Last week a friend asked me, “why don’t you make it your New Year’s resolution to start running?” No matter how many times I try to deflect the question, like a boomerang it keeps coming back. ‘Park Run’ organise weekly runs throughout the UK, so I really don’t have an excuse. My friend claims I wouldn’t be the only unfit individual there, which goes some way to ease my concerns.
I’m almost certain that the numbers for Park Run will swell at the start of the year. Many will have made New Year’s resolutions to get fit and healthy after feasting on too much Christmas food. But as we know, so many New Year’s resolutions don’t last.
I’m not against resolutions per se. Theologian Jonathan Edwards, for example, resolved to do many things. The question is, what things in particular should be the focus of our energy and efforts? I recently read Ecclesiastes and realised that so much of what I’ve previously set my mind to has no lasting significance.
The book of Ecclesiastes falls into the genre of wisdom literature. So we’re not meant to read it as case law. Instead, we’re reading wise reflections on life. At the start of a new year, I think it’s worth reflecting on these wise sayings. Sayings breathed out by God as inspired scripture.
All is vanity!
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2).
Vanity is worthlessness or futility. Vain things are transitory and unsatisfactory. They have no lasting value. Ok, so maybe this isn’t the feel good New Year’s post you were hoping for. Can Solomon really be describing everything as worthless, futile, transitory, or unsatisfactory?
Well from a biblical perspective, Solomon’s words ring true. Everything this world has to offer, outside of Christ, is vanity. So what is your heart resolving to do in this new year? Will it come under the axe of Solomon’s words?
Maybe this year you’re going to focus on increasing your understanding. Getting that qualification, going to college or university, taking up some evening classes. But what’s your purpose in gaining wisdom and knowledge? Education, like all good things, can so easily become an idol. It can cause us to trust in our own understanding rather than in God.
Solomon said in his heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me” (Ecc 1:16). A good position to be in, you might think. To be the smartest guy in your city. In fact, to be the wisest person to have ever lived in your city. But no. Not in and of itself. He goes on to say “…this also is but a striving after wind.” (Ecc 1:17)
Knowledge for the sake of having knowledge is fleeting. It has no significance. Wisdom for this world alone is vanity.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity.” (Ecc 2:1)
Pleasure never lasts. The pleasure Solomon experienced surpassed what most of us will ever know. But after much self-indulgence and pursuing various pleasures – including wine, extreme gardening, accumulating silver and gold, music and many mistresses (Ecc 2:2-8) – he concludes that it’s all vanity. Worthless.
We all want to feel good, don’t we? And in that quest for pleasure we may be tempted to indulge in things that God says ‘no’ to, but which are pleasing to our eyes and desirable (Genesis 3:6). Now, of course, God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). But we shouldn’t even enjoy good things apart from him. Pleasure for this world alone is vanity. It will never truly satisfy.
As a new year begins, your heart might be set on some particular pleasure. You might be looking for a potential spouse, or looking to improve your home, or trying to find a new hobby (all good things in and of themselves). But remember, outside of Christ, all pleasure is vanity. It never lasts.
In 2016, you might be hoping to accomplish great things. A lot of motivational speakers and self-improvement books would urge you on with the ‘you can do it’, or ‘go for it’ kind of message. But Solomon thinks differently. Seeking to accomplish something for this world alone is pointless. Listen to what he says about his own great achievements: “I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself” (Ecc 2:4). But, you guessed it, “Then I considered all that my hands had done… and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecc 2:11).
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to achieve a personal goal. But for what outcome and purpose am I pursuing that goal?
The end of the matter
Solomon lists many other pursuits that are too numerous to mention in this article. Things such as work, wealth, honour and so on. Can all these things really have no true worth? Is it all really as bad as he says? It all sounds rather pessimistic. Well, the good news is that not everything we do has to be vanity. If you’re going to make a resolution, you can make a meaningful one.
- Find purpose in Christ
After systematically tearing down various potential idols, Solomon begins to conclude:
“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd” (Ecc 12:11).
Goads and nails were shepherd’s tools. A shepherd would use goads to motivate animals and nails to keep them secure. Other scriptures (e.g Psalm 23:1) make clear that the one Shepherd is God himself. True wisdom comes from God alone. God’s word motivates us and keeps us secure. As Christians we know, of course, that all the scriptures – including Ecclesiastes – point us forward to Jesus (John 5:39). To the one who says “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
Solomon called everything under the sun vanity because it all passes away. It all perishes. People die and their wisdom, wealth, achievements etc. die with them, because “…the dust returns to the earth as it was” (Ecc 12:7). Ecclesiastes shows us the futility of all worldly things in the light of death.
But in Christ, who has defeated death, everything changes. All that Solomon calls meaningless – such as pleasure, education, work, personal achievements – can be rescued from vanity if our ultimate goal is to build and enjoy Christ’s everlasting Kingdom.
- Fear God in 2016
Solomon draws the book to a close by pointing us to the only right way to live before God:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:13-14)
To fear God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). And keeping God’s commandments shows that we do fear him and love him. After all, Christ said “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Fearing the God who will bring every deed into judgement will help ensure that our 2016 is not spent in vain. So if you’re going to make a resolution this year, why not resolve to fear God and keep his commandments?