One of the difficulties of preaching through a book in multiple messages is that it takes a little while to work through the whole argument of the book, and the book of Ecclesiastes does indeed work together so that its message is seen most clearly when the book is taken together as a whole. This may well have been what Martin Luther wrestled with when in 1527 he began lecturing through the book of Ecclesiastes at the University of Wittenburg and ultimately wrote, “Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him.”1 I’ve felt that way more than once in my life. But this is why last week, as we began this series, I asked you to walk with me through these five weeks and hear the message as a whole. And today we come to part two of our five-part series through this book, which adds one more piece to the Preacher’s argument in the book.
By way of reminder, last week I argued that there is no lasting significance or gain to be had under the sun, on this side of eternity, so we don’t have to worry about chasing after it. On this side of Genesis 3, the world and this life is not made so that we will find lasting significance, meaning, happiness, or gain in our toiling throughout life. When God subjected this world to futility in judgment, we were left with the reality that not only does this world fail to provide us lasting significance or gain but death awaits all of us. Our approaching death is an unavoidable truth that comes to all of us and tells us that if we try to extract from this life only our hope and significance and lasting gain, we will be sorely disappointed in the end. Because life is a mist or puff of smoke, trying to amount to something and be remembered long after we’re dead, is a vain pursuit, like chasing after the wind.
As we come to the second section of the book (1:12-2:26), we’ll see that this book isn’t merely the product of the Preacher reasoning one day as he sits down with his journal. It’s actually the conclusion he came to as he went on his own bitter pursuit to find gain and lasting significance in this life “under the sun,” pursuing it in a way that nearly every other person who’s ever lived could only dream of. In other words, anything we could counter his message with, the Preacher can say, “I tried that, and I tried it better than you’re trying it.” And he found that it was all like grasping for a puff of smoke. But in this second section we’ll see that he doesn’t conclude that we should therefore despair in all that we do but instead, with a change of perspective, see life as a gift from God to enjoy. Let’s walk through his argument then, starting with the context of his pursuit.
He writes in 1:12-13, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” So, here is no mere peasant. He is the king. So, if we’re tempted to think that achieving a certain status or recognition would provide lasting satisfaction, his identity as king in and of itself erases that idea. And we’ll see that as king he had all the means and intelligence to make this pursuit of grasping lasting gain and lasting satisfaction from life, and he applied himself in a wise way to see if it is possible.
And his conclusion? He writes, ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (1:13-15).
In other words, from the point that God subjected the world to futility in Genesis 3 so that the world is broken, death and decay are reigning over everything, and mankind itself is broken, we tend to find ourselves pursuing what we deeply want in a place and from a world that cannot give it and so we find ourselves frustrated. What we tell ourselves will bring lasting happiness once we grasp hold of it only leaves us wanting more once we’ve attained it, and it can be no other way for the one who pursues gain in this world, on this side of eternity. We simply cannot make straight what God has made crooked and cannot amass gain from what is lacking. But how exactly did the Preacher try to seek lasting gain in this world? That brings us to our second section, the pursuit of lasting gain.
First, he began with wisdom (to which he’ll return later). He writes, “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.’ And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:16-18).
This might be the route of education for us. “If only I get this degree, that academic achievement, and am renowned for my wisdom,” we might say, “then I will be appreciated and known by many, and that will fill this need for lasting significance.” But the Preacher says that wisdom and learning are also like trying to grasp a puff of smoke. Not only does it not provide lasting and true fulfillment, but it actually increases sorrows. This is no doubt something we’ve experienced. We live in a time where we can know more about what is going on in the world from our couch than at any time in world history, and I would dare say that we would all agree that it would be powerfully inviting if someone told us we could go back to a time where we knew less. Wisdom and education did not provide what the Preacher was looking for.
Next, he pursues pleasure, alcohol, building projects, work and industry, and riches. He writes, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ 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. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 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. 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” (2:1-8).
In other words—and we need to let this sink in—he pursued everything we’re tempted to pursue to convince ourselves that we’ll finally feel like we’ve made it and can be content, having achieved, having made our mark on this world, received recognition, and achieved lasting satisfaction that can’t be erased. Do you see? This is his point. If you’re telling yourself, “If I keep this up, maybe I can get my name on a plaque,” then the Preacher laughs at you. He built entire cities that looked like Eden and was king. He achieved more than you are trying to achieve and is telling us it doesn’t provide you all that you’re hoping it will.
And if we’re still not convinced he measures up to what we’re aiming for, he tells us in verses 9-10, “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 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.”
I’ve thought about how best to communicate his pursuit, and I think I have something that may come close. Think of all that you’re tempted to covet. Maybe someone’s riches, or achievements, or relationships, or possessions, or prestige, or sheer pleasure. And you’re telling your heart, “If I only had that.” And whatever “that” is, you’re pursuing it as that which will bring you lasting happiness. Well, the Preacher had that thing or item or relationship or achievement or prestige and more. He had more than all who’d ever lived before him, was immensely wise, and did not keep from himself anything or person or pleasure his heart desired. And what’s his conclusion? In verse 11 he writes, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
David Gibson writes, “This is the stuff of secret dreams. Fame and fortune, the sky is the limit, and when he gets there, stands back, and surveys his empire, it is all quite pointless, meaningless, a chasing after the wind (2:11). He has actually gained nothing. Thus says the man who owned everything.”2
But we might continue to push back. Didn’t he see, after all, that wisdom was better than foolishness? Didn’t he find some gain in it? Sure. He writes, “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. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (2:12-14a). And yet, just at the moment where you might think, “See, okay, we’re getting somewhere,” he continues, “And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 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. 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. So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (2:14b-17).
Yes, living in wisdom is better than living in foolishness. But the Preacher’s pursuit isn’t what goes for a little better life. He’s pursuing lasting significance. He’s trying to get that lasting gain your heart craves, telling you it’s out there for you to grasp hold of. He wants to make it in this world in a way that he finally feels lasting fulfillment and is remembered long after he’s dead. Yet, that’s the problem. He realizes he’s going to die, and when he dies he’ll be forgotten.
You see, as long as you’re expecting and pursuing from life “under the sun” some kind of lasting gain, lasting significance, and lasting satisfaction, then you’ll see that death is the great eraser. If you’re trying to get out of life more than it can give, then the constant reality at the end of your pursuit is the reminder that you’ll die and likely be forgotten. Just give it a few generations. And that’s true of us whether we’re among the wisest and most educated or the most foolish and uneducated. Life is a mist. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and so pursuing gain in this life—on this side of eternity—is like building sandcastles down by the ocean. And if you make your life about this pursuit of gain, you’ll find, like the Preacher, that you hate life.
But let’s take one other angle. What if you say, “But the lasting significance and gain I’m going to pursue is being able to accumulate what I can pass on to my children”? But we’ve seen throughout life that many a person’s life has been ruined because of what has been handed to them, haven’t we? And all the riches in the world can be squandered in a second by foolishness. The Preacher writes, ‘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, 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. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 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. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night he does not rest. This also is vanity” (2:18-23).
I shared the last time I went through Ecclesiastes that my mom’s brother died in a car accident when he was quite young. He’d married, had two children, and was by most standards a pretty modest man, living his life in Western Kentucky. But there was one thing he thought he’d achieved. He told my mom one day after purchasing a pretty significant life insurance policy that at least he now knew that if anything ever happened to him, his children would be well taken care of.
Now, that seems like a big deal, doesn’t it? For a person of modest background—my mom’s parents were tenant farmers—to be able to say that he knew his children would be well taken care of if anything ever happened to him seems like a lasting achievement. You can rest well with that one, can’t you?
After his death in that car accident, his wife took the money from the life insurance payout, pursued her addiction to drugs and alcohol, and within only a few years was broke. I don’t think his children ever saw one cent of it. And couldn’t we tell more stories about businesses being passed on and run into the ground, riches being squandered, and years of labor being thrown away in an instant? Of course we can. And even in your own lifetime, these things aren’t ultimately pleasing. You find yourself feeling empty and needy the second after being recognized, feeling sorrowful and unable to sleep even in the midst of your achievements. If you try to seek lasting gain in this lifetime, the Preacher tells us, it is a chasing after the wind, a pursuit of trying to grab hold of that puff of smoke that lingers for a fleeting second after you blow out a candle. And he speaks from experience.
So, is there anything positive the Preacher can share with us? Indeed there is. Let’s look at his conclusion: see life as gift, not gain.
The Preacher wants us to see that God has something for us in this life, even under the sun. And here it is. He writes, “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, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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 the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after the wind” (2:24-26).
The Preacher’s conclusion is that all that he’s described—trying to extract lasting gain from this life under the sun—is how an unbeliever lives life. In other words, it’s not simply an empty pursuit to try to get lasting gain and significance in this life, it is an immoral one. It is what the sinner does. But you and I don’t have to. You and I know that we’ll die and that this world isn’t all there is. This isn’t our ultimate home. And so what can we do in this life with regard to our work, relationships, etc.? We can see them as gifts from God to be enjoyed, not that which has to provide our lasting satisfaction.
In other words, if you’ll accept your limitations and the limitations of what this world can give you, and will instead recognize that God gives gifts to be enjoyed in this life, then you can enjoy this life. You can have a glorious day with your wife, and say, “Thank you, God. That was good.” You can do a project and enjoy it as a gift from God. Yes, you know your death will mean you’ll be forgotten and that project erased like a sandcastle on the beach, but you can also find joy in them if you’ll see them as gifts from God. Write that book and enjoy it as a gift from God, but don’t see it as a stepping stone to get that recognition from others that will finally soothe your soul. That’s not happening. Look at this life under the sun as gift, not gain.
You see, there are a few things you need to do in life to know joy in your toil. First, as I’ve noted, don’t try to get out of life more than it can give. Don’t try to turn it into your pursuit of profit. If you enjoy your work, give thanks to God, and enjoy it. Enjoy that project you completed, that sale your made, and even that business you built. But don’t try to turn it into something that says you’ve made it or can provide lasting significance. Then you’ll ruin it because it can’t provide that. That’s how unbelievers live, but you and I don’t have to.
In fact, I think that the reason the Preacher ends this happy conclusion about joy with the note at the end of v. 26 that this “also is vanity and a striving after the wind” is because he’s warning us that if we take even viewing life as a gift for our joy and try to use it as a stepping stone to something else, we’ll see it’s merely a fleeting mist as well. And, again, we don’t have to live like that.
Second, recognize everything in your life as a gift from God not your achievements. You see, I think it’s significant that any reference to God is absent in 1:14-2:23. He’s only made an appearance now in 2:24-26. Why? I think it’s because the Preacher is saying that the only way to find joy and enjoyment in the midst of this fleeting life in our toil, etc. is to see that our “opportunities to eat, drink, and find satisfaction in our work [or our relationships and more], when they come, are not human achievements but divine gifts, and are meant to be enjoyed as such.”3 Stop seeing them as a means of your pursuit of gain and achievement but instead as God’s gracious gifts to be enjoyed. Sure, they are gifts that will one day disappear from remembrance like everything else under the sun, but they are gifts nonetheless, given by God to be enjoyed.
Now, yes, we can say more. You and I can also add that if we’ll recognize that there is life above the sun, that eternity awaits us, and that we’ll be with Christ through faith in his life, and death, and resurrection for us, that the fact that life under the sun slips from our grip is okay. We can say that we can live for the world to come that is not fleeting. But the Preacher is working his argument piece by piece—as I noted at the beginning of this sermon—and at this point he simply wants us to move from seeing life as gain to seeing it as gift. And that change in perspective and approach can move us from hating life and knowing frustration to enjoying it as God’s temporary good gifts to be enjoyed. So let us now come and give thanks to the one who gives all good gifts as we come to the table. Amen.
2 David Gibson, Living Life Backward, 41.
3 Barry Webb, Five Festal Garments, 93-94.