"THE WORDS of the Assembler, a son of David, a king of Israel, in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities! says the Assembler. Vanity of vanities! The whole is vain."
These are the opening, words of Ecclesiastes (CV), and are followed by the phrase, "What advantage has a man in all his toil, with which he is toiling under the sun?"
They occur again at the end of the book, where we read (12:6 AV), "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity."
What the Assembler is saying is, that despite all the sum total of human endeavor, there is no advantage in it beyond the grave. For, subject as it is to the slavery of corruption, it is therefore deficient in the vitality that would ensure its perpetuity.
In the words of the hymn writer,
How vain is all beneath the skies!
How transient every earthly bliss!
How slender all the fondest ties
That bind us to a world like this!
Is this a true assessment of the position? If so, what is the place of humanity in God's purpose?
The book of Ecclesiastes immediately follows the Book of Rules, commonly called Proverbs, which has, as its declared aims, "For the knowledge of wisdom and admonition, for understanding sayings of understanding, for taking intelligent admonition, justice and judgment and equities, for giving craft to simpletons, to youth knowledge and planning." This book contains much splendid advice as to how men should live, such as,
"The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7).
"Kindness and truth must not forsake you" (3:3).
"Trust in Jehovah with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, then He will straighten your paths" (3:5,6).
But this Book of Rules, with all its good advice—with all its encouragement towards good and wise living—is followed by Ecclesiastes, which concludes everything under the heading of vanity. This word occurs nearly forty times in the book, and is repeated five times in the opening passage for the sake of emphasis. "Vanity of vanities" means "utter vanity."
It does not matter at which aspect of human life we look, it comes to the same end, and is reduced to the same level of nothingness, when death overtakes it. Ecclesiastes examines many of these aspects in turn, and, at the end, sums up the position in these words (12:13,14 AV):
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil."
What a message with which to end a book! If all that God can tell us is that He is going to bring every work of ours into judgment, then we are going to be very wretched indeed. We are going to be like Paul in Romans 7:18-24, where he describes himself, "For I am aware that good is not making its home in me (that is, in my flesh), for to will is lying beside me, yet to be effecting the ideal is not. For it is not the good that I will that I am doing, but the evil that I am not willing, this I am putting into practice. Now if what I am not willing, this I am doing, it is no longer I who am effecting it, but Sin which is making its home in me."Consequently, I am finding the law that, at my willing to be doing the ideal, the evil is lying beside me. For I am gratified with the law of God as to the man within, yet I am observing a different law in my members warring with the law of my mind, and leading me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. "A wretched man am I! What will rescue me out of this body of death?"
We leave the answer to that question for the moment, while we look at a different scripture.
THE CLOUD OF WITNESSES
The eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews deals wholly with the subject of faith, and lists a long series of individuals who were commended for their exercise of faith. Then why should we write about "vanity?" Would we not be better employed in considering the subject of faith?
We wonder how many people, reading down this chapter, are aware that the list of faithful characters is headed by Abel whose name means "Vanity," and that he, though long since dead, is still speaking! Why is Abel (Vanity) still speaking, and what, in fact, is he saying? We note, in passing, that he has been dead longer than any other man!
In the preceding article of our series, we suggested that humanity was created in order to correct something that had gone awry in a higher sphere. A whole eon had elapsed before humanity was brought into being - an eon which saw the creation of the heavens and the earth, the "then world" or system kosmos that perished (2 Peter 3:6) — an eon which began in light and concluded in darkness and chaos. Such disruption must be seen in the light of God's purpose.
We remind ourselves again that the Lambkin was "Slain from the disruption of the world" (Rev.13:8). Clearly, God regarded the Lambkin as being slain before ever man came into being; therefore Adam's sin was not the first cause of the sacrifice of Christ. It was among the celestials that the original disturbance took place that necessitated the slaying of the Lambkin; in fact, this became inevitable from the moment that an Adversary was created (Job 26:13). Satan himself was a celestial being, and would, before the creation of humanity, undoubtedly seek to oppose God by sowing seeds of rebellion among his fellow celestials, who, numerous and powerful though they might be, had no means in themselves of remedying the position—of removing the enmity and estrangement—of rectifying the damage caused by Satan's activities among them.
Hence humanity was created as a special and separate order of beings, specifically made in the image and likeness of God, in order that God's own Son, the Highest in the universe, and indeed its Head, might empty Himself to come in the form of humanity, yet without losing His likeness to God. Then He might humble Himself to become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, thus providing the means by which sin (missing the mark) should be for all time effectively put out of the way, and consequently enmity effaced. Complete reconciliation of all in heaven, as well as on earth, is the ultimate effect of the peace made through the blood of Christ's cross.
(To anticipate a later part of this study, we may add that this special creation, humanity, also becomes the channel through which the ecclesia, the body of Christ, would be called upon to pass that it, too, might share the enmity and estrangement of creation so that it might ultimately be saved in grace, and be used of God to display to the celestials the "transcendent riches of His grace" (Eph.2:7). The kindness which God has shown to us, sinners and enemies though we were, will be the criterion, the evidence, the proof of His intention to shower His grace upon those erring ones of that first eon).
Thus we see that humanity was specially created in the image and likeness of God in order to be the vehicle through which the whole universe will ultimately be reconciled to Him. But, in saying this, let us ever remember that humanity is only the instrument in the hands of God, and never the guiding hand or the driving force. The glory of decision and the glory of operation both belong to God alone; this glory He will never give to another. Even God's Son could only do the works which His God and Father gave Him to do.
But this special creation, humanity, was not unnoticed by the Adversary. He was soon on the scene, as he always is wherever there is a special development in God's purpose, and we know how he deceived humanity by seducing the weaker part. It is an interesting point that there is no record of Satan attacking humanity until it was divided and he could attack one part while the other was absent.
The Adversary succeeded in getting Adam branded as a sinner. As a sinner, deserving of God's indignation, he is displayed to the whole universe. What must the celestials have thought? Man, this exceptional creation of God, succumbing to the Adversary's attack and expelled from the garden in which he had been placed, and (terrible beyond measure!) made subject to death—something never previously even thought of. What hope could there be?
But there was hope still, and that hope lay in the promise made to the woman that her seed should bruise the serpent's head. Soon a son was born to her. She was delighted; what woman would not be? This was the first son ever born, and she called him Cain, which means "Acquired." "I have acquired a man, Jehovah," she said. Here, she probably thought, is the promised seed. Here is the one who would rectify her transgression. Here is the one who would bruise the serpent's head.
But if Eve really thought this, she must soon have become disillusioned. The workings of death may have become apparent in her offspring, or perhaps she was taught the vanity of human endeavor by her husband. Whichever way it was, when her second son came along she called him Abel (Vanity). Her longing was in vain. The seed that should fulfill God's intention could never come from Adam.
And Abel himself, by the offering which he made to God from the firstlings of his flock, gave witness to the same great truth. Abel believed what he had obviously learned of God, for we are told that it was by faith that he made this offering. Equally certain, Cain did not believe God but thought he could do better by offering the toil of his own hands. His offering was unacceptable, but instead of remedying the matter by doing as Abel had done, he was either too proud or too obstinate, became angry, and slew his brother.
Abel has been dead longer than any other man. As far as we know, he was the first to die. He died long before Adam. Perhaps more than any other, his death proclaims the futility of human endeavor, for all that Cain achieved was the destruction of his brother.
The way of Cain has become the way of humanity as a whole. It is opposed to the way of God. It is the product of human thought and human action. It is a way which began with the murder of a just Abel, and reached its peak of infamy in the murder of a greater than Abel, the righteous Son of God.
THE LESSON OF VANITY
The efforts of men, when not directed and governed by the Spirit of God, invariably lead to vanity. This is a truth that has to be learned by every generation of humanity, and is still not learned by humanity as a whole.
Abraham had to learn it, too. He was promised a son, but time went by, and the promise remained unfulfilled. He thought he could perhaps help God by expediting matters, and Ishmael was born. But Ishmael was not the promised seed and only became an obstacle in Abraham's relationship with God, so that eventually he had to be sent away. God does not need human help; He is all-sufficient in Himself, and Isaac, the promised seed, came in God's own due time.
David had to learn the lesson. In the power of God, he could slay Goliath; yet in his own strength, he could fall to the charms of a woman and seriously compromise his own future and the honor of the nation he had been chosen to lead. Subsequently David saw his folly and repented, but he could not undo what had been done.
Peter had to learn the lesson. In the presence of Jesus, he could be exceedingly bold, but when the power of Jesus was temporarily slackened, he could deny Him three times. When the lesson came home, Peter wept bitterly.
Paul had to learn the lesson. In his own strength, he persecuted the ecclesia and wasted it. He was stopped suddenly before he could widen the range of his persecution. Afterwards he included his former zeal among the things which he counted as refuse that he might win Christ.
But what are we to say about the acts of all those mentioned in Hebrews eleven? Are not these men and women being commended for what they did, How then can we speak of all human endeavor as being in vain? Surely some of the things we do are useful and helpful?
Let us remind ourselves that this list is headed by a man whose name was Vanity. It is significant that this very name stands at the head of the list.
If we examine the acts of those mentioned here, we shall find that invariably they are commended, not for things which they do of their own initiative, but solely for acts undertaken in accord with, and under the direction of, their faith in God. In effect, it is their faith that is being commended.
For example, Abraham is being commended for his long journey at God's behest from his former home in Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan, but he is not commended for his subsequent journey into Egypt, which he took of his own volition in order to escape the famine which he found prevailing in Canaan when he arrived. Abraham did not realize that when God gave him the land He gave him the famine with it. Abraham should have stayed where he was and trusted in God to provide. Instead he did (as probably we all would have done in similar circumstances) what he thought was best; but he immediately involved himself in difficulties which needed the intervention of the Lord to extricate him.
Again, Moses was not commended for his striking of the Egyptian, nor for his later striking of the rock, but for his disassociating himself with the lures and riches of Egypt, preferring to suffer with his people rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin, which could have been his through continued residence in Egypt.
Rahab is not commended for being a prostitute, but for the way in which she protected the representatives of the people of God.
But perhaps the most striking example is that of Abraham again, coupled also with Isaac and Jacob, that they dwelt in the land of promise for so long and never built themselves permanent dwellings. Abraham had come from a cultured city, Ur of the Chaldees; the people around him in the new land dwelt in cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, yet though Abraham lived exactly 100 years from the date of his entry into the land, he never built himself a house, but remained a nomad. "For he waited for a city having foundations, whose Artificer and Architect is God" (Heb.11:10). Thus we see that Abraham is commended for something that he did not do.
The people of Israel today, in the same land that Abraham received from God, are building themselves cities—not waiting for that holy city which God will prepare for them and which one of their apostles, John, was permitted to see in a vision.
As we have seen before, humanity was specially created in the likeness of God's Image to be the vehicle through which the reconciliation of the universe was to be effected; and yet, after somewhere around two thousand years, it was all but completely wiped out, so sinful had it become. Only one family, that of Noah, was spared to carry the race forward. So much, indeed, for human effort!
And after a few more centuries, the pride of human endeavor sought to raise itself again, and God scattered humanity as it sought to build a tower rising to heaven that it might achieve itself a name.
Israel, the descendants of Abraham, whom God had specially chosen to be His own people, were actually committing idolatry even while the law was being given to their leader, Moses. Eventually, after many judgments had fallen upon them because of repeated idolatries, they were scattered to all quarters of the earth, and their capital, Jerusalem, was destroyed. Where is all this leading?
Moses, great prophet though he was, had to point to a Greater Prophet, whom the Lord, the God of Israel, would raise up. The priesthood of Aaron would have to give way to a greater priesthood, that according to the order of Melchizedek, of whom it was written that he was "fatherless, motherless, without a genealogy" (Heb.7:3)—in other words, no human connections are tied to the Melchizedek priesthood, otherwise it would be no different from the former.
The kings Saul, David, and Solomon, each ruled forty years over a united kingdom, but each fell short of God's requirements, and the kingdom was divided immediately after the death of Solomon. But the prophet Jeremiah was inspired to say that God would raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King would reign and prosper (23:5).
The prophets, priests and kings of Israel, anointed though they were, could only point forward to greater than themselves; not one could achieve the ideal in himself. Moses, under God's direction, might deliver the people from Egypt, but sin in himself intervened to prevent him from taking them into the promised land. David, in God's strength, might slay Goliath, but he was not permitted to build God's temple.
Now all this would be somber indeed, were it not for the fact that the ineffectiveness of human endeavor cannot nullify either the purpose or the promises of God. It is the apostle Paul who puts the matter into proper perspective for us.
In all his writings, this apostle seems to emphasize two particular words, one and all. Men try to turn the word one into many, and the word all into some.
For instance, men make themselves many gods and many lords, but Paul knows only one God and one Lord (1 Cor.8:6). Men would have many faiths, but Paul knows only one faith; many ecclesias, but Paul knows only one ecclesia, that which is the body of Christ; many expectations, yet Paul insists on one expectation of our calling (cf Eph.4:4,5). And Paul sees only one Saviour of the universe, and he stresses, in Romans 5:19, that it is through the obedience of the One that the many descendants of Adam shall be constituted just.
Men would make the acts of many the basis of justification; God, through His apostle, says that it is the obedience of the One that counts. That One Man, for Whom the whole human race was created, is Christ Jesus. He is the One through Whom the grace of God will superabound to Adam's many descendants (Rom.5:15).
And so, although the sum total of all the acts of the many result in vanity, the acts of the One achieve all that God had in mind when He created humanity. But to see in detail how God overcomes the vanity of human endeavor, we must devote a separate study.