The Futility of Life

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2).

- Ecclesiastes 1

There are many people who think life is utterly pointless and meaningless, but few are willing to take this belief to its logical conclusion — like Ernest Hemingway did. After years of saying and writing about how life is without meaning and that the only edge we have over death is the choice of when, where, and how, Hemingway got up in the early morning hours of July 2, 1962, and committed suicide.

Without minimizing his mental illnesses, it must be said that Hemingway came to the conclusion that he did because he was looking at the world from the perspective of one who believed in nothing transcendent, which is nothing short of despair. If there is nothing that transcends everything, then, of course, there is no good reason to do one thing over another. There is no accountability, no judgment. And if there is no one to hold us accountable and it does not matter what we do, then any meaning we find is illusory, lasting only as long as we are conscious.

The utter meaninglessness of life from an earthbound perspective that does not take into account the creator God is one of the main points of the book of Ecclesiastes. Again and again, the Preacher contrasts life “under the sun” with “life under heaven,” the former referring to the perspective that looks at everything and concludes that the only thing that exists is what is visible to the human eye. The conclusions that logically flow from such a perspective are presented repeatedly in Ecclesiastes, only to be refuted from the vantage point that sees things “under heaven” — in reference to the covenant Lord of Israel.

Under the sun, everything is vanity (Eccl. 1:2–3). The term vanity comes from the Hebrew word hebel, which means something like “vapor” or “breath.” What is being conveyed is fleetingness. Like vapor, everything is fleeting apart from reference to the Creator, and therefore everything is ultimately futile. Hard work produces gain for the worker for only a short while until his death (vv. 3–4). People run after new sights and sounds to entertain them, but nothing can satisfy (v. 8). Men and women strive to fill the emptiness they feel, but all their efforts are to no avail.

Only the existence of the transcendent God can provide us with any meaning. Life lived with reference to Him — under heaven — is never an exercise in futility.

Coram Deo

As Christians, we are to live life “under heaven” — aware of the Lord who sees us and who will render judgment on what we have done. This means we should be serious about learning His will and fulfilling it in all that we do. On the one hand, the Lord’s grace means we should not fear that He is out to get us when we fail. On the other hand, we must not take this grace for granted but strive to live lives of service to our great King.

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 16:4
Ecclesiastes 6
Matthew 12:33–37
1 Corinthians 15:12–28

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.