LCN Article


All Is Vanity… Or Is It?

July / August 2019

Rod McNair

Does the book of Ecclesiastes say life is worthless? Some people think so. Perhaps you have thought that. After all, in just the second verse of the book, Solomon made this famous statement: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). It can appear that Solomon had given up any hope of finding real meaning in life. But is that the point of the book of Ecclesiastes?

It is worth asking and answering that question for ourselves, because we, too, struggle through life’s ups and downs. Are you sometimes troubled with discouragement and depression? Do you wrestle—maybe even as you read these words—with anxiety and even despair? If so, you need to take a second look at Ecclesiastes. It can give you more encouragement than you may have realized.

Solomon had much to say about the frustrations of life in the flesh, and the despair that can come when we focus too much on the physical. Frankly, Ecclesiastes is ideally suited for our time, for we live in an age and generation obsessed with material comforts, yet perplexed that real happiness seems always beyond our grasp.

Truly, without God at the center of everything we do, our lives do become meaningless and hopeless. But with God at the center of our focus, our lives become an exhilarating adventure preparing us for an awesome future. That is the meaning of the book of Ecclesiastes. Let’s look at several specific messages Ecclesiastes teaches us about finding value and purpose in our lives.

God Meant for Us to Be Happy

Many of us suffer from depression or discouragement. Some torture themselves with questions: Am I doing enough? Is God pleased with me? What does He think of me?

Do we believe God wants us to be happy?

What does Ecclesiastes say about enjoying life? “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Clearly, Solomon was explaining that when we have the right focus—pleasing God and walking with Him—real happiness and contentment are well within our reach! If we have the right perspective, then eating, drinking, and our daily labor are not ends in themselves, but only the means to an end. Physical life is the mechanism God uses to train us to be like Him. It is the laboratory He’s using to teach us to think beyond ourselves—to serve Him and serve our neighbor. That mindset brings joy and contentment, even in the midst of trials.

God wants us to be happy. Jesus Christ emphasized that in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” He wants us to inherit eternal life, but He also wants us to find joy in the process of getting there! When Jesus said this, He was echoing what He had inspired Solomon to write almost a thousand years earlier: “I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13).

Would you like to experience more joy in your life? Talk to God about it. Ask Him to pour out the “oil of gladness” more fully in your life (Psalm 45:7). Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Even in trials, we can have deep contentment and joy when we sense that God is there and guiding our every step.

If we are chronically unhappy, we may need to meditate on and tap more deeply into what God is doing in our lives and submit ourselves to Him in every possible way. We must decide that we want to think differently. As former American President Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

It is God’s desire for us to enjoy life. It is His will that we see life as a gift, an adventure, and a challenge we can brave with His help. With His help, we can optimistically choose to face life as an opportunity for learning and growth, even in the midst of troubles.

Consumption Is Not the Goal in Life

One definition of consumerism is “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.” That really does describe the lives of many in our day. How much does that describe us?

The Life Squared website once estimated that each of us is exposed to 1,600 commercial messages of one sort or another each day, when one considers all of the brand-name labels, tag lines, billboards, Facebook ads, etc.—and that was a decade ago (“The problem with consumerism,” lifesquared.org.uk, 2009). Marketers have only gotten more ambitious since. No wonder our minds are so filled with thoughts of our “needs” for new or different clothes, phones, cars, furniture, or even homes. Advertisers fill our lives with never-ending messages, both subtle and explicit, about why we “need” all these items—and fast!

Frankly, our whole modern economy is built to encourage us to consume. And our consumption—buying new items and discarding the old—keeps the economy going. So, in a very literal sense, we have come to the point where many leaders of industry, business, and government only see ordinary citizens as cogs in the wheel that keep the cycle of production and consumption going. Why else would we be widely encouraged by the “system” around us to spend rather than save?

If we are not careful, we can begin to view our lives largely in terms of being a consumer, because consumption is what we spend so much of our time and focus on! But life is so much more than just becoming an expert at comparing products and relishing a good purchase.

Frankly, Solomon went through a similar exercise almost 3,000 years ago. He had practically unlimited resources and access to virtually whatever his heart desired. He became the ultimate consumer! He enjoyed alcohol and entertainment (Ecclesiastes 2:3), built houses and vineyards (v. 4), planted gardens and orchards (v. 5), installed pools (v. 6), acquired servants and vast herds and flocks (v. 7), and sought after unusual artistic treasures (v. 8). He went so far as to say, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor” (v. 10).

But what was the result of his consumerism? “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity [i.e., pointlessly temporary] and grasping for the wind.… Therefore I hated life.… Then I hated all my labor…” (vv. 11, 17–18).

Let’s make sure consumption does not become an obsession in our lives. Instead, let’s use the blessings that God has given us to serve Him and serve each other. Otherwise, our work will be nothing more than a futile “grasping after wind.”

One Generation Must Teach the Next

If getting off the consumption “merry-go-round” is hard for us, it is even harder for our children. They have less life experience and are less likely to see through societal manipulation and peer pressure. As parents and mentors to the next generation, it is up to us to show them how to master their surroundings and not let their surroundings master them! Author Katrina Kenison explained this in her book Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry: “We are living in a consumer society that revolves around instant gratification. We shop for recreation and spend and buy things we don’t really need. But unless we want our children to perpetuate this kind of materialism, we must show them another way” (p. 66, emphasis added).

Solomon definitely recognized his responsibility to pass on important lessons to the next generation. That’s why Ecclesiastes was written! And that’s why it contains an honest and open account of the results of choices in life. Our youth need parents and mentors who also pass on life’s lessons. They need someone to help them see beyond the advertisements and commercial messages. Notice what Solomon tells young people: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity [temporary]” (Ecclesiastes 11:9–10).

Solomon encourages the young to have fun! Enjoy life! Set some goals and strive to accomplish them. See life as an adventure to relish and experience. But always remember, this is not the end. The first half of chapter 12 is devoted to exhorting young people to “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1) Why? Because youth is fleeting and old age will come soon enough! Before you know it, you’ll be confronted by a time when “the keepers of the house tremble… the grinders [or teeth] cease because they are few, and those that look through the windows grow dim” (v. 3). And you’ll also come face to face with having to give an account of how you spent your life.

Those of us who are older need to set the example. Are we living this way ourselves? Are we exercising self-restraint, learning from our mistakes, and growing to be more like Christ? Or are we just criticizing young people and not showing a different way ourselves? These lessons apply to all of us. Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). It’s the same message as that of Ecclesiastes, and it applies to all of us, young and old.

God’s Plan Brings Meaning and Fulfillment to Our Lives

We live a carnal, fleshly existence. Our life is “here today and gone tomorrow.” James explains that, asking, “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). We will not live forever in the flesh. Physical life by itself is vain—it is temporary. But that doesn’t mean it should be spiritually, mentally, or emotionally empty and worthless! If we are walking with God and embracing His plan for us, that makes all the difference.

Notice what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 7:1: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” This scripture would be terribly depressing if it weren’t for its underlying truth. What does Solomon mean? The day of death brings the end of our race. It represents finishing our course. It means our preparation and training are completed, and we are ready to graduate to glorified spirit life! The day of one’s death represents the day that God says, “You are ready to be in My family forever!” We rightly mourn when a friend or loved one dies. But at the same time, what Solomon is saying should greatly encourage us—he’s talking about living for eternity!

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon wrote, “It is beautiful how God has done everything at the right time. He has put a sense of eternity in people’s minds. Yet, mortals still can’t grasp what God is doing from the beginning to the end of time” (GOD’S WORD Translation). God promises us something we cannot quite comprehend—eternal life in His Kingdom! And His timing as He leads us to that Kingdom is always perfect.

Is Ecclesiastes a bitter, desperate book about hopelessness? Absolutely not! It explains that after the end of physical life, we will have the opportunity to step into eternity. That is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. In conveying that message, the book offers specific warnings of how not to get caught up in the traps of the material world. As Solomon concluded, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

We are given this life as an opportunity to prepare for eternal life, and every day is a new day. No matter what failures we had yesterday, we can try again today. No matter what failures we had last week, this can be the beginning of a new week. No matter what frustrations we had last year, the Holy Days can serve as times to reevaluate, recharge, refocus, and forge ahead.

Life wasn’t created to be meaningless. We weren’t made to be unhappy. We weren’t made for the sum total of our life to be merely 70 years of consumption. God created us to relate to Him, walk with Him, talk with Him, and—at the end of physical life—to step into an eternal relationship with Him upon our resurrection and glorification.

Yes, this life is temporary. The flesh truly is vanity, meaning “here today and gone tomorrow.” But there is a big purpose for each day we draw breath. Let’s view every day as a gift to be cherished and valued. Let’s impart that mindset to our children, so they know how important they are to God. He loves them and wants them to be happy. And let’s make sure we are using this temporary life to prepare for our awesome, eternal future with God.