While the present creation is described as being subject to futility (Rom. 8:20), there is in store a new creation. Against the bleak backdrop of this fallen world, the apostle whets our appetites: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
We mentioned last time that in the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon brings to bear phrases and terms and scenarios that give us perspective and sharpen the visual acuity of our faith as God Himself ministers to us. These expressions capture life in a fallen world and resonate with our common experience. Not only do they set the tone, they set the stage for another reality, a redemptive reality.
Probably the best known phrase associated with Ecclesiastes is the one that opens and closes the discourse of the Preacher. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2; 12:8). Often, we associate vanity with conceit, where we think highly of ourselves and believe others should share our opinion.
But in Ecclesiastes, vanity has more to do with frustration, fruitlessness, futility, and failure. We will see this vividly at play across the various dimensions of life addressed in the book. Best laid plans come to naught. Cosmetic efforts to hold time at bay ultimately fail. Escape through pleasure only blinds to the inevitable. Seeking meaning through religion comes up empty. And where is God in all this? It’s hard to tell. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
Another expression found in Ecclesiastes that sets the tone has to do with the setting, the milieu, in which we experience vanity. After opening with his observation that all is vanity, the Preacher introduces us to this second phrase: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3). The collective answer of Ecclesiastes is not a happy one, at least to all appearances.
“Under the sun” speaks to the created order. All of life transpires under the sun that brings us warmth and light. But for the Preacher the expression conveys another reality. The world in which we live is a fallen world. Sin has entered in to the created order, bringing disorder, dysfunction, decay, and death. Thorns infest the ground, and we are afflicted by them.