Good Shepherd’s Tuesday Bible Study finished up Romans this last month and moved on to the upbeat and encouraging book of Ecclesiastes. I was delighted with this choice because Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the bible (along with a small smattering of others–the Psalms, the Pentateuch, most of the history, the New Testament, the prophets…). From verse one all the way to its glorious dark end, Ecclesiastes expresses the totality of my feelings and experiences–which is kind of the point.
Are you a young mother, caught in the circle of toy pick up and the next meal? Or perhaps you are trying to decide between Trump and Hillary. Or maybe you have worked your whole life at a job you thought was fine but when you look back over the years you feel like it wasn’t that worthwhile. Or maybe your children have disappointed you, or your husband, or, perish the thought, your wife. And maybe you have disappointed yourself.
Not to be bleak, but Ecclesiastes provides the reader the opportunity to look at the darkness of life head on and to admit to the reality of not only evil, but disappointment, futility, and the nagging sense that nothing is ever quite as great as you wished and hoped it would be. If you manage to soar up on the wings of the dawn, you have to budget for the inevitable crash to the earth at mid day. To sum up both the book and human existence, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
I love that the English word ‘vanity’ gathers up both the frustrating futility of life but also the vacuity of self love. A vain person is spending time and energy and care and concern for all the things that fade and go away. And, at the same time, the vain pursuits of that person outside of the dewy eyed love of the self will also pass away. It’s not good to be vain, and also life is a vain endeavor.
Except if you do manage to let go of the self, and let the vanity of life slip through your tight grasp, and look past it all to the one who holds all meaning together in himself. It’s so interesting to find this book tucked right at the center of the scriptures, hemmed in by hundreds accounts of people who contributed, both for good and for evil, to the substantial and weighty working out of God’s salvation of the world. Why so many peculiar people? Why so many shocking and strange events? As you read through the bible you might be overburdened by the seeming futility, by what can appear to be a striving after the wind. You might want to put it down, or do something else because of the violence and the repetition.
And yet, each vain human is gathered into the thread of God’s providential plan, person by person. When you finally arrive at the gospels you discover not a vain passing sigh, a reed blown about by the wind, the grass withering and dying. No, rather, you are confronted with a rock, a strong tower, someone immovable, unshakable, unchanging. If you’re looking for the opposite of vanity, you look at Jesus.
And if you want all of your pursuits here and now to have some kind of meaning, some worth that carries on past your own limitations and abilities, you will take a page from Solomon’s father, who wrote, “For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God? This God is my strong refuge and has made my way blameless. He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.” 2 Samuel 22:32-34
Blamelessness, strength, security–the opposite, really, of vanity. These can be the provenance, the substance, the outcome of even a mediocre and ruined life. But it means letting go of the self and clinging on to Jesus.