A Prayer for Turning from Vanity

“Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.” Psalm 119:37

A new year is again upon us. At year’s end many media sources review the so-called highlights of the year gone by. Again there have been amazing accomplishments in science, technology, and medicine. Many of the headlines from 2015 have been tragic, relating calamities, disasters, violence, and horrific acts of terrorism. There are the names and faces of those who have made the news, along with the birth notices and the obituaries. Looking closer to home, we reflect on this last year of our pilgrimage—times of joy and celebration, but also, no doubt, times of pain, sorrow, and distress.

What is your evaluation of the world of 2015? Do we say, “We made it through all right in spite of the obstacles and adversities,” or “Things could have been better, but there is optimism with respect to the new year”? We must not be satisfied with a superficial evaluation. We must look at things in the light of Scripture. The words of the preacher of Ecclesiastes apply today even as they have throughout history. His evaluation is very simple and to the point, “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.” Apart from our sovereign God, that is the sad reality! And though we enter a new year, we continue on in the same old world filled with vanities.

Does this grieve you? It should. If we have eyes to see this, we will be sorely troubled. For we will realize that the attraction of this world of vanities is very strong. And 2016 means another year of struggle in this vale of tears. We must acknowledge that we need to be delivered from the vanities of the world. If we are to persevere to the end, we must be quickened constantly! And so we pray with the psalmist, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.”

A Fervent Prayer

Who can deny that this world is filled with vanities? Who can ignore the horrible manifestations of sin that we see? Shocking immorality! Gross perversion of God’s ordinance of marriage! Unbelievable filth—vanity! Terrible lawlessness and rebellion—vanity! Economic woes and political chaos—vanity. And in much of the church we see bold apostasy and world conformity—vanity! We behold fantastic wealth, luxuries, pleasures, and entertainments—vanity!

Are you able to say with regard to this world, “All is vanity!”? Unless you can and do, you will never pray this prayer, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” Many would point to man’s accomplishments and insist that all is not vanity. Many, also in the church, contend that if only we all work together, we can solve the problems that beset our land and our world. Especially at the beginning of a new year many maintain hope for a better tomorrow. Do we recognize vanity for what it is?

The term “vanity” comes from a root word that means breath or vapor. Go outside in the frigid temperatures of winter and exhale into the cold air. That puff of vapor is vanity! Vanity is that which has no real substance. It is that which is useless and futile. It does not last. Its existence is fleeting. Apart from the fear of the Lord, all the endeavors of man, in every sphere of life, are vanity. All of his learning and culture, his science and philosophy, his invention and industry, his finance and economics, his recreation and entertainment, his life at home, at work, at play—vanity, all vanity! It is all passing away. Without God, man finds no real joy, no real satisfaction, no true peace.

For sin and the curse of God’s righteous wrath beset this world and all the endeavors of men. We see utter rebellion against all biblical standards of morality and even common decency. And it all ends in the vanity of death and the grave. Almighty God will not be mocked; He will cast the ungodly down into destruction. This is the world of vanity in which we have walked in 2015 and in which we are required to continue walking in 2016.

By God’s grace we pray, yea, we pray fervently, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” By grace we are not one with this world of vanity. Yet we feel the tug, the pull in the direction of the vanities of this world. For we are still plagued by our sinful natures that belong to this world of vanity. We realize the appeal, the attraction, the allurement of this world of vanities. Perhaps especially in our youth—physical appearance, popularity, possessions, money—who can deny the appeal?

And so, by grace alone we express our heartfelt need unto the Lord, “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” We realize that as earthy creatures all of our senses are attracted to these vanities, but especially our sense of sight. That is why our culture of “screens” is so dangerous—from smart phones and tablets to large screen televisions to theater screens—the whole world of vanities is there to see! And those images are impressed upon our minds, so that we become increasingly hardened and enslaved to the vanities. “O Lord, turn away my eyes!” Is that your plea?

Seemingly Impossible

But would we not be praying for the impossible? “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity.” How can we escape it? Is there anywhere we can go in all this world that our eyes will escape the sight of vanities? Does this mean that we are to withdraw somehow from the world? Should we establish a colony in some remote, isolated corner of the globe?

No, it is evident from Scripture that the Lord Jesus would not have His people to go out of this world, even if it were possible. Jesus prayed, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15). So our prayer is not that of one who would flee the world, finding seclusion in some cave or monastery. History shows plainly that those who have tried this take along with them the very vanities they had endeavored to leave behind.

Rather, Scripture points to our calling to be in the world, though not of it! Our calling is to live antithetically, seeking that which is good and rejecting the evil. And this makes obvious the fact that if we are to realize our calling, there is no way we can escape seeing the vanities. Our prayer is exactly the prayer of the saints of God who live and walk in the midst of this world and who soberly observe its vanities. This implies that we are to recognize these vanities as vanities! And by grace, we, according to the new life within us, have no desire for those vanities. Yea, those vanities must cause us to be filled with disgust, with revulsion.

At the same time we realize that we have but a small beginning of the new obedience, and that often the eyes of our flesh are attracted to these vanities. So really, our prayer is, “Cause my eyes more and more to be aware of the vanity of these vanities! And set my heart and all my affections on those things which are above—the things of Thy kingdom, the things that have abiding value!”

This is especially emphasized in the last part of this prayer, “and quicken thou me in thy way.” Literally, we read, “in Thy ways cause me to live.” And the way of Jehovah God is the way of His statutes, His good commandments of which almost every verse in this psalm speaks. Our sincere desire must be to have our whole life directed by the Word of our God. Is that your resolve as you begin the new year? Or, do you want to go your own way—the way of vanity? Eat, drink, and be merry! Make no mistake, the way of vanity is the way that perishes!

This is precisely the point of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” In this world of vanity we are to live in God’s ways, fearing Him. This means that we will follow Christ, for He is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the whole duty of man. This is the reason we are here—not to be a success, not to become wealthy, not to make a name for ourselves, not to indulge in pleasure! No, our prayer must be, “Quicken thou me in thy way!”

The Realization

Yes, that is the key—prayer! In the way of prayer we shall be victorious! For we have a faithful heavenly Father who hearkens unto the cries of His children. He hears and answers prayer. He will supply our need. The realization of our petition is to be found in God alone! Only Jehovah God can turn our eyes from vanity. “Turn thou me and I shall be turned”! Only God can impart the life and strength that enable us to live in His ways! “Quicken thou me according to thy word”!

Oh, how we need this prayer as this year of vanity comes to a close and we enter the new year of vanity! We must be able to look beyond the vanities of this world. This world is passing away with its vanities. As we continue our pilgrim way in the new year, let us be found to be people of prayer—whatever our age and circumstances. From day to day let us pray this prayer as we go about our work, our studies, our recreation, our family life, our life in the midst of the congregation, in our single life or in marriage, as the Lord brings life into this world and as He takes life out of this world of vanity.

Do not foolishly resolve to go it alone, relying upon your own strength to withstand the allurement of vanity. Trusting in the flesh, we will surely fall. But our victory is in this prayer of faith!

May the Lord give us grace to look not at the things which are seen (vanities), but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (II Cor. 4:18). For then our portion shall be glory that transcends all the vanities of this present time.

May this song be in our hearts and upon our lips throughout 2016, yea, all our days:

Turn Thou my eyes from vanity,

And cause me in Thy ways to tread;

O let Thy servant prove Thy word

And thus to godly fear be led.”

Psalter #325, stanza 3