Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
The words of the preacher are not “Peace, peace,”1 but “Vanity of vanities.” His words are not comforting, but they are true: All that is done under the sun will come to ruin, decay, destruction – it is vain. There are some very sobering thoughts that arise in consideration of this portion of verse 2. In the first place, we must note that the task of preaching is not to tickle men’s ears, nor is it to always comfort and soothe the fears of men (though at times this is indeed something we are called to do by the Word); rather, the task of preaching is sometimes a somber one, where we expose the folly of living as though eternity did not await each one of us. Lay up treasures on this earth as we may, yet the end will one day come. We may seek to train our bodies in the same manner as Olympian athletes. And yet – they are still corruptible, subject to death, and our ever-living souls will appear before the throne of Christ to give an account of all that we have done in the body. The words of the preacher must, therefore, be: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
This is Law, proclaimed by one who has been given the task of speaking God’s Words after Him. Therefore, there is no comfort in the words that expose the nakedness of our true condition. Do we agree with the preacher? Then we may fully thank God for His mercy upon us. Do we not agree with the preacher? Then let us take heed to his words, believe the truth, and repent. All is vanity. Why? For “life is more than food and the body is more than clothing.”2 Hence, our Lord tells the parable of the rich fool who said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”3 And to whom our God responded: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you…”4 Note that the words the rich fool uses are those whom the Holy Spirit says that the pagans of Paul’s day used in order to justify their debauchery. He adds another clause, however, and says: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”5 Likewise, the prophet Isaiah records that the apostate Jews of his own day spoke the same way, saying: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”6 And again, Isaiah records the thoughts of the hearts of the apostates when he writes: “Come…let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”7
The preacher, like Isaiah, Christ Jesus, and Paul the apostle, understood that there is no rest for the wicked, no peace for the wicked – not even in the grave. Unfortunately, many within the professing church twist the doctrine of eternal retribution by appealing to the words of the Preacher in this book. Yet, their error becomes evident when we understand that Solomon is not teaching that after one is dead there is no consciousness of what one has done. Rather, he is teaching that the pursuits of sinful man are vain, for man will one day die – and the only thing he will take with him is his soul, the course of his earthly existence, and every deed he has done under the sun. God does not judge men on the basis of their intellectual, social, physical, monetary, or psychological achievements. God judges men on the basis of His Law. The greatest of which is this: “The Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength…” etc. The first and greatest commandment, therefore, consists of two things one must do properly: (a.)Worship the true God (i.e. the God of Israel, not the gods of the imaginations of men’s hearts), and (b.)Worship Him perfectly and perpetually with the entirety of one’s being.
However, just to be clear, as we’ve already noted, the preacher is not preaching the Gospel; the preacher is preaching the Law. He is bringing men’s minds to come to grips with the fact that their earthly sandcastles of hopes and dreams, aspirations and achievements are dung in the sight of God, if they are not wholly for His glory and His glory alone. Those whom the Lord is calling will see themselves as living vain lives, striving for vain things, searching for things that will not cover the nakedness of their shame but will, like Adam’s fig leaves, gradually lose their color, their vibrancy, their youth, their appeal, shrivel up and crumble to dust. And God will reveal that it is only by faith in Christ that men have life & that life has purpose.
1 Cf. Jer 6:14 & 8:11
2 Matt 6:25
3 Luke 12:19
4 Luke 12:20
5 1st Cor 15:32
6 Isa 22:13b
7 Isa 56:12