The sermon text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 verse 15 through Chapter 2 verse 26. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Here we go:
Chapter One 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Chapter Two I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. 12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Before we pray and then dig into this week’s text, let me remind you of something that I laid out last week. We have to realize the meaning and importance of two critical phrases in order to understand any of the Book of Ecclesiastes properly.
First, there is the word translated here as vanity–hebel–which means mere wind, meaningless, vapor, here one second and gone the next. This word, or the variant “striving after wind,” appears 12 times in today’s reading.
Second, there is the phrase translated “under the sun” or “under heaven.” This signifies that the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying something like “in this world only” or “if you take God away, this is what reality looks like.” This phrase, in one variant or the other, appears 6 times in today’s reading.
If we put this together, it goes something like this: “In a world without God every single thing and very single endeavor, no matter how lawful and inherently good it is in any other respect, and no matter how skillfully and wisely it is handled, is ultimately futile, vapor, vanity, mere wind. They will never satisfy.” And yet, as we see at the conclusion: “In God and under God (rather than just “under the sun”) all these things and all these labors find true meaning and purpose. We will be able to find satisfaction and meaning in them, because our foundation is ultimately going to rest in God and His gifts to, and labors for, us.”
Let’s pray. Oh God, our hearts are so prone to wander from You, to forget You, to dig into life living like practical atheists even when we do truly believe in You. We take the good things of this world and make idols of them, letting them be to us a source of ultimate satisfaction and meaning, apart from You, and this also leaves us so very empty. We chase vanity and attempt to live as if everything that matters is here, under the sun. Help us instead to find our true meaning and happiness in You and in You alone, our faith and hope in Christ alone. Then we can enjoy the good gifts You have given of us rightly, and hold them loosely when, as will be true for all of us here and as we step into eternity, we are asked to set them down. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
When I was a boy I struggled with the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of “time.” It puzzled me that everything that I experienced was over as quickly as it registered in my brain. Time took everything away from me as quickly as I comprehended it. Everything I looked forward to, like Christmas morning, would be over in less than a blink of an eye even as I enjoyed it. One day I decided to “figure it out,” using the spokes of my moving bicycle tire as I rode it. I was about 12. I looked at the spokes turning and tried to figure out how and why as soon as I saw any spoke ‘here’ it was already ‘there’, and so on into infinity. I never did figure out time. That’s ok, no one has.
In our reading last week, we encountered a famous saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). That is, outside heaven what we experience and do now has been before, and it will be again. That is certainly true with what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in this week’s text. He lays out all of the things he did or experienced in order to try to find purpose, meaning, contentment, lasting value and contribution “under the sun.” What does he talk about, and what did he try, that would not have been familiar to someone a thousand years before he wrote this book or that people today cannot relate to?
First, he tried to acquire as much wisdom and knowledge as he could, by extensive observation, reading, and brutally honest reflection. He wanted to use this wisdom and knowledge to guide his own actions and to deal with the world around him. He hoped to improve both through sound wisdom lived out with prudence and discretion. The search for and value of wisdom, as opposed to the folly of the foolish, is something he brings up repeatedly in the Book of Ecclesiastes. We see it at the beginning of our reading today, and then again in the second chapter, verses 12 through 16, where he tells us he “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly.”
Second, he wanted to fix some of what is wrong with the world. Today we might say he wanted to leave the planet better than he found it. I think he meant doing this at every level, from his own character and family through deficiencies in his workplaces, communities, houses of worship, government, nation, and world. A lot of this deals with social and political reform. This becomes evident later in the book, as we find him repeatedly mourning injustice, oppression, inequity, greed, political corruption, and so on (cf. 3:16-17, 4:2, or Chapter 5:8, 7:7).
He tried to find true meaning and satisfaction in personal pleasure. “Under the sun”—without God—this was hedonism. He prominently reported indulging in “wine, women and song,” and that is what we often focus on in these passages. However, he also talked about enjoying beauty and fun—for example, his gardens, wealth, music, and various enterprises.
He connected his hedonism with his labor. As with most of us, he had to work to get those things he indulged in. Much of his labor was the kind we all hope for, where he could take pleasure not only in the things he built and accomplished, but also in the acts and processes of doing so. This is what many people look for in things like gardening, fishing, hunting, arts and crafts, restoring homes or antique cars—doing it is fun, and then you also get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. It reminds me of the old Bachman Turner Overdrive song, “Taking Care of Business,” where rock stars brag about getting tons of money and goodies in exchange for doing what they love doing anyway!
He is careful to let us know that he kept this pleasure seeking under reflection and control. Notice the caveats in verse 3, “my heart still guiding me with wisdom,” and in verse 9, “Also my wisdom remained with me.” We like to think about people embracing God only when, and because, they hit “rock bottom.” That is often how things go. This man never hits rock bottom. He could have said something like this: “I tried it all, every earthly delight, and I did it without destroying myself. I did not wreck my health, land in jail, or bottom out. If I had died in the middle of all of this, I would have gone out on top.” I can picture Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire and due to turn 91 next month, saying this very thing to his beautiful, young, glamour model third wife. “I did it my way.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes then dug into the subject of “toil” more directly, namely all the things we have to do to make it in this life, whether we enjoy them at the time or not. Some people live for their daily toil; we call them “workaholics.” He was not. He was balanced, and rich enough to have a life that consisted of a lot more than self-maintaining toil. Whether laborious or not, was it worth it, he asked?
What does he say about each and every one of these things—wisdom, work, pleasure, reform efforts—knowing he had done everything as well, and with as much wisdom, as is humanly possible?
On the one hand he tells us that, when done lawfully and skillfully, each of these things was in essence not only legitimate, but good. In a normal lifetime, God means us to have and pursue things such as these, in their proper time, place and circumstance. People who gain wisdom and live by it are better off. They are safer, see more, are more successful, and they do more real good. There is legitimate satisfaction is seeing a garden well dug and planted, a building that is both functional and solid, and architecturally beautiful. To be able to labor creating things you can enjoy both making and using is a truly wonderful thing. The taste of wine is from God, as is the embrace of our loved ones and the scent of flowers. Dignified toil is good, and noble, and we should honor it. We ought to strive to make the world a better place. We should hate injustice and oppression, and we ought to care about and for the poor. None of these things was inherently evil.
There is not one shred of Platonism, of other-wordliness, in this book. The writer of Ecclesiastes has his feet on the ground and he likes the dirt. His voice has what C. S. Lewis described in one of his novels as something like “having blood in it.” The writer of Ecclesiastes was an organic creature in a natural world and he believed that we should rejoice in it, despite life’s inevitable struggles and disappointments. The eminent German sociologist Max Weber called this “inner-worldly asceticism,” to contrast this kind of spirituality with the kind that thrives on self-castrated men, living in caves, trying to escape reality.
Yet in spite of this, because he pursued these things “under the sun,” they were hebel, meaningless, pointless, vapor. He could be the wisest of the wise and yet death would overtake him as much as it would the fool, and his memory would still be lost in obscurity. Wisdom was a mixed blessing anyway. He was wise enough to know how little he knew, and what he would have been happier not knowing. He could labor to build great things, but the wind, water and sand would wear them away, if invaders did not sack and burn them first. Even what lasted would eventually come under the power of those who did not work for them, who might not appreciate them, and who would perhaps even foolishly destroy them. He could help the poor, or root out corruption but like weeds, injustice, greed, and oppression would return.
I lived for a few years in St. Louis and did creative writing services under contract for the Anheuser-Busch Corporation. Consider August Busch the fourth. I wonder how his great-great-grandfather Adolphus Busch, or how his great-great-great grandfather Eberhard Anheuser, would feel about him if they were alive. He lost the company to a hostile takeover two years after becoming CEO, after 156 years of family control of what had become one of the largest and most secure corporations in the world, despite vowing he would not let that happen. His girlfriend then died of a drug-overdose in his mansion. He was involved just last month pulling a gun on someone during a bar fight. He has had years of run-ins with police. The Belgian conglomerate who bought his company has been dismantling a lot of the philanthropic work in St. Louis that the Busch family had taken pride in for years. But all of this was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.
An advertisement has been running in National Review magazine recently for a service for rich people that promises to make sure that their children will not be able, after they die, to use their inheritance to promote causes that they would have hated and opposed. It is a kind of “ideology insurance.” I read those ads and say to myself, “nice try.” It is vanity and a striving after wind. If your children really want to, they are going to get around your financial firewall, and do terrible things with your money, or their children will, or someone else will. Just wait.
What is all this but what the writer of Ecclesiastes had pointed out repeatedly over two and a half millennia ago? Vexation. Frustration. Folly. Hearts full of sorrow, and nights devoid of sleep. We strive mightily and worry often to gain, build and preserve those things that are important to us. And for what? Hebel.
Praise God He does not leave us there. Yes, life is hebel, it is vanity, but only if this life is all there is. Only if we count out God.
But as Francis Schaeffer said, there is a God, He is there, and He is not silent. He is not absent, nor is He dead. As Jesus told us in Matthew 10, verses 26 through 31, He cares for us, He values us, our very hairs are numbered, not one deed escapes His attention. He keeps our treasure in a place where moth and rust do not destroy and where the thief cannot break in and steal, as Jesus told us in Matthew 6, verses 19 and 20.
This life is not all that there is. We may leave the physical fruits of our labor to fools, but God is sovereign over both our labor and over the fools. He sees and rewards everything we did for His glory and His purposes, no matter how big or how small, no matter how spectacular or how mundane. Thus, as Paul said in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter One, verse 6, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Why? Because God “insures” our deposit!
In like manner, evil people never really “get away with it.” Vengeance is His, and He will repay. This is why we pray for the wicked rather than hating or envying them, because we know what awaits them. Like Asaph of Psalm 73, even if we despair at times as we see the wicked prosper as the righteous are suffering, in God we see that, while so often everything seems to be well with them, they are in a slippery place, they will fall to ruin, they will be swept away (v. 18-19).
“To the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business and gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God,” we read today. (Eccl. 2:26) The meek will eventually inherit the earth, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 verse 5. It will be, and is now, an eternal kingdom that, the writer of Hebrews later reminds us in Chapter 12, verse 28, “cannot be shaken.” All that the sinner has stored up will come to us.
As Jesus also taught us in Matthew 7, verses 24 through 27, their foundation is on sand, but ours is on a rock, and the winds and the waves will not destroy it. What is the rock? He, Jesus Christ, is that rock. The Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, verses 10 through 15 that, as we labor and build and then pass the fruits on to others at our passing, what we have built in this earth, to the extent it was done for Him, will survive the final judgment, and will be purified and made eternal. He goes on, in Chapter 15 of the same book, verse 58, urging us to be steadfast and immovable, pouring excellence into our work, because our “labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Our labors in the Lord are not hebel.
Knowing this, we can find contentment in our lives. We can enjoy, “from the hand of God,” eating, drinking and toiling. We can rest in the night, knowing that our labors in the daytime are meaningful and secure. Someday we can rest in the grave, knowing He will not abandon us, nor will He forget our earthly labors and loves.
On Easter we celebrate the empty tomb. If Jesus had remained in that grave, and suffered decay like every man or woman who has ever lived, His life would have been, ultimately, hebel. Actually, worse for Him than for us, because given all He did and taught, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, He would then “…not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” He would have been an object of derision, and His disciples would have been laughing stocks. And if He had not been raised, our life would also truly be hebel— vanity—because this world, under the sun, would be all there is.
Praise God that, as Jesus’ ancestor King David prophesied in Psalm 16, verse 10, God did not leave His Holy One in Sheol, nor let Him see corruption. So we can learn, and work, and love, and enjoy, secure and content in Jesus Christ, our hope and our life.
Jesus, in Your life we have life, in Your death our death has been conquered. Help us to enjoy the good things You give us in life, including the wonderful Easter celebrations ahead of us, secure in You, grateful that You have redeemed us, and thankful that in You our life has purpose, and meaning, and joy. In Jesus precious name we pray. Amen.