Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Vanity of Vanities

Part 1 of a series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes


The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem (v. 1).
  • Who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes? "Preacher" (qoheleth) means "one who gathers" or "one among the gathering." So "the Preacher" could be one who gathers wisdom to be taught or one who speaks to a gathering of people.
  • "Ecclesiastes" is from the Greek translation of qoheleth (ekklesiastes). (Ekklesia is the NT word for "church." It means "assembly." A church is a gathering or assembly of Christians, not a building.)
  • The traditional view is that Ecclesiastes was written by Solodmon. He was the only immediate "son of David" to be "king in Jerusalem."
  • Most modern scholars believe that Ecclesiastes was written by an unkown author of a later period. Why? (1) The phrase "son of David" could refer to any legitimate Davidic descendent, as it does in Matthew 1:20 with reference to Joseph and frequently throughout the NT with reference to Jesus Christ. (2) The distinctive nature of the Hebrew language used in the book is widely believed to be indicative of a date much later than the 10th century B.C. (3) The Preacher’s remarks imply a historical setting that seems in tension with the Solomonic era, such as the fact that many have preceded him as king in Jerusalem (e.g., 1:16; 2:7, 9—though these may include non-Israelite kings), that injustice and oppression are openly practiced (3:16-17; 4:1-3; 8:10-11), and that he has observed firsthand the foolishness of kings (4:13-16; 10:5-6) and their abuse of royal power (8:2-9). [ESV Study Bible] It seems obvious that Solomon is the subject of 1:12-2:26. However, many would say that the author of Ecclesiastes in taking on the persona of Solomon to illustrate the vanity of life.
  • There are two voices in Ecclesiastes: the narrator (1:1-11; 12:9-14) and the preacher (1:12-12:8).

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (v. 2).

Vanity (hebel) is an important word in Ecclesiastes. (By the way, this kind of "vanity" does not mean an obsession with personal appearance.) What does "vanity" mean?
  • Literally, hebel means "vapor," "wind," or "breath."
  • Figuratively, hebel means "fleeting," "meaningless," and "incomprehensible." All three meanings are found in Ecclesiastes. (1) Fleeting: "I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath [hebel]" (Job 7:16). The NIV reads, "My days have no meaning." "Man is like a breath [hebel]; his days are like a passing shadow" (Psalm 144:4). "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting [hebel]" (Proverbs 31:30 NIV). "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit'—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist [vapour KJV] that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:13-14). (2) Meaningless: The NIV translates hebel as "meaningless." Hebel is used 13 times to describe pagan idols. (3) Incomprehensible: Sometimes when something cannot be understood, we say, “I can’t grasp that.” A vapor cannot be grasped.
  • "Vanity of vanities" means the greatest vanity. ("King of kings" means the greatest king.)
  • Everything under the sun is "vanity." "All is vanity." See 1:14; 2:11, 17, 21; 4:4, 7-8.
  • "Vanity" is the result of the fall. "The creation was subjected to futility" (Romans 8:20).

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? (v. 3).

When Adam and Eve sinned, God said to Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life" (Genesis 3:17 NIV). Hard work is part of the curse.

In many ways, life is a treadmill (vv.4-11). For the most part, we do the same things day after day after day. We run on this treadmill until we die, and then someone else is born and replaces us on the treadmill. Life is a constant cycle. The Preacher uses the examples of the rotation of the earth/rising and setting of the sun (v. 5), the circuit of the wind (v. 6), and the water cycle (v. 7). It appears that a lot of change is taking place, but really it's just constant repetition.

Jesus asked, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36). If all there is to life is work, work, work--life on the treadmill, even if we gain everything this world offers, in the end there is no profit if we forfeit our souls.

Jesus said, "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you … This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:27, 29).

Thankfully, we don't have to toil for eternal life. The work has been finished. Jesus did the work on the cross. Now through faith in Him, we can receive God's gift of eternal life. And we can say, as the apostle Paul did, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).

Life is full of meaning when your faith is in Christ.

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