THE WORD: All is vanity

A detail of “The Judgment of Solomon” by Peter Paul Rubens (circa 1617). The painting is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Denmark.

The book of Ecclesiastes is at once pessimistic, inconsistent and hopeful. The entire book reads like a study of human existence and the meaning of life. Solomon is traditionally noted as the author of Ecclesiastes, which fits with his pursuit of wisdom.

The opening poem in Ecclesiastes paints a bleak picture of the human condition. Well-known statements like “that which is crooked cannot be made straight” and “there is no new thing under the sun” are found in the opening verses. The first chapter closes with the ominous “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

The key word in Solomon’s prelude is vanity. His use of the word means futility, uselessness and nothingness. Some even use the book to argue that man ceases to exist after death.

But, the Christian knows that while there is nothing new under the sun, there is eternity awaiting for those who believe. The search for knowledge, wisdom and meaning can confound even the greatest minds when the investigator does not acknowledge that God is a higher power that exists beyond our understanding.

Ecclesiastes 1:15-18

15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.