I remember watching my Grandpa Helton die. His memory went. He eventually didn’t recognize even our family—referring to people by the names of the dogs he once owned. The whole process was painful for our entire family, but there was time to prepare. Sudden deaths are even more difficult. A schoolmate of mine died suddenly in a car accident when we were in high school. He was suddenly gone—no longer occupying his usual spot in the hallways, outside, at lunch, or on the school’s athletic teams. All of the investments he was making early in his life suddenly amounted to nothing. Vanity. It seemed he was robbed of his potential. We hear stories of death all the time. Death impacts us all. Death is the one thing that renders all of life vain.
The question is common to all people. It’s one we must ask because we are not ignorant of the reality of death. The reaper will catch all of us, and we don’t know when. What’s the point of everything we do, our advancement in knowledge, and all of our success if we simply die in the end anyway?
1 Samuel 25:1
Then Samuel died; and all Israel gathered together and mourned for him, and buried him at his house in Ramah. And David arose and went down to the wilderness of Paran.
The eulogy (v. 1)
Samuel was born in about 1083 BC and is now dead at the age of about sixty-three years in about 1020 BC. Samuel was a faithful servant of God from his youth (Chapter 3), spent his life traveling from city to city judging Israel, and faithfully defended God’s word and plan despite much opposition from within Israel. Samuel was born a Levite, was dedicated to the Lord, and lived a simple life absent of life’s many pleasures.
Let’s share some memories from Samuel’s life:
- Samuel was a miracle baby, born to a woman who was previously barren (Cf. 1).
- God favored Samuel from a young age (Cf. 2:26).
- Samuel became a prophet and judge at about 13 years of age (Cf. 3:4-11).
- Samuel led Israel against the Philistines before Israel had a king (Cf. 7).
- Samuel brought Israel into his modern age by establishing a monarchy (Cf. 9:17).
- Samuel did the same job for fifty years and never retired.
Samuel accomplished much on this earth, lived a full life, and died at an old age for his time.
Life’s greatest irony
Death is the greatest irony of life. We are born. We spend so much time growing, figuring life out, raising our own children, pursuing happiness, building success, accumulating things, gathering information, developing philosophies, and building relationships. No matter what a person learns, who a person knows, or what a person accumulates, every person dies alone without being able to hold on to his or her hard work. The prospect of death leaves people with no hope, because it means there is no point in doing or accomplishing anything on the earth. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
Later on the biblical timeline, Solomon will describe his own experiment:
What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever… I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain… I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines. Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 14-18; 2:1-11).
Even concerning one’s spiritual gifts and the exercise thereof, Paul will later write,
…if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away (1 Corinthians 13:8).
The prophet or preacher who finds his identity in the work of proclamation will delve into great depression when he loses his gift. Every preacher must grow old and suffer against a deteriorating mind. All the work he has done as a preacher to improve his skill and to build an audience is vanity. Sign gifts will cease—those signs that so many use to define their religion. Vanity. Even knowledge will be done away. It is vain to merely to build up one’s knowledge and so puff up the person. The end is deterioration and death. No worldly pursuit matters at that moment. We came into the world naked and screaming. We will depart without even our bodies to clothe us. That is the great irony of our existence.
Yet, so many people live as if they will never face death. They build empires for themselves, worry about being accepted, seek knowledge upon knowledge, adopt outward religion, affiliate politically, pursue their rights, chase productivity, amass followings, dream of fame or popularity, purchase property and possessions, glorify their relationships, and everyone’s end is the same. Everyone must cross into the unknown alone. The most we can hope for is a good attendance at our funerals. Even then, the people in our lives are only spectators; They can’t accompany us in death. Vanity, vanity.
We can even consider Samuel. Samuel lived a godly life. He followed and served the Lord faithfully from his youth. Samuel never faltered and his words never failed. Yet, his end was the same as every other Israelite who died. His body is buried at his house in Ramah. No one can really be with him. The world keeps spinning. All of Samuel’s work is being undone by Saul. He is unable to insure his life’s work. Vanity, vanity. Health, wealth, religiosity, and prosperity—vanity.
Don’t waste your life
Do you feel the hopelessness of our mortality? It’s important for every person in every generation to think about. All of these things we edify in life are meaningless. You ask, “Well, what’s the point, then? Why should we do anything?” If all is vanity, why even live? Why come into existence? How can there be such meaningless beauty and life in the world? What’s the point of all this? There are three responses we might have when they recognize the vanity of this life. 1) We have utter hopelessness and despair. This person is the teenager who loses a classmate and is forced to think about the finality of death. She searches for a reason to continue and wonders if this life really has anything to offer like they teach in school. This is the man who lives into his mid-30s or 40s and hasn’t accomplished the life-goals he had as a teenager. He has a mid-life crisis and accumulates stuff, marries a new young woman, and starts dressing differently so he can feel like he has done something with his vain life. It’s the aged person whose health declines. She sees death at her door, and she fears. She tries to cling to everything she has as time runs out. As a result, she has become a cynic, always condemning others because she sees things changing around her and she feels she is losing everything. 2) We decide to take full advantage of our existence because we only live once. We say to ourselves, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Cf. Isaiah 22:13; Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32). We live with reckless abandon with no attempt at meaning because it is vanity. In the end, we are left with nothing and no one—like those who gave in to hopelessness and despair. Though the second type of person may be happier in life, the first two types of people are both equally empty and unfulfilled. Vanity upon vanities.
3) We contemplate eternity. Life is ultimately void of substantial meaning if it ends; There are no real consequences, moral standards, or responsibilities. It matters not if we take care of the earth because everyone dies in the end anyway. It matters not how people are treated, and murder is just another way to end the delusion. Everything is social construct. What if there is meaning, though? What if that meaning is substantial? What if we don’t cease to exist?
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon will conclude his investigation of life’s vanity:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain; in the day that the watchmen of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle because they are few, and those who look through windows grow dim; and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low, and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly.
Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8).
Our only hope for meaning is to remember our Creator, to whom the soul returns upon our death—to consider Him and know Him and be a part of His church while we are young, before we waste our whole lives on vanity. To pursue mere education, safety, happiness, success, fame, popularity, and human relationships is to pursue what perishes with the body. The only meaningful pursuit, indeed the one pursuit that makes all others joyous, is the pursuit of the Creator. Yet, we see so many people neglecting their Creator and His church so they can pursue perishable things void of everlasting meaning.
Even though our spirituality and services to God will cease, Paul will proclaim:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Though our brains will degenerate, our followings disperse, and our religiosity die with our bodies, the love we have for God is the thing that perseveres, and we shall know Him fully.
In the Gospel account, Jesus will teach:
The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
Our only hope for meaning is to cast ourselves upon our Creator and count all else—all education, safety, happiness, success, fame, popularity, human relationships, religiosity, knowledge, prophecy, signs, and status—as loss for the sake of knowing Him (Cf. Philippians 3:8), repent of our vain living, and believe the Gospel. May we follow hard after our only hope. Everything we do on this earth, may we do it because God has called us to do so for His glory and not ours (Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31).
It turns out death is part of God’s plan to reveal the vanity of human self-pursuit (Cf. Genesis 3). God is giving eternal life as a gift to His chosen people for His own glory. Samuel still died. He was not exalted. The world kept spinning. So it will be with us no matter our works or religiosity. Why? The Father is glorifying Himself and exalting the Son, Jesus Christ.