Vanity of vanities, said the preacher; all is vanity.…
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.
II. HOW THIS VANITY OF THE WORLD CAN BE RECONCILED WITH THE PERFECTIONS OF ITS DIVINE AUTHOR. If God be good, whence the evil that fills the earth?
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.
IV. PRACTICAL CONCLUSIONS.
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.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.