Ecclesiastes 1–2: Vanity & Reality

Read the Bible in 2011Week 43: Thursday

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 1:1–2

Thursday’s Bible reading is Ecclesiastes 1–2. Ecclesiastes falls into the category of Old Testament books of poetry and wisdom. As you read these chapters notice his conclusion, “there is nothing new under the sun, and his recognition that in his wisdom, knowledge, wealth, pleasure and work he finds only futility. Yet chapter two closes with these words:

“There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”
Ecclesiastes 2:24–26

These verses are a bold contrast to the many previous assertions that the attainment of all the world can offer is only vanity. What does the change of perspective mean?

In G. S. Hendry’s introduction to Ecclesiastes he gives us astute insight into the reasoning and purpose of this book:

“…It is at once apparent to the discerning reader that there is a penetrating observation and criticism of the human scene. The profundity of such of the writer’s observations as we can immediately comprehend lures us on to plumb his deeper insights…

“…Qoheleth [the Preacher] is addressing the general public whose view is bounded by the horizons of this world; he meets them on their own ground, and proceeds to convict them of its inherent vanity…

“The fatal weakness of secularist utopianism is, as has been said, that it takes insufficient account of the twin facts of evil and death. The eyes of Ecclesiastes are fully open to the vanity and the corruption to which the creation is subject (Rom. 8:20ff.), and the whole book has been aptly described as an exposition of the curse of the Fall (Gn. 3: 17–19). The writer sees how these two facts bracket the whole of life under the sun with a negative sign and defy all attempts to force it to yield either sense or satisfaction by itself.

“But though the tone of the book is preponderantly negative, it is a mistake to brand Ecclesiastes as a sceptic or apostle of despair. The melancholy refrain, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, is not his verdict upon life in general, but only upon the misguided human endeavour to treat the created world as an end in itself….his immediate concern is to dispel all false and illusory hopes which possess the minds of men and of which they must be purged before they can be brought to the hope with is sure and steadfast and which enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain’ (Heb. 6:19)….

“The significance of the world is that it can become a medium for the revelation of God’s goodness, wisdom and righteousness. It is only when man treats it as an end in itself, and makes it his chief end to gain the world, that it turns to vanity. But there is a way in which man can accept life under the sun, with its gifts and withdrawals, its apparent irrationalities and injustices, and that is from the hand of God (2:24; 5:18–20). Plainly this is not scepticism or pessimism; it is faith….Ecclesiastes is a sceptic only in so far as he rejects the pretension of human wisdom to elucidate the work of God (3:11; 8:17). He knows that we walk by faith, not by sight; and he exhibits the necessary humility or reserve of faith in face of the transcendent wisdom of God, of whose eternal providence he is firmly assured (3:14).”1

Hendry’s words are profound in their explanation of how Ecclesiastes corrects and teaches us on our understanding of the Christian life. We really do live in a fallen world out of which we have been redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who promise a health and prosperity gospel are not preaching the gospel that is found in Scripture. There will be many things that occur in this life that don’t make sense and that are unjust, but that reflect a fallen world and mankind in rebellion against God.

The horrific suffering and affliction we may experience does teach us to walk by faith, not by sight, (2 Corinthians 5:7) as we learn “the necessary humility or reserve of faith in face of the transcendent wisdom of God,” trusting in God’s love and providence that in all these things He will work together for the good of those who love Him and that nothing will be able to separate us from His love (Romans 8:12–39). Through these trials we are trained in endurance and maturity (Romans 5:1–5; James 1:2–3). These trials demonstrate that the surpassing greatness of power is found in God and not in ourselves, bringing Him glory (2 Corinthians 4:7–18, 12:7–10).

Yet Ecclesiastes 2:24–26 also teaches us that the godly person who does not treat the attainments of life as an end in themselves finds joy in the good things of this world. We are to be neither hedonists nor ascetics. Paul wrote to Timothy regarding asceticism as a false piety:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
1 Timothy 4:1–5

I want to bring back these words of Francis Andersen I used in a previous post because I think he helps us understand what we so easily forget: we should not cope with the pain of our suffering by despising or denying the truth of who we are.

“But God did not suspend each individual in isolation, to find fulfillment solely in communion with himself. God put each man with family and friends and things, with property and work. Only a false piety, a disdain for things as evil (the Manichean heresy), a contempt for emotions as weak (the Stoic error), would expect in Job an unflinching fortitude in the midst of such loss and pain. Job rightly grieves his bereavement; he is authentically depressed by his illness. He is human. The untrammelled serenity which some prescribe as the goal of ‘victorious living’ is a negation of whole areas of our experience as God has made us. Job lives fully.”2

How are we to keep this balance and understand this world and life as it is? Obviously, by letting God’s Word continually inform and transform our minds. We are also to help each other by encouraging each other to trust God (Hebrews 3:12–19) through sharing the comfort of God (2 Corinthians 1) and with love using our ease for the ease of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering (2 Corinthians 8–9). Your treatment of your brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering reveals your world view—whatever you say or whatever you may think of yourself—it reveals where your mind is set and what you seek.

Ecclesiastes underscores the importance of our trust in God as a witness to those who don’t know God. We serve as lights, you and I, to the crooked and perverse generation in which we live. As they are, we too are caught up in living in the midst of a world racked and wrecked with sin. When their dreams become ashes, are we able to explain the real and living hope we have in Christ? The choices of our lives make it very evident where our hope is placed, and they affirm or give the lie to our words.

Hendry writes that Ecclesiastes “is in reality a major work of apologetic or ‘eristic’ theology.”3 Let its clear assessment of reality examine you and your understanding of life, and teach you to build your life on the rock of God’s truth.

Isaiah 42 Photograph: – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas, Isaak Asknaziy: Public Domain.
Waves crashing over The North Pier, Tynemouth:
1, 3G. S. Hendry, “Ecclesiastes,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., pp. 570–571, 570.
2Francis Andersen, Job, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, pp. 70–71.

Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter

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