All Is Vain
When the mysterious Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, to see for herself the wealth and splendor of his kingdom, she gazed at his ivory palace, inspected his well-dressed servants, reclined at his sumptuous table, drank wine from his golden goblets, and marveled at all she surveyed: “There was no more breath in her” (1 Kings 10:5). Solomon’s accomplishments were breathtaking.
Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells us, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Eccles. 1:12–13). Solomon tried and tested all that life had to offer (and indeed it had all been offered to Solomon). The second-wisest man to walk this earth built houses for himself, planted vineyards, created gardens and parks, acquired herds and flocks, and collected silver and gold (Eccles. 2:4–9). He pursued every pleasure and project imaginable, and he succeeded in everything he put his hand to: “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem” (Eccles. 2:9).
But when he finally stepped back and surveyed everything that the Queen of Sheba found so breathtaking, he pronounced it all hevel, nothing but a breath. After testing every pleasure and pursuit, Solomon turned his back on it all and “gave [his] heart up to despair” (Eccles. 2:20). Everything he had worked for? Everything he had accomplished? He hated it. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me” (Eccles. 2:17). Why would Solomon act like he lost all his money in the stock market, when he was still the richest guy in the world? Even with all of life’s unhappy business, why does he go so far as to say that he hates life? Isn’t that a bit extreme?
Death, the Great Eraser
Solomon hates life, not only because it is an unhappy business, but because of how it ends: in death. He knows that everything that is breathtaking about his accomplishments is already cursed, because one day soon, he will take his last breath. And we will too. Death serves up the same cafeteria slop to royalty and welfare recipients alike. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19), remember? At the end of the day, we are all going six feet under: the CEO and the janitor, the grandmother with a large family and the infertile woman, the social media influencer and the soccer mom. Death evens the balance sheet for us all. “I perceived,” writes Solomon, “that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’” (Eccles. 2:14–15). No matter what we do or don’t accomplish, no matter how shrewd or foolhardy we have been, we’re all going to end up dead. When our unhappy business on earth is through, death wipes the scoreboard clean. It robs the successful and the losers alike of everything they have pursued and pocketed under the sun. Good reason #1 to hate life: Death erases any lead you once held as a result of your toil.
No matter how much we get in life, we must leave it all to the next person in line. Solomon explained: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun” (Eccles. 2:18–19). Think about your work. You may be consumed with forming a ministry or fixing up a home, starting a business or creating a work of art. It remains to be seen how all your toil is going to turn out, but one thing you can know for certain: big or small, beautiful or blasé, you are going to have to leave it to someone else. And who knows, laments Solomon, what she will do with all your work? She may curate or shelve it, improve or destroy it, but either way it’s up to her. One day, all our unhappy work will cease or persist at someone else’s discretion. Good reason #2 to hate life: Death transfers all your work to someone else (and who knows if she will be qualified to look after it).
Jesus tells us in the Gospels that you have to despair over life (that always ends in death) before you can truly live.
Solomon’s predictions about death came true not five minutes after he expired, leaving his peaceful kingdom with all its wealth and glory to his son Rehoboam. You remember the story. Rehoboam consulted Solomon’s advisers but promptly chucked them for the “new” guys, his youthful buddies, who gave him bad advice. Before you could say “Rehoboam,” the entire kingdom, with the exception of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, was torn away from Solomon’s posterity for good. Oh, and as God told the two tribes through the prophet Shemaiah: “You shall not go up or fight . . . for this thing is from me” (1 Kings 12:24). Now where have we heard that before?
Learning to Hate . . . for All the Right Reasons
Because death may be a ways off, we like to pretend that it doesn’t have much to do with our work right now. It’s not that we think we can avoid death—we know we can’t—but we do think we can avoid the implications of death for a goodish long time yet. Nothing to get worked up about too soon. We’d rather not think about it. But what happens if we fail to face the reality of death? One wise pastor answers: “People develop idolatrous expectations of life by ignoring or discounting death.”1
If you discount death, you may try to score happiness by being one smidge smarter or funnier or richer or prettier than the next girl. If you ignore death, you may find your identity in your job or in your ministry or in your children. But death means that nobody wins under the sun, and nobody is remembered. We’re just keeping the seat warm until it’s someone else’s turn. The only way to loosen our death grip on life’s pursuits and pleasures, says Solomon, is to stare death in the face.
Like Solomon, we must hate life. We must hate its terms and dread its end. We cannot control or comprehend anything. All our work is wearying and insignificant. It’s nothing but an unhappy business to be busy with, and in the end we all die.
The more we contemplate these brutal conditions, the more we will feel a holy hatred. Life under the sun is positively hateful. No wonder Solomon exclaims: “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccles. 2:17). We might as well try to grasp at our breath or corral the wind and lock the gate.
So why has Solomon taken us on this depressing tour of life’s tiresome work? Why lead us to what appears to be a dead end of despair? From a New Testament perspective, we can better appreciate the significance of Solomon’s words. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that you have to despair over life (that always ends in death) before you can truly live. Because only when we lose our life can we find it, and only when we hate it can we keep it for eternity (Matt. 16:25; John 12:25).
- Jeffrey Meyers, Ecclesiastes through New Eyes: A Table in the Mist (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2007), 60.
This article is adapted from True Life: Practical Wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre.
Ecclesiastes is consistent with the rest of Scripture in its explanation that true wisdom is to fear God even when we cannot see all that God is doing.
In a culture that promotes immediate gratification, will we have the endurance to persevere in the hard work needed to understand the message of Ecclesiastes?
Throughout Ecclesiastes we are led forward to other answers, other solutions, and other wisdom than the world’s vain promises of satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment.
We’re a generation that has been raised on spiritual fast food, and we’re sick. It’s time for us to sit down at the table, linger, and sup on the feast the King has for us.