Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
We humans understand some very difficult truths about our existence. We cannot live forever on the earth; the time will come when we will all die. When we die, our stuff will go to other people. Our friends and family will probably remember us for many years, but the day will come when they all will die, also. Few of us will be “immortalized” on a monument or in the history books. Most of us will become an inscription on a tombstone and perhaps an entry in the genealogical records of our descendants with maybe a story or two attached to us.
Meanwhile we seek meaning in our lives. Meaning is big for people. If we do not think that our lives or our work has meaning, we despair and wither. If life is ultimately meaningless, everything seems rather pointless. If all we are going to do is live to die, maybe to pass on the genes we inherited from our ancestors to our descendants, and that is really all, many would wonder why we should bother!
Can we find ultimate meaning in our existence by just considering our lives and work “under the sun”? People have been trying to do this for centuries. Consider why our ancestors tried to build the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:4:
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
They wanted to make a name for themselves– to leave some permanent mark on the world. They did not want to be scattered. They wanted to find some kind of lasting value in their lives.
Their purposes were ultimately frustrated (Genesis 11:6-9), and that has been the story for humans ever since. Generation after generation tries to “make a name for themselves” somehow. They build monuments and write books describing their lives and adventures. They pass down oral stories of their lives. But what ends up happening over time? Nations and empires come and go. Cities are built, destroyed, rebuilt, and many times left for ruins. Monuments decay or are toppled. Some books continue to be preserved; others are lost to history. Some stories get repeated while others are forgotten.
Ultimately, as Peter tells us, everything physical will be destroyed with an intense heat (2 Peter 3:10-13). Whatever monuments and books will remain will be gone. So many pursuits of men– wealth, empire, monuments, and so on– will be gone in a flash.
So it goes with any attempt to find meaning in this life alone– it is bound to fail, as the Preacher has told us (Ecclesiastes 1:1). It is all vanity– emptiness, or nothingness. We live and we die, no matter how well or poorly we have lived.
When it comes to this worldly existence, the best any of us can do is to enjoy the little pleasures in life and to enjoy the good of our labor, recognizing that this comes from God’s hand (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Anything beyond this is vanity.
This is a very hard message for us. We are used to hearing that we should “make something of ourselves.” We are raised to believe that we can somehow “make a difference.” Yet, in this world alone, we live and die. No ultimate difference will be made. We will return to the dust with as much as when we came from it.
So it goes with anyone who tries to find meaning in this worldly existence. True meaning, however, comes not from “below” but from “above”– from God in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4). We must place our confidence in heavenly citizenship, not earthly citizenship (Philippians 3:20-21). We must put to death that which is earthly in us so we can live for that which is heavenly– to live in the new creation where our treasure is stored in the place that will not perish (Colossians 3:5-11, Matthew 6:19-21). In this world, all is vanity; in God, all has value (1 Corinthians 15:58).
This life is ultimately vain unless we live with a view to the life to come in the resurrection. Let us place our hope in God in Christ, and not in the false hopes of “immortality” and “meaning” in the world!