All is Vanity - Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
These are some strange verses for the Bible. Normally we think of the Bible as a book we go to, to find meaning for life or to find encouragement. But these verses don’t seem to be like that. ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ is not exactly an uplifting message. And the whole book of Ecclesiastes is a bit that way. It’s a bit negative. But it is still a part of the Bible and if we believe that the Bible is God’s Word and is without error then we have to try to understand what God is saying in this strange book and in these strange verses.
Now, there is some debate about exactly what the book of Ecclesiastes is trying to say. The ESV study Bible, for example, lists about 6 different opinions on how to interpret the book. But what makes the most sense to me is that this book is describing the effects of sin and death on the world. So, he’s not describing the world the way that it should be. He is describing the world the way that it is, tainted by evil and death. And that’s why the book is so negative, because the world is not the way that it should be.
But why does Ecclesiastes focus on this? Surely we all know this already. We all live in this world and we all can read the news. I think the reason is to lift our focus outside of this world to God and to the next world. And that’s how the book ends. Ecclesiastes 12:13–14
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
So, the vanity of this world is not a reason for despair. Rather that is a reason to lift our eyes from this world to God who, one day, will judge everything.
God’s judgment helps us to understand that our duty is to fear Him and obey His commandments. Our duty is not to understand everything that happens in this world, because we can’t. Our duty is to fear Him and obey His commandments. Because His judgement is coming.
Now, as Christians, who have put our faith in Jesus Christ, we do not need to fear God’s judgement. Jesus has died for us, He has taken our punishment and we are forgiven. But the Bible does say that we will still be judged. 1 Corinthians 3:13–14
13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
So, because of Jesus we will be pronounced innocent in the final judgement, we will not be condemned. But we will be judged and God will give us rewards based on the good that we’ve done. Therefore, God’s judgement should encourage us to do good, not for worldly gain (and not in a legalistic way) but for eternal reward from God.
And God’s judgement also gives us hope that on the day of judgement God will put things right. Evil will be done away with and good will triumph. And this world that is infected by sin and death, will be no more and a new heavens and a new earth will take its place. The Apostle John says about this new world, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:3-4).
So, as we think about the vanities of this life let it re-focus us beyond this world to God whose day of righteous judgement is coming. And let us live our lives today in light of that judgement and in light the hope of the new world that will come after.