Saturday

01 October 2016

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (v. 2)

Psalm: Psalm 18:1-16


Background

This is one of those passages that seem to reach effortlessly across thousands of years into our modern-day world of selfies and Celebrity Big Brother. All is vanity! It suggests that the thought that - like the rhythms of the seas and the seasons - we are simply a small, anonymous part of an ever-repeating pattern drives us to make increasingly absurd attempts to break the cycle; to make our mark, so that we will be remembered.

"The Teacher" (Qohelethin in Hebrew, which is sometimes translated as 'Preacher' or 'Gatherer') begins and ends the book with the same exclamation: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2 and 12:8). The word given here as 'vanity' occurs 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastes, but is notoriously difficult to translate into English. Literally, the Hebrew word means 'vapour' and carries connotations of something weightless and elusive. Its exact meaning seems to shift and flicker throughout the book, sometimes suggesting the fleeting nature of existence and sometimes the frustration we might feel when confronted with a sense of our own insignificance.

The author appears to be writing to a diverse audience, addressing situations familiar to sages who advise the king (chapter 8) and farmers (chapter 11). The Teacher's aim seems to be to encourage this varied audience to place their trust in God, whose love endures forever, rather than in the fleeting things of the world, and to obey God's commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). As we read this passage today, with the book of Ecclesiastes now sandwiched together with the books of the New Testament, it is interesting to consider the words of the Teacher in light of the incarnation - the 'enfleshing' of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is worth reflecting that in the ultimate expression of God's love for humanity, God became a part of the flux and reflux of life and death and embraced the pattern of human mortality, in order to offer us eternal life. Perhaps the things of this world are not as "meaningless" (as the NIV would have it) as the Teacher seems to suggest.


To Ponder

  • How important is it to you that you make your mark on this world? How would you like to be remembered? Why?
  • What role do the ordinary patterns of everyday life play in your faith?


Bible notes author: 
Naomi Oates

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