Vanity of Vanities

Ecclesiastes 1:2


2354 words


Please turn in the pew Bibles to the book of Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 2.  “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”  Amen, the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.


In 1997 two remarkable women died—Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.  Mother Teresa died at age 87 of a heart ailment. Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. She was 36.  Diana had it all.  She had influence, wealth, power, fame.  She lived every young girl’s fairytale.  She married the prince.  She was probably the most photographed woman in the history of the world.  She had a glamorous royal wedding and a spectacular royal divorce.

Mother Teresa, on the other hand, was born in what is now Macedonia in 1910.  At the age of twelve, she felt strongly the call of God to be a missionary to spread the love of Christ.  At the age of eighteen, she left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto.  She devoted herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.  

In 1950, Mother Teresa started her own order, "The Missionaries of Charity," whose primary task was to care for people that nobody else cared about.  That is what Mother Teresa spent her life doing, caring for people than no one else cared about.  Why would she do that?  She said that she had no choice in the matter.  That is what God told her to do.  Jesus said take care of these the least of my brethren.  She did not spend her life helping the sick and the lame and the lepers of Calcutta because she was some sort of liberal do-gooder.  She did it because Jesus told her to. 

Interestingly enough, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa knew each other and were fond of each other.  I have seen a number of photographs of the two together.  They made a startling contrast.   Diana was tall, stately, beautiful.  Mother Teresa was small, only about 4’ 11’’.  And she was hunched over because of arthritis in the back, so Diana looked about two feet taller than mother Teresa.  Diana wore designer clothes.  Mother Teresa wore a white sari that cost $1.  And, of course, Mother Teresa was fifty years older than Diana.

But looking at those photographs, you have to ask yourself, Which of these two women found peace and happiness and meaning in life?  The answer is obvious.  Not the royal princess. 

Diana’s life was a tragedy. She was riddled with insecurity, attempted suicide numerous times, had several bouts with eating disorders, had a failed marriage.  And in all that, every mistake she made, every misstatement, and every moral failure was broadcast around the globe.   She seemed trapped her circumstances.  Many people thought that given time she might have sorted things out and made some sort of decent life for herself, but she had no time.

The magic princess found very little happiness or fulfillment in her short life.  The poor nun from Macedonia who became Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived a happy and fulfilled life.  Why was Mother Teresa happy?  She had nothing in the way of worldly riches, but she lived her life for God. 


The book of Ecclesiastes in its own backhanded way tells us that the only happiness in this world is in God.  Let me make a confession here. I have never much liked Ecclesiastes.  I know that as a preacher of the Word I am supposed to tell you that I love every word of God’s Word.  But the reality is that I love some words more than others.  This is not a New Testament-Old Testament division.  I dearly love the Old Testament.  We have been studying David in our Wednesday Bible Study, and that has been fun.  I love the Psalms for the comfort they give to God’s people, but I find Ecclesiastes hard to bear.  If fact, I have never before preached a sermon on Ecclesiastes in more than thirty years in the ministry.  The author of Ecclesiastes says that there is nothing new under the sun.  Well, a sermon from me on this book is new.

The author traditionally is Solomon.  V1 says that the author was a son of David who was king in Jerusalem.  The author’s situation in the book is that of a wise man who lived in great splendor, all of which suggests Solomon to most people.  Those who question the authorship of Solomon point out that the book has Persian words, and hence should be dated much later, during the period of the Persian Empire.  I have no problem with saying that Solomon probably originally wrote the book, but afterwards it was edited many times and that is where it got its Persian words.

I should say why I have difficulty with the book.  If you read through these twelve chapters, you get the impression that we live in a bleak world that is often indifferent toward us.  To summarize the book, “Life is repetitive, life is meaningless, and then you die.”

For example, chapter 1:3-6, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?  A generation goes, and a generation comes.  The sun rises and the sun goes down.”  “The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north.”  And then v8 adds, “All things are wearisome; more than one can express.”  Well that is wonderful advice.  We really needed to hear that.

Dropping down to v13 and 14, we read, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Obviously, Solomon did not believe in the power of positive thinking.  You might say, well at least we can have fun, but Solomon says that does not work either:  In chapter 2:1-2, we read. “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’

Solomon goes on to say, I tried it all.  I got drunk on wine, that was just a waste of time.  I build great buildings, I built houses and parks and gardens.  I had singers.  I had wives and concubines.  I was among the great and famous, and then he says, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind” (2:11).  Everything is empty.  Everything is worthless.  You can see why I don’t like Ecclesiastes.

The key word of Ecclesiastes is “vanity.”  It is a translation of the Hebrew word “hebel.”  “Hebel” is used thirty times in Ecclesiastes.  “Hebel” means that which soon vanishes away, like a vapor or fog or bubble. 

Years ago, I had a long conversation with a man who had been something of a pioneer aircraft pilot.  Back in the 1920’s and 30’s he was among the first to fly several different kinds of aircraft. When I met him, he was an elderly man.  He looked back upon his early years and complained bitterly about how quickly those good times had vanished.  “Everything is always changing,” he said, “and I still want to be back in those days.”  We often try to cling to things, we resist change, but it is usually wasted effort, like trying to chase the wind.

I have said bad things about Ecclesiastes.  I need to go back and remedy that somewhat.  Solomon is not saying that life is hopeless and meaningless.  He is saying that a certain way of living is meaningless.  He says that putting all your hopes on that which vanishing like the morning fog can result only in disappointment.

One of the most famous commercials in TV history was the 1984-85 Wendy’s ad that starred Clara Peller as a senior citizen who slapped the counters of neighborhood hamburger joints and loudly asked, "Where's the Beef," which implied that the only place you could get a hamburger with an ample portion of "beef" was at Wendy's.

Ecclesiastes says that we need to ask a similar question about life.  Where is the meaning?  Not at Wendy’s certainly, and not in worldly ways of thinking.  Such ways are all vanity. To emphasize the point, Solomon says they are vanity of vanities.  Any way of thinking that is not based on God is vanity of vanities.  What the world describes as fame and fortune, Ecclesiastes describes as a waste of time.

All talk about the rich and famous of the world, Ecclesiastes says, is trivia—because the rich and famous of the moment are like a bubble that will soon burst and be gone.  They are perishing even as we speak of them and so if we put any confidence in that way of thinking, we are doomed to disappointment.

The psalmist says “How long will you love what is worthless and go after what is false?” (Psalm 4:2).  How long will you continue in this useless way of thinking?  The useless way of thinking is thinking without God.  If God is not in it, it is worthless.  It is a vanity of vanities.

Thomas a Kempis was the 14th century monk who wrote the Christian classic Of the Imitation of Christ.  He says “For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.”  Thomas says that life without God is like living in a fog.

The first chapter of The Imitation of Christ can be seen as a commentary on Ecclesiastes.  We read, “It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come.”  In other words, he says, Why are you wasting your time on trivial stuff?  Granted a worldly way of thinking values this stuff, but really there is no value in it—because if you live that way in the end you are going to die and go to hell.  So he says, “It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life.”  It does not matter how long you live.  It matters how you live.  He says, “It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.”

Christ is our eternal joy.  When we die here and now, we go to be with Jesus.  We live in his presence.  At the end of time, the whole heaven and earth is consummated in Jesus and becomes a new heaven and a new earth.  Therefore, we should not put our hopes in things which vanish like sand through our fingers, but we should base our lives on that which will last forever, Jesus Christ.

The opening lines of The Imitation of Christ quote John 8:12 where Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.”  Where is the meaning of life?  Meaning is in following Jesus.  Everything else is a waste of time.

Now the book of Ecclesiastes eventually gets to this same conclusion, but Solomon does not hit this conclusion as hard as I would like.  He spends most of his time talking about how worldly ways of thinking are a vapor.  I agree, but you do not have to beat me over the head with it.  Having spent all his time telling us how we should not think, he then ends abruptly with a note on how we should think.  Ecc. 12:13  “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”

Where is the meaning?  Fear god, reverence God, be in awe of God, bring God into your thinking and into your life.  Amen.



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Last modified  08/19/06