Solomon the wise both begins and ends the book of Ecclesiastes with the statement, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8). In modern vernacular, vanity often refers to the excessive valuing of one's appearance or abilities in comparison with others. For example, to quote a portion of the 1988 hit by Carly Simon, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” But vanity did not always have this narcissistic connotation. In fact, Oxford's Dictionary says that prior to the 14th century, vanity merely meant futility. It is in this vein that Solomon uses it. Later in the first chapter he states, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). This verse aptly describes how Solomon intends us to think about vanity. According to Solomon, vanity is like trying to catch the wind. Futile.
Solomon's statement seems somewhat surprising. Everything that is done under the sun is futile? However, Solomon does not leave us in doubt as to the research he has undertaken to determine the validity of his claim. In chapter 2, he lists everything that he has tried and considered in an effort to find something in this life that is not futile. In verses four through eleven, he lists some of the tasks he pursued. He made great works, planted vineyards, made gardens and parks, planted fruit trees, made pools to water the forest of trees he had planted, bought male and female slaves, had slaves born in his house, acquired great herds and flocks, gathered silver and gold, got male and female singers, and many concubines. At the end of this litany, Solomon tells us:
And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).
Solomon concludes after searching to find “what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life,” that there is no pursuit of this world that is of any worth.
“For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). We have but a few days on this earth. How should we spend the little time that we have? Solomon concludes that a life spent in the pursuit of the things of this world is a waste. And there is but one pursuit that is of any value. “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Just like Solomon, there are many people in this world that are searching for a life of purpose and meaning. But only a life lived for the Lord can be said to be of any worth.
In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Jesus affirms Solomon’s contention, that all of his world endeavors were vain and “striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). This is a common and dangerous attitude in the world. We must not value ourselves or others according to the cars we drive, the houses we inhabit, and the clothing we wear. If we do so, we have lived our live in futility. Jesus follows up his statement from Luke 12:15 with a parable:
And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
Here Jesus describes a man that has been blessed with great worldly possessions. This man is consumed with the amassing of wealth, and contemplating what he will do with it, and how it will allow him to live a life of leisure and comfort. Jesus calls this man a fool. He spent his life in futility. There is only one way of life that has value, a life spent serving the Lord.
Jesus follows up this parable with an expansion on the same point to his disciples. There he explains that we should focus our lives on the Kingdom of God, “But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Luke: 12:31). Jesus is not teaching that we should ignore all the things of this world. But rather we should approach everything in this world from the perspective of serving the Lord first. I appreciate what Paul has to say on the topic, “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Colossians 3:17). Everything we do in this life should be an outgrowth of our service to the Lord. It is in this way that our life will have meaning.