Confessing Vanity of Vanities: The Human Quest For Knowledge & Meaning.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2 (King James Version)
The past few days have been particularly gratifying to my vanity. I have mouthed off to no end about my awesomeness on every level, and I have grown quite obnoxious about it.
Did I have good reasons? My ego told me yes, and it has had its way of late. My mind, however, has begun to reassert itself, and it focused on King Solomon’s exhortations in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Solomon began with the premise that “all is vanity” and then posed the question of what a man gains from his efforts. He then proceeds to answer his quest by describing the temporary nature of the human existence. In simple terms, we all are tiny specks on the timeline of human history. We will cease to exist in a matter of decades.
The world will not miss our existence. The sun will rise and set without us. Future generations will come and go with no memory of our existence or accomplishments. Nonetheless, we put forth prodigious efforts to seek honor from our fellows and create legacies. Our eyes are “not satisfied with seeing,” nor are our ears “filled with hearing,” saith King Solomon.
Despite our efforts, however, “there is no new thing under the sun.” What we do has been done before. What we do will be done long after we depart the human existence. Humans kick against this state of affairs through selective memories. King Solomon pointed out that no one remembers that which has been done before and no one will remember what we do after we do it.
Yet, we humans continue to vex ourselves with an endless quest for knowledge, accomplishment, and honor from our fellows. Something must irresistibly motivate us.
King Solomon turned to his attention to this subject in Ecclesiastes 2. While our labors are vexatious, nothing is better for a man than “that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour,” and Solomon describes this as the “gift of God” in Ecclesiastes 3. Having established these principles, Solomon devotes at least half of Ecclesiastes’ remaining chapters to comparative reasoning, analyzing human endeavors and distinguishing how labors are undertaken for vanity from how labors are undertaken for natural and appropriate human enjoyment.
The nature of the human condition is a fallen one of moral depravity. We understand good and evil. Most of us spend our lives seeking the good through increased knowledge, sometimes shamelessly turning that quest into the foundation of a psuedo moral redemption that we somehow think that society can grant us through its approbation.
In Proverbs 1:7, King Solomon wrote that the foundation for our knowledge is the fear of God, and, in Ecclesiastes 12:13, he states the purpose of our knowledge is to keep God’s commandments. His previous chapters make clear that this is where our quest for knowledge and meaning should content themselves.
The human quest for knowledge is properly employed to that end. In other words, our quest for knowledge and meaning is really a quest for a moral redemption, and our souls will never rest until we obtain it. When our pursuit of knowledge runs amok (and the Lord knows that mine often does), we seek moral redemption from entities other than the Lord, and we don’t even consider it moral redemption. We can’t consider it as such in a way consistent with logic, but the honor and respect that we receive from society somehow justifies us as “good people” – whatever that means.
Society’s honor and respect – the foundations of a moral redemption that we vainly look in the wrong places for – will disappear in our lifetimes or shortly after we depart to the next life. We will constantly be seeking it to replenish it in our lives. We will never obtain a lasting and satisfactory result.
Our quest for human meaning and knowledge properly rests in the Lord, who is the only One who can give us a lasting eternal moral redemption. We occasionally lose sight of that. I don’t know how much I will be running my mouth over the next few days, but my mind will sure make me do a doubletake before I open it.