Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13—Series C)
“God Gives Meaning”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
August 4, 2019
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament lesson recorded in Ecclesiastes 1 and 2:
2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. . . . 12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13I devoted my attention to seek and to explore with wisdom all that is done under the heavens. This is an evil preoccupation God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14I observed all the undertakings that are undertaken under the sun and behold! All is vanity and a striving after the wind. . . . 18So I hated all my hard work that I did under the sun, which I will leave for the man who comes after me. 19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Nevertheless, he will be master over all my hard work that I accomplished with my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned around and made my heart to despair over all the hard work that I did under the sun. 21Because there is a man whose work is accomplished with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, but then he hands it over to a man who did not work for it as his inheritance. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22For what does a man get for all his hard work and mental anguish that he laboriously does under the sun? 23For all his days are pain and his work is a cause of anger. Even in the night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity. 24There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and bring himself to see good in his hard work. This too, I saw, that it is from the hand of God. 25For who can eat and who can have enjoyment apart from him? 26For to a man who is good before him, he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner, he gives the task of gathering and storing up [things] in order to give them to the one who is good before God. This too is vanity and a chasing after the wind.
This Biblical text is a real downer. Doesn’t it make you feel hopeless? Doesn’t it make life feel completely pointless? “All is vanity!” Everything is utter futility! Like some kind of horrible refrain, it echoes throughout this text and the whole Book of Ecclesiastes—everything is vanity.
That was Solomon’s catchword for the futility of human effort in hopeless human circumstances, life in this sinful world without the help of God. In this book in the Bible’s library of wisdom literature, King Solomon, David’s son, writes about his solo search for meaning. His perspective is from one who, during a period of his life, was tangled in the fatal web of vanity, but who has now, toward the end of his life, regained his sense of the true meaning and purpose of life through faith in God and knowledge of His wisdom in Christ.
How ironic that the man who had received wisdom from God as a gift would set out the explore the world with wisdom. The wise person seeks to become wiser still, but it becomes clear in our text that true, divine wisdom is not what Solomon gained. He pursued wisdom in the world during a time in his life when Solomon had wandered away from the Word and worship of the true God into idolatry. We read in 1 Kings 11, “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ . . . And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. . . . So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done” (1 Kings 11:1-6).
The wisest man in the world pursued wisdom in all the wrong places. He did not seek meaning and knowledge and joy in God’s self-revelation in His Word and saving acts. Solomon was off on a purely human endeavor, and it got him nowhere. Having been brought to repentance, Solomon doesn’t really mince words here. He plainly tells us how fruitless and empty his search had been—vanity of vanities. All is vanity and a striving after the wind.
Have you ever tried to catch the wind? Maybe you’ve tried to grab something blowing in the wind with some success, but I doubt you’ve ever caught the wind. It’s a futile thing to try, isn’t it? Solomon’s point is well taken. And yet, like Solomon, we too devote our “attention to seek and explore with wisdom all that is done under the heavens”—a chasing after the wind. Solomon tested the world’s pleasures. He tested himself and his reactions to the things around him—anything he could find for enjoyment: wine, women, and song. Houses and more houses! Material things right and left. Solomon would have had the latest tech, the latest car, the latest and greatest you name it. Money, power, popularity, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. And we look for pleasure in these things too. We look for meaning in our lives, seeking it in our social media status or in our anonymity behind a computer screen in a chat room. People look to find some sort of value to their lives in a bottle, in a vape, in a needle. People want feelings—you want to feel good, to feel needed, to feel loved. Material things give us that “high.” But it doesn’t last. We need the next fix. We need the next hit. It’s got to be bigger, better, longer lasting. And where does it ultimately leave us? Where did it leave Solomon? “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” (Eccl. 2:9-11).
Now, what about our work? Surely throwing ourselves into our work-life brings fulfillment, gives us meaning and purpose! “So I turned around and made my heart to despair over all the hard work that I did under the sun. Because there is a man whose work is accomplished with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, but then he hands it over to a man who did not work for it as his inheritance. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what does a man get for all his hard work and mental anguish that he laboriously does under the sun? For all his days are pain and his work is a cause of anger. Even in the night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” How unfair! We work hard in life, and who knows what’s going to happen to all that we worked so hard for after we are gone from this life?
Oh, and one more vanity—sleepless nights! I have those, do you? What keeps our minds running in thoughts even when it is time to rest? All the vanities of this world, all the futile things and pleasures that preoccupy us.
When we step aside from God’s Word and Spirit and seek after the treasures and pleasures of this world and life, we are chasing after the wind. We fall into the sin of idolatry and all the Commandments fall like dominoes. When we chase after the wind, we human bags of wind, relying on ourselves for direction, will only discover the “vanity of vanities,” that “all is vanity.” Without God’s Word and Spirit, that is all anyone can ever find. Just ask Solomon. He’ll tell you: “I was by far the wisest person around. (If you don’t believe it, just ask me!) More than anyone else, I explored every nook and cranny of knowledge. I graduated from the school of experience with the ability to organize and put to use the knowledge I gained. My mind traveled in ever-expanding circles, stretching the horizons beyond what was thought humanly possible. I have concluded that ‘the all’ of the world and ‘the all’ of human enterprise are vanity.”
If you and I are honest, we have discovered this Biblical truth at work in our lives. Without God in the picture, when we step aside from His Word and Spirit, life is meaningless, work is a crushing bore, and true enjoyment is a myth. But with God, who comes to us by Word and Spirit, the whole scene changes. Externally, nothing is different, right? You and I work just as long and just as hard and we get just as tired and sore. But THE difference is a loving and gracious God.
We have a God who loved us so much, even when we abandon Him in favor of earthly wisdom and worldly pleasures, filling the desires of our sinful nature, that He sent His One-of-a-Kind Son to save us from the vanity and futility of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Consider this. Solomon talks about a person who works so hard in this life and then has to leave the fruits of his labors to another person who might not be anywhere near as wise or hard-working. Isn’t that what the God-Man, Jesus, has done? He spent His life on earth laboring in wisdom and knowledge. He went about doing good and being good. Jesus kept every one of the Father’s commandments perfectly. And the result? He died for sinners on a cross, shedding His holy, precious blood. He rose again from the dead, defeating death and hell. And Jesus left the results of His work to you. He gifted you the fruits of His labor—the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
God the Holy Spirit through the Word applies the forgiveness of sins and delivers eternal life to you and me through the Gospel and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Supper. The Spirit makes us holy people in Christ, “new creations.” Our life, forgiven and redeemed by Christ the Crucified and Risen One, is now moving in a meaningful direction toward glory. You have, this very moment, eternal life, by grace through faith in Christ. And Jesus your Savior is even now preparing a place for you in Paradise for all eternity!
Your work in this life, your daily jobs and vocations, do fit in with God’s plans and purposes. Your labor is not pointless. What you do is not worthless. You are a member of Christ’s holy Church! So whether a person is a supervisor or a ditch digger, her hands and feet are consecrated to God. As Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
And by the way, even the loaf of bread on the table is God’s loaf of bread. It is enjoyed and relished in keeping with the limitless joy that comes with the forgiveness of sins and the hope of the world to come. Same goes for your pizza, your steak, your ice cream; your shirt and shorts, your shoes; your home and car, your toys. These are God’s good gifts to you in this life as He moves you with faith in Christ toward glory in heaven with Him and in the new heaven and earth that He will create for His people.
You see, God has been pleased to count you as righteous through faith in Jesus. Your wandering from His Word and Spirit are forgiven. All your chasing after the futile pleasures of the world and the life of sin and idolatry are forgiven. You have received God’s favor because the benefits of Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection have been credited to you in your Baptism. In light of Ecclesiastes, we might say that in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are someone who has their head on straight—relishing the grace of God, relying totally on your Creator and Redeemer, shunning the big questions of life that only God can handle, and enjoying with childlike glee His gifts of daily bread.
What’s more, you receive as pure gifts true wisdom and knowledge of God and His plan of redemption in Jesus through His Word. You know your God and the grace of God and you have the wisdom that is ultimately nothing more or less than faith. As a result, God also gives you the gift of joy, joy that cannot be taken away from you, no matter how hard and painful life in this sinful world becomes. Your joy is constant because it doesn’t depend on how much earthly stuff you get or grab for yourself. You have the joy of the Spirit, the joy of Christ, who has saved you and who now prepares a place for you in His heavenly home. What more meaning and purpose could we ever need? Amen.
 James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011), 75.
 Ibid., 124