In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon summarizes all of the experiences of his life with the statement, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2, 12:8). The wisest man who ever lived is claiming that from a purely earthly perspective (e.g., under the sun) our life is meaningless because it doesn’t culminate in anything other than death. Solomon points out to his readers that all of the benefits from our toil at work don’t amount to any long-term gain for us because our wealth must be left behind at death (5:15-16) to our descendants and we have no control of whether they’ll use what we’ve accumulated wisely or foolishly (2:18-19, 6:1-2). He further bemoans the idea that the wisest of men do not leave a permanent mark on history and will be forgotten shortly after they’re buried (1:9). To him, they’re no better off from a worldly perspective than fools (2:16) or even animals (3:1).
At death, we’re forgotten and our possessions are enjoyed by those who didn’t earn them. Despite these realities, Solomon observes that we’re never content with life and always seek to accumulate more. He calls this pursuit vanity (1:8). As king, he had everything any of us could ever want – wisdom, pleasure and wealth – yet was not satisfied. This experience proved to him that our earthly attempts to fill the discontentment we feel are futile and result in emptiness. Solomon believed our insatiable appetite is driven by envy of our neighbor (4:4), but he calls this foolish and concluding that, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind.” (4:6)
The ancient leader of Israel advises us to accept the blessings that God gives (5:19-20) because it is He who creates prosperity and adversity (7:14) and is in control of everything even if we don’t understand His plan (9:1-6, 11-12; 11:5). Famously, Solomon explains that there’s a time for everything (3:1, 8:5-6) in the spectrum of life and that the best advice He can give is to “Fear God (7:18, 8:12-13; 12:13) and keep His commandments from youth because everything will be judged.” (12:1, 14)
It’s said that nothing is certain, but death and taxes. Death doesn’t pass over the rich, famous or powerful. All of their ambition will be finally spent and buried with them in the ground. Their prized possessions will remain above and won’t help them when they face their Creator. Each of us must face this reality and heed Solomon’s advice to glean wisdom from the “house of mourning” (7:2, 4) as we consider the brevity of our life (James 4:13-15) and how we’ll spend the time God has granted to us in preparation for giving an account to Him.
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