I remember well one quiet morning in Cape Town, South Africa. I was in college and I had just settled down to read my Bible and think for a while. I was reading John Piper’s devotional ‘Life as a Vapor,’ which references James 4:14 (ESV), “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Just down the road from where my college is located is a small community named ‘Misty Cliffs.’ I’ve often driven through on the road through Misty Cliffs which winds precariously at the base of a beautiful mountainous range whose rocky flanks slope directly into the tumultuous waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The drive is perilous and there are often patches of fog resting quietly along the rocky terrain. What beauty and then, with the right mix of meteorological influence, the fog can be gone! Are our lives really that momentary to be compared to mist? Mist is so transitory! One minute it is there in its beauty and stillness, the next moment it can be gone! Surely, our lives hold more value than mist, right? Well, James does that comparison, but in the context, he is addressing a life that seeks to plan without any nod to towards the direction of the creator verses a life that realizes that such dependency is imperative.
This same thought reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes that begins, “…vanity of vanities! All is Vanity.”
Sometimes, in my darker moments, I have wondered what is ‘the point to anything’? Growing up overseas, I’ve said goodbye way too often. What is the point to a few years in Zimbabwe and then saying goodbye to friends? What is the point to growing to love a beautiful German Shepherd and then returning only to find he was killed by a snake? What is the point to plowing headlong into relationships in college, only to have to suffer the heartache of leaving South Africa and starting a new life in the United States? I think of the energy spent, the time given, the good moments sustained, and the complexity of saying goodbye.
I remember well the ‘good-bye’ party that was hosted at my parent’s house before I left South Africa back in 2008. It was a moment that was filled with humor, laughter, good food, and conversations. The next transitional months were filled with pain, sorrow, and mostly moments not-filled-with-laughter. What was the point of the joy if only sorrow would follow? Such musings led me to a state of ‘existential panic’ as I wondered how to hold both the pain and the joy and how to make sense of it all. Can I enjoy the good moments, when bad moments are creeping up around the corner? Do the bad moments overshadow the good, and are the good memories lost in oblivion?
I wonder if James, when he penned his words about ‘vapor’ had a view towards the book of Ecclesiastes which often talks of ‘vanity.’ The word in Hebrew is ‘hebel’ and means ‘vapor, mist’ emphasizing the idea of temporariness or ‘meaningless’ emphasizing the idea of futility. At a first read, the book only compounded my sense of futility. This book holds verses such as “all is vanity” (1:2), “the wise dies just like the fool” (2:16) and doesn’t shy away from the seeming emptiness that life offers with verses such as “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (2:17). Of course, when the author uses the phrase ‘under the sun’ he is describing life on this earth, yet even this refrain hints that perhaps there is more to ‘life under the sun’ (what about life ‘not’ under the sun?). Is there more to this life than just a random concoction of events over time? The author of Ecclesiastes certainly thinks so! For in this book we also run across verses such as “how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God (9:1), “Go, eat your bread in joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (9:7), and also “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1). The knowledge of God certainly brings things into clarity, yet we live in a fallen world and feel the vanity pressing in nonetheless.
Yet, with the knowledge of God, who is not bound to life ‘under the sun’ we see more clarity indeed! Think of the story of Cain and Abel. Abel is literally the same word for ‘vanity/mist’ in Hebrew (hebel), so when you read Abel in the text, you read ‘hebel.’His life certainly illustrates the brevity and short-lived life of his existence. He is righteous and offers a sacrifice that was pleasing in God’s sight, yet his life is cut short in the gruesome murder-story in the first family of the world. What kind of story is that!? He was righteous yet killed. He was obedient yet murdered. Surely, this kind of existence captures well the tension that that the author of Ecclesiastes describes as both the righteous and wicked die, so what is the point? However, if we turn to the book of Hebrews, Abel is remembered! He is with the Lord for eternity, he is listed in the hall of fame, and we are told that “and through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Abel’s faithfulness is read by generation after generation as it is recorded for us in Scripture.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t shy away from the existential wasteland that occurs when one’s gaze is only on life under the sun. Some may toil all their lives and loose their fortunes. Both the righteous and wicked may perish. Meaning cannot be found ultimately in things such as work, friends, money, or power. Yet, because everything is in the ‘hand of God’ (Eccl. 9:1), the good gifts can be enjoyed as gifts from the generous hand of the creator. The gifts in themselves are not the end of all things. Life does become meaningless when they are seen that way.
I can enjoy the fleeting fog on the side of the mountain. I don’t have to be stoic and pretend that there’s no point to enjoying because it won’t last. No, I can revel in its fleeting beauty, while knowing that its transient nature is beautiful, but the more beautiful one is the Creator who made it and my main gaze is not the fleeting beauty but on the lasting beauty of the Maker. Even while feeling the ‘vanity’ and the frustration that a life ‘under the sun’ brings, I can acknowledge the frustration while also enjoying the good gifts that God gives. I can enjoy the wife of my youth. I can enjoy good food with friends. I can enjoy and thank God for the memories of past gatherings in another country. I can enjoy my work, even as I sit with others in the frustration of their lives as they feel the corruption of this fallen world. Wisdom under the sun will not suffice to explain everything. There must be a wisdom that comes from a world not ‘under the sun.’ That is why the author writes in Ecclesiastes 12, “remember also your Creator in the days of your youth (verse 1), and “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
One writer shows that God speaks to us in the mundane every-day activities of life,
“Each minute contains a sanctuary for worship; each hour offers a kitchen table for conversation with him (God); each day is a wood path for walking with him; each moment, no matter how wonderfully ordinary or flea-infested, offers enough for intimacy with him.”
Apart from seeing that reality is in the ‘hand of God’ there will be only vanity. Yet, the small moments in life, are fueled with meaning, when the are enjoyed with a gaze to the creator.
Ryken says it well:
“The proud boast and the self-less sacrifice will matter. The household task and the homework assignment will matter. The cup of water, the tear of compassion, the word of testimony—all matters. The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does. What we did, how we did it, and why we did it will all have eternal significance. The reason everything matters is because everything in the universe is the subject to the final verdict of a righteous God who knows every secret.”
The new believers in Acts 2:42 lived in a word full of confusion and chaos. They certainly felt the weight of ‘life under the sun.’ Yet, they did not live lives of fear, but lived lives of obeying their creator and enjoying the fellowship with one another.
The hope is that greater wisdom has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ from outside the world ‘under the sun.’ Yet he lived in the world ‘under the sun’ and experienced its frustration, and yet took the judgement we deserved by dying on the cross. “Trust Jesus, whose victory saves us from life’s vanity—praise God!”
I can enjoy the small moments of life, knowing that ultimately, everything matters because all is in the hand of God. In the end He will work out the complexities. I can take joy in that. Meanwhile, I can enjoy conversations, friends, good food, fellowship, the beauty of the ocean, the grandeur of a good hike in the mountains, and the scintillating drops of dew on the pedal of a flower in the morning. They are gifts of the Maker, yet in the end I entrust my soul to my faithful Creator.
¹Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes. (Philipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2014), 107-108.
²Philip G. Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 281.