Vanity Fair

Then I saw in my dream, that when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity; and at the town there is a fair kept, called Vanity Fair. It is kept all the year long. It bears the name of Vanity Fair because the town where it is kept is lighter than vanity; and, also because all that is there sold, or that comes there, is vanity. As is the saying of the wise, “all that comes is vanity.”

This fair is no new-erected business, but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.

Almost five thousand years ago, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are: and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein, should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long. Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.

Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red color.

And as in other fairs of less moment, there are the several rows and streets, under their proper names, where such and such wares are vended. So here likewise you have the proper places, rows, streets, (viz. countries and kingdoms), where the wares of this fair are soonest to be found. Here is the Britain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row, where several sorts of vanities are to be sold. But, as in other fairs, some one commodity is as the chief of all the fair, so the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in this fair; only our English nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat.

Vanity Fair

As Christian and Faithful press on in their journey, they come to a town called Vanity. The town is famous for its light-hearted atmosphere and longstanding fair.

The town of Vanity, like the City of Destruction from where Christian had fled, is representative of the world in its opposition to God. The City of Destruction portrays the world as under the wrath and condemnation of God for its sin and immorality. The town of Vanity dresses up the sin and immorality of the world to appear alluring and desirable. It is enticing to the eye, but empty in the end.

Vanity represents the pride, arrogance and conceit of the world. It is a description of the world without Christ. It is life without the hope of the gospel—meaningless, futile and pointless in the end. The description comes from the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come
By those who will come after.
I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:1–14).

Solomon looked at the futility of life in this world and concluded “all is vanity”! He repeats this assessment throughout the book:

Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17).

But if a man lives many years
And rejoices in them all,
Yet let him remember the days of darkness,
For they will be many.
All that is coming is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 11:8)

The town of Vanity is well-known for its fair. Vanity Fair represents all the world has to offer us, which, apart from Christ, amounts to nothing in the end. Vanity Fair is Satan’s attempt to distract and hinder us from following after Christ. It is his ploy to lure us into grasping at things that in the end will avail us nothing and keep us from great treasure of knowing and serving and loving God. Christ alone is the way, the truth and life (John 14:6). He alone has the words of life (John 6:68). If we miss Christ, we miss it all.

We learn from Bunyan:

1. The fair is ancient. Its origins date back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were tempted and enticed to disobey God (Genesis 3).

2. The fair is continuous; it lasts “all year long.” Temptations are always around us, in every age, in every generation, and in all walks of life. We have an enemy to our souls and he would have us believe the same lie he spoke in the Garden, that his way is more desirable than God’s way.

3. The fair is corrupt; it is tainted by sinful passions. It has given place to many foolish and profane occupations: “juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues.” Lawbreaking abounds: stealing, murdering, committing adultery, lying, “and that of a blood-red color” (in other words lawbreaking made evident in assault, injury and violence).

4. The fair is international; it embraces the styles and wares of every country and culture. God has measured the nations and all is vanity (Isaiah 40:17). Each nation offers a unique blend of temptations to draw pilgrims from the Way. Bunyan highlights the prominence of Roman Catholicism over the world in his day: “the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in this fair.” And he notes the dislike of Catholicism in England: “only our English nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat.” With Henry VII and the Act of Supremacy in 1534 England had begun to distance itself from the Roman Church and establish its own Anglican Church. Earlier in the story Christian had observed Giant Pope weak and powerless in his cave.

5. The fair is bountiful. It is full of delights and pleasures. When you read Bunyan’s description, you notice that not all the things provided at the fair are in themselves bad things. Some are, but others are God’s good gifts. He mentions “houses, lands, trades,” “wives, husbands, children” and “souls and bodies” among the good things. Bunyan’s point here is that anything—even good things—can be turned into an idol and become bad, when it becomes more important and more valuable to us than Christ.

As pilgrims we need the attitude of Paul.

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7–11).

As we will see in the next post, such an attitude will set us apart as Christians from the world and its pursuits.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2016 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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