Today's Broadcast

Vanity of Vanity

A Message by R.C. Sproul

"Without Christ, without hope," this statement is one that we draw from the writer of Ecclesiastes' verse, "Vanity of vanity—all is vanity." In this portion of the series Dr. Sproul talks about the meaning behind this Old Testament verse, mainly—that if there is no God, then, of course, what we encounter is futility of futility.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Vanity of Vanities

  2. article

    Ecclesiastes

  3. article

    Vanity Fair

Vanity of Vanities

Ecclesiastes opens with the well-known refrain "Vanity of vanities" (1:2), and understanding this phrase is key to understanding the message of today's passage and the rest of the book. Contrary to what many interpreters maintain, the phrase is not an assertion that life is meaningless or that our labors in this fallen world are ultimately pointless. Instead, it is a saying that helps us put our lives in the proper perspective.

The English term "vanity" in Ecclesiastes 1:2 translates the Hebrew word hebel, which means something like "vapor" or "breath." In the book of Ecclesiastes, it points to that which is fleeting or temporary, like a puffœ of vapor or a breath. In addition, that which is fleeting is hard to grasp or capture, so the term hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes can also refer to realities beyond our understanding. Certain things ultimately escape our full comprehension despite our ability to understand them to some degree. As we will see as we return to Ecclesiastes again and again this year, many aspects of life are hebel to the Preacher who wrote this work. Much of life escapes our understanding, for we do not always see how everything in our lives fits into the grand story that God is telling with His creation.

This notion that there are aspects of life beyond our grasp stands out in today's passage. In verse 3, for example, the Preacher asks what human beings gain by their labor. He is not asserting the meaninglessness of labor; rather, his point is that at least from a purely earthbound perspective, no one receives a lasting reward from his work. True, labor provides us with an income that allows us to enjoy many good things in life. Yet that enjoyment is fleeting. The old saying that "you can't take it with you when you go" has an element of truth to it. No one takes his wealth with him in death. It is left behind for others. This is not necessarily bad in itself, for Scripture tells us that a good man leaves an inheritance for his "children's children" (Prov. 13:22). Nevertheless, if we look at things only from the perspective of this life, it can be strange and hard to understand why we labor to build something that we ultimately leave behind to others.

The answer, of course, is that we are not to look at things only from the perspective of this life. Ecclesiastes repeatedly uses the phrase "under the sun" (even in today's passage; 1:3, 9), inviting us to consider whether there might be another life that is not "under the sun," a reality that gives meaning to that which escapes our full understanding.

Ecclesiastes

Jay Adams

"Ecclesiastes? Ugh — that’s just doom and gloom! I’d rather study some other Bible book." Now wait a moment. I know it’s not proper to begin by telling your reader that he’s wrong — but in this case, you are! The writer of Ecclesiastes wasn’t the soured, cynical old man who was down on life that some make him out to be. He wasn’t the world’s most inveterate pessimist. Sure, many (perhaps, most) of the lines he wrote are pessimistic, but Qoheleth (Solomon turned preacher) has an essentially positive purpose. His pessimism centers on “life under the sun.” Indeed, as you read the book with an eye focused on what he’s really up to, you’ll find him to be a relaxed, rather easy-going person. He’s been through it all — the bad and the good — and, in repentance, has come to terms with life. God’s terms, that is. Actually, there is much that, when interpreted correctly, can only give a believer confidence and joy in the face of trouble. 

“It’ll take some doing to convince me of that!”

Okay. Let’s take a hard look at the book. First, note that its name, “Ecclesiastes” (“preacher”), was given by the translators of the Greek Septuagint, The original Hebrew, Qoheleth, means “one who assembles people.” Solomon gathered his court (and possibly others) together to preach to them: “being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge…. The preacher sought to find pleasant words, true words, properly written” (12:9–10; I use my own translation throughout this article). He wanted his words, when published, to become “goads, like nails driven by the masters of collected sayings” (12:11). The dialect in Ecclesiastes indicates that he wrote not only for Israel, but for the Phoenician world as well. The booklet, among other things, was evangelistic, composed for unconverted readers both at home and abroad.

Next, consider the words “under the sun.” This often-occurring phrase describes living with nothing more than worldly goals in view. It pictures someone feverishly wearing himself out in pursuit of vain activities, because that’s all he has to live for. In contrast, Christian living is a measured life, “under the Son,” who was prefigured for Solomon in types and ceremonies. Solomon wants to move people from the former way of life to the latter: “Now listen to the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments because this applies to every person” (12:13). So, he concludes with a stern warning: “God will bring every work into judgment, including all that is hidden, whether it is good or whether it is evil” (12:14). This doesn’t mean that people are justified by works but that in the judgment works will be evidence of whether or not they are saved. New Testament teaching agrees (see Matt. 25:31–46; Rev. 20:12–15).

“But was Solomon really easy-going and reconciled to life? And what does he offer Christians?”

In this remarkable book, Solomon tackles ultimate questions — the same sort that, when you take time to think seriously, you raise today. He asks, “Why bother to exert any effort, since its results are temporary and, therefore, vain? Why seek money, fame, power, and possessions that fail to satisfy? Why trouble yourself about anything when the wicked and the wise alike end up in the grave?” His answer? God providentially deals with people just as He sees fit. Solomon wants you to rest quietly by faith in the will of a sovereign God!

His frequently-used word, “vanity,” means that life under the sun is “empty,” because it is not permanent. That theme permeates the book. He says, “A generation passes away and another generation comes along” (1:4), that “there is no memory of former things” (1:11), and that as a person “came” into the world at birth, “so shall he go” out of it taking nothing with him (5:16). In chapter 3, verses 1–15, Solomon lists some things that continually change. People are born, then die, plants are planted, then pulled up, things are torn down, others built up. Things are sewn, others ripped; some things are kept, some are discarded; there are seasons to weep and times to laugh, periods to mourn, occasions at which to dance — and so on. Life arcs back and forth. Nothing stays put. Because of this, we should hold things loosely. Efforts to bring about permanence are frustrating and utterly fruitless.

Solomon says that amassing wealth and possessions is foolish because you can’t take them with you. Instead of placing hope in anything under the sun, he urges you to trust in its Creator. How does that improve life? Well, not only will it make a difference in the judgment, but it provides a present philosophy of life that frees you from worry and fretting. Because God has set “eternity in a person’s heart” (3:11), you can look forward to a time when temporary things will be forgotten. And some day, God’s purposes — which seem to make no sense now — will be understood: “He has set eternity in a person’s heart without which he cannot find out the work God does from beginning to end” (3:11). You can relax your mind — all will be made known in His time. 

Because what you do here has eternal consequences, you must take care and be all the more diligent about your efforts. But you must not expect the rewards that come from completion before their time. Nor should you foolishly labor to find lasting satisfaction in anything in an impermanent world. 

Since, as Solomon made clear, expending effort at attempting the impossible is vanity, he advises quiet living, responsible, moderate labor that will achieve what may rightfully be accomplished, and the enjoyment of God’s simple gifts. He wants you neither to worry about tomorrow nor to work yourself to death today! Listen to this enlightening passage:

“There is nothing better for a person than to eat and drink and make himself see good in his labor. This I saw was from the hand of God” (2:24; see also 3:12–13; 5:18; 8:15; and 9:7–8).

In these verses one theme constantly surfaces: enjoy food and drink and the simple pleasures of life. But consider, even these don’t last: you eat and are satisfied, only to hunger again (his frequent mention of food and drink exemplifies the temporal nature of things). Stop fretting over what can’t be changed. Have a good meal and a good time (remembering that whatever you do will be brought into judgment some day; see 12:9).

So, what is Ecclesiastes all about? After living extravagantly, after working excessively to achieve lasting fame and fortune, after indulging himself in sin, Solomon could only say, “I was sickened with life…yes, I was sickened by all my labor.” Why? Because he recognized that, in the end, all he did was nothing more than “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:17–18). 

Solomon wrote to help you see this. Does Ecclesiastes goad you to think about life as believers should? If not, read it again — and again, and again. It’s worth taking the time to do so! 

Vanity Fair

Derek Thomas

For John Bunyan, a Puritan to his fingertips, the Christian life was an experience of conflict and tension with this world. Imprisoned for upwards of twelve years, he experienced firsthand the world’s hostility. Cheerful and sanguine by temperament, his portrayal of what believers can expect from this world is both solemn and dark: the path that leads to the Celestial City winds through unavoidable places of considerable, even deadly, danger — places like the town called Vanity with its “lusty Fair.” Here, all the resources of protection and resolution will be needed to prevent contamination and possible destruction.

Christian, in Bunyan’s allegory, is both a pilgrim on a journey (road-trip) to heaven and a warrior in conflict with temptations from within (indwelling sin) and without (the world in its opposition to all things godly). It is a principle that Christian is taught early in the journey that every believer can expect to be both fascinated by and drawn towards the world. He can also expect to be repulsed and attacked when all offers are spurned. “Hell hath no fury…,” in this case, “like the world scorned.”

Vanity Fair, described in various dictionaries as the “vain and frivolous way of life especially in large cities,” and the “place or scene of ostentation or empty, idle amusement and frivolity,” represents for Bunyan the world in all its gaudiness: alluring and seductive, offering merchandise of all kinds — some innocent enough in themselves but designed to misdirect the affections away from our love for God and our love for His kingdom. What is Bunyan teaching us here? Several things.

First and foremost, Vanity Fair represents Bunyan’s attempt to warn every Christian of the reality of temptation and the need to resist it. There is always a “gospel-focus” in Bunyan’s writings, and he is careful to note that believers can resist temptation in the knowledge that their Savior has done so on their behalf: “The prince of Princes himself, when here, went through this Town to his own Country, and that upon a Fair-day too: Yea, and as I think it was Beelzebub, the chief Lord of this Fair, that invited him to buy of his Vanities; yea, would have him made Lord of the Fair, would he but have done him Reverence as he went through the Town.”

Vanity Fair thus signals the need to “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1), with the assurance that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

Then again, Vanity Fair establishes the truth that Christians are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and must therefore sit loose to the attractions of this world, however innocent they may appear to be in themselves. Christian and Faithful (Christian’s trusty companion) stood out “like sore thumbs” in Vanity Fair. Not only did they not purchase anything, they refused to be drawn aside and enticed by what it offered, having discovered “solid joys and lasting treasures” elsewhere in communion with Jesus Christ. As citizens of heaven they adopted the viewpoint that they must not conform to this world (Phil. 3:20).

On offer in Vanity Fair are both material things (gold, pearls, precious stones, etc.) as well as honors (titles, preferments — designed to turn one’s head). Additionally, Bunyan mentions “the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in the fair” — an allusion to the beguiling nature of Roman Catholic teaching that had suggested (barely a hundred years in Bunyan’s past) that indulgences could be purchased so as to make a sinner’s journey through purgatory that much quicker. To all of these, Bunyan’s faithful companions say “No!”

Believers are the special targets of the world’s hostility. Though “Beelzebub, Apollyon and their Legions” are involved in the allurement of Vanity Fair, they are not center stage here; that will be later in the journey. Here the focus is upon the first of the evil triumvirate of hostility: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Those who refuse to conform to the pattern of this world can expect to be taunted and ridiculed (Christian and Faithful were bad-mouthed and heckled). As pilgrims who marched to the beat of a different drummer, Christian and Faithful looked (dressed) and spoke differently — something to which the townsfolk took great exception. It is interesting that it was, in particular, their speech that caused such offense. Talk of holy things always offends, but it had been holy conversation of this kind from poor women in Bedford that had been the means to bring young John Bunyan to repentance. Consequently, in Bunyan’s allegory, Christian and Faithful are taken, beaten, and incarcerated (something Bunyan, of course, knew only too well). They are eventually charged with disturbing the peace of the city by their lack of conformity. Bunyan’s choice of names here is deliciously instructive: Mr. Hate-Good as the Judge, and jurors who include such characters as Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. High-mind, Mr. Cruelty, and Mr. Hate-light! If such charges were brought against us, would there be sufficient evidence to convict?

Believers must be prepared to sacrifice everything, including their lives, for the cause of the Gospel. The mockery of the trial that they received is reflective of another: that of their blessed Lord. We must follow in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of martyrdom if necessary. Courage in the midst of trial is a virtue, and Bunyan’s poetry is particularly telling:

Now Faithful play the Man, speak for thy God.
Fear not the wicked’s malice, nor their rod:
Speak boldly man, the Truth is on thy side;
Die for it, and to Life in triumph ride.

The description of Faithful’s end is one of the most moving in the entire book, for having brutally put Faithful to death and abused his body, Bunyan adds: “Now I saw that there stood behind the multitude a Chariot and a couple of Horses, waiting for Faithful who (as soon as his adversaries had dispatched him) was taken up into it, and straightway was carried up through the Clouds, with sound of Trumpet, the nearest way to the Celestial Gate.” As the third-century North African theologian Tertullian wrote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Thus Faithful’s death kindled a light in Vanity Fair that would not easily be put out, and a certain man named Hopeful, upon seeing it, openly joined with Christian on his journey. And Bunyan adds, “there were many more of the men in the Fair that would take their time and follow after.”

In an age of rampant consumerism, when the deity of fashion demands unswerving allegiance, Bunyan’s radical separation from the world’s ways is both necessary and instructive as a template for discerning the true nature of radical Christianity. If Christians are to be counter-cultural, saying “No!” to this world and “Yes!” to Jesus will demand much energy, cost the same blood, sweat, and tears as Bunyan describes here. Resisting conformity to this world by stubborn other-worldliness is the only sure way of maintaining a Christ-like discipleship that keeps the goal in focus — assurance of finally entering into the Celestial City at the end of the journey. As Christian eventually sings:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather;
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

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