Contentment – however you define it, that’s the shiny pot of gold at the end of the American dream, isn’t it? For 240 years immigrants from around the world have come to America in search of the freedom to pursue whatever life might make them happy and content. So universal is this desire for contentment that throughout the years many presidential candidates have formed campaigns around the concept. Way back in 1856, John Fremont’s slogan was “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, Fremont.” Four years later, Abraham Lincoln told citizens to “Vote Yourself a Farm.” In 1900 William McKinley guaranteed “A full dinner pail,” and in 1928, Herbert Hoover promised “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”  And this year we know what the candidates are promising. Every four years the American people are promised jobs, full bellies and bank accounts – because it’s human nature to think that those things lead to happiness and contentment. Does it seem like our nation is content? Are you content?
Or, would a more accurate assessment of the state of the union be the one found in Ecclesiastes 1: Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 1:2) 240 years of candidates, campaigns, policies and promises have not delivered the happiness and contentment that people are longing for. The fault doesn’t lie as much with presidents and their failed promises as it is with a fundamental misunderstanding of what contentment is and how we can get it. Today, King Solomon teaches us how to find true contentment.
Already in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has pointed out the meaningless of pleasure, wisdom, toil and advancement. But in chapter 5 he turns his theme of meaninglessness to work and wealth. What? What about a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage? Doesn’t God say if a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10)? Before we look at Solomon’s words, think about your own life. No doubt we want to believe that our lives are a positive influence on the world; but how much impact have your long hours at work really had? Or maybe you’ve made it, you’ve worked hard and have finally retired – are you content? Or, would you agree with Solomon that along with pleasure and wisdom, work and wealth all too often seem pointless, meaningless?
If you feel that way, you will take great comfort from these words, because near the end of his life even Solomon, the man who had experienced all the pleasure, wisdom, work and wealth this life can offer, came to the same realization. And to help us make sense of the meaninglessness of life under the sun, Solomon identifies four reasons why trying to find meaning, purpose and contentment in work and wealth is bound to fail. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. America’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much is enough? His response: just a little bit more. That attitude is more common than we care to admit, isn’t it? No matter how big our last raise was, we wish it were a little bit more. No matter how new our car is and how big our house is, someone else always has a newer, bigger model. Thinking that just a little bit more will lead to contentment is like chasing a mirage; we will never catch it. And so, says Solomon, it’s meaningless.
As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? The second myth about wealth is that having more will solve my problems. Solomon pokes holes in this myth. First, he observes that the more you have, the more people want a piece of what you have. An example of this is almost any superstar athlete or actor. When they were putting in the endless hours of practice, the hard work necessary to achieve greatness, they were alone. But when the big paychecks start coming in, all of a sudden they have more “friends” than they know what to do with. The other problem, which is so obvious that we are often blind to it, is that the more you have the less you can actually use. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I thought that a box set of Topp’s baseball cards would make me happy. Guess how many times I’ve looked at those cards? Not once, those baseball cards are holding down a shelf somewhere. How much stuff do we have in our homes that does little more than gather dust? And here’s the humbling part: how much better off are we than the poor person who can only go to the store and look at all that stuff? Meaningless, it’s all meaningless.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. The third myth most people believe about money is that having more will bring peace. Solomon observed in his own time that the laborer who only has the basic necessities sleeps well no matter how much he has to eat. On the other hand, the rich man, the man who has time for leisure and all the best food, can’t sleep because he has eaten too much, has too much going on in his life and can’t unwind. Having more money doesn’t bring peace – it actually does the opposite, it brings more anxiety.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him. Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. Maybe the most popular and seemingly virtuous reason we place so much value and purpose on our work and wealth is because we want to secure the future for ourselves and our families. But Solomon pours cold water on that dream, doesn’t he? The situation he describes is anything but rare: a person works hard for decades in order to retire comfortably and be able to provide for his family’s future. But then calamity strikes: a catastrophic illness, a stock market crash, a failed pension fund or years spent in an expensive nursing home – and the nest egg is wiped out. Solomon closes with the cold, hard truth: as a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? All his days he eats in darkness with great frustration, affliction and anger. As the rich man in Jesus’ parable discovered, death renders a lifetime of working, saving and investing worthless. Money, no matter how much we have, can’t provide security and so, in the end, hoping to find peace and contentment in work and wealth is as futile as trying to catch and contain the wind.
By now you might be wishing you hadn’t come to church this morning. This doesn’t really make us feel good about going to work tomorrow morning, does it? But you can’t really argue with Solomon’s logic, can you? We know from experience that work and wealth don’t lead to contentment, they lead to sleepless nights, anxiety about the future, and uncertainty regarding our purpose in life – because the very things that seem so meaningful turn out to be meaningless. And it’s true. If our goal is to make money for the sake of getting rich, wealth is meaningless. If we work hard hoping that hard work will make us feel content, our work is meaningless. If the entire focus of life is providing certainty and security for our children, it’s all meaningless because we can’t guarantee either of those things. Naked you came from your mother’s womb and naked you will depart and everything in which you found meaning will turn out to be meaningless.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. Did Solomon just contradict everything he said earlier? What has changed?
For the first time, God enters the picture. God changes everything. When God is in the equation then work and careers and money and saving for the future are not meaningless. They are gifts from a gracious Giver. They are the means God uses to sustain our short lives on this earth as we look forward to spending eternity with him – because in the end, he knows and he wants us to know that heaven is the only place where we will be truly, finally, perfectly content. We believe that, why does life still feel so meaningless? It began just after the Fall when God cursed the ground and told Adam that only through painful toil would he eat all the days of his life. (Genesis 3:17) Would you believe that God did that because he loves us? Would you believe that there is a greater purpose behind the meaninglessness of life? There is. God uses the pain, toil and endless meaninglessness of this world to remind us that we are not made for this world. Broken dreams and ruined plans serve God’s purpose by showing us that even now, God’s primary objective for us is not to get comfortable in this world but to live in and with him. And the only way for that to happen is through faith in Jesus.
To live with God through faith means to confess that in one sense, everything – our jobs and careers, our hard work and our savings, even our lives – are utterly meaningless, because none of them have met the standard of perfection God demands. Hoping to find value and meaning in our work and wealth is meaningless because even the best we have to offer is nothing more than filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) in God’s sight. And so, for this life to mean anything, we must look away from our work and wealth to Christ, whose life was the only one that meant anything in God’s sight. His work was meaningful because it was perfect. His life had purpose because he lived to please God and his life was precious because he took it and sacrificed it for us on the cross. Even his death had meaning because it paid for every last one of our sins. And then, God raised Jesus from the dead to prove beyond all doubt that everything he did has meaning for us now and forever. Paul explains just what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for us: he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) Jesus’ life and death overflow with meaning because they mean that this life – with its years of toil and unfulfilled dreams – is not all there is. His life fills your life with meaning because heavenly riches, true peace, security and contentment aren’t something we have to work for, they are God’s gift to us in Christ.
And through faith in Jesus, even the most meaningless aspects of life have meaning. When the alarm rings tomorrow morning, remember these wise words of Solomon. You can find satisfaction in your work, because that is the work God has given you. And, if God has blessed you with a job you love or wealth and possessions and the time to enjoy them – give thanks, for that is a truly rare and wonderful blessing. But don’t waste time griping or grumbling that you don’t make enough or have enough – because God has promised to give you what you need. Don’t let life become all about working and accumulating stuff – because that’s as pointless as chasing after the wind. And don’t waste your time thinking about what might have been or dreaming about what could be – because the past is history and the future lies with God. Instead, occupy your thoughts with the rich blessings God has given and promised you in Jesus; enjoy today for today and let God worry about tomorrow. And instead of praying for more, pray for the rare ability to be content with what God has already given and promised you.
And when you live like that, with a light grasp on the things of this life but both arms wrapped around the heavenly treasure God gives through faith – that’s when life really has meaning. That kind of life is free from worry and anxiety because it knows that work and money are not the goal of this life, heaven is. That’s the secret to true contentment. Money can’t buy it. But when you seek first God and his kingdom and his righteousness, he promises – he promises – that all these things will be given you as well. (Matthew 6:33) Amen.