“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” With these words the Preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes begins his journey of exploring all that is done under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 13).
Does that sound bleak? He is talking about life “under the sun.” He does not mean a trip to the beach when he says, “under the sun.” Rather, he means life lived without reference to God. All life would be reduced to vanity, if not for God.
Take the Preachers opening soliloquy. You can read it in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11. First, he looks at life from a global perspective in verses 2-7. The universe seems to run a never-ending marathon, without any end in sight. According to John Polkinghorne, the late esteemed British theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, if you look only at what we can observe through scientific inquiry, there are only two possible fates. Either the universe will continually expand until galaxies condense into black holes, or it will continually contract until galaxies collide together and then a big crunch. Vanity!
Perhaps our human toil on the earth could make a difference. Read verses 8-11. There is always more to say, see, and listen to. The late author John Steinbeck said, “it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more.”
Someone might say, “Look; this is new.” But really someone has just put a new dress on something done before. New technology allows us to do things that seem new, but really we are doing the same old things. Medicine might allow us to live longer, yet the statistics on death remain static. One out of every one dies. Vanity!
When the Preacher calls all things vanity, he does not quite mean meaningless, as some translate the Hebrew word. He means of no lasting significance. Nothing really changes the course of things. Ultimately, the grand scheme of things remains the same. Nothing you or I can do will change it.
This, of course, only puts forth half the truth. When you put God back into the equation, the universe burst with significance. The Psalmist says, for example, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge (Psalm 19:1-2).”
Throughout his journey the Preacher exposes the futility of life lived without God. Then he breaks in from time to time with the beauty of knowing the Creator of it all. He provokes us to make a contrast few have the guts to make: a universe without God vs. one with God.