Albert Camus (1913-1960), author, journalist, and philosopher wrote:
“Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.”
These words come close to expressing the theme we read in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” (In some cases the word translated “vanity” carries the meaning “absurdity.”)
Both Solomon and Camus (and many other people before and afterto them) have thought long and hard about the absurdity, senselessness, or “vanity” of life. Camus concludes that we can overcome absurdity simply by knowing about and embracing it (“the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity”). Bertrand Russell, an atheistic philosopher, agrees with Camus: in light of the tyranny of randomness, the best people can do is
“to worship the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life.”
Solomon, in stark contrast, concludes that man’s final and whole duty is to “fear God and keep his commandments.”
So how do people looking at the same data—the apparent pointlessness of life—walk away with such different conclusions? How should we as Christians process the declaration that all is vanity, yet continue to live lives of worth and meaning?
Solomon’s mantra that all is vanity is his reflection on the devastating effects of the fall (7:29, 30; 3:20). A world originally perfect, infused with beauty and meaning, where humans enjoyed the presence of God, is now a twisted wreck of what it once was—a perplexing alloy of beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, meaning and pointlessness. 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.
In contrast to the pointless death spiral of life “under the sun,” Christ’s death and resurrection have brought about something genuinely new (compare Ecclesiastes 1:10 with 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:4 and Revelation 21:5).
See previous posts in this series: