When All Is Vanity (Sermon)
Overview of Ecclesiastes
Why do so many rich people die unhappy? Why do so many powerful people die unhappy? Why do so many brilliant people die unhappy? Why do so many beautiful people die unhappy?
That’s a pretty good list of what most people want—money, power, intelligence and beauty. In our pursuit of it, we’re convinced that if we can merely attain it, then everything will be fine. Yet, that’s clearly not the case. Riches, power, intelligence, beauty, success and fame—none of those guarantee happiness.
We’ve all heard about Alexander the Great’s response to conquering the known world. He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. He had done it all, but it wasn’t enough. World dominion could not fill the emptiness in his soul. Maybe you remember from history class the story of Hannibal, who led Carthage in a great battle with Rome. He committed suicide by drinking poison.
We hear story after story of rich, famous, beautiful, successful people taking their own life or dying of a drug overdose. Why? So many who seem to have so much, why are they so unhappy?
The answer is found in this short Old Testament book called Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes begins with these words:
(Ecclesiastes 1:1 ESV) The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Solomon, son of David, is generally understood to be the Preacher, whose words make up the majority of this book. Though his name isn’t ever mentioned—he’s only referred to as the Preacher—there are plenty of clues in the book which lead us to identify him as the main speaker.
Before we dive fully into this book, let me briefly remind you about Solomon’s story. Solomon followed his father David as king of Israel. His wisdom was legendary. God gave Solomon one request, and Solomon asked for wisdom.
(1 Kings 4:29–34 ESV) And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
He was not only wise. He was also rich. His palace was beyond extravagant. Everything he had was made of gold and precious stones. Later in 1 Kings we find that he “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom” (1 Kings 10:23). He was an impressive guy.
1. All Is Vanity!
Let’s look now at how he begins the book of Ecclesiastes. What does the richest, wisest king have to say?
(Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV) Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Everything in life is vanity. Everything in life is meaningless. You could translate it this way, “Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! All is utterly meaningless!” That’s real encouraging!
This book only has 12 chapters, and somehow the Preacher uses the word vanity 38x. The theme of this book is simple: All is vanity! Everything in life is fleeting and futile, empty and elusive. In case we’re not sure what he means by vanity, he elaborates in the next few verses.
(Ecclesiastes 1:3 ESV) What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Why do we work? What difference does it make?
(4) A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
People live, people die. Yet the world continues to revolve. Our lives don’t matter at all. When we die, someone will step up and take our place.
(5) The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
Even nature is caught in this endless cycle of repetition. Each morning the sun rises, and each night it sets. The wind blows, then stops, then blows again. Water keeps flowing to the sea, yet the sea is never full. All of this is pointless, monotonous, worthless, and meaningless.
(8) All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
We are doomed to be tired and unsatisfied. Nothing we do can change it. We’ll never find satisfaction or rest.
(9) What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
We do nothing new. We can’t change this pointless existence. No one before us could and no one after will be able to either.
This is what he means by vanity. Life is empty, worthless and meaningless. Later (in verse 14) he likens life to “striving after the wind.” I can’t think of a phrase that more powerfully and clearly describes meaninglessness. Chasing the wind. Running after something you can’t see and you can’t catch. Imagine how frustrating it would be to chase the wind. Let’s say somehow you bottled it up. What would happen when you opened the top? Nothing. No wind would come rushing out. Somebody suggested that if you were chasing the wind, you would make your dog chasing his tail look like a genius.
I think we can identify at least in part with what the Preacher has written here. Have you ever felt like what you do is pointless?
“Why do I vacuum and dust when it’s all going to get dirty again?”
“Why do I go to work and do the same thing each day?”
“This is the fifth day in a row I’ve disciplined that child for the same reason.”
“I can’t believe my teacher assigned me more pointless busywork.”
This book is real and it’s raw. If you have never felt this, I wonder if you’re truly human. What he’s describing in these verses feels way too familiar for most of us. Am I nothing more than a hamster running on a wheel? The harder I work, the more the wheel turns, yet I still don’t go anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Nothing I do makes any difference.
(Ecclesiastes 1:12-13a ESV) I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.
The Preacher made it his goal to use his wisdom to study everything mankind does. He rigorously investigated everything done on the earth. Here was his conclusion.
(13b) It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Again, his conclusion is that all is vanity. Everything we do is meaningless.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
The wisest man on earth studied it all, and concluded that everything—even the pursuit of wisdom itself was in vain. In fact, the wiser and more understanding you are, the more likely you are to be saddened when you realize it’s all meaningless. There is great pain and anguish in these words. These are not the simple words of a naïve child. These are the deep, sorrowful words of a wizened and weathered old man. He has studied it all, and his conclusion is that life is vanity.
2. All Means All!
Chapter 2 describes his experience of studying everything. The first 10 verses are his attempts to find something that was not vanity. He lists each one before concluding that when he says all is vanity, all means all.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1–2 ESV) “I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
He begins in verse 2 with laughter. Maybe a close friend said, “You’re too gloomy. You think too much about all of these deep things. You just need to laugh more. You need to be entertained.” So, he tried it. I’m sure it was fun…for a time. We can all look at times of laughter and remember how fun it was, but it doesn’t last. Life is more than a barrel of laughs. At some point the laughter dies down, and what is left?
His next attempt was wine.
(Ecclesiastes 2:3 ESV) “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”
Good food and good drink. Get drunk! Forget your problems! Drown your miseries in a cold one! That didn’t work.
Maybe pleasure wasn’t the way to find something meaningful, what about work? What if I pour myself into my job?
(Ecclesiastes 2:4–6 ESV) “I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.”
He’s got a pretty impressive resume. Notice the word house is plural. He has houses. Still nothing.
Now the pendulum swings again. What if I have enough people to do my work for me? What if I get more stuff?
(Ecclesiastes 2:7–8 ESV) “I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.”
That’s an enticing one. How many mothers have dreamed of having someone to help with the tasks around the house? How may of us would love to have someone to take some of the jobs we don’t want to do? That would be great. What about an unlimited supply of money? Surely that will bring meaning and satisfaction. Nope.
(Ecclesiastes 2:8 ESV) “I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.”
What about sex? Concubines are like ancient mistresses. They weren’t wives, but they were part of your harem. Ready at any moment for you to beckon. They were yours to meet whatever needs and desires you wanted met. Solomon had 300 of them. If I could satisfy my every physical desire, wouldn’t that make me satisfied in life?
What about fame? And intelligence? And wisdom?
(Ecclesiastes 2:9–10 ESV) “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.”
What if you could have not just one of these things we’ve mentioned—entertainment, food, wine, work, possessions, sex, money, fame, intelligence and wisdom—what if you could have them all?
(Ecclesiastes 2:10–11 ESV) “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Brothers and sisters, we need to listen to these verses. All of us at times think that if we could just get something more, something from that list, then everything would be better.
If I could just make a little more money…
If I could just fix this relationship…
If I could just get a promotion…
If my kids would just listen…
If I could just lose some weight…
If I could just retire…
None of that satisfies. None of that will do it.
In Greek mythology, King Tantalus offended the gods and was punished in the underworld. He was placed in a lake in water up to his chin, but whenever he attempted to satisfy his thirst the water level dropped just out of reach. Over his head were branches filled with fruit, but when he tried to satisfy his hunger they moved just beyond his grasping hands. Tantalus became the symbol of utter frustration. Even today his name is remembered in our English word tantalize.
So many things in this life tantalize us. We can learn from this man who had everything, that having everything doesn’t make a person happy. In many ways, Ecclesiastes tells the other side of the story of Job. In Job, we find a man who lost everything, and found it didn’t matter. In Ecclesiastes, we find a many who gained everything, and found it didn’t matter. According to the preacher, all is vanity, and when he says all, he means all. Let’s look at why.
3. All Is Ineffective!
(Ecclesiastes 2:15–17 ESV) Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Nothing—including wisdom—keeps you from dying. Not money. Not laughter. Not success. Not family. Everyone, whether wise or a fool, will die. Andy Griffith’s success couldn’t keep him alive. Whitney Houston’s fame couldn’t keep her alive. Chuck Colson’s service couldn’t keep him alive. Nothing can stop death.
All is vanity because all is ineffective to stop death. Nothing we do, nothing we gain, nothing we accomplish can keep us from the grave.
Turn to the final chapter of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher’s conclusion is the same as his opening statement.
(Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV) “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.”
“Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless! All is meaningless!”
Conclusion of the Book
That may be the Preacher’s conclusion, but it’s not the conclusion of the book. There’s a conclusion that helps us put the words of the Preacher in context.
(Ecclesiastes 12:9–11 ESV) Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.
The conclusion affirms the wisdom of the Preacher. He wrote and arranged many Proverbs. These wise proverbs brought great delight and help. All wisdom ultimately has its source in God, and his wisdom served people by helping them walk uprightly. But he doesn’t stop there. Yes, the Preacher was wise, but that’s not the final word.
(Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 ESV) The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
The Preacher is wise—the wisest man who ever lived—but his wisdom is not enough. We need greater wisdom than he can offer. We need more wisdom than he can give. The problem is not with wisdom; the problem is that no man is wise enough.
These final words push us to look beyond human wisdom to divine wisdom. They challenge us to look to God alone as the only source of wisdom. We are to “fear God”. That phrase should ring a bell. It’s used in the very first chapter of the book of Proverbs. It is the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom. The final few verses of Ecclesiastes contrast the wisdom of a man with the wisdom of God.
Brothers and sisters, don’t make human wisdom your ultimate authority. The preacher was wise, but his wisdom was limited. 28 times in the book of Ecclesiastes, we find the phrase “under the sun”. Human wisdom is limited by our earthly perspective. The Preacher could not see the earth from outside of it. His view was always from within.
We could say that the Preacher spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. He could not speak the whole truth because all he understood was life under the sun. God’s wisdom is not bound by life under the sun. We need wisdom that comes down to us from above the sun.
So, the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes pushes us to a wisdom greater than the wisdom of Solomon. It pushes us ultimately to Wisdom Incarnate. Last week, Randy showed us clearly how Jesus is wisdom incarnate. He is the embodiment of God’s wisdom. The life and work of the Messiah would be so wise that He Himself would be shown to be wisdom. He is wisdom in the flesh.
Turn with me to the New Testament—1 Corinthians 1. I want you to see how a New Testament writer understood that Jesus is our wisdom.
(1 Corinthians 1:26–30 ESV) For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…
These verses contrast human and divine wisdom. They detail two ways to live. The first way is the way that is explained by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. It is a life marked by human wisdom, human strength, human success, human power, and human authority. This is a life that is the desire of humanity. We want to be considered wise. Our wisdom would lead to strength and nobility. We want to be the best and we want others to see it.
But that way is vanity. All of that wisdom leads to nothing. Notice that human wisdom and strength do not lead a person to God. They do not lead a person into God’s favor. The point of these verses is that the way of human wisdom is not the way to God.
There is another path. It is the path of divine wisdom. It’s not a series of steps. It’s a person. We come to Jesus Christ, and He becomes our wisdom. Jesus Christ becomes our righteousness. Not our work, not our effort, not our wisdom, but Jesus Christ alone.
The point of Ecclesiastes is that life without Jesus Christ is vanity. We can gain the whole world, but if we don’t have Jesus, we have nothing. We can be wise, powerful, intelligent, and successful, but it is meaningless. Our only recourse is to see our wisdom as bankrupt and seek divine wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ. There are two ways to live. One brings vanity and death. The other brings wisdom and life.
Two ways to live is the message of the entire Bible. In the Garden, Adam and Eve had two ways to live. One was to fear God and keep His commandments, and the other was to reject His wisdom in search of their own. They chose the second path and it led to death.
Jesus Christ regularly identified two ways to live. He talked about two paths—one that seemed foolish to the world, but was truly wise, and the other that seemed wise to the world but led to death. He described two gates—one that was large and inviting, the world flocked to it and it led to destruction, and the other was narrow and unpopular but led to Him. He talked about two foundations. The wise man built his house on the foundation of Jesus’s words, and the foolish man built his foundation on the wisdom of men. When the storms of life came, only one house remained.
In case I haven’t been clear, let me summarize. Apart from Jesus Christ, life is vanity. You may be wise, strong, popular and successful, but it will all be meaningless, especially on the day of your death. However, you can trade all of that human wisdom for Jesus Christ—the very wisdom of God—and find meaning. Human wisdom can’t defeat death, but Jesus Christ did.
Jesus Christ, though perfect, died in the place of sinners. Because He was innocent, death could not stop Him. He rose from the grave, and He offers life in Him to whoever will turn from their own effort, denounce their own wisdom and place their confidence entirely in Him. Friend, have you done that? If you don’t, you will find that life is vanity. You will find that death is unstoppable. And you will find that God judges every sinful deed. Turn to Jesus Christ, and in Him you can find true wisdom and righteousness—a wisdom and righteousness that defeated death and is made your very own.
I want you to see and understand this. This is incredibly liberating. Because Jesus is our wisdom, we don’t need to be something more or get something more. We don’t need to be something more—wiser, smarter or better. We don’t need to get something more—riches, success or popularity. Jesus is enough! Without Jesus, life is vanity. But with Jesus…in Jesus, life matters! He is all that matters. He is enough.
That’s why the apostle Paul wrote, “I count all things—success, wisdom, knowledge, esteem—I count all things but dung for the sake of knowing Christ and being found in Him.”
I said getting this was incredibly liberating. Here’s how. When we get that Jesus is all these things for us, it frees us to stop seeking them for ourselves. I don’t need to seek money, or power, or wisdom on my own. Jesus is all of these things for me. Do you see how this radically reorients our lives? He is my treasure, my strength and my wisdom.
I don’t need to constantly seek for the thing that will make life matter. I’ve found it. Now I am free to love, serve, laugh, weep, and work because the pressure’s off. I’ve found the meaning of life. Pursuing earthly things is frivolous and empty. But knowing Jesus Christ—true Wisdom—that matters. In Christ (Colossians 2:3) “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In Christ I can know who I am, why I’m here and where I’m going. That’s why we sing, “Take all this world, but give me Jesus.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is a great book—it’s so freeing. We now know that all of these other things don’t satisfy—they don’t fulfill us! We are now free to whole-heartedly pursue and accomplish the whole duty of man!
So let’s end with a couple of ways that Christ as your wisdom brings you freedom.
Because Christ is your wisdom, you’re free to make choices considered foolish by society
If you want to be viewed as wise, you’ll constantly feel pressure to make decisions that are considered rational and logical by others. What you think others think about your decision will profoundly impact you. You’ll be scared to make bold choices to follow Christ because others may think you’re a fool.
But if you’re convinced that Jesus Christ is your wisdom, then you’ll be free to make choices that others mock. Your wisdom is not regulated by their approval. Your wisdom is found in Christ, so let the world think you’re a fool. If you’re following Christ, who cares?
You can turn down the promotion because it requires too much of a time commitment, and you know work won’t satisfy.
You are free to give up the career to raise a family, because you know your completeness is found in Christ, not your occupation.
You can spend your vacation time on a missions trip, investing in something that lasts longer than pleasure.
You can forgive the one who wronged you because their approval…that relationship doesn’t define who you are.
If you understand that Jesus is your wisdom, you’re free to make tough, unpopular choices because people’s opinion of you—whether they think you’re wise or a fool—is irrelevant.
Because Christ is your wisdom, you’re free to be weak and foolish
If everything rides on your shoulders, then you can’t admit weakness. If everything depends on your decisions, then you can’t admit foolishness. But if you realize that your foolishness is swallowed up in Christ’s wisdom, and your weakness in His strength, and your poverty in His riches, and your sin in His mercy, then you’re free to be exactly what you are—a weak, foolish sinner who contributes nothing to his own salvation but clings to the One who has done it all.
The apostle Paul said that in his weakness, the strength of Jesus Christ was displayed. Christian, it’s okay to admit your weakness and your foolishness because nothing depends on your strength and your wisdom.
That’s incredibly encouraging to me. What doesn’t matter is:
How wise you are.
How powerful you are.
How noble you are.
All that matters is being found in Jesus Christ. He is your wisdom, your strength, and your righteousness. Without Jesus Christ, life is vanity. Don’t seek all those things the Preacher did. Seek true wisdom—Wisdom Incarnate. Seek Jesus Christ.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.