“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. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.“ (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)
The word translated vanity occurs several times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. In the English language although it has come to mean excessive pride or conceit, Solomon, who authored this book, used it to convey the idea of something which is fleeting and elusive, a chasing after wind. He used it to present an extremely somber view of a life filled with numerous dynamic yet unproductive and unsatisfactory experiences which produced only sorrow and suffering, not the joy or fulfillment he hoped for.
This is surprising because early in his life Solomon asked God for wisdom so that he could rule the Lord’s people with justice and mercy. The Lord gave it to him, but apparently, like all of us, knowledge and experience goes to our heads and we stray from God’s ways. We think we know a better way.
Solomon sought for the meaning of life in a wide variety of experiences: food, drink, entertainment, and sexual excess. When these failed to satisfy he threw himself into his work. As great as his deeds were, they did not satisfy: he realized that after he died he would not be able to ensure that his legacy would be upheld. Someone would come along too foolish to know better and all his work would count for nothing. And that is what happened. His son, Rheoboam, who ruled after him was a foolish man whose sense of self-importance resulted in the split of the Kingdom into Samaria and Judah.
If we are wise we will see that Solomon’s experiences reflect the general trend of our own modern society. The media and popular advertising all convey the message that the meaning and purpose of life is rooted in sensual experience. Daily we are bombarded by ads and messages that tell us that the greatest pleasure in life is to be found in sexual activity, so we should pursue it and enhance it in order to draw from it as much as we can. People also seek meaning and purpose in various entertainments and experiences that give them an adrenalin rush, or they overindulge in food or drink. Many seek satisfaction in their work, in creating things or accumulating wealth, possessions or fame. They rarely stop to think that all such lack eternal value, even when faced with their own mortality. The truth is, as Solomon warns, peace and contentment are found only in a life lived for the Lord, a life of loving service to others in His Name.