Ecclesiastes: It’s All Vanity!

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on September 12

Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26

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We’ll be looking again tonight at the book of Ecclesiastes. Last week we saw the vanity of living for time rather than living for eternity. And tonight as we turn to the rest of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2, we’ll see the vanity of living for self rather than living for God. And so if you would turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes chapter 1; you can find that on page 553 in the pew Bibles.

And at some point in Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes made its way into the liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the seven feasts that were instituted by God in the book of Leviticus for the people of Israel. And in the Feast of Tabernacles the crops were in the barn, the work in the field was done, and it was time to celebrate. The Feast of Tabernacles is all about resting and rejoicing and remembering. It was about remembering God’s faithfulness to the people in their wilderness wanderings and His goodness to the people in the land. So during the Feast of Tabernacles the people would actually build shelters, they would build shelters out of the branches of palm trees and out of leafy trees and the willows by the brook, and they would put these little huts together to celebrate the fruit of the harvest coming in. And they did that while spending the week in those little shelters that they had built. This was called “the festival.” For many people, this was the highlight of the year. It was the only feast, in fact, where joy was commanded. So in Leviticus chapter 23 verse 40 it says, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God in the Feast of Tabernacles.”

And then, at some point in Jewish tradition, was added the reading of the book of Ecclesiastes into the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Here is this most challenging and distressing of books speaking into the joy and the comradery of the harvest. That seems like just a jarring juxtaposition between two extremes. What could be the connection between the Feast of Tabernacles and the book of Ecclesiastes. Well there are several reasons, but in his book, “Five Festal Garments,” Barry Webb makes this comment. He says that, “Ecclesiastes keeps joy anchored in reality by injecting the lessons of the wilderness into the celebration of the harvest.” Because in the wilderness, the people of Israel learned about their frailty; they learned about the fleeting nature of life. And it was that lesson that they needed to hear again and again in the time of the harvest celebration to guard them against eating and drinking and finding satisfaction in their work and making the mistake of thinking that the harvest, that their work was their accomplishment rather than the gift of God. If they saw the harvest as their accomplishment rather than the gift of God, then that would lead them away from God rather than to Him.

And that’s what our passage in Ecclesiastes is about tonight. It’s about the vanity or the futility of mistaking God’s gifts as our accomplishments or our rights. It’s about the difference of grasping or clinging for the good life rather than enjoying a life that is good. And that’s going to be our outline for this passage tonight. The good life, number one, and then number two, a life that is good. It’s easy for us to get caught up in thinking about and taking stock of what we have and what we’ve done and what’s on our calendars. But wisdom is about remembering. It’s about remembering that everything we have, everything we do, is a gift from God. So with that in mind, let’s pray again and ask God to remind us of that tonight from this passage as we read from the book of Ecclesiastes. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for the way Your Word comes and challenges us and reminds us of Your gifts, of Your goodness to us, of Your faithfulness to us. We thank You that You do not leave us in our idolatry. You do not leave us in our greed and selfishness. You do not leave us wandering and searching in all the wrong places and all the wrong ways but You lead us to the truth. You lead us to Your Word. You lead us to Christ by Your Spirit. And so we pray that You would do that again tonight. Speak Lord, for Your servants listen. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Ecclesiastes chapter 1, starting in verse 12. We’ll read to the end of chapter 2:

“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. 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 wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

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 wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

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.

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. 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.

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 his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. 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 wind.

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 his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

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 one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

The Good Life

Well you could never accuse the Preacher in this book of being overly subtle or unclear with his message, could you? Because if repetition is a key to learning, then it’s clear what we’re meant to learn from this passage. The message of the writer of Ecclesiastes is that it’s all vanity. All of it. All of his learning, all of his labor, all of his leisure has led him to this one conclusion – that it’s all vanity and it’s a striving after wind. And we saw that last week in the preface to the book, that that was his conclusion that he started with. And then here we see in these verses that we read tonight that he is working out and he is showing us this conclusion of vanity that it can be drawn from the various aspects of life in particular. And he’s observing different aspects of life in particular throughout these verses. Solomon is describing his search for meaning, his search for purpose in all that is done under the sun.

And really, this search is a recipe for disaster. He goes about it all wrong. It’s almost like everything he could do wrong, he does do wrong. He’s making major life decisions. He’s forming a worldview. And what’s his standard? What is his measuring mark of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong? It’s himself. He’s judging all things by his own perspective. He has a completely self-focused and subjective approach to his evaluation of what makes for the good life. And maybe the clearest indication of his self-focused search is the way he repeats in these verses how many times he repeats in these verses words like, “I” and “myself.” Did you notice that as we read through this passage? If you look back at verse 4, he says, “I made great works.” Chapter 2 verse 5, “I made myself gardens and parks.” “I made myself pools,” verse 6. Verse 8, “I gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.” It’s all about him; what he could gain for himself.

That’s pride. We’re all prone to do that. We’re all prone to make things about ourselves. I read somewhere this week that in conversations people talk about themselves 60% of the time and that rises to 80% when those conversations or communications occur over social media. We love to talk about ourselves, and yet we find it offensive when someone else does that, when someone else is talking to us and they fail to ask about us or they fail to listen to what we are saying – we find that offensive. We find it offputting. And yet, our pride leads us to do that – to talk about ourselves, to think about ourselves, to focus life around ourselves. It causes us to mistreat and to use others while also causing us to mistreat and to misuse the resources that God has given to us.

That’s part of the problem of Solomon’s search. He has no higher goal. He has no objective standard in his search for meaning and significance as he describes it to us. In chapter 1 verse 13, he says that he was guided, in the first place, by his own wisdom and knowledge. “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” He’s talking about his own wisdom. He’s talking about his own understanding. And then he says that he is motivated by his own desires. If you look at chapter 2 verse 10, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure.” What he’s doing here is he is leaning on his own understanding and he’s pursuing and indulging the passions of the flesh which wage war against the soul.

And the results are disturbing to him. You know that’s why the Bible and prayer are so basic to the Christian life, so basic to us. We need the regular preaching and reading of God’s Word to point out to us where we’re wrong, where we’ve gone off course, and to show us the right way to go. We need prayer to regularly submit our desires and to submit our minds to God and to seek His help in whatever we are doing. And if we are not challenged and convicted and redirected on a frequent basis by God’s Word and through prayer, then most likely we are trusting too much in our own understanding and indulging the passions of our flesh. And those things are completely unreliable. God reveals His way to us in His Word, and aside from that we will be left to be carried about by our own emotions and our own circumstances, which are always changing. They are constantly in a state of change, and we are going to see that from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 in a couple of weeks.

When we do that, all we can do is to compare ourselves with others to see how well we’re doing. And that’s what Solomon does as well. You see that not only is he motivated or driven by his own desires and his own understanding, but he’s comparing himself with others throughout his search for meaning and significance. Chapter 1 verse 16, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me.” Down a little further, chapter 2 verse 7, “I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.” Verse 10, “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.” You see what he is doing there. His idea of greatness is based on how he stacks up with other people around him. Again, pride. It’s pride at the root of his search for meaning and significance. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis writes in “Mere Christianity” when he says that pride is essentially competitive. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something. It gets pleasure only out of having more than somebody else, more than the next guy. And that pride eats up the very possibility of love or contentment or even common sense. There is pride written all over this search from Solomon for meaning and significance.

And so of course, what’s his conclusion going to be? You know the conclusion. It’s vanity! “All is vanity and a striving after wind.” The Preacher finds no satisfaction, no peace, no shalom from all of his grasping for the good life because all of his ways are wrong; they’re all wrong. These are some of the most pressing concerns of life that he’s looking into here. It’s knowledge and skill. “What do I know and what am I good at? There’s work and pleasure. What do I do and how do I rest? There are relationships and possessions. Who do I love and what do I need?” These are the big questions of life that he’s dealing with in this chapter, and if we approach them in the same way that Solomon does, that he describes in this passage, with a pride and a selfishness and without dealing with God; in other words, if we approach them as if we were living only under the sun, then the only conclusion we can come to is the same that Solomon makes in this passage over and over again – It’s all vanity and striving after the wind. It’s an unhappy business he says in chapter 1 verse 13. The picture that this presents to us is of a person who has filled his head with knowledge, he has indulged his body in all sorts of pleasures, and yet his soul was empty.

I heard a statistic or a survey the other day that said 84% of Americans said that enjoying yourself is the highest goal in life – 84% of Americans. Eighty-six percent said that the way to enjoy yourself and to find fulfillment is to pursue the things that you desire. And then 91% affirmed this statement, that “To find yourself you must look within yourself.” And doesn’t that sound a lot like the search for meaning here in chapter 1 and 2 of the book of Ecclesiastes? Now here’s the problem. That survey also found that when church-going Christians were asked about those same questions, that 66% of church-going Christians says that the highest goal in life is enjoying yourself and that the way to enjoy yourself, 72% said come pursuing your own desires, 76% said that the way to find yourself is to look within yourself. There’s trouble in all of that, isn’t there? And there is no way that those things, our own enjoyments, our own desires within ourselves, there is no way that those things can bring satisfaction; there’s no way that they can bring fulfillment, because nothing in those things really addresses the deepest longings of our hearts.

And I think we can see three things in this passage that shows why this search for meaning and significance went off the rails and unraveled in such a disastrous way for the writer of Ecclesiastes. And the first thing is, the Preacher was looking in all the wrong places. Where was he looking? He was looking under the sun. He was looking on this earth. He was looking at houses and food and drink and sex and money. But those things can only provide temporary enjoyment and then it fades away. It’s gone. I think about some of those things we order online. You order something online and so often we’re tempted to almost compulsively track it to see when it’s going to arrive – or maybe that’s just me! And then it gets here, and how long does it really bring satisfaction? Maybe for a little while, and then it feels like it’s time to get something else and to fill that gap. The pleasures of this life only bring about a fleeting satisfaction. The rewards are limited and flimsy and that’s what he says in these passages. Chapter 1 verse 10, he said, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil and this was the reward for all my toil.” He got the reward that those things could give to him and it didn’t work, it didn’t satisfy, it didn’t give him any sort of fulfillment. The reward was there and then it was gone.

So not only did he not find satisfaction because he was looking in all the wrong places, but he also could not find security or protection in the things that he was looking for. He says that wisdom, he affirms that wisdom is greater than folly, but, but the same things happen to both the wise and the fool. Chapter 2 verse 14, “I perceive 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?’” In other words, no one can get away from death. No one can escape the effects of sin in a fallen creation. And he could not avoid that reality in his search for fulfillment. No amount of planning can prevent an accident or a natural disaster. No amount of money can guarantee safety and good health. No amount of fun can protect us from sadness and loss. All of the strategies that we might put in place to get the good life, they cannot overcome the effects of sin in a fallen world. The good life cannot win against death. Death has the last word under the sun.

That’s the problem with the writer’s search here in this passage. And then he finds out and tells us that everything goes away in the end anyway. He’s not able to take any of those things that he had acquired for himself. He couldn’t take those things with him when he died. Everything he had built and planted and made and acquired for himself, it would go to somebody else who he didn’t even know if they would be a wise man or a foolish person and waste and squander it in the end. Who knows what that person would do with it? “I hated all my toil in which I toiled 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?” chapter 2 verse 18 says. “Yet he will be the master of all for which I toiled and use my wisdom under the sun.” And what was that? It was all vanity. His life work, his great accomplishments, all of the silver, all of the gold, it would go to somebody else and that person may not even care about it at all.

This is “estate sale Saturdays” that he’s talking about here, isn’t it? All around this town and all around our country there are estate sales and there are people rummaging through other people’s old stuff that they had spent a lifetime to acquire and it’s all being sold for pennies on the dollar – for what reason? Really just to clear out the house. And that’s the honest truth of what he’s talking about here. And this is the reality of the storage units that are all over this country. There are storage units that are full of stuff and one day the people’s families might sell the unit without even looking inside of it just to move it on. That’s the reality of it. That’s how limited the satisfaction and the pleasures that the things of this world can give to us. It seems like just a waste. It all goes away. It’s like this – “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all – my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.” Johnny Cash recorded those words about a year before he died. His empire of dirt. It all goes away in the end.

A Life that is Good

Everything about the Preacher’s search for significance, for satisfaction under the sun, it failed. It completely failed. His method was self-absorbed and it was flawed from the start and his message is, “Yes, it’s all vanity.” But, but he does give us a glimpse of where wisdom can be found in the midst of all of that vanity. And it’s in a life that is good. Wisdom means enjoying the good gifts that God gives to us in this life – daily bread, relationships, stuff even. There are things about this creation, God said in Genesis chapter 1, there’s that refrain that goes throughout that chapter – “It was good. It was good. It was good. It was very good.”

And there are things for which we can say about this life, about our lives, that it is good. Things like an order of beignets and a cafe au lait. Playing Kan Jam in your backyard with your family. Having a lunch date with your wife on the patio at Walker’s. Listening to and praying with a widow who has walked with the Good Shepherd for many, many years. Reading a book with a cat on your lap. Taking a nap. These are good things, good experiences that God gives to us and you can make your own list and you can say all kinds of things that God has given to you in His goodness and His kindness. And those things are meant to be enjoyed by us because He is a good Creator and He is a good God. They are beautiful gifts from the hand of God. And the wonder of God’s creation is on display all around us. And our lives are filled with both the simple and the surprising blessings from our Heavenly Father, all the time. And the writer says here in chapter 2, verse 24 and 25, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This is from the hand of God, for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

We could call this common grace theology, sort of. John Murray writes, “Common grace is every favor of whatever kind or degree falling short of salvation which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys from the hand of God.” That’s what common grace is. Common grace is the blessings of food and drink and work and rest that God provides to all people, regardless of whether or not they trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Every person enjoys the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience, those things that were meant to lead us to repentance. And God causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good and He sends His rain on the just and on the unjust. In fact, there is a lot we can affirm. You see from time to time those t-shirts and bumper stickers that say, “Life is Good.” We can affirm that, that there is much that we can say that, “Life is Good.”

And yet that doesn’t do enough for us. That doesn’t go far enough. Because if we look to enjoy the good things in this life only, and we look to find satisfaction merely under the sun and for the enjoyment that those things can give to us, then we will ruin them on our own and we will eventually say, “Vanity.” But on the other hand, those who know that they can enjoy anything, know that everything is a gift from God. Those who truly enjoy anything, know that everything is a gift from God. There must be a knowledge of God. There must be a trust in His kindness and a submission to His authority if we are going to appreciate the gifts that He has given to us because we have to know that both the gift itself is from God’s hand and the ability to enjoy it is from God’s hand. It’s all God’s gift and we have to recognize that and submit to Him in trust and in faith.

So really, this passage, verse 24 and 25, it’s a confession of faith. It’s faith in God, faith in His authority and in His goodness, faith that seeks to order everything under His purposes, faith in God and the recognition that all good things come from His hand should lead us to enjoy His gifts with gratitude, but it should also lead us to hold God’s gifts loosely because the things of this world are not ultimate. No, Jesus has died and He was raised to give us a hope beyond the pleasures of this life. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection secures for us an inheritance that is incorruptible, imperishable, and it does not fade away. We could say this – Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, His blessings, the inheritance that He gives to us, is vanity-proof. Death can’t touch it. Jesus has taken the sting away from death. He has taken victory away from the grave. Death does not have the last word anymore and so we can enjoy the things that He gives to us in this life for what they are.

You know, we often talk about “my time” or “my money” or “my plans” or “my talents” or “my rights.” And that’s not right. They’re all God’s gifts. By the way, a lot of our dysfunction about the Sabbath Day stems from viewing the days of the week and viewing time as our time. And we schedule work and worship and rest around our schedules. But God has instituted a day of rest from the very beginning of creation and He has commanded a day of rest from His Word. The gift of Sabbath is a reminder to us, it’s a regular reminder to us that all time is God’s time. Every day is God’s day. And we are His stewards; we are to serve Him with the time, with the resources, with the gifts that He has given to us. Because when we try to get more out of the things that God has given to us, when we try to get more out of the days that God has given to us, then eventually those things will turn into idols and we’ll ruin them and they’ll ruin us as well. We demand too much. We cling too tightly. We fight for control. And that goes for our experiences, our relationships, our possessions, or whatever it may be. When we make those things an idol, whether it’s a spouse or a child or a job, we will demand more of those things than they could possibly give and we’ll crush others with that idolatry and it will crush us as well. But when we recognize God’s gifts, everything as God’s gift, then we can appreciate, we can be thankful, we can be content, we can hold loosely, we can share with others, we can serve God with what He has first given to us, and that’s what joy is, and that’s what wisdom is.

I was reminded this week of Corrie ten Boom’s book, “The Hiding Place.” Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who was arrested along with her family by the Nazis during the Holocaust for hiding Jews in their home. You probably know the story well. She was held captive in a concentration camp. Her sister, Betsy, died a few days before Corrie was released. And the story is a remarkable story of God’s faithfulness and His grace. It’s a story of courage and perseverance and faithfulness and unimaginable trials. But I heard a story about Corrie ten Boom late in life; it was the last year of her life, I believe. And a pastor was introduced to her and he was telling her all about his family and things going on in his life and she said to him, she said that there is danger in holding things too tightly. She said, “Pastor, you must learn to hold everything loosely, everything, even your dear family. Why? Because the Father may wish to take one of them back to Himself. And when He does, it will hurt you if He must pry your fingers loose.” She had held her hands tightly, and she started to open them slowly and she smiled at him and she said, “Remember, hold everything loosely. Everything.”

And we have to do that too, because grasping, clinging to the good life, it’s all vanity. But holding loosely, living wisely with the good gifts of God, that is enjoying a life that is good, to the glory of God. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You for Your good gifts. We thank You for the greatest gift of all, for Your Son, Jesus Christ, for giving us a hope beyond the grave, a hope beyond this life, a hope beyond under the sun, a hope that is for eternity and blessings that are greater than anything we could imagine. So would You set our eyes on Jesus. Help us to keep our eyes on Him and to follow Him and to run the race with perseverance and endurance, looking to the joy that was set before Him, the joy for which He pursued us to the cross. Help us to follow that joy into eternity. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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