Solomon writes about life under the sun in the book of Ecclesiastes. His evaluation is the same at the end as it was in the beginning. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Vanity simply means the quality of being worthless, useless, or futile. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl 1:14). Just imagine trying to grasp the wind. That is what Solomon is telling us about life under the sun. Life is here for a moment and suddenly gone away to return no more.
What advantage is there to our labor or pursuits? All is vanity and grasping after the wind or vanity and a grave misfortune. A man who gains much in life but is not able to use it is considered a great affliction (Eccl 2:11,16; 4:8; 6:2). Consider a very wealthy man who has many mansions, many automobiles, and several planes at his beacon call. Yet, he cannot live but in one house at a time, drive one car at a time, or fly in one plane at a time. As one man once wrote, “If you have more than you can use, you have too much.”
First, Solomon looks at wealth or riches and says, “What good is it to become wealthy only to leave to an heir who will ruin it all” (Eccl 2:18-19)? Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, is a prime example of someone who ruined all Solomon had worked for before he was was cold in his own grave. We see that all the time. Parents labor hard to build an estate only to leave it to heirs who did not build it. The heirs either waste it or bite and devour one another over how much each one will get. It is pure vanity.
Second, Solomon looks at having a party. His assessment is, “It is better to go the house of mourning” (Eccl 7:2) When someone dies who is close to us, we reflect on our own life and its brevity, and at least for a short time try and live a good and moral life. When we are at a party all we do is have a good time and forget how close we are to death and judgment. There is no thought to the seriousness of life. All is vanity.
Third, Solomon looks at wisdom. He asks, “How does a wise man die? He answers, “As the fool” (Eccl 2:17). What good is it to be wise if in the end we die like a fool? He is not discounting the advantage of wisdom. In fact, he says, “A living dog has more hope than a dead lion” (Eccl 9:3-4). At least the living dog can see tomorrow. Even so, if a man has all the wisdom this world has to offer, when he dies his wisdom profits him nothing. Thus, wisdom is also vanity.
In the end, life under the sun is an endless pursuit of frustration. There is never enough wealth, never enough fun, and never enough wisdom. All are endless pursuits. In the end, when we open our hands to see what we have caught, there is nothing but the wind. All is vanity.
We need to look at all the things he examines and pronounced as vanity. They are all things of this life. He looked at this world. He looks at the skillful works of a man’s hand, piling up gold, and gathering all his ambition. Everything a man would do as he went about life and simply viewing things of this life, he found them all unfulfilling. When he was through with them he found them a disappointment. It seems he often had an idea that some of these things will be rewarded, but before he was through with them he was calling them names: an evil disease, a terrible affliction and, emptiness.
Look at another man whose pursuit was not life under the sun but life with the Son. When we read Philippians we hear Paul say something entirely different than Solomon. Paul was not pursuing life under the sun. He pursues life with the Son. Extra biblical literature tells us that Paul, Saul of Tarsus, came from a wealthy family. He will tell us he was of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee of Pharisees (otherwise no one excelled him) (Philip 3:4-6). He may well have been in pursuit of being President of the Sanhedrin.
Saul of Tarsus had it all going his way. He had the resume to credit him as one who is important. Even so, Paul found his ambition empty. In fact, he had all those resume stuffers he counted as loss for Christ (Philip 3:7). More important to him was to know Christ, the fellowship of His suffering and be conformed to His death (Philip 3:10). Life under the sun was meaningless to Paul. Life with the Son meant everything to him.
Even in times when life was hard for Paul he simply wanted to know Him and the power of His resurrection. Paul does not look back on his life and consider it empty. He looks back and says, “Rejoice and again I say rejoice.” To know Him and be known by Him made life have meaning. Life under the sun would not dampen his view of life with the Son. He wanted Him and pursued Him. And in the end he will say, “I have not labored in vain or run in vain” (Philip 2:16).
To make this point even clearer, Jesus said it this way: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matt 16:24-26)? Paul lost his present life. He gave up his career, he gave up his family’s wealth and all the accolades that come with such. He exchanged it for a world of being hated, being persecuted, and losing his freedom. Yet, this is Paul’s conclusion of the whole matter: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim 4:7,8).
Yes, this life and all that is in it is vanity. Peter said, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness” (2 Pet 3:10,11). All the great poetry and artworks will be destroyed. All the great innovations since the world began will be forgotten. All the great architecture will come tumbling down. All the money and all the gold and silver ever mined will be dissolved. “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Tim 6:7). So, what isn’t vanity? Solomon wisely wrote, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13). Everything else is nothing but vanity.