All This Life Is So Much Frustration—Yet It’s Not All There Is
Having just detailed the decline of old age ending in death, Solomon concludes this segment in verse 8 with a declaration of vanity, as he did at the end of the two preceding segments (Ecclesiastes 11:8, Ecclesiastes 11:10). Yet here he goes further, lamenting: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘All is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). In this particular phrasing he comes back to the very words that opened his entire discussion at the beginning of the book in Ecclesiastes 1:2 (following his initial introductory note in verse 1). So the segment closing here in Ecclesiastes 12:8 is doing double duty—as both a segment ending within this final subsection and as an overall concluding lament in context of all he’s discussed in the book. It thus declares vanity in what he has just covered concerning bodily decay and dying, particularly apart from remembering our Creator in youth. But, more than that, it declares all of this life under the sun to be one great vanity, recalling the opening lament of the whole work and the numerous declarations of vanity throughout its chapters up to this last, concluding time. Yet with all that he’s covered, why is the opening problem being repeated here? It might feel to some like being punched in the gut—or being kicked while we’re down. Again, why say this again at the end of the book? It could seem that we’re right back where we started from, with the argument of the book not having gotten very far—and yet of course it has.
Let’s recall that the word “vanity” is translated from the Hebrew hebel, meaning “breath” or “vapor.” And the phrase “vanity of vanities” could be rendered “thinnest of vapors.” There is an insubstantiality here—something very difficult to grasp or hold onto. Some view this in the sense of meaning fleeting— here today, gone tomorrow. The New Testament states: “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). This certainly fits with life slipping away and coming to an end in the poetry we’ve just read. There also seems to be in the use of the term hebel a sense of worthlessness and emptiness—against the desire to find some profit or benefit from this life. But the vanity or vapor seems most typically in Ecclesiastes to have the sense of frustration, as attempts to fully understand or make sense of everything ultimately prove futile, another meaning of vanity. Efforts are frustrated, expectations are frustrated, hopes and plans are frustrated, everything in this life ends in frustration, with the ultimate frustration being the end of life and opportunity. This is something we need to really understand. We should never base our hopes and dreams in this world. We should never try to derive happiness from this world. This is not to say that there is no good to be found in this world—but finding it comes only through seeking something else, Someone else, beyond this world, and receiving the blessings that only He can give.
Consider that the frustration we see in this book is the worst for those who have failed to remember their Creator and have failed to properly experience life’s joys through Him, thus squandering their opportunity. Dr. Walter Kaiser writes, “How futile to have lived and not to have known the key to living! What a waste to have died without having enjoyed life or known what it was all about. That is the tragedy of tragedies; a great waste” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 122). We might also consider that Solomon may himself have been going through some of what he detailed in the poetry on aging, while now looking ahead to the end of this life and recalling his wayward years very somberly. No doubt he was still dealing with serious regrets. Thinking of how much of his own life he had wasted, we can almost envision him sighing in declaring it all so much immense frustration—as he possibly came to repent but would now have had no time to live out life and enjoy it as God intended. This does not, however, mean that Solomon’s words here are communicating hopelessness. None of us should be hopeless even if we are turning to God in later years. It is always worth it to repent and turn our lives over to God at whatever age—though it is of course far better to do so when we are young, the whole point of the poem we’ve just been going through. And realize that Solomon is apparently writing his treatise more for others than for himself—to help them learn to not make the terrible mistakes in life that he did and that he has observed in all he’s seen. (That being said, if he did come to repentance it seems odd that he would not declare that here as an example for others—unless he had already documented this in some other writing we have no record of. However, that leads us to ask why the repentance is not mentioned elsewhere in the biblical record. Perhaps it is because he did not remain repentant or retain his proper mind-set, as terrible as that would be.)
Beyond sighing over wasted life apart from God, there may be in the “vanity of vanities” lament of verse 8 and in much of the book a sense of catharsis—a purging of emotions by allowing them to well up, giving voice to them and enabling them to be faced so as to be dealt with. As we view the negative aspects of the world and our own problems, it is understandable that we would sigh and cry out about how awful it all is. It is not even healthy to keep it all stuffed down or pretend that everything is all okay. It is needed at times to give vent to frustration in saying how frustrating life is. Solomon did so, and we feel it right along with him as we read. Of course, we are not to be complainers (Philippians 2:14). But it is right to contemplate and be mournful over the plight of the world and ourselves. We see this in the Psalms concerning particular circumstances again and again. And here in Ecclesiastes we see it concerning the whole human condition. Alas—so much frustration. But this recognition is not to leave us still upset or in despair. It is so we can move past the grief and deal with life and even enjoy it as God intended. Remember that Solomon said to cheer up and has repeatedly encouraged us to receive God’s gifts joyfully.
The Preaching the Word commentary states on the return to the vanity declaration in verse 8: “We should not think, however, that the Preacher merely repeats himself. Ecclesiastes 12:8 does bring us back to the same place where we began, but we are not the same people. Reading Ecclesiastes has given us a bigger perspective on life. The Preacher has shown us how vain life is; so when we hear him make the same statement at the end of his book, it strikes us with much greater force” (Ryken, p. 274). We have indeed seen so much. In fact, maybe the best way to understand verse 8 at this stage of the book is in light of what Solomon has been showing us throughout the book about how worthless and frustrating this life is—apart from God. The same commentary further states, “What the Preacher mainly wants us to see is how meaningless life is without God, how little joy there is under the sun if we try to leave our Creator out of his universe” (p. 275). Moreover, the book is not quite over yet. And as we’ll see, “‘vanity’ does not get the last word, either in the Bible or in the Christian life” (p. 275).
Some have argued that Ecclesiastes should properly end with the final vanity declaration of verse 8 (saying verses 9-14 were added later), so that the descriptions of death in the verses immediately preceding verse 8 would be the last things we were originally meant to contemplate. The idea is that the book is utterly hopeless in the face of inevitable death—that the message here is that this life is all there is. That the book is telling us to try to maybe grab a little pleasure because the course of life is: we live, we suffer, we die, we’re gone forever, too bad, so sad. But of course from everything we’ve seen in the book up to here, we should realize that this assertion does not make sense. Let’s even note the context of verse 8 in following verse 7. The statement in verse 7 that the human spirit returns to God shows there is more to come. The intent of verse 7, as we saw, is indeed to show finality—the end of opportunity. God gave life and now God takes it back. It’s over. However, the fact that the spirit goes back to God and is not destroyed from existence is a cause for hope—especially in light of the various places in the book that point to a future day when God will set things right. It will be reiterated in the actual conclusion of the book to follow (which is in fact labeled the conclusion, as we will see) that a day of judgment is coming. There will, in fact, be life beyond this life today under the sun.
Now, what we just read about dying in verses 5-7 could seem to present a hopeless picture— especially following a miserable depiction of growing old, and having discussed so many other problems of this life before that. But recall that the light is still sweet, and there remains life to rejoice in (Ecclesiastes 11:7-8), especially as we contemplate eternity with our Creator. Consider the following words of the aged psalmist of Psalm 71, who was likely David, Solomon’s father—which would mean Solomon knew these words. These words of seeking God in hope and trust are for all of God’s people as we grow old:
“In You, O LORD, I put my trust…. Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails…. O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare your wondrous works. Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come…. You, who have shown me great and severe troubles, shall revive me again, and bring me up again from the depths of earth. You shall increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side” (verses 1, 9, 17-21). May we all have this wonderful, trusting attitude as we near the end of this life.
Yet there’s something important we need to realize about the poem describing old age in Ecclesiastes 12. It actually points us to the present, as we are not dead yet—and in fact neither was the psalmist when he wrote the words above. He hoped in a future resurrection, yet his words were also meant metaphorically of God’s deliverance in this life. All of us today still have opportunity remaining in our present life under the sun, so we must make the most of it.
And when this life does finally end, we know that God’s promises endure. For those who trust in God, we know that He will raise us to eternal life with a new body—and then we will be, for time without end, forever young. In light of the image of a run-down house, consider what the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4: “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation from heaven…. that mortality may be swallowed up by life.”
Thinking about a temporary structure to be ultimately replaced by a permanent home, we may recall here the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot—the great harvest and thanksgiving festival observed by the Israelites with temporary dwellings, branches and fruit (Leviticus 23:33-34, Leviticus 23:39-43)—during which the book of Ecclesiastes is read in Jewish synagogues and possibly the first occasion for Solomon proclaiming the words of this book to the people of Israel, as mentioned in our introduction. The Jews call this festival “the Season of Our Rejoicing,” because of the repeated commands to rejoice during it before God with food, wine and fellowship, having gathered in the produce of labor (Deuteronomy 16:13-15). We should observe the clear parallel with the repeated refrains in Ecclesiastes about enjoyment of these through God.
The festival also fits well with the fleeting nature of life today. Commentator James Limburg puts it well in Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time: “Sukkot is a celebration of the beauty of things that don’t last, the little hut which is so vulnerable to wind and rain…and will be dismantled at week’s end; the ripe fruits which will spoil if not picked and eaten right away; the friends who may not be with us for as long as we would wish; and in northern climates, the beauty of the leaves changing color as they begin the process of dying and falling from the trees. Sukkot comes in the fall. Summer is over and sometimes the evenings are already chilly with the first whispers of winter. It comes to tell us that the world is full of good and beautiful things, food and wine, flowers and sunsets and autumn landscapes and good company to share them with, but that we have to enjoy them right away because they will not last. They will not wait for us to finish other things and get around to them. It is a time to ‘eat our bread in gladness and drink our wine with joy’ (Ecclesiastes 9:7), not despite the fact that life does not go on forever but precisely because of that fact. It is a time to enjoy happiness with those we love and to realize that we are at a time in our lives when enjoying today means more than worrying about tomorrow. It is a time to celebrate the fact that we have finally learned what life is about and how to make the most of it” (p. 123, emphasis added). Of course, in observing the Feast of Tabernacles, while we are learning to appreciate our many blessings today, we are also anticipating the permanence of life and joy yet to come. (To learn more about this great festival God gave and all His other biblical festivals, read our free study guide God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.)
Finally, we should note here concerning the vanity declaration of Ecclesiastes 12:8 that in repeating the opening statement of the second verse of the book, Solomon bookends his work, thus forming a literary construction we’ve seen earlier—an inclusio, in this case spanning most of the book. He has basically brought his treatise to an ending climax, but this is followed by a summary of the intent behind the work and what we are intended to take away from it. Yet this conclusion will not end with what the book started with. Verse 8 was the last mention of vanity or frustration. The final response will be on how to face the problem, as pointed to in many of Solomon’s prior passages.