Vanity and Glory
The closing chapter of Ecclesiastes is one of the best-known passages in the Bible. The Preacher’s final words are heavy with the recognition of the finitude of existence. Take a minute and read Ecclesiastes 12:1–3, 7–8.
It is appropriate to think of this selection, and the rest of Ecclesiastes, as giving voice to the natural human experience in a fallen world. This text, taken with the broader biblical witness, reminds us of the paradoxical nature of life lived under the power of Christ in a cursed place. The dominant note in the opera of our lives is grace. But the minor theme, that of sorrow and sadness, is also a part of our walk. The fall of Adam happened. The human race is lost outside of Jesus. There is real pain and suffering in our world. We are going to die.
These last words sting us. After all, we have been trained by an age-defying culture to ignore and even deny this reality. Buy this skin cream, shouts the advertisement, and you will regain the youth you wished you had! We devote ourselves to sports leagues that are the stuff of “fantasy,” chasing an undying dream of high school glory. In some way, we’re all tempted in this decadent age to grasp after our youth, to rebel against the march of time.
Ecclesiastes 12 addresses our mortality with sobering clarity. It reminds us that our lives will soon end. It tells us that our strength will surely ebb, and our beauty will surely dissipate. In a natural sense, our lives will wind to a conclusion, and for many of us, that will mean hardship of some kind. We will call the days evil, and we will navigate hardship and inconvenience and embarrassment. Old age is hard on sentimentality.
The Preacher’s words offer a narcissistic, age-denying culture just the realism it needs. This is true for believers. Ecclesiastes 12 calls us to recognize that our lives will swiftly pass. We need now to zero in on what truly matters. We are not hopeless. In Jesus, we possess eternal life and a permanent dwelling place in the new heavens and new earth. In light of that sure hope, we must strip away vanity. We should avoid chasing the wrong priorities. We should adopt a laser gospel focus on what is most important: our spiritual lives, our marriages, our children, our churches, our vocations. We must, in sum, remember our Creator in all things.
One feels this poignantly as a father or mother. You blink, and your children have grown. The years speed on, faster than you want them to go. In this and every area of life, now is not the time for frivolity or selfish pursuits. Now is the time to own our mortality and thus, to trim the excess from our calendars. Our spirits will soon return to God who gave them. While we still have time, let us give up vain things and hold fast by divine grace to that which is eternal.
In Adam, everything is truly vanity; in Christ, everything matters unto eternity.