Where Can We Find Hope if 'All Is Vanity' According to Ecclesiastes?
- Seth L. Scott Columbia International University
- Updated Jun 15, 2021
The timelessness of Ecclesiastes is evident in our modern, existential age of excess with every possible pursuit, pleasure, and provision readily available through the click of a mouse or touch screen, and yet, people are still miserable. Money cannot buy happiness. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes clearly demonstrates this point by cataloging all his attempts to gain meaning and joy in life, but concludes, “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). But what is vanity? Is vanity just a piece of bathroom furniture with a countertop and mirror for getting ready in the morning?
My mental image for vanity is the witch in Snow White, seeking affirmation for her beauty and worth with her magic mirror every morning, expecting to be the center of attention to her daily request of “Who is the fairest of them all?” Does vanity mean that life is empty, worthless, or meaningless? It is like washing your car in the rain or polishing the brass on the Titanic as it sinks – “What’s the point?” The first chapter of Ecclesiastes seems to present a hopeless image of life, reporting “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind” (Ecc. 1:14).
All Is Vanity
The author explains the cycle of life, noting how each generation will come and go, striving and seeking meaning and purpose, but die all the same, not even leaving behind a lasting memory (Ecclesiastes 1:11). The author proceeds to detail his vast wealth and pursuits for pleasure and meaning, describing how nothing was outside his access or ability, and yet, he concludes this pursuit of pleasure by saying, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night, his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecc. 2:22-23).
If all of life is meaningless and we simply strive to suffer and struggle each day, what is the point? Where is our hope and purpose to be found in life if ultimately life is meaningless? There seems to be no hope in life. If this were the meaning of vanity, life would be meaningless, but the Preacher is instead explaining a critical truth that we have yet to grasp these thousands of years later. Vanity does not refer to absolute meaninglessness, but to a cyclical repetitiveness. Our experience of life is such a small slice across all of human history, the value of our contribution and purpose for living gets lost in this broader scope without an anchor for context to the bigger plan across time.
Hope is found in the meaning and purpose God provides to connect us to His story as integral players for His purpose and glory. The theme of Ecclesiastes is that life is short, death is certain, and seeking meaning apart from God is like attempting to grasp the wind or wrangle vapor. Meaning is not something we can control. Hope is found in the meaning and purpose provided as a free gift in love from God through His Son.
The Genre and Authorship of Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes sits at the end of the Wisdom literature in Scripture, preceded by Job and Proverbs, but all three tied together to provide lessons about the meaning of life. Mirroring the virtues of faith, hope, and love, with love as the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13), Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs provide meaning to these ultimate questions of boredom or empty pursuit with the necessity of faith in God’s provision (Ecclesiastes), suffering is resolved through hope in God’s care (Job), and love as the ultimate meaning of life (Song of Solomon), demonstrated through God’s pursuit of us as His beloved. Proverbs unites all these themes with a contrast between Wisdom and folly, or pursuit of God versus pursuit of self, proclaiming faith, hope, and love are found in a life lived in pursuit of Wisdom (Prov. 3:1-8).
Historically attributed to Solomon because of the opening credential of the author as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecc. 1:1), the writing style and language differ from Proverbs and Song of Solomon, which are directly attributed to Solomon within the texts (Prov. 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1). While the exact dating and authorship are uncertain, the timelessness of Ecclesiastes is evident in its vivid descriptions of our modern struggle for meaning and purpose. The book introduces the content of the book as “the words of the Preacher” (1:1), used alternatively throughout the book as Qoheleth (which is the Hebrew word for preacher, convener, or collector), suggesting that an editor or disciple of Qoheleth has compiled his teaching for this book at an uncertain date. This authorship does not negate the possible influence or content from Solomon, but just that the book is not directly from Solomon but compiled and edited by another to provide a call to faith for the people of Israel.
How Does Hope Play a Part in a World of Vanities?
If life is just vapor or breath, like “chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 1:14), from where does our hope come from? The Preacher described his pursuit for knowledge, self-indulgence, and pleasure, wisdom for wisdom’s sake, and work, concluding that everything comes from the hand of God and attempting to live apart from God is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 2:26). Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 provides the context and answer to this issue. The Preacher combats the cyclical repetitiveness inherent in vanity by proclaiming there is a fixed and appointed time for everything and it is according to this timeframe, which is outside of our control, that God orchestrates His purpose and plan provided to us as a gift (3:13).
Life is short with our appearance on the planet like a breath compared to eternity, but this awareness of scope is given to us by God to provide an unsettling or discomfort in this place as a distant reminder of a home we have lost and a motivation to pursue God who controls time, place, and purpose (3:14-15). As C. S. Lewis stated, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world” (Mere Christianity). Eternity in our hearts is the echo of the Garden, the place of perfect relationship with God, self, others, and creation. We were made in the image of God, designed to be “naked and unashamed” (Gen. 2:25) with the purpose to image God through our creating, ordering, and sustaining His creation (Gen. 1:28). Hope is the recognition of this glimmer, this reminder of God’s continued pursuit of us, realized through the incarnation and provision of new life through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Ecclesiastes is the echo of the Gospel message that we are more sinful than we ever thought but more loved than we could ever imagine. In the Fall, we sought independence from God in desiring to define good and evil for ourselves, seeking meaning and purpose apart from our Creator. God demonstrated mercy and grace by limited our lives in this empty pursuit in blocking continued access to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24), providing hope in the promise of a Savior (Gen. 3:15). The message of the Gospel is the message of an upside kingdom because our values and desires have flipped with the influence of sin.
Our pursuit of independence and pleasure leaves us isolated and in despair while our dependence on God provides a connection to Him in His love for us and for the world (John 15:9-12). Mark 8:35-37 summarizes Ecclesiastes well by noting, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” While our lives feel short and quick, our hope is found in the timing and plan of God, who has ordered our lives and “every matter under heaven” (Ecc. 3:1).
How to Live with Hope in the 'Already but Not Yet'
Hebrews 11 provides a glorious parade of faithful followers of God designed to bolster the endurance of the author’s audience and reinforce their faith in God’s promises. The author of Hebrews is speaking to an audience struggling to retain the truth of God’s promises within the overwhelming appearance of reality as meaninglessness and vanity. Suffering and struggles are real and in the midst of these experiences we lose sight of the bigger picture and the “now” feels all-consuming. The author of Hebrews seeks to encourage his audience by reminding them of God’s bigger plan and purpose while providing concrete examples of those who lived according to this faith and assurance in unseen things. Hebrews demonstrates scope and context for God’s provision and plan, opening our eyes again to the hope of our calling to something greater (Eph. 1:18).
The suffering, struggle, and death of these saints did not consume their vision. They did not lose sight of the bigger purpose of God even when the breath of their life exhausted without receiving what was promised, their faith remained (Heb. 11:39) because their hope was on something more permanent, an “anchor within the veil” (Heb 6:19). The faith and hope of these saints looked backward to the promise of the Messiah (Gen. 3:15) with a culmination in their future, fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Mark 8:29). Our faith and hope also look backward to Christ’s death and resurrection and forward to His return (1 Pet. 5:10-11; Rev. 22:20). We live in the joyful expectancy of the “already but not yet.” We live in the Saturday of passion week, assured in the provision of redemption through the cross and resurrection while awaiting our own resurrection and glorification to follow Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-23). In the same way that the saints of Hebrews 11 endured in their faith, waiting in “the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), we retain our purpose and meaning in time, awaiting our own resurrection, looking to Jesus as the anchor point to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
Because we only perceive life through this finite experience, it is easy to get caught up in the vanity of repetitive pursuit, feeding our desire for independence and pleasure. The Preacher calls us to attention, however, to remind us that because life is short, this reality should spark our motivation to get working and make sure our direction and desires align with God’s purpose and plan for us. It is easy to become distracted and lose sight of the hope of our calling and the author and perfecter of our faith. The scope of our task and role is bigger than us and extends beyond us. Just as we have the example and encouragement of a great crowd of witnesses who have gone before us (Heb. 12:1), so we are leading others in the treads of our footsteps as well. Maintain your perspective as meaning comes from God and the “vapor-ness” of life motivates us to action in this short time. Our hope is unaffected by circumstance or situation because God is always in control and we receive what He provides as from His hand, both whether good or bad all is for His glory (Ecc. 7:13-15; Job 2:10; Rom. 9:22-24). Keep your eyes on Jesus.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/track5
Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.
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