Soundings

Vanities of vanities

Nov 2003    

PART 2 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

“SOMETHING of no real worth”. That is how my old Webster Dictionary defines the word vanity. The New International Version of the Bible translates it as “meaningless”. Old Testament scholar Robert Davidson explains that vanity is the synonym of futility.

All this helps to clarify the meaning of the Preacher’s opening declaration (1:2). The Preacher begins his discourse by the startling and remarkable pronouncement that all of life is futile.

Have you ever felt this way sometimes? You begin a new project with enthusiasm. It is an important project. You are prepared to work hard at it. And you do. Very hard! Burning the proverbial midnight oil. Sacrificing much. Even burning the candle at both ends. But at the end it turns out flat. All your efforts appear to evaporate. The hours, days, weeks and months spent on this project appear to have been time wasted. The success that you have so eagerly hoped for remains elusive. And you wonder if it is all worth the while.

I am sure that all of us have felt this at one point or another. The adrenaline and the burst of energy are met with a discouraging blank. What is worse, even when we are successful, the taste of success is ironically not sweet, but bland. The crescendo and excitement is met by a hollowing anti-climax. But what if this whole project called “life” is like that? What if at the end, after all the effort, all the sweat and the pain, our lives simply evaporate into nothing? What if life itself – not just our individual lives, but the whole of existence – is meaningless?

Some philosophers certainly understand life in this way. Bertrand Russell, the atheist British philosopher and mathematician, for instance, holds such a view. Human beings, Russell famously declares, are but pawns subject to the cruel and impersonal forces of nature. Some are crushed early in life. Others are spared only to later suffer a similar fate. The conclusion is inevitable: life is meaningless.

The Preacher recognises such pessimism and desperation and speaks directly to it. This is the realism of the Bible, its honesty. Everything, the Preacher says, is meaningless (1:2). He invites us to look at life as we experience it. Generations come and go; the sun rises and sets; the wind blows here and there. Everything goes round and round. Life moves relentlessly on and, it would seem, purposelessly. Everything in life bears the stamp of monotonous sameness. Furthermore, life is like a vapour (which is what the Hebrew word habel, translated as “meaningless” depicts). It is insubstantial, transitory and futile.

Some try to find satisfaction in work. But work, like everything else, fails to satisfy. Modern society has invented the cult of work. Work has pervaded and ruled the lives of many men and women. In some cases work has become an idol. Many sacrifice their lives on the altar of work, hoping in return to find fulfilment. But fulfilment often escapes them. Instead they are greeted with alienation and strife.

THE Preacher looks at history and asks if it can teach us anything new. He replies, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). The only reason why something appears new is that human knowledge is limited and our collective memory short. Those who long for fame will also be disappointed. There is no remembrance of former things. One generation will forget the previous one. And they, too, will be forgotten by the generation that follows. Alas, we are all victims of the dreary human condition, the endless cycle of futile action.

All this is pretty depressing! What are we to make of it? What was the Preacher getting at? The Preacher was not presenting his own view of life. He was merely echoing what others are saying. More importantly, he was presenting a particular perspective and attitude to life. The phrase “under the sun” is key. Life “under the sun” is simply life without God. “Under the sun” refers to the secular view that sees this earthly life as the be-all-and-end-all of human existence. To live life “under the sun” is to lose our sense of transcendence. And once this happens, everything we do, even life itself, is emptied of meaning.

This passage therefore warns of the secularism that will ultimately rob life of its meaning. Secularism is a subtle cultural force and the Christian is not immune from its corrupting influence. Secularism does not always cause one to abandon one’s religion. More frequently it creates a mindset in which life is neatly compartmentalised, and religion is pushed from the centre to the periphery.

Once religion is divorced from life, and relegated only to the two-hour slot on Sunday mornings, it loses its impact on our lives. The secular mindset takes predominance, and religious sensibilities are privatised and shut away from the other businesses of life. This causes a radical shift in perspective to take place, causing us essentially and ultimately to lose touch with God. God is no longer at the centre of our lives. In some cases, he is not even in the picture!

When this happens, we are imprisoned in the “under the sun” mindset, and life itself will gradually become harrowing and unbearable.


Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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