When I was in high school, my friends and I would pretty much do something almost every night during the summer. It wasn’t necessarily anything big or exciting. A lot of the time we would end up sitting on the tailgates of our trucks in our school’s parking lot. Even though most of the time we just sat in the Calvary parking lot, I rarely missed a night out with my friends.
Now, of course, I didn’t know this then, but I know it now, I was there every night because I wanted to be a part of it all. I wanted to be a part of it all because I was seeking meaning in the moments, in being a part of the crowd, in being in on every inside joke.
If we’re honest, we all seek meaning in something. Whether it be in the little moments of life, knowing we are in the “in crowd”, or something else, we all seek meaning in something. Maybe you are pursuing something right now that you believe will finally provide the meaning for which you long. Or maybe that which you have pursued so long has just let you down, and that’s left you wondering: How can I find meaning in life?
How can we find meaning in life?
Life Under the Sun
In order to answer that question, the first thing we need to understand is that life under the sun is meaningless. That phrase — “Life under the Sun” is used all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, which, by the way, is going to be what this post is based on. Yes, we are going to look at the entire book. No, I’m not going to write a book. Anyways, that phrase — “life under the sun” — is used extensively throughout the book. The phrase itself refers to the things of this world. Whatever those may be — material or immaterial things. We will get into some specifics in a minute, but know that’s what this phrase is referring to — the things in this world.
Right off the bat, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that everything under the sun is “vanity” or “meaningless” depending on the translation you have. Starting in verse 1 he says,
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ec 1:1–3)
So the Preacher tells us that everything under the sun is vanity or meaningless. The Hebrew word for vanity is Hevel.
Hevel is an interesting word. It literally means — smoke, vapor, or mist. To add to that list, one author I read recently used the word hologram alongside these others. I think that’s an appropriate modern-day addition to the list. If you think about it, a hologram, just like smoke, is something that looks real but when you reach out to grab it, you can’t. Your hand literally goes right through it. It’s not solid. It’s not something that can be held on to. That’s the image the Preacher is trying to drive home. He wants us to see that trying to attach ultimate meaning to things under the sun is vanity. That’s because those things, those moments can’t be grasped, they can’t be bottled up. They are here but they are temporary just like smoke, vapor, and mist.
I experienced a good example of this when I was in college. Midway through my college career, I transferred to the University of Georgia. The first semester I transferred there, I had a group of friends that I hung out with all the time. We had a lot of fun together. There was a lot of camaraderie in that group. But that fun, that camaraderie only lasted for a short time. By Fall things had changed. People had graduated, relationships had ended, we lived in different places. And because of that, the dynamic of the group wasn’t the same. But you know, the rest of my time at UGA I chased that same feeling, those same experiences I had that first semester because I thought they would provide me with meaning. You know what? I was never able to get them back. It was like smoke that had slipped through my hands. It was there for a time, but it couldn’t be grasped, it couldn’t be bottled up. That’s hevel. That’s vanity. That’s a chasing after the wind.
Along with hevel being something that is fleeting, that can’t be grasped, it also carries the idea of an enigma or an absurdity. An enigma is a mystery. It’s something that can’t be explained. An absurdity is something that happens that just doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical. So for instance in chapter 6, the Preacher tells us that God has given a man wealth, possession, and honor. He has given him everything he could desire so that he lacks nothing. But even though he has everything he has ever wanted, he doesn’t have the ability to enjoy it. Instead, someone else, a stranger, gets to enjoy it in his place. The Preacher tells us that’s vanity. That absurd, that’s an enigma. That’s something that just can’t be explained, it doesn’t make any sense.
So along with telling us life is vanity because that which we are seeking meaning in can’t be grasped, he also tells us that life is vanity because there are some things that just don’t operate how we think they should. There are some things that just don’t make any sense. That, then, leads the Preacher to conclude that everything under the sun is meaningless, it’s all vanity, it’s all Hevel.
Just the Beginning
That’s just the beginning of the book. The first 3 verses. Those three verses really set the tone for the rest of the book. It tells you that this is a book that’s going to smack you in the face with reality. It’s not a book that’s going to coddle you. There are no “safe spaces” here. Just the cold hard truth of the reality in which we live.
We know it’s the cold hard truth of the reality in which we live because the Preacher is speaking from personal experience. In other words, he’s lived it, he’s experienced it. And he’s experienced it through tests that he has employed.
Tests he is able to perform because he’s the wisest and richest king to ever live. It’s widely thought that the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon. If you know anything about Solomon, you know he had riches beyond measure. I mean, the gold was just pouring in like water. On top of being rich, he was a king. As King, he had the ability to do whatever he wanted. So when he tells us that he didn’t hold anything back, he means it. He literally gave himself wholly and completely to these tests with no limitations at all. That’s important to know because it means that there are no if’s, and’s, or but’s. There are no, “If only he would have or could have…” There was none of that. He experienced it all to the max. So the conclusions he provides can and should be trusted.
We will stop there for today. Next time I’ll pick up with the actual tests the preacher ran.
Question for Reflection
- When have you experienced vanity in your life?
Post developed from my sermon: Ecclesiastes – Hevel and the Secret to the Meaning of Life