Vanity of vanities
The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon in Residence
Sunday, 28th October 2018 at 3:00 PM
Last year one of my nephews came to stay with me for a couple of months whilst he was settling into a new job in Westminster. He is in his mid-20s, and was ever so politely astonished that we did not have Netflix on the television – an absence he quickly remedied. He was then even more astonished, yet was still very courteous, when he saw the age and state of the mobile phones in the house. During his stay, he appreciated my well-honed cooking skills; but was bemused by my lack of digital know-how. I was left in no doubt that time and technology had somewhat passed me by.
A sense of transience, of change, of ephemerality lies at the heart of all life. Everything we encounter is subject to change. Whether it is seeing children grow into adulthood, or living with the ever-changing skylines of the great cities of the world, or simply observing the seasons passing in the garden, field or park – nothing remains unchanged. Astronomers tell us of the wonders of the continually evolving universe, of stars continuously being born and collapsing into black holes. And molecular biologists echo the same insights as they record continual change in the very cells which form our bodies. We change, and age, and decay – it is the lot of being mortal. All we see and experience of life is transient.
The author of the book Ecclesiastes famously puts it this way: Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity (Eccles 12. 8). This saying has nothing to do with beauty contests, but has everything to do with change. The Hebrew literally means ‘breath’ or ‘mysterious’ or even ‘worthless’, or ‘ambiguous’. Everything passes, all of life is transient. It is not easy to pin down, or to grasp our purpose in life, says the author of Ecclesiastes. All will come to an end. All is ‘vanity’.
And it is this saying ‘all is vanity’ that lies behind Ecclesiastes’ reputation for being very negative, and not true to the good hope that there is to be had in God as is asserted in other books of the Bible. Some have even argued that Ecclesiastes should not appear in the Bible at all.
But before we dismiss Ecclesiastes out of hand, it is worth pausing for a moment or two, to see what its teaching might have to offer us today.
The Old Testament as whole tells a vast story, from creation followed by the story of God choosing a people to be blessed, the gift of land to the tribes of Israel, to the people’s failures, and the eventual loss of the promised land and exile of the Israelite leaders to Babylon. We are told that the people in due course returned to the promised land, but never achieved the stability they needed in the long-term. Eventually, the land was lost altogether, and the people dispersed. Alongside this biblical story, we are given poems and songs of worship and lament, and the sayings of various prophets – many of which Christians have interpreted as finding their fulfilment in Jesus, the promised Messiah of God.
In addition we are given some other literature – literature which is not so focussed on God or on the people of Israel. We are given writings that are reflections on the meaning of life, written over many hundreds of years, and commonly called ‘Wisdom literature’. Some of these writings appear in the Apocrypha – the Wisdom of Solomon and the Ecclesiasticus are two of these. In the canon of the Bible itself, we have three such books: Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes.
Now these three books are best read as if they are in conversation with one another. In Proverbs we are given list upon list of popular sayings – rules for living well and responsibly. ‘Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss’ (Proverbs 22.16), ‘Partiality in judging is not good’ (Proverbs 24.23) ‘As charcoal is to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife’ (Proverbs 26.21). The message of Proverbs is this: if you keep these rules, you will prosper and find meaning for your life. It’s quite straightforward, just keep the rules and your life will have purpose.
Job takes a different line. His is the story of a wealthy and God-fearing man who loses everything of any value to him, including his family and his health. Job is a man who has kept all the rules, but the rules haven’t worked for him. At the end of Job’s story we’re told that, despite all Job’s suffering, there is meaning to human life but it is a mystery to us and is only known to God. That is the message of Job – keeping the rules doesn’t work; but even so there is meaning to life. However, the meaning of life is known to God alone; for us mere mortals, the meaning of life remains a mystery.
The message of Ecclesiastes is different again: it is more negative and more positive than either Proverbs or Job. It is first of all a deeply truthful book. It tells life as we experience it. As we move on from day to day, toiling to keep house and family going, raising children, paying the rent, managing health issues, and so on, life can seem pretty humdrum, pointless even. Ecclesiastes acknowledges the truth of this: yes, there are times when everything can feel exhausting and futile. In fact, it can look like one’s life, or even the world itself, is simply heading towards complete disaster: ‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth’, we are told, ‘before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”….’ (Eccles 12.1).
The negative side of this is the writer’s acknowledgement of the all too human tendency to give up, to be resigned in the face of trouble; to shrug one’s shoulders and recognise one’s transience.
But a positive message is also there for the writer: it is still worth seeking wisdom, and we shouldn’t be afraid to enjoy what life has to offer whilst we have it. ‘Life is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all…’ (Eccles 11.7,8). That is the double message of Ecclesiastes: be truthful and recognise that all life is transient, but don’t despair. You should live life to the full whilst you can. Eat, drink and be merry!
So what are we to make of these contradictions – so true to our experience of life, but also potentially confusing? We live in an ambiguous world, laced with opportunities, joys and catastrophes, challenges and demands. Ecclesiastes is realistic about all this, and hints at some ways we might be able to cope with life as we experience it.
We can only view life from our own perspective, what Ecclesiastes terms as our human life and work taking place ‘under the sun’. But it could all look very different from God’s perspective, hints Ecclesiastes. Or to put it more clearly, in words from Magnificat sung by the choir a few minutes ago, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek’. The hungry will be filled; and the rich will be sent away empty. From God’s perspective, all that we regard as unjust in our world can and will be put to rights. From God’s perspective, all can and will be changed for good. God’s righteous and persistent love will transform all. There is more to life with God than what we simply observe around us day to day.
And Ecclesiastes hints that this ‘putting to rights’ will all be achieved because somewhere and somehow God will bring everything into judgement. In terms of our Christian faith, we assert more precisely that Jesus Christ himself will come to be our judge. In him God’s love and mercy brooks no evil, no selfish intent, no violence or fear or arrogance. God’s judgement searches all, and establishes the promised new heaven and earth.
For, despite all its ambiguity, Ecclesiastes does also hint at something of the possibility of eternity within us. Again, the development of New Testament thinking casts this possibility in a new light – in Jesus Christ, we are told, we can live in the hope and reality of eternal life: a gift from God, freely given. We still have to live in a world full of mystery and ambiguity. Ecclesiastes still rings as true as ever. But we are also invited to assert that God’s purposes for us are greater than we can understand, more compelling than we know how to express, and are most perfectly revealed to us now in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.