Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 The thing that hath 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.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 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.
12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
This book was written by King Solomon, son of David, son of Jesse, of the line of Judah, during the latter years of his life. Solomon, the Scriptures record, was blessed by God with great wisdom in order to rule his kingdom well. However, he squandered much of that wisdom over the course of his life, marrying 300 wives and having 600 concubines who all brought their own pagan rituals and gods into his home. After all of his failures, he wrote this book that others might learn from his philosophical journeys and follies.
The book opens with a depressing depiction of things. All the ideas of the world, all our efforts in this life, are ultimately wasted to the passage of time. However, as we shall see in coming chapters, there is one idea greater than all the rest, though to most it would not seem so great.
Vanity, all is Vanity
Everything we do in this life is vanity. All that we build is destroyed; all that we own is passed along to others and eventually to the earth. All our knowledge and wisdom is lost to time (or, at least, the vast majority of it), and our names eventually fade from memory.
What do we get out of our works? What profit do we ultimately have? We die, another generation rises, and eventually they die and another arises. Our children bear our grandchildren, who bear their grandchildren, and eventually our names are lost to time by even our own flesh and blood.
This goes on, over and over, while the earth continues to turn and orbit the sun. The sun rises and sets, then crosses the other side of the earth to rise once more, as it has done since the creation of the world. The wind blows from the north, and then from the south, and then it whirls about, never ceasing to move so long as the earth still turns – even when it seems still where we are, somewhere the wind blows. Rivers run into the sea, and the sea yields its water to the clouds, which then rains down to fill the rivers once more.
On and on the earth goes, but our lives are fleeting and eventually we will die and lose all that we have built for ourselves.
It’s a pointless cycle
Everything that lives works. Men toil in the fields or in their offices; ants build and rebuild their nests; trees break apart the earth seeking nutrients and water. We cannot even begin to fathom the complexity of all these interacting labors – people spend their lives studying the works of one man or one creature, and yet they do not begin to see the fullness of the picture. And the more we study, the more we realize we do not know.
What has been will be again, and that which is done will be done. Men build nations, go to war, die, and lose their homelands, only to build new nations and repeat the cycle. We invent and create wondrous things, but eventually our technology is lost and our wonders are reduced to dust, so that a new generation in the future might rediscover the same inventions and create similar wonders. There is nothing new under the sun – all things continue to act as they always have, and all that we create bears the semblance of that which has been created before.
Society doesn’t advance upward; it advances in a cycle from creation unto destruction, and from destruction unto a new creation.
Even new ideas are old. One can see evidences of every new philosophy and cultural idea in works of antiquity (including our newer ideas of equality and social welfare, which are evident in ancient Greece and Rome). We consider the founding principles of America to be new, but they are merely copying the republics of old and the legal principles of a past Britain. We pride ourselves on our technology, but electricity has been harnessed in ancient times, and perhaps even our modern industrial practices have existed before.
There is no remembrance of former things, nor shall we be remembered. In time, it is lost – the names of our Presidents, the territories of our states, the ideas and philosophies of our governance, and even our very language is subject to this fate, as has happened to the countless dead languages and cultures of the past.
Vanity, all is vanity.
The Vanity of Philosophy
Solomon, he who wrote these words, was king over Israel. He gave himself to the study and acquisition of wisdom concerning all profane (that is, “of this world”) matters, that he might understand the world and that which is in it. This is a task placed on every man, and we all struggle with understanding truth, yet even the wisest man could not fully complete it.
Everything Solomon could find in this world was ultimately vanity. Every labor ultimately is meaningless – empires rise and fall, crops feed people only for a time before more must be raised, and what wisdom a man acquires is ultimately lost.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight – wickedness of men has always been and always shall be, regardless of sound reason or effective punishment. No building made has endured forever without maintenance – even the mighty Pyramids of Giza are pale reflections of their former gilded and ornate selves, with empty tombs deprived of plunder. No road survives without constant maintenance, and no kingdom or country survives without constant restructuring and vigilant maintenance of the social standards.
That which is wanting cannot be numbered. The poor and the hungry die daily all over the world, and the sickly go without satisfactory treatment of their ills. Even in places where the hungry are fed and the sick are tended to, there is death and misery around. Crops wither, creatures die, and all over creation suffers.
The Vanity of the Preacher
Solomon was a wealthy man, born to a mighty king and destined for rule. He was a wise man, as well, being blessed by God with great wisdom and understanding of the works and hearts of men. His knowledge was unparalleled, and kings and queens crossed hundreds of miles to pay him homage. This, truly, was one of the greatest men to have ever lived.
So he gave himself over to philosophy – the search for and acquisition of wisdom. He lacked nothing else in his life, and so he set out to understand madness and folly as well as truth and wisdom. However, what he found was pain and irritation, for none of his learning could satisfy.
In his wisdom, he found grief, for he not only knew how things were and how they should be but he was able to see the flaws in reality. He amassed wisdom, but he sat alone among the throng of fools and idiots in the world. He learned so much, but in his learning he saw how it set him apart from the rest, as well as how it would ultimately be lost to time. For all his wisdom and knowledge, he found only misery.
Let us Pray
Oh, Lord, we find this a very troubling lesson. We have sought after wisdom and understanding all our lives, but now we learn that the man to whom you granted unparalleled wisdom found it vanity. We have struggled and toiled all our lives, and now we face the realization that all of it is ultimately for naught. How wretched are we who live upon the earth, Lord God our Father!
Yet we rejoice that you have given us purpose and meaning, even in the temporary. You have seen our struggles in this world and pitied us, for you knew that our efforts were vain and our desires fleeting. You have cared for us by giving us that which we need for life, but you have cared even more for our futures into eternity. For this, you sent your Son to be our sacrifice of atonement, to bear the weight of our sins and our failures for us that we might be called Sons of God. You have made for us works to do that shall endure, for you have tied our fleeting and vain lives on this earth to your eternal works.
Blessed be the name of the Lord! He has redeemed us from sin and death, and from vain and fleeting lives without meaning or purpose! He has made the temporary to be enduring, the unrighteous to be righteous, the profane to be holy, and the miserable to be filled with joy! Let our praises be heard in all places, from now into eternity!