The Paradox of Life
The Paradox of Life
“Vanities of Vanities, says the preacher, Vanities of vanities! All is vanity.”
The book of Ecclesiastes has long been an enigma to readers and scholars alike. At first glance, the book seems to be the musing of a disillusioned sage who sees the world as hopelessly distorted. In verse 2, we find a central theme of the book that seems to introduce the reader to the hopelessness of life. The word “vanity” is used 37 times throughout the book and stands in contrast to the word wisdom/wise, which occurs 49 times. However, surprisingly, in a book that is part of the wisdom literature of the bible (along with the book of Proverbs), even wisdom itself is seen as a source of grief and pain rather than joy and meaning.
The word “vanity” literally means a “vapor or breath.” Thus it speaks of that which has no genuine substance. Throughout the book, the Preacher (Solomon) examines all aspects of life here on this earth in search of that which provides meaning and purpose in life. He looks at all aspects of life under the sun to find that which gives an all-embracing solution that would provide purpose and liberate us from the tragic effects of sin. The word vanity does not mean that all these things are entirely worthless but that all the areas he examines (wisdom, wealth, pleasure, power, progress, hard work, etc.) ultimately fail to give us the meaning of life. Because of sin, we live in a world where we are confronted with our human limitations and frustrations to fully understand God’s activities and life itself. Life seems to be an unresolvable paradox in which we long to gain insight and understanding of God’s action but continually fail to attain it. The more we search for answers, our questions remain unanswered and unanswerable. Each new generation then faces the same struggle and the same questions (vs. 4). Life is a continual cycle that brings us back to the beginning (9-10). We strive to attain but are never satisfied with what we achieve (8). The things learned by one generation are forgotten by the next (11).
But as we shall see in our quick overview of this book, the purpose is not to drive us to despair but to point us to the necessity of faith. Like the book of Job, Ecclesiastes confronts us with a fallen world in which all our questions are not answered. Yet, as we journey with the writer in his search, he hints at where meaning is found. These hints culminate in the final revelation that provides the answer (We will discover the definitive answer in Friday’s devotional).
The first hint is found in a repeated thread woven throughout the book. Ecclesiastes reminds us that within all the paradoxes and unanswered questions we have in life, despite all the struggles we face, life is still a gift from God to be enjoyed. Repeatedly we are reminded that despite our inability to understand all things, we are to still see life as a gift from God and to be enjoyed (2:24, 3:12-13, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-9, 11:9). If we do not enjoy life and are not content with the life God has given us in the present, then how will we be satisfied with what God gives us in the future? This is the question he confronts us with. Life is a gift from God, both now and in eternity. Amid life's struggles and contradictions, we must never lose sight that it is still a gift. If necessity is the mother of invention, then meaninglessness is the father of enjoyment. Only when we accept our inability to understand fully can we find the basis for enjoyment in life, for enjoyment does not come from the circumstances and events of this world; it comes from the hand of God himself. Paul expresses this when he states, “I have learned to be content in every circumstance.” This is not because his circumstance changed but because his perspective of God has changed. (Phi 4:10-11). Finding meaning starts by seeing life as a precious gift given by God for our enjoyment.