Even as one of God’s people, it was a difficult thing to bring Solomon back from seeking fulfilment in earthly things once he had let himself go. Neither the voice of God’s Word, nor the voice of conscience, nor the influences of the Spirit, were sufficient to awake him or reclaim him. It wasn’t until the Lord sent this bitterness on his spirit, and made all his idols bitter to him, that he was brought to repentance.
The secularism of our age makes a virtue of, not exactly excluding God from our lives, but confining Him to the parts of our lives where we find Him useful in our pursuit of personal human flourishing. But the seemingly valuable goal of personal flourishing, pursued in its own right, does not lead to actual flourishing, where we find real satisfaction and fulfilment in our lives. Instead it leaves us with a nagging sense of emptiness and futility. The perfect life, the perfect artwork, perfect happiness is always just out of reach. Why is this? We can’t lay all the blame on other people, or structural barriers to our personal fulfilment. Such things may frustrate us but ultimately the problem is that we are looking for fulfilment in the wrong place. The things around us and within us are simply incapable of meeting our deepest desires and needs. In the following updated extract, Alexander Nisbet draws on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to make this point. When we sideline God in our lives, or make Him subservient to our own self-directed goals, we doom ourselves unavoidably to futility and emptiness.
The preacher says, “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). All created things, and all human endeavours related to them, are insufficient for yielding any true contentment. “All is nothing,” it could be translated, or “empty of any virtue as to the effect of making us happy.” This includes created delights such as riches, honours, and worldly pleasures, particularly as they are abused, and “subjected to vanity” (Rom. 8:20), by people seeking their chief good from them. Also “vanity” are all the efforts we make by human power or skill to make ourselves happy, or contented, whether in the contemplation or the enjoyment of created things. These are vain because they are unable to afford any thing but disappointment, and disappointment in the highest degree, “vanity of vanities.”
Spiritual Beings Need Spiritual Fulfilment
There are earthly and tangible delights which are in themselves good, and in their right use lawful, and subservient to us for attaining true happiness. Yet even these prove altogether unprofitable, and unsatisfying to us, if we seek to enjoy them as our chief good. They are so disproportionate, so inadequate, to the human soul. The nature of the soul is spiritual, and the soul is capable of enjoying an infinite good – God reconciled to through Christ as our portion. This is why our souls can never be satisfied with these fading and transitory things. All temporary delights, mainly because they are fading, and unable to satisfy the immortal soul, are here pronounced to be vanity of vanities.
The “Just a Bit More” Fallacy
Solomon continues, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). While people are pursuing earthly contentments as their chief good, they foolishly imagine that if they just had a bit more of them, they would then be satisfied. Yet, pursuing earthly things as our best portion always ends in dissatisfaction, not only in the pursuit but also when they are attained, as if by drinking you only become more thirsty. All the toil and wearisome labour that people have in pursuing these lying vanities, and all the dissatisfaction and even disgust they feel in consuming them, never in the slightest diverts them from spending themselves yet further in the pursuit! They still keep gazing at these unsatisfying sights, and still listen greedily to the voice of temptations and corruption, expecting to find happiness in these things. Even when their efforts are unspeakable weariness, yet still they labour in the same way.
The “Now We Know Better” Fallacy
In fact, people persist in this, so entranced with the apparent sweetness of earthly things, as if nothing like it had ever been tasted by anyone who ever lived before.