“All Depends on Our Possessing God’s Abundant Grace and Blessing”
(Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:18-26 – Pentecost 11 – August 25, 2019)
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:18-26 – “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”… Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because 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 rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity. Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
Dear Redeemed in Christ our Savior, who came to give us life more abundantly (John 10:10):
In the hymn we just sang, we expressed the truth in today’s Old Testament lesson:
All depends on our possessing
God’s abundant grace and blessing,
Though all earthly wealth depart.
He who trusts with faith unshaken
In his God is not forsaken
And e’er keeps a dauntless heart.
There are times when the daily grind of life can weary our body and spirit, and frustrations and sorrows can cast a dark shadow over our life. There are times when we can feel so overwhelmed by burdens – financial, emotional, spiritual, health – that the pleasures of life that used to satisfy us no longer do. When life can seem tasteless, failing, and fleeting, a person may say of his or her years what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 12:1: “I have no pleasure in them.”
In such times, what if all we had to cling to was the passing wealth and pleasures of this life? In moments of darkness and despair, we would have to join with the view of life expressed here in our text: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” – that is, all is meaningless.
But what is it that will give us a dauntless, fearless heart in the dark times, when all earthly wealth and pleasures are departing? The lesson we learn today is that “All Depends on Our Possessing God’s Abundant Grace and Blessing” – which is ours through faith in Christ our Savior. Nothing else in life can truly satisfy, for 1) The world offers meaninglessness, worry, and anxiety; but 2) God alone gives true meaning, happiness, and contentment.
1) The world offers meaninglessness, worry, and anxiety
Of all people, Solomon should have been satisfied with the world’s treasures. He was Israel’s king in a time of peace and great prosperity. In answer to his prayer, God had granted Solomon the gift of wisdom and made him a great king. But not even the wisest man on earth is above temptation and evil. For a time in his life, Solomon turned away from God to the false gods of this world. And without God in his life, he did what so many people are trying to do in vain. He tried to find meaning and joy in the wealth and pleasures of this world, apart from God.
Do we sometimes leave God out of the picture, in our haste after worldly success and pleasure? Does God hear our little, “Love ya, gotta go!” as we rush out the door with so much worldliness on our minds? Let us listen to the words of a man for whom money was no object, as he worked to build a rich earthly kingdom for himself – complete with palace parties of wine, women, and song; beautiful houses surrounded by gardens; huge flocks and herds of animals; many slaves to take care of all of his property; and vaults full of silver and gold. Let us listen to a man who could say that he had become greater than any king before him (Ecclesiastes 2:1-9). And let us hear of his failure to find happiness without God, lest we fall into the same misery.
Solomon says before our text: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind” (2:10-11).
“All was vanity,” because Solomon knew that finally he could not take any of his earthly treasures with him when he died. Here, he expresses the anxiety one feels as he realizes that when he dies, everything he has worked so hard for must be left behind; and it may simply come to nothing in the hands of someone else who misuses and squanders it all. Solomon says: “Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because 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 rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity.”
Great companies have been built up by one generation that poured all kinds of wisdom, effort, and skill into them; only to be mismanaged and destroyed by the next. Great inheritances have been left by one generation, only to be blown foolishly by the next. Often people want to leave something meaningful behind, a lasting legacy in their name. If their life must end, at least they feel they can still achieve something beyond death, a sort of immortality, by passing on their accomplishments to others. Many grasp at this hope for a sense of enduring meaning in life. But what if all that they have worked so hard for finally dissolves in the hands of someone who misuses it and blows it all anyway? Solomon says: “This also is vanity and a great evil.”
Solomon sees that earthly treasure will not satisfy after death; nor does it really bring peace of mind and satisfaction in this life. He continues: “For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.”
How often we may sigh and long for something more as we toil physically and mentally, day after day. There is a certain amount of pain and grief in any work, from sore muscles and blisters to headaches and frustrations. There is stress by day, and lying awake at night thinking of what should be done. People worry: “Am I going to keep my job? Am I going to be able to pay the bills?” Of all the laboring and striving of heart that brings sorrow and burden, Solomon says: “This also is vanity.” It is meaningless if it is all done simply in view of a coming death.
What is the root of all dissatisfaction in life and work? It is sin. In the beginning, God created life and work to be a pleasurable experience. God gave Adam and Eve the pleasure of living in a perfect Garden of Eden, taking care of it in work that was always truly satisfying. But their hearts turned away from God, and they partook of the forbidden fruit and pleasures of falsehood. Sin brought a curse on work, with its thorns and thistles and sweat of the brow. Sin brought a curse on life, so that in the end everyone must leave behind all the labors of his hands and go to the grave empty handed. All of the anxious toil, sorrows, and burdens we feel points to our sin that has resulted in our living in the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Sin brings a shadow of meaninglessness, because sin separates the sinner from the Giver of life.
In our Gospel lesson (Luke 12:13-21) Jesus shows the meaninglessness of setting one’s heart on the passing pleasures of life without faith in God who alone saves us from a meaningless eternity. The rich man said to himself: “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” His goods were his gods. But God said: “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” Jesus concluded: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
If a person turns away from the only Giver of life and Savior of the soul, and he tries to fill the resulting emptiness in his heart with the work of his hands and earthly treasures, he is a fool. In the end, such a life dissolves into the eternal meaninglessness and suffering of hell. Then Solomon’s statement becomes most horribly true: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
2) God alone gives true meaning, happiness, and contentment
As Solomon wrote these thoughts, it was toward the end of life. He wrote as one who had repented of having set his heart on worldly treasures apart from God. He now confesses that God alone gives true meaning, happiness, and contentment in life. He says: “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight.”
Here Solomon expresses some good news – hope of a good standing with God despite sin; hope of true happiness and contentment God gives even amidst this world’s passing shadows. For he says: “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight.”
Scripture is clear that no one can present himself as good in the sight of God by his own sin-corrupted works. But God reveals how He presents us good in His sight and saves us from a life of futility by His gift of grace alone in Christ (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:9). 1 Peter 1:18-19 says: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” God sent His Son to us sinners who were lost in meaningless chasing after the wind, racing headlong toward the cliff of destruction and separation from God. On the cross, Jesus was separated from His Father as He paid for our sins. In our place, He drank the cup of hell’s meaninglessness and suffering to its dregs. He who had it all as heaven’s King shed His precious blood to win forgiveness for all our turning away to this world’s vanity. He did it all so that we could possess God’s abundant grace and blessing. Through faith in Jesus, we live with the perspective of those whom God declares forgiven and pleasing in His sight. We live as His dearly loved children, to whom He is giving an eternal inheritance with His Son.
Therefore, even as we live in this world “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” to us. In Christ, God restores true meaning to our life and work. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruit of our labor and riches as God may bless us. But now, we can receive earthly gifts without setting our hearts on them. In all things, we can praise the God of our life who loves us and gives us everlasting riches in Jesus’ name.
Since we know that we will pass from this life into unimaginable riches and joy in heaven, we need not fret about what we leave behind in this world, as if life’s meaning depended on such things. Certainly, we want to leave behind the lasting legacy of faith in Jesus; we want to pass on His eternal treasures to our children and others. We want to share the Savior who says: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). And we can be content to leave the results of our life’s work and our Christian witness in God’s gracious hands. He knows how to do what is best with what we have done in His name.
And finally, in Christ God has turned even death into greater gain for us. The glory to be revealed in us when our Savior brings us to heaven is beyond comparing to the greatest kingdom ever built by the richest and hardest working king. The troubles of this life are not worth comparing to that everlasting Kingdom and glory (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Since we possess God’s abundant grace and eternal blessing in Jesus our Savior, we can sing:
If on earth my days He lengthen,
He my weary soul will strengthen;
All my trust in Him I place.
Earthly wealth is not abiding,
Like a stream away is gliding;
Safe I anchor in His grace.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.