A Life without Significance

Finding Lasting Purpose in Life
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2
“Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.”

For the modern reader, the book of Ecclesiastes remains perplexing and confusing.  How do we understand a book that, at first glance, borders on unremitting depression?  The sage (undoubtedly Solomon) shocks the modern reader with his initial statement summarizing his view of life, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.”  This enigma is seen in the translations, which point to a hopeless view of life.  The English versions of the Bible translate the word as “vanities, absolute utilities, everything is meaningless, completely meaningless, everything is nonsense, life is useless, all useless, everything is pointless.”  This would lead one to conclude that Solomon was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.  

Is he presenting a life without hope? Hardly.  At the core of his message are two themes that are woven throughout the book.  The first is a theme central to our view of life woven throughout the Bible.  At the center of life is the fear of God (3:14, 5:7; 7:18; 8:12,13; 12:13-14).  The second theme seems to contradict his whole message.  Rather than the “vanities” of life leading to a hopeless life of despair and gloom, it is to remind us that life is a gift from God and to be enjoyed (2:24, 3:12-13, 3:22, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-9; 11:9).  This is the paradox.  The realization of the vanities of life provides the springboard for thoroughly enjoying life!

So, how does he get us from point A (vanity) to point B (celebration and enjoyment)?  To answer that question, we must first understand the meaning of “vanity.” This word is woven throughout the book (used 36 times) and serves to undergird Solomon’s view of life.  The word means “vapor” or “breath” and is used in Isaiah 57:13 parallel with “wind” (see also Proverbs 21:6).   The word has the idea of that which is insubstantial, transitory, and of fleeting value.  He is not saying that life is worthless and has no meaning but that the things of this world are transitory by nature and have no eternal significance.  Meaning is not found in the attainments of this world but in God himself and living in obedience to him.  Solomon reminds us that we live in a fallen world where sin has corrupted and destroyed all the works of man so that life in the present lacks any substance.  Paul alludes to this point when he uses the same word the Greek translators used to translate “vanity.”  In Romans 8:20, he states that because of sin, “For the creation was subjected to futility.” In other words, because of sin, there is nothing in creation capable of producing substantial results, for it lacks content. Jesus affirms this truth by stating, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”  

We are thus reminded that all the things this world has to offer us, ultimately, have no eternal benefit, nor do they provide anything that gives us a lasting principle or purpose in life.  So, as we look at all the things we accomplish, the pursuit of success in our careers, the acquisition of wealth, the attainment of power, and the pursuit of pleasure, these are all transitory and have no lasting value for eternity.  What we consider so important in the present becomes meaningless for eternity.  So, where do we find genuine substance in life that gives us an authentic purpose?  The answer lies in the fear of God and keeping his commands (12:13).  He is the one who provides us with the basis for a life of meaning, purpose, and significance.

In the opening statement, Solomon confronts us with a harsh reality and a question that we must be continually asking as he takes us through life's journey.  The question we must ask is this, “Where do we find true meaning, purpose, and significance.”  The greatest tragedy is not a life without success or purpose but a life that is spent pursuing the wrong purpose and succeeding in the wrong things.  He challenges us to ask ourselves, “Where do I find purpose and meaning in my life?”  How we answer that question is the most critical conclusion we must face in life.

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