Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
Solomon goes on, declaring all of life to be vanity. Work is vanity; wisdom is vanity; pleasure is vanity; life is vanity. The word “vanity” occurs 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and the phrase “vexation of spirit” 9 times. These are found together 7 times, the last of which is in Ecclesiastes 6. The first 25 occurrences of the word vanity are in those first six chapters. The first half of this book is easily the most depressing part of the Bible, and the second half isn’t greatly uplifting.
Is life truly worthless? If we look at it from a purely practical, secular, soul-less point of view, we must say yes. Life is worthless. You will be forgotten here on this earth. You could be the wisest person alive, but the one who inherits what you’ve done, who takes your post, could be a fool. Your work could be ruined, for all you know. Farmers grow a crop just to harvest it and plant another crop the next year, or perhaps not even to harvest it. Although many of the problems with crop-killing insects and viruses have been taken care of by modern technology, it is not uncommon for crops to be flooded and killed. Scientists do experiment after experiment and never learn a thing. Osama bin Laden was killed, but he will be replaced by another terrorist for another generation of US spies to take out. Teachers teach children who grow up and die, perhaps having made a small discovery that will make life easier, which in turn will make the next generation of children less motivated. We face an endless cycle of failure if we keep our eyes in the here, regardless of the now.
If we look at it from a purely practical, secular, soul-less point of view, we must say yes. Life is worthless.
But when we look beyond this world, when we look to Christ, we find the value of life. And the book does point to that, in some respects. The last seven verses of the book bring this out.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, and he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given by one shepherd. And further, by these, my son be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Although life may seem vain, we must not despair, for God will record what we do, taking always into account that blessed cross. Everything we as Christians do is run through a filter of Christ’s blood and entered into God’s ledger in anticipation of that blessed day when we enter into the Final Judgment. We do our work out of a love for God, which reveals itself in a positive attitude towards that work and the co-workers with whom we do it.