“Vanity of vanities ... vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”
As we've explored Ecclesiastes this summer, has the Preacher’s emphasis on vanity disturbed you? Have you found his dark message counterproductive to his more lively refrain: “Enjoy life!” (Ecc 2:24-25)?
If you're like me, maybe it's taken awhile to see the value of Solomon’s observation. Indeed, he is saying everything under the sun is vain; but in this, he is also saying something else; something good; something about grace.
As we sift through the poetic wilderness of Ecclesiastes, I hope we may come not only to acknowledge vanity, but to begin cherishing it, embracing it as gift of grace from God to his children.
WHAT’S UNDER THE SUN?
In logic, there is something called a “category error.” This is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category.” For instance, if you heard me arguing with my mother, as I tried to convince her not to donate my childhood blanket because the blanket's feelings would be hurt, such a statement would sound absurd! You'd immediately recognize that I was assigning the quality of feeling - a human quality - to a an object that does not feel. If I was serious (and not just being metaphorical), you'd think I was crazy.
This sheds light on the Preacher’s understanding of vanity.
Sin forces human beings to commit a type of “spiritual” category mistake. Although we may often remain unaware, it is no less absurd. Just as someone might attribute emotion to a blanket, or accuse the color red of smelling bad, we're naturally inclined to live like transcendent goods — peace, contentment, joy, fulfillment, purpose, satisfaction, etc. — can be obtained through temporal means: sex, money, power, family.
Or, to put it another way, we try and get that which can only be found above the sun under the sun.
Sin traps us in category confusion!
Just watch how it played out in the Bible. Adam and Eve thought a fruit would make them divine (Gen. 3:6). God’s children thought Egypt's chariots and horses would preserve them (Is. 31; Ps. 20:7). The prodigal son believed that possessing his inheritance and leaving home would liberate him (Luke 15:12-16). The woman at the well had a thirst she tried to quench with marriage and sex (John 4:15-18). So too, Solomon indulged himself with everything under the sun in order to find happiness and purpose. It never worked.
We too labor to find peace, contentment, hope, or whatever, in the exact same things. But there is nothing new under the sun. Trust me — or even better, trust the Preacher.
STRIVING AFTER WIND
For no spring can pour forth from the same opening both fresh and saltwater; fig trees do not bear olives, nor grapevines figs, “neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3:11-12). If one spent his life exploring Europe or the Middle East to find a fig tree that bore olives, or a grapevine that bore figs, his life would be utterly wasted! It would be a vain life, a striving after wind. Not to mention he would spend it in complete vexation.
So too is the life wasted that spends itself searching for the deeper, transcendent goods in earthly things.
God has implanted eternity in our hearts (Ecc 3:11), and thus we're all on a search for what’s eternal. Some people openly admit this; others strategically conceal it. But one thing is for sure: our eternal, transcendent needs won’t be found under the sun.
So why do so many keep looking for the eternal in the temporal, like an olive-producing fig tree? Well, the reality is, until we know the Someone who makes all things vain, we will never know where else to look!
THE GOSPEL & VANITY
God penetrated this vain world, subjecting himself to its futile seasons (Ecc. 3:1-8). The one who was above heaven descended to under the sun, but brought the true light with him (John 1:4). Sin pulled and pushed against him, tempted him to take vain things over the Father's will; but he resisted.
And when his appointed time came (Ecc. 3:1), he became sin for us. The resurrecting force of our Redeemer’s power confounded the forces which enslaved us to error. No longer must we labor and strive to sow eternity from the earthly, like “the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough.’” (Prov 30:16).
We can now know vanity, like King Solomon. For if we have found the light which shines from heaven, our eyes will be drawn upward above the world of vanity. The King who now shines clearly down in the power of his resurrection and ascension — in the midst of vain, futile darkness — is true Substance. He is not vain, for there is true gain only in his light (Ecc. 2:13). Those apart from him, in their blindness, keep their heads down: groping, vexed, and crippled by the futility of the earth without the King.
This is the gospel we have to share with a world both addicted to and dissatisfied by vanity.
When your neighbors sense their need for something deeper, tell them it is a clue that their need is really for something higher.
And when Satan tempts you to despair of vanity, let vanity lead you to the the heights of heaven!
CHERISH VANITY AS GOD’S GRACE
Remember when you were suffocating in a life of vanity? Remember when you strove to manufacture the transcendent goods from heaven with your futile plans? Think hard and remember when it was you who was not only destined to a life of eternal suffering apart from God, but toiling in a life of vexation and grief? What changed? Who showed you that you were missing the mark?
For you, Christian, were touched by the gracious hand of God. He mercifully awakened your dark mind to the absurdity of sin.
Understanding vanity, therefore, is a gift of grace. Pure and simple.
Before, our minds were blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). Before, when we lived according to the flesh, our minds were set upon the things of the flesh (Rom 8:5). We were getting no fruit from things which we are now ashamed, for “the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:21). We were trapped in a “category error,” committed to seeking those things which reside above the sun through that which is under it. We were in a dark cave striving to embrace and to know what is only but a shadow of the truth (Ecc. 6:4).
So think of vanity as grace. A spectacular gift!
Praise the Lord that his eternal glory had so thoroughly sucked the life from earthly things, that nothing would satisfy you until you had him. He tore you from a life of futility. Why? He loves you and desires not that you die.
Vanity urges our gaze from what’s under the sun to the Christ who is above it.
This is the grace of the gospel. This is the grace of vanity!
Image: "Saint Jerome Writing," by Caravaggio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.