Ecclesiastes 12:8
"Futility of futilities," says the Teacher. "Everything is futile!"
On the Proper Estimate of Human LifeH. Blair, D. D.Ecclesiastes 12:8
The VanitiesT. De Witt Talmage.Ecclesiastes 12:8
Two Reviews of LifeC. B. Symes, B. A.Ecclesiastes 12:8
The EpilogueJ. Willcock Ecclesiastes 12:8-12
The sentence, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" with which the Book of Ecclesiastes opened, is found here at its close. And doubtless to many it will seem disappointing that it should follow so hard upon the expression of belief in immortality. Surely we might say that the nobler view of life reached by the Preacher should have precluded his return to the pessimistic opinions and feelings which we can scarcely avoid associating with the words, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" But on second thoughts the words are not contradictory of the hope for the future which ver. 7 expresses. The fact that Christians can use the words as descriptive of the worthlessness of things that are seen and temporal, as compared with those that are unseen and eternal, forbids our concluding that they are necessarily the utterance of a despairing pessimism. A great deal depends upon the tone in which the words are uttered; and the pious tone of the writer's mind, as revealed in the concluding passages of his book, would incline us to believe that the sentence, "all is vanity," is equivalent to that in the Gospel, "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" No one can deny that the 'De Imitatione Christi' is a noble expression of certain aspects of Christian teaching with regard to life. And yet in the very first chapter of it we have these words of Solomon's quoted and expanded. "Vanity of vanities; and all is vanity beside loving God and serving him alone. It is vanity, therefore, to seek after fiches which must perish, and to trust in them. It is vanity also to lay one's self out for honors, and to raise one's self to a high station. It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to covet that for which we must afterwards be grievously punished. It is vanity to wish for long life, and to take little care of leading a good life. It is vanity to mind only this present life, and not to look forward to those things which are to come. It is vanity to love that which passes with all speed, and not to hasten thither where ever lasting joy abides." In the opinion of many eminent critics the eighth verse contains the concluding words of the Preacher, and those which follow are an epilogue, consisting of a "commendatory attestation" (vers. 9-12), and a summary of the teaching of the book (vers. 13, 14), which justifies its place in the sacred canon. On the whole, this seems to be the most reasonable explanation of the passage. It seems more likely that the glowing eulogy upon the author was written by some one else than that it came from his own pen; and a somewhat analogous postscript is found in another book of Holy Scripture, the Gospel of St. John (John 21:24). Those who collected the Jewish Scriptures into one, and drew the line between canonical and non-canonical literature, may have considered it advisable to append this paragraph as a testimony in favor of a book which contained so much that was perplexing, and to give a summary (in vers. 13, 14) of what seemed to them its general teaching. The Preacher, they say, was gifted with wisdom over and above his fellows, and taught the people knowledge; and for this pondered and investigated and set in order many proverbs or parables (ver. 9). Like the scribe, "who had been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven," "he brought forth out of his treasure things new and old" (Matthew 13:52). Knowledge of the wisdom of the past, ability to recognize in it what was most valuable, and to cast it into new forms and zeal in the discharge of his sacred office, were all found in him. He sought to attract men to wisdom by displaying it in its gracious aspect (cf. Luke 4:22), and to influence them by the sincerity of his purpose, and by the actual truth he brought to light (ver. 10). "He aimed to speak at once words that would please and words which were true - words which would be at once goads to the intellect, and yet stakes that would uphold and stay the soul of man, beta coming alike from one shepherd" (ver. 11, Bradley). Some of his sayings were calculated to stimulate men into fresh fields of thought and new paths of duty, others to confirm them in the possession of truths of eternal value and significance. Like the apostle, he was anxious that his readers should no longer be like "children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error" (Ephesians 4:14); but should "prove all things, and hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). How much better to study in the school of such a teacher than to weary and perplex one's self with" science falsely so called;" than to be versed in multitudinous literature, which dissipates mental energy, and in which the soul can find no sure resting-place (ver. 12)! All who set themselves, or who have been called, to be teachers of men, may find in the example of the Preacher guidance as to the motives and aims which will alone give them success in their work. - J.W.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity. &&&
(with 2 Timothy 4:7, 8): These two preachers were both distinguished men, aged men, men of wide experiences. Thus far they resembled each other; but the results of their experience are a perfect and a startling contrast. You would expect, with the experiences behind them, that their verdicts would be contradictory. You would expect the man for whom earth had plucked her choicest roses to present life as a gorgeous garden; and you would expect the man whose course had been a martyrdom to give a shaded view. Yet the contrast is the precise opposite of what you expect. It is from the man who has had the world's choicest gifts lavished upon him that you hear as sad an epitaph as ever described a human life — "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." It is the man who has passed through tribulations, and experienced the worst ills of life who gives us the ring of triumph in his review.

I. THE FIRST CONDEMNS LIFE AS A FAILURE — "All is vanity, and vexation of spirit." What was there in his life which could explain this disappointment? I think if you look at Solomon's life you will see it had self for its centre, earth for its circumference, human energy for its working power, and failure for its result.

II. THE SECOND REVIEWS LIFE AS A TRIUMPH. "I have fought a good fight," etc. The whole is a review of trial and triumph.

1. The trial consisted in the apostle having been able to endure to the end, to carry on the struggle without being turned aside. Men had called his faith fanaticism, but be did not let go his faith. Men called his hopes delusions, but he cherished them still. Men sneered at his motives, but no slur or scorn cast upon him could lead him to renounce Christ or the work given him to do. He reviews his life as a triumph simply because of this patience. In all this there is to me a great hope and comfort. Had the triumph lain in the works which he had wrought, you and I might well despair of reviewing a life such as his. But this we may review — fidelity to Christ.

2. Let us look now at the elements which made the apostle's life such a triumph. We will place them in contrast with those we were noticing in the life of Solomon.(1) In the apostle's life Christ was the centre; everything revolved around Him.(2) The spiritual was the sphere of life in which the apostle lived.(3) The working power of his life was faith.(4) Its result was a glorious triumph — a triumph which led to a crown. All true triumphs end in crowns, and this is a crown of character, not merely a reward for righteousness. Righteousness is the very material of which it is made. It is the crown of a spiritual sanctified character, and hence the crown fadeth not away.

(C. B. Symes, B. A.)



III. LEARNING CANNOT SATISFY THE SOUL. Solomon was one of the largest contributors to the literature of the day.


(T. De Witt Talmage.)

I. IN WHAT SENSE IT IS TRUE THAT ALL HUMAN PLEASURES ARE VANITY. I shall studiously avoid exaggeration, and only point out a threefold vanity in human life, which every impartial observer cannot but admit; disappointment in pursuit, dissatisfaction in enjoyment, uncertainty in possession.

1. Disappointment in pursuit. We may form our plans with the most profound sagacity, and with the most vigilant caution may guard against danger on every side. But some unforeseen occurrence comes across, which baffles our wisdom, and lays our labours in the dust. Neither the moderation of our views, nor the justice of our pretensions, can ensure success. But time and chance happen to all. Against the stream of events, both the worthy and the undeserving are obliged to struggle; and both are frequently overborne alike by the current.

2. Dissatisfaction in enjoyment is a further vanity to which the human state is subject. This is the severest of all mortifications; after having been successful in the pursuit, to be baffled in the enjoyment itself. Yet this is found to be an evil still more general than the former. Together with every wish that is gratified, a new demand arises. One void opens in the heart, as another is filled. On wishes, wishes grow; and to the end, it is rather the expectation of what they have not, than the enjoyment of what they have, which occupies and interests the most successful. This dissatisfaction, in the midst of human pleasure, springs partly from the nature of our enjoyments themselves, and partly from circumstances which corrupt them. No worldly enjoyments are adequate to the high desires and powers of an immortal spirit. Fancy paints them at a distance with splendid colours; but possession unveils the fallacy. Add to the unsatisfying nature of our pleasures, the attending circumstances which never fail to corrupt them. For, such as they are, they are at no time possessed unmixed. When external circumstances show fairest to the world, the envied man groans in private under his own burden. Some vexation disquiets, some passion corrodes him; some distress, either felt or feared, gnaws, like a worm, the root of his felicity. For worldly happiness ever tends to destroy itself, by corrupting the heart.

3. Uncertain possession and short duration. Were there in worldly things any fixed point of security which we could gain, the mind would then have some basis on which to rest. But our condition is such that everything wavers and totters around us. If your enjoyments be numerous, you lie more open on different sides to be wounded. If you have possessed them long, you have greater cause to dread an approaching change. Even supposing the accidents of life to leave us untouched, human bliss must still be transitory; for man changes of himself. No course of enjoyment can delight us long. What amused our youth, loses its charm in maturer age. As years advance, our powers are blunted, and our pleasurable feelings decline. We project great designs, entertain high hopes, and then leave our plans unfinished, and sink into oblivion.


1. The present condition of man was not his original or primary state. As our nature carries plain marks of perversion and disorder, so the world which we inhabit bears the symptoms of having been convulsed in all its frame. Naturalists point out to us everywhere the traces of some violent change which it has suffered. Islands torn from the continent, burning mountains, shattered precipices, uninhabitable wastes, give it all the appearance of a mighty ruin. The physical and moral state of man in this world mutually sympathize and correspond. They indicate not a regular and orderly structure, either of matter or of mind, but the remains of somewhat that was once more fair and magnificent.

2. As this was not the original, so it is not intended to be the final, state of man. Though, in consequence of the abuse of the human powers, sin and vanity were introduced into the region of the universe, it was not the purpose of the Creator that they should be permitted to reign for ever. He hath made ample provision for the recovery of the penitent and faithful part of His subjects, by the merciful undertaking of the great Restorer of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.

3. A future state being made known, we can account in a satisfying manner for the present distress of human life, without the smallest impeachment of Divine goodness. The sufferings we here undergo are converted into discipline and improvement. Through the blessing of Heaven, good is extracted from apparent evil; and the very misery which originated from sin is rendered the means of correcting sinful passions, and preparing us for felicity.

III. WHETHER THERE BE NOT, IN THE PRESENT CONDITION OF HUMAN LIFE, SOME REAL AND SOLID ENJOYMENTS WHICH COME NOT UNDER THE GENERAL CHARGE OF VANITY OF VANITIES. The doctrine of the text is to be considered as chiefly addressed to worldly men. Then Solomon means to teach that all expectations of bliss, which rest solely on earthly possessions and pleasures, shall end in disappointment. But surely he did not intend to assert that there is no material difference in the pursuits of men, or that no real happiness of any kind could now be attained by the virtuous. For, besides the unanswerable objection which this would form against the Divine administration, it Would directly contradict what He elsewhere asserts (Ecclesiastes 2:25). How vain soever this life, considered in itself, may be, the comforts and hopes of religion are sufficient to give solidity to the enjoyments of the righteous. In the exercise of good affections, and the testimony of an approving conscience; in the sense of peace and reconciliation with God through the great Redeemer of mankind; in the firm confidence of being conducted through all the trials of life by infinite wisdom and goodness; and in the joyful prospect of arriving in the end at immortal felicity; they possess a happiness which, descending from a purer and more perfect religion than this world, partakes not of its vanity. Besides the enjoyments peculiar to religion, there are other pleasures of our present state which, though of an inferior order, must not be overlooked in the estimate of human life. Some degree of importance must be allowed to the comforts of health, to the innocent gratifications of sense, and to the entertainment afforded us by all the beautiful scenes of nature; some to the pursuits and amusements of social life; and more to the internal enjoyments of thought and reflection, and to the pleasures of affectionate intercourse with those whom we love. Were the great body of men fairly to compute the hours which they pass in ease, and even with some degree of pleasure, they would be found far to exceed the number of those which are spent in absolute pain either of body or mind. But in order to make a still more accurate estimation of the degree of satisfaction which, in the midst of earthly vanity, man is permitted to enjoy, the three following observations claim our attention: —

1. That many of the evils which occasion our complaints of the world are wholly imaginary. It is among the higher ranks of mankind that they chiefly abound; where fantastic refinements, sickly delicacy, and eager emulation, open a thousand sources of vexation peculiar to themselves.

2. That, of those evils which may be called real, because they owe not their existence to fancy, nor can be removed by rectifying opinion, a great proportion is brought upon us by our own misconduct. Diseases, poverty, disappointment and shame are far from being, in every instance, the unavoidable doom of men. They are much more frequently the offspring of their own misguided choice.

3. The third observation which I make respects those evils which are both real and unavoidable; from which neither wisdom nor goodness can procure our exemption. Under these this comfort remains, that if they cannot be prevented, there are means, however, by which they may be much alleviated. Religion is the great principle which acts under such circumstances as the corrective of human vanity. It inspires fortitude, supports patience, and, by its prospects and promises, darts a cheering ray into the darkest shade of human life.


1. It highly concerns us not to be unreasonable in our expectations of worldly felicity. Peace and contentment, not bliss and transport, is the full portion of man. Perfect joy is reserved for heaven.

2. But while we repress too sanguine hopes formed upon human life, let us guard against the other extreme, of repining and discontent. What title hast thou to find fault with the order of the universe, whose lot is so much beyond what thy virtue or merit gave thee ground to claim?

3. The view which we have taken of human life should naturally direct us to such pursuits as may have most influence for correcting its vanity.

(H. Blair, D. D.)

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