Vanity! Vanity! Is It All Vanity?
AMONG the noted sayings of King Solomon of ancient times are the words: “The greatest vanity! Everything is vanity!” He found that “everything was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing of advantage under the sun.”—Eccl. 1:2; 2:11.
Was Solomon right in saying that? In the sense that he meant it, yes, for he was speaking from experience. Not only was he justly famed for his great wisdom, but he had accumulated for himself vast possessions of all kinds. Included among these were vineyards and orchards, gardens and parks, silver and gold, male and female singers, exotic birds, and beasts. And yet all of this did not bring him contentment and satisfaction. It was, indeed, all vanity, “a striving after wind.”—1 Ki. 4:29-34; 10:22; Eccl. 2:3-11.
The same has proved true time and again in regard to prominent men in modern times who have made a pursuit of wealth, fame or power, be they billionaires or chiefs of state. One of the richest of such men, whose final years underscore the truth of Solomon’s words, was Howard Hughes. We are told that in his last fifteen years “he lived a sunless, joyless, half-lunatic life . . . a virtual prisoner walled in by his own crippling fears and weaknesses,” at the same time being at the mercy of the coterie of men who surrounded him. (Time, December 13, 1976) His exploits in aviation and his business acumen had brought him great wealth and power. But these things certainly brought him neither contentment nor happiness. Reputedly worth billions of dollars, he died at the age of seventy, under extremely pathetic circumstances.
Then there are those who pursue fame and power in the public arena of politics. How precarious their lot often is! How seldom it proves truly satisfying! And in this respect even the chiefs of state of many countries are no exception.
Bearing this out are the conclusions of Emory University professor of law and American scholar Jonas Robitscher. In a review of the lives of the past presidents of the United States, he wrote: “The winner has gained four years of power, but if he finds time to reflect, he must ask himself, ‘Is it worth it?’”
Robitscher notes this in connection with Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to have been the best president the country ever had. As his predecessor Buchanan left office, he told Lincoln: “My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his estate in Pennsylvania], you are a happy man indeed.” After being told of his father’s assassination, Lincoln’s son “Tad” said: “He was never happy after he came here. This was not a good place for him”’ According to historians, four of the thirty-eight U.S. presidents were assassinated, and four died in office, apparently from natural causes. Of the remaining thirty, only a handful survived their terms with the full respect of the American people. Yet, by and large, people view with envy those who reach the top in the fields of finance and politics.
The same must also be said about the field of sports. One of the most successful of American baseball players, now retired, while getting pleasure in going over a scrapbook recording his exploits, nevertheless adds: “And I remember how it was and how I used to think that it would always be that way.” In a similar vein, a prominent basketball player, who currently earns $100,000 a year, stated: “There is terror behind the dream of being a professional ballplayer. It comes as a slow realization of finality and of the frightening unknowns which the end brings. When the playing is over, one can sense that one’s youth has been spent playing a game, and now both the game and youth are gone.” He concludes by saying: “Behind all the years of practice and all the hours of glory waits that inexorable terror of living without the game.” “Inexorable terror of living without the game”? Is it worth it or is the glory that goes with sports also vanity?
Why are Solomon’s words ‘all is vanity’ so true? Primarily because of inherent selfishness. Due to the greed of our first parents, ‘the inclination of our hearts is bad from youth up.’ (Gen. 8:21) That is why we read that “those who are determined to be rich [which may bring fame and power] fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and hurtful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things.” (1 Tim. 6:9, 10) Moreover, because of inherited selfishness “a mere lover of silver will not be satisfied with silver, neither any lover of wealth with income. This too is vanity.”—Eccl. 5:10.
Then, again, setting one’s heart on materialistic goals often proves to be vanity because of the uncertainty of things. As Solomon so well observed: “The swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, nor do the wise also have the food, nor do the understanding ones also have the riches, nor do even those having knowledge have the favor; because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” How true! How uncertain the future is!—Eccl. 9:11.
But there is one area wherein all is not vanity and a striving after wind. And what is that? A life that is directed and motivated by the principles and truths set forth in the Word of God. That Book, the Bible, is filled with examples of those whose lives were not filled with vanity, examples such as those mentioned in Hebrews, chapter 11.
Nor are we limited to Scriptural examples. Many are the modern-day servants of Jehovah God who have found the pursuit of material goals to be vanity and who have changed to a life bringing them satisfaction and happiness. For example, there was the woman executive who, in vain, sought fulfillment in the business world and in the women’s liberation movement. But she did find true fulfillment in obtaining a knowledge of the Creator and conforming her life to his will and purposes. Time and time again the same has also proved true of persons prominent in the entertainment and sports worlds.
Bearing directly on this matter are the inspired words of the apostle Paul: “Bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come.” How so? In that the pursuit of godly devotion helps one to avoid the physical and psychosomatic effects of drug and gambling addiction, of alcoholism, of promiscuous sex and of the greedy pursuit of wealth, fame or power. Yes, “it is a means of great gain, this godly devotion along with self-sufficiency,” or contentment.—1 Tim. 4:8; 6:6-8.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, testified to the same effect: “Take my yoke upon you and become my disciples, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29) By becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, by imitating his example of mildness and lowliness of heart, you will find that your life, far from being in vain, an empty striving after wind, will be fully rewarding.
So, Vanity! Vanity! Is it all vanity? Apparently, due to greed or circumstances, it is for many, in fact, for the great majority of humankind. But it does not have to be. Life can be satisfying, rewarding, happifying—IF one allows God to enter into the picture.