person because God has someone better for us. Maybe God is disciplining us for some sin we have committed.
Let’s keep in mind that each of these explanations are valid possibilities, and that it is good to be alert to and grateful for God’s gracious orchestration of events. But what if nothing apparently good and gracious comes from the difficulty? Will that shake our confidence in God? Here’s the point: we must be careful not to expect there to be some self-evident explanation for a difficult circumstance that will justify God’s choice to allow it. In other words, God is allowed to do things that make no sense to us. And that’s OK. He’s still good. We must still trust him.
Ecclesiastes teaches that pain and perplexity are part and parcel of what it means to live in a fallen world. It’s OK to say, “I simply can’t see where this is going, or how this fits in with God’s overall purpose.” That’s simply admitting our finite, human perspective.
But to say “there’s no point in this” is to assert our lack of faith. While Ecclesiastes insists on our inability to figure everything out, it also insists that God makes “everything beautiful in his time” (3:11). Our response to God’s mysterious ways should compel us to cling to him in faith (see Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Two verses from William Cowper’s hymn, “God Works in Mysterious Ways,” express how the believer should handle unexplained challenges God brings our way.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
4. We must never seek for ultimate satisfaction in anything “under the sun.”
Another obvious application of the theme of vanity in Ecclesiastes is the danger of seeking ultimate satisfaction in anything in this life. The pursuits that Solomon catalogued in 2:1-17 continue to allure believers and unbelievers alike. We sometimes approach our careers as if that were the end-all of life. We run after our hobbies as if they contained the golden key to satisfaction. These things have satisfaction, but the satisfaction only comes through them, not from them. In other words, they can be enjoyed only as gifts from God, but not as the source of joy: “For apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:25, ESV).
Paul had in mind the transience of this life in mind when he wrote “for the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). By this he meant that the world as we know it (life “under the sun”) is coming to an end. The temporary nature of this world means that our priorities and concerns will be vastly different from those who believe (or act as if they believe) that this world is all there is.
Paul referred to the transience of earthly life when he wrote these words in 2 Corinthians 4:15-18:
Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
5. We may compassionately help unbelievers to see the despair and pointlessness of life without God.
We may also use the theme of vanity to help unbelievers see the logical conclusion of life without God. Unless there is a God who will “bring every deed into judgment,” there is no reason to think that kind words are better than angry words, that caring for people is better than abandoning them, or even that living is better than dying. The world itself does not contain the key to the difference between good and evil. If all that exists is blind chance, then nothing matters.
6. Only Christ can break us free from the “pointlessness” of life by his death and resurrection.
In contrast to the pointless death spiral of life “under the sun,” Christ’s death and resurrection has brought about something genuinely new (compare Ecclesiastes 1:10 with 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:4 and Revelation 21:5).