“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26
I love watching cooking shows. Lately, the Great British Baking Show has become worthy of binge watching at our house. The premise of the show is to take a group of amateur British bakers, give them a series of baking challenges to show off their skills and find the best baker. I am always amazed by what the bakers are able to produce. Another aspect of the show that intrigues me is that all the contestants work so hard to create is gone by the end of the show. They work so hard to bake these amazing cakes, cookies, breads, scones, pies, etc. but then the judges eat them. It isn’t like other reality shows where they fix up a car or forge a knife, and the object still exists when the show ends. I am intrigued by this fact because, even though their masterpieces or at least their best attempts at masterpieces are eaten, the contestants still have joy in what they do. In our reading today from Ecclesiastes, King Solomon shares how we can still have joy in our lives, even though he said, 2 “Everything is meaningless.”
The book of Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon in order to share what he had learned about life in this world. The title that has been given to Solomon’s writings is a term that refers to Solomon himself. The Greek word, Ἐκκλησιαστής, is the same as the Hebrew word, קֹהֶ֔לֶת, referring to a person who assembles sentences, thoughts or knowledge. It is the word translated as ‘teacher’ in first verse of our reading from Ecclesiastes, 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. Solomon was a teacher and while he was king many traveled to hear him teach what he had learned about life. It is clear why so many trusted Solomon’s wisdom when we read 1 Kings 4:29, “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.” Solomon’s wisdom was and still is unmatched, but for all his wisdom and studies, his conclusion about life in this world is unsettling. Solomon began his great book of wisdom with the statement, 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Solomon’s use of another phrase, “under the sun,” revealed why he used the term meaningless to describe everything. In our reading today from Ecclesiastes 2, the phrase “under the sun,” was repeated four times. Solomon used this term to describe life in this world. Solomon described life under the sun as a place where people work hard for things, then leave them to someone else. Realizing this, Solomon said, 20 “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.” Solomon did great thing in his life like planting vineyards, building houses, constructing reservoirs, accumulating gold and silver, and building the temple in Jerusalem, but in the end, he would die, and it would all go to someone else. And so, Solomon said, 22 “What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.” Solomon’s words continue to be true for all of our lives, another testament to his great wisdom.
We all have to wrestle with the truth that all we work for in our lives will someday be taken from us. Just two verses before our reading today Solomon wrote, Ecclesiastes 2:16 “For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” Death separates us all from what we work for, worry about, lose sleep over and wear out our bodies for all our lives, therefore our lives cannot find meaning or purpose in what we possess. Jesus made this same point in our gospel reading from Luke 12. He said, 15…“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Then he told a short parable about a rich man who had a record harvest. His barns were too small to hold all of his crops, so he decided to tear them down and build bigger ones thinking he could then live off his great wealth for the rest of his life. 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” The point Jesus made was that work is good, but not if the point is to get a bunch of stuff.
In other words, greed is bad, but riches in God are good. If we are to apply what Solomon and Jesus are both saying to our lives, then the question you have to ask yourself is, “What motivates me to work all my life for all these things that I am going to give up to someone else when I die?” If your answer is any of the things you will one day be giving up, then Solomon would say that you are living in a foolish way. And, he would call your life and the way you are living it meaningless. The answer to this question and the motivation which gives true joy to your life is God. If God is your motivation, then you are wise. And in this wisdom, the wisdom of faith in God, you can work all the days of your life, then leave it all behind with joy as you leave the place under the sun for the place beyond the sun. This also means we still have work to do under the sun.
Solomon taught that the way to live life with joy is with God. The term meaningless he used over and over again is one of the Hebrew words for ‘breath.’ He said that all of the work and all the possessions a person has in their life are like a breath: short lived, quickly forgotten and easily replaced. However, Solomon’s point is not that work, or possessions are bad but what our attitude is toward them. He wrote, 24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Solomon recognized that both believer and unbeliever would toil and work under the same sun. However, only one would find true satisfaction.
The joy we have as believers in God keeps us living each day. This means that the joy we have also keeps us working. There is no point in our lives when we as believers will say that we have finished all our work because we are not working for something but for someone. The joy we have as God’s people motivates us to live, to work, to toil and to be active because we are not working to accumulate possessions, but we are doing work as God’s people. In our reading from James, he wrote, James 5:7-8 “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” Like a farmer waits for his crops to produce fruit, we as believers are waiting for Jesus to come and take all believers to heaven. The joy waiting for us in heaven makes us patient under the sun because we know that whatever we are doing day to day is done to serve God.
When meaningless tests your patient work as a believer under the sun, God must be the source of your joy. In response to the traps we all fall into of letting greed, wealth or possessions motivate us or the despair of thinking that all we have worked for will one day go to someone else, we can turn to James 5:11…The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. In love, God saved us from our meaningless, self-serving work and eventual, empty, meaningless, possessionless death by sending Jesus to sacrifice his life on the cross. Paul summed up what God has done for us in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Saved by God’s grace and with purpose as his new creation, we can look at the things in our lives and ask ourselves: am I working at this for God? Am I holding onto this for God? Could I be doing this for God? Could I give this to God? We get to ask these things with joy, set free from the meaningless life under the sun and free to live as God’s people who will one day join him beyond the sun in heaven.
I always find it interesting to watch cooking show contestants maintain their joy when their masterpieces or at least their best attempts at masterpieces are eaten. In our reading from Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon wrote, 24 “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.” We have been saved from death and this meaningless world through Jesus. Now, all that we have and all we work for serves him and his kingdom. When we die, we don’t take anything with us, instead we live life with joy in God who will give us all good things beyond the sun. Amen.