Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 (Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 24—Series B)
“Grace in the Hurt of Life”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
October 17, 2021
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament Reading from Ecclesiastes 5:
10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. 13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
I’m going to be bold and break one of the rules of sermons by starting with this. There was once a man who had everything except the fog. One day he tried to catch the fog, but mist! M-i-s-t. Get it? Fog, mist? Yeah, and that’s why jokes in a sermon are a bad idea. But let that bad joke springboard you into Ecclesiastes 5:16, “Now what profit was there for him who toiled for the wind?” You can’t grab onto the wind any more than you can catch the fog. Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, sums up all the work that is done on the earth and all the gathering and collecting of possessions and wealth as a “striving after the wind” (Eccl. 2:11; 4:4, 6). In fact, he begins the book saying, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14 ESV). It’s a lot like trying to catch fog.
In our Old Testament text this morning Solomon focuses his readers yet again on the vanity of riches. “Vanity” means emptiness, futility, and uselessness. Wealth and possessions—let’s call them “stuff”—are not the end all, be all of life. Note well that wealth and prosperity are not evil things. They are, in fact, gifts from God. In verse 19 Solomon writes, “Every person to whom God gives wealth and possessions and empowers him to partake of them and to carry his lot and to rejoice in his toil—this is a gift of God.” But when wealth, money, and things are not properly viewed as the gifts of God that they are, wealth and riches are simply vanity, a striving after the wind. And then there is trouble and hurt.
Chapter 5:10, “A lover of silver will not be satisfied with silver and whoever loves wealth will not be satisfied with his proceeds. This also is vanity.” When your goal in life is “stuff,” material goods will never satisfy. There’s no sense of fulfillment. She makes her first million. She then likely shrugs her shoulders at that and blindly presses on in pursuit of her second million. Her work becomes only a means to an end defined in terms of “how much?”. How much does someone deserve and how much does somebody get in terms of pay? How much you make, the pay, becomes the measure of your relative worth. So, when is enough ever enough for such an individual? How often this leads to joyless work because what you do is secondary to what really counts: making money. And does the pay satisfy? No, discontentment with the pay is what started this cycle. I’m not satisfied with what I have and with what I earn, therefore, I’m going to work more to get what I’m worth. And around and around the cycle goes. Will you ever get enough to be satisfied or will this always be a source of hurt in life because you are unsatisfied?
Oh, the vanity of riches! Our “stuff” requires constant maintenance. You get the big house. But you’ve got to clean it. The landscaping has to be done. The car needs an oil change every 3000 miles. Needs new brakes now and then. A car wash is always nice to get the bugs off. Checking and credit card accounts have to be maintained. Loans and mortgages have to be paid along with the bills. Is it any wonder that Solomon writes, “Sweet is the sleep of the worker, whether he eats a little or a lot. But the plenty of the rich will not allow him to sleep” (5:12). There’s just too much to take care of, too much to be worried about. No time for rest and leisure. And when you’re not getting rest, it hurts you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Do you want to talk about more hurt in life? Verse 13: “This is a sick evil I have seen under the sun: wealth being kept by its owner to his detriment.” People don’t control goods. Their goods control them. For example, “Acquiring a second car places the owner at the beck and call of two maintenance-hungry machines. A young couple moves from a house with only adequate space into a much bigger house, one that is forever empty, because the ‘occupants’ are otherwise occupied, out in the business world paying for the house.” Life’s riches can hurt the owner while he hangs on to them, but when he loses his “stuff” and has nothing, that hurts too. The scene in verse 14 is too horrible to even think about: “He lost that wealth through a bad business, and when he fathered a son, there was nothing to offer him.” A baby cries in hunger, and his father cannot help him! Life’s riches and possessions can hurt.
Life itself just hurts and often brings us to our knees crying to God for mercy. It is a bit like asking, “Who can be saved? It seems so impossible.” From Mark 10, our Gospel lesson, “But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God’” (Mark 10:24–27 ESV).
Rather than placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the things that are rightly to be understood as gifts of God—wealth and possessions—the Book of Ecclesiastes shows us the only place for the human heart to be—to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, for He listens to our cries for mercy and grants us grace. Living for wealth and possessions is a stiving after the wind, a vanity, a trying to catch the fog. Life simply hurts too much, and riches cannot provide love and care for us. That’s what God alone gives to us. Our Triune God is the God who cares. He cared enough to alert us through His Word to the problems of life, especially in regard to wealth and possessions. He shows us how these things can hurt us and how life in a fallen world hurts us.
And the most concrete expression of God’s care for humanity is the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. Food, drink, riches, our work, our play, joy in vocations, satisfaction with our lot in life are all evidence of the grace and goodness and kindness of God to us. Again, verse 19, “Every person to whom God gives wealth and possessions and empowers him to partake of them and to carry his lot and to rejoice in his toil—this is a gift of God.” But the climactic, ultimate expression of the goodness and kindness of God is found in Jesus. Life hurts because of our failures to fear and love God above all things—because of sins and our sinfulness. Even our wealth and possessions get in the way. They cause us problems and troubles when we don’t use them and when they are suddenly gone. So many times in this life we are hurt because we are uselessly striving for the wind. But it was into life in this fallen, hurting world to which God the Son took on human flesh. He experienced the “vanity of vanities” firsthand. He loved the rich young man who went away shocked, dismayed, and grieving because he had many possessions, prompting Jesus to respond, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the reign and rule of God.” And out of His grace, God gifted us the joy and blessing of His Kingdom in Christ.
Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8 ESV). Your salvation from sin and death is God’s gift to you in Jesus. Your forgiveness and eternal life are God’s gift to you in Jesus. Jesus endured the hurt of this life and then walked to Calvary’s hill in order to bear the hurt of crucifixion, the suffering of hell, and the pangs of death for you. By His wounds you have been healed. You have the forgiveness of sins covering over your sins of greed. You have the blood of Christ washing away your failures to always fear and love God when your “stuff” took the first place in life.
What’s more, you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1). In that peace, through the saving work of Jesus for you, God takes away the sting of the hurts of this life. Not all the hurts and troubles here and now go away, but God in Christ cares for you by enabling you to endure, to make it through, with your eyes not on the hurt, but on the rest that awaits you. Ecclesiastes 5:20, “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” That joy is the eternal rest, the everlasting salvation, that is yours in Christ. From our Epistle, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:9–11 ESV).
If ever there was a literary character who illustrated both the uselessness of pursuing wealth as one’s ultimate aim and the joy that flows from generous grace that leads to peace and rest, it would be Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens introduces Scrooge to us as a stingy, harsh miser who values money over people and profit over generosity. His reckoning comes in a nightmare that exposes his lack of compassion and reveals his ultimate fate: he will die all alone, remembered and mourned by virtually no one. How true are the words of Solomon! At death, one “shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Eccl 5:15). When a panicking Scrooge finds himself awake and alive the next morning, he receives the new day as a gift of undeserved grace, a grace that transforms him into an instrument of generosity and joy for his community, especially the Cratchit family.
God, in his grace, has given us more than a wake-up call and a second chance for our clinging to money and the things of this world. He’s given us a substitute, one who has come to stand in the place of the deceived misers, to enter into the tomb we deserve, and to rise again to be our lavishly generous king. Every day gives us another opportunity to place our fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We repent of our sins and receive Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness and the new life of faith that heals the hurt of life and that looks forward to the promised rest of life everlasting. Amen.