Finding Purpose Amidst the Vanity of Life

Man in Field

As we deal with the regular trials and pressures of this life, it is not uncommon to have periods in which we are down and might struggle to see the value in our normal pursuits. The wise man articulated these feelings in the book of Ecclesiastes. He opened with these words: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). He then went on to mention several regular pursuits of this life that he considered vain:

  • Vanity of wisdom – The wise man acknowledged, “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). In the next chapter he noted that, despite his wisdom, his earthly fate was the same as that of the fool: “‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 2:15).
  • Vanity of pleasures – Pleasures may refer to anything we enjoy – hobbies, recreation, entertainment, and so on. The wise man said that enjoyment was “futility,” laughter was “madness,” and pleasure accomplished nothing (Ecclesiastes 2:1-2). In seeking fulfillment, he “did not withhold…any pleasure,” but later found this to be “vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).
  • Vanity of possessions – The wise man had great possessions: houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, ponds, servants, flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female singers, and concubines (Ecclesiastes 2:4-8). Yet despite all of this, he recognized that in these things “there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
  • Vanity of labor – Everything which this man had worked for would someday be left in the hands of someone else (Ecclesiastes 2:18). Furthermore, the wise man realized that the one who would succeed him in his work could undo everything he had spent years trying to accomplish (Ecclesiastes 2:19-22). On top of this, he noted that work was physically and mentally exhausting: “Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

Looking just at the passages cited above, the picture can be somewhat depressing – wisdom, pleasures, possessions, and labor are all vanity. Yet elsewhere, this same man discussed the profit of each of these.

  • Profit of wisdom – “How blessed is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding. For her profit is better than the profit of silver and her gain better than fine gold. She is more precious than jewels; and nothing you desire compares with her” (Proverbs 3:13-15).
  • Profit of pleasures – “Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10).
  • Profit of possessions – “The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, the ruin of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs 10:15). “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it” (Proverbs 10:22).
  • Profit of labor – “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).

Was the wise man contradicting himself? How could he say these things were futile in one place, yet profitable in another?

This man was not contradicting himself. Jesus taught the rule that Scripture always harmonizes with Scripture (John 10:35). The wise man’s point throughout his writings, particularly in Ecclesiastes, was this – the difference between profitability and futility is purpose. What is our purpose? Notice how he closes the book:

The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Our primary purpose in this life is to fear God and keep His commandments. Therefore, we must pursue all things so that we are following God and recognize that we are accountable to Him. So how do we make our pursuits according to our purpose?

  • Pursuit of wisdom – We must be sure to seek after God’s wisdom rather than the wisdom of man (Proverbs 3:5-7). We must look in the right place to find the truth which leads to wisdom (Proverbs 23:23) – the word of God (2 Timothy 3:15; John 17:17). And we should remember that wisdom is more than knowledge – it is the application of knowledge. Therefore, once we learn God’s will, we must seek to obey it (James 1:22).
  • Pursuit of pleasures – Does having a purpose of fear and obedience mean we cannot enjoy recreation or entertainment? No, but we must remember that we will be held accountable even for these things (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Therefore, we must limit ourselves to wholesome activities (Philippians 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:22) and not neglect our regular responsibilities (spiritual, family, work, etc.).
  • Pursuit of possessions – Though material possessions are only temporary (Matthew 6:19), we should remember that these blessings come from God (James 1:17; 1 Timothy 6:17). Therefore, we ought to use our blessings to His glory (1 Timothy 6:18), being good stewards of what we have been blessed with and guard against developing the “love of money” (1 Timothy 6:10).
  • Pursuit of labor – God’s people have been told, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Paul wrote, “Do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians 3:23). Even if your job seems insignificant, remember the fruit of your labor. The wages you earn for your work can be used to provide for yourself so that you do not have to be a burden to others (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10), provide for your family (1 Timothy 5:8), help those in need (Ephesians 4:28), and to give back to the Lord on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2).

As we deal with the trials of this life, let us remember our purpose so that we can keep focused on our goal.

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  1. Keith Stonehart says

    Well put…coincidentally this goes right along with my next sermon , do you mind if I borrow a few of your comments?

  2. Thanks, Keith. Feel free to borrow any points in here.


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