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Previous article in this series: November 1, 2010, p. 67.

We considered last time the authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes. Before turning to an exposition of the book, we do well to consider its central theme. That theme is the vanity of man’s life in a fallen and sinful world. This theme, however, must be approached from a certain point of view. God is sovereign in the life of men. That sovereignty extends to the smallest details of life, so that not a hair falls from our head or a sparrow to the ground but by the will of God, as Jesus taught us. The vanity of man’s life is due to sin and God’s judgment upon it. God in His judgment has subjected the life of the creation and therefore also of man to vanity, Romans 8:20. Although hidden from us in the day-to-day affairs of life, God is realizing His counsel and purpose. Life has value and meaning in the light of that purpose, which is known by faith in Christ.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is not an unbelieving skeptic but a believing child of God who walks in God’s fear and whose treasure is in heaven. Indeed one of the purposes of the book is to guard us from the folly of a world that seeks its life and happiness here below. As the book is written by Solomon at the end of his life, there is indirectly a testimony to his sorrow for his own sin. This is not expressed directly, as David’s confession in Psalm 32 and Psalm 51, for that is not the purpose of the book. Rather, like David, he would guide us with his eye, Psalm 32:8, in the way of wisdom.

By way of introduction, therefore, it is well to consider what is meant by this idea of vanity, which stands at the heart of the book. Rev. G. Ophoff, in Volume 22 of the Standard Bearer, gives an able treatment of this theme and a valuable synopsis of the book as a whole. Without apologies, we quote his article in full.

—TCM 

“Vanity of vanities” 

We turn to the second verse of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes and read, “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Doubtless, no other book in the Bible has suffered so many misapprehensions from a theological point of view, as the book of Ecclesiastes. It has been accused of many contradictions within itself, of being inconsistent, and of lacking unity and coherence on account of absence of plan and connection. The inspiration of its contents has been attacked. Very early this was doubted on account of the supposed moral levity and skepticism of its teachings—a skepticism that was said to extend to a perfect despairing of all order and aim in human life. But these accusations are untrue. The book is consistent. It has plan and connection indeed. There is not a single contradiction to be found in it. If there were, it could form no part of the infallible Scriptures. It was composed not in unbelief, but in a flowering faith. Its doctrine is pure, as only the doctrine of the infallible Word of God can be pure. And this book, too, holds forth to God’s believing people the only comfort in life and death. The truth of these statements is borne out by the sequence of this Bible book.

The fundamental thought of the book is set forth in its topic sentence, the sentence with which the preacher begins his discourse and which reads: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” This exclamation appears no fewer than twenty times, and is a paraphrase of the superlative idea, “extreme vanity.” What may be the thought conveyed by this expression? Not, as some have imagined, that this world is in a state of continual flux, that, as Greek philosophy at one time affirmed, change, movement, is the lord of the universe, even so completely as to exclude the possibility of an unchanging substratum. Nor would it be correct to place in the room of the term vanity the word sinful, and read, “sinful, sinful, all is sinful.” For the sacred writer views the things included in the “all” of the expression “all is vanity” from the angle, not of their sinfulness, but of their vanity. The meaning of the exclamation is precisely that all is vanity, that is, empty, idle, useless, futile.

But there is this question: What does the sacred writer, the preacher, include in this “all”? The answer is contained in the following verse. It reads, “What profit hath a man of all his labors which he taketh under the sun?” Thus the “all” in the exclamation “all is vanity” includes all the labor that man taketh under the sun, the whole of his daily pursuits, all his engagements of the hour, of the day, of whatever character and in whatever sphere of life, the sum and total of all man’s occupations and strivings in whatever field of human endeavor, in the field of industry, science and invention, economics, philosophy, art and learning; it makes no difference, absolutely no difference, all is vanity, idle, futile.

This is truly an amazing appraisal, is it not, of this natural, earthy life under the sun, as man in this present dispensation of the world lives it. It is terrifying, is this appraisal, in its depreciation and disparagement of all human endeavor. It provokes the question, “Is it true?” Taking cognizance of the grounds upon which the preacher bases his appraisal of all the labor that man taketh under the sun, we shall have to admit, whether we like to or not, that it is true. Let us have regard, then, to the preacher’s grounds for this amazing appraisal of life encountered in this Bible book. We can only touch upon these grounds. There is no time for delineation.

The first of these grounds is contained in the verse last quoted, “What profit hath a man from all his labor, which he taketh under the sun?” The question is rhetorical, and is thus equivalent in meaning to the positive statement: “Man hath absolutely no profit whatever from all his labors which he taketh under the sun.” All his labors are profitless, gainless, and on this account vain, empty, futile. To be sure, the reaction of sinful flesh on hearing this is to decry the statement as absurdedly untrue. But let us hearken unto the Preacher and be instructed.

Says the preacher: All man’s labor is profitless, because one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, and, such is the thought conveyed, with the generation that passeth, there passeth also its works, its achievements, its learning, its systems of thought, the thing that men call civilization. All wax old and vanish away and the only thing that abideth is the earth. It all waxes old, becomes outmoded, and thus useless, and it vanishes away, to be replaced, with the coming of the new generation, by new works, new systems of thought, a new civilization, which again in turn waxes old and disappears with the waxing old and disappearance of the generation that so recently came. Wrote the columnist Ray Tucker in his daily column of yesterday: “The arrival of the atomic bomb struck the braided gentlemen of the American Navy in their solar plexus, for it may mean the eventual abolition of such craft as battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The fleet of the future may consist mainly of submarines and aircraft carriers.”

Indeed, the new waxes old and is forgotten, but, mark you, the new is but the old that again reappears in a new dress. It is not essentially new. Thus it is true, what the preacher says in the sequence of his discourse, “The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun…. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after” (Eccl. 1:9, 11). It all adds up to this: All man’s labor is profitless indeed and therefore vain. For in all his endeavors man reaches no lasting goal, attains no enduring purpose; the new is old; man goes in circles. He is chained to a treadmill. In the language of the preacher, Like the sun, he riseth, goeth down, and hasteneth to his place where he arose. Man is like the wind, which goeth toward the north, turneth about to the north. It whirleth continually and returneth again according to his circuits. Man is like the rivers that run into the sea without ever filling it, and that return again unto the place whence they come. And so full of labor is man, that no tongue can utter it (Eccl. 1:5-8). Such is man’s plight in all his labor that he taketh under the sun. Wherefore his labor is profitless and on this account vain.

Secondly, man’s labor is profitless and therefore vain because, says the preacher, in all his striving he does not make straight and he cannot make straight, and he cannot even will to make straight, and he may not make straight, the crooked.

There is, then, the crooked. Due to the entrance of sin into the world, and because the curse of God stalks the earth and permeates man’s existence, changing his day into night, life, this natural, earthy life, is crooked, disarranged, abnormal, dislocated, hectic, says the preacher. Wickedness, he saw, was in the place of judgment, and iniquity in the place of righteousness. Then, says he, there are all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and the tears of such as are oppressed and have no comforter. Verily, the straight has been made crooked; and, mark you, God made it so, says the preacher. Can man, then, by all his labors, by all his effort, however mighty, make straight the crooked?

Let us state the matter otherwise. Assuredly, the only cure, if there is any, but there is none for the men of man’s world, I say, the only cure for oppression, the only cure for wickedness in the place of judgment, and iniquity in the place of righteousness, the only cure for war between the nations, the only cure for graft in government, for corruption in politics, and for dishonesty in business, the only cure for the class struggle between capital and labor, the only cure for the evil of divorce, juvenile delinquency, and crime in general, I say, the only cure for all these evils is the true fear of God in men’s hearts. But can man administer this cure? Can he remove his stony heart by giving himself a heart of flesh? Can he establish within him and within his fellowman, God’s heavenly kingdom and inscribe its laws upon the table of men’s hearts? Can he cleanse a single depraved human from his native corruption, and create in him a new spirit? Can he shed abroad in men’s hearts the love of God? In a word, can man make straight the crooked?

If he can, why doesn’t he? He cannot. He will not. Thus war will continue as long as the earth endureth, for God will make crooked the straight. Craft in government, corruption in politics, dishonesty in business, all continue as long as the earth endureth. Crime will continue as long as the earth endureth.

Well, then, if man stands utterly powerless over against all these evils, if by all his efforts he can bring in no improvement, what real profit hath man from all his labors that he taketh under the sun? None whatever, says the preacher. So far is man from having profit from all his labors, that all they yield him is pain and vexation of spirit. We quote him, “Then I looked upon all the works that my hand had wrought, and on the labor that I have labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11). Man’s labor that he taketh under the sun yields him no true happiness. After having done all, the great void in his life, in his spirit, is still there. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

But this is not all. Arriving at the end of his vain days on earth, vain man dies. Says the preacher, “I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccl. 3:18-20). This is the prospect that vain man faces. And, says the preacher, man must then leave his labor, with all its earthy gains, unto the man that shall be after him. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? (Eccl. 2:18, 19). Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth the beast. All turn to dust again (Eccl. 3:19, 20).

No, this is not the babbling of an unbeliever, denying life after death and the resurrection of the dead, but the inspired teachings of a preacher of God. Mark the statement, “That God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.” This certainly is not the prating of a skeptic but the exclamation of surprise and indignation of a true believer, struck with amazement and sorely vexed by the stupid blindness of the natural man, who will not, in his vain estate, seek after God, but who insists that this estate is the only and highest good, and that it will abide forever.

But let us understand the preacher well. Certainly it is not gnostic heresy and Anabaptist philosophy with which we deal in this Bible book. It is not grace that is being opposed here to nature, as if nature, man’s earthy estate, all his labor that he taketh under the sun, were, as such, depraved, sinful as to its essence, and therefore contemptible. To the contrary, says the preacher, there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labors. This also I saw that it was from the hand of God. For God giveth to a man what is good in his sight, but to the sinner he giveth travail. Eating and drinking, buying and selling, marital and family life, as such, are not corrupt. Only as the labor of fallen and depraved man is it wicked, indeed thoroughly so.

Nor is it the teaching of the preacher further, that, whereas all man’s labor that he taketh under the sun is vain, the thing for the believer to do is to give up his labor and retreat into monastic seclusion. Though all man’s labor under the sun is vanity, man must labor, he must travail. It is his calling, his duty. Says the preacher, What soever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest (Eccl. 9:10). Man must labor. It is that, says the preacher, which God hath given the sons of men to do, to be exercised thereby.

This, says the preacher, is the conclusion of the matter, “Fear God and keep his commandments,” or, in the language of the New Testament Scriptures, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and through Him, and in His Father the triune Jehovah, walk all the days of thy vanity as a child of the light.” This God’s people, by God’s mercy, and by the power of His grace, and under the constraint of a faith that is His gift, also do, in principle. And so all things, thus also this vain earthy estate, and all the crooked that characterizes this estate, work together for good to them. From the vain estate of this sinful earthly life, they even now are in principle delivered.

And their works shall follow them. When the house of this their earthy tabernacle shall be dissolved, and with it their vain earthy estate shall be dissolved, they receive from God a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, a house in which nothing is crooked, but in which everything is straight with the straightness of a heavenly perfection, a house in which they face always, not life through the grave, for then they shall have passed through the grave, but just life, life everlasting, life with God in His sanctuary, where they shall see God with heavenly eyes and thus see Him as He is, and where He shall satisfy them with His likeness.