Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:1-11, 17-26 - Chasing After the Wind - August 25, 2019

Have you ever tried to catch the wind? It’s impossible. Oh sure, you can catch some of the things carried by the wind: butterflies, mosquitoes, the common cold – but not the wind itself. But what about accomplishments, pleasures, wealth – have you ever chased after them, tried to grab on to them and store them up, thinking that at some point they will make you happy? In the Gospel Jesus taught that it doesn’t matter how big your barns are and how much stuff they are filled with – because when God comes for your soul, none of it will matter anyway (Luke 12). Our lesson from Ecclesiastes goes even further, claiming that apart from God all earthly pursuits are meaningless in view of death. Aren’t you glad you rolled out of bed this morning to hear that? The Lord loves us too much to let us chase the winds of this world now and learn the truth only when it’s too late, when our eternity is already determined.


“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Havel havelim [1], declares King Solomon. When Hebrew writers repeat a word, it’s a superlative; “the epitome of meaninglessness.” Emptiness. Nothing. Vapor. What is? Anything and everything; life itself. And if anyone would know, it would be Solomon – because he had it all and more – and yet, probably writing as an old man, he looks back and calls it all meaningless, as meaningless as chasing after the wind.


And while Solomon learned this hard lesson, each generation must learn it for itself – and in our generation, these are fighting words. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been conditioned to evaluate life based on wealth, fame, power, beauty, accomplishment – and a host of other earthly measures. We’ve been taught to study hard so that you can get a good degree with which you can find a good job which will make you appealing to a good spouse who can help you find the perfect house in which to raise the perfect children until you enroll them in the ideal college and find them an ideal spouse – at which point you can crack open that giant nest-egg you worked so hard for in retirement, take life easy; eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:19). It’s not a stretch to suggest that this is the American dream. But on a deeper level, this is the delusional dream spawned by our sinful nature – that true happiness is out there, just around the corner, you just need to find it and grab ahold of it. And it’s not going to let go of its dream easily. The sinful nature can’t be persuaded or converted – it must be killed. And that’s the job of the Law – to expose the sin that lives in our hearts and put it to death (Colossians 3:5). It’s an ugly and painful death – but it must be done to escape the hellish eternity which awaits all who set their hearts on earthly things. So, for the sake of your soul, listen as Solomon drains the life out of the American dream.


The first illusion to die is that of pleasure. I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. “Work hard, party harder” is not just a saying found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, it’s the philosophy many live by. And it’s not new. The Lord condemned the Israelites for lounging on their ivory-embroidered beds and drinking wine by the bowlful (Amos 6:1-7) The Epicureans of Paul’s day lived by the motto let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32). The hedonistic, Hugh Hefner philosophy of chasing personal pleasure is attractive – the question is: does it work? Does it satisfy? You can fill your belly with the very best food and drink – and make no mistake, these are gifts from God (Psalm 145:15) – but if these gifts are enjoyed apart from thanksgiving to the Giver, then you’re no better than livestock; you’re simply a well-dressed food processor. Last night’s gourmet dinner amounts to nothing more than this morning’s hangover and heartburn. Well, sex then. Sex is satisfying, right? Not outside of the boundaries God has painted around marriage – color outside of these lines and all you get is loneliness and emptiness, broken hearts and broken families. Millennials are known for pursuing pleasurable “shared experiences” over accumulating “stuff” – thus the rise of adventure vacations, escape rooms, and Airbnb’s. Does it work? No, just like “stuff” there’s always one more adventure to have, one more niche restaurant to “experience” and one more exotic place your friends say “you just have to visit.” Chasing the wind of pleasure is just that: chasing after the wind.


Ok then, how about acquiring wealth? I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the hearts of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve…nothing was gained under the sun. Can piles of wealth give meaning to life? Jesus calls the person who believes that a fool who has forfeited his soul (Luke 12:20). Sooner or later, everyone realizes that death will rob you of every last penny you worked so hard for – that’s why hearses aren’t equipped with trailer hitches. But it’s far more important to see that wealth doesn’t bring happiness even when you’re alive. To the illusion that says “If I can only make enough to buy this, to find financial security, then I’ll be happy,” Solomon responds, “don’t bother, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work.” Have you ever known anyone who earns enough? Who has saved enough? Has a car that is new enough? Gadgets that are cutting-edge enough? You build your own little kingdom only to have your children give it all away to Good-will. You might die a millionaire and be buried next to a beggar. It’s meaningless – a chasing after the wind.


Well, if it’s not the destination, then it must be the journey: life’s meaning must come from work. To this proposition, Solomon responds, what does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. Ah, but that’s not what the American dream seductress whispers into your ear. She transforms the quiet wisdom of “work ethic” into the shrill scream of a slave-driver: “Work, work, work. Learn, earn, compete, build your resume, plan, sacrifice, worry, lose sleep, skip vacations, add hours, increase responsibility, climb the corporate ladder, scratch the right back, invest, buy low, sell high, save, risk, work, work, work!” After all this, your life will have meaning and fulfillment – right? Wrong! Solomon says that all the hours he worked, all the plans he made, after building a temple for the Lord and a palace for himself, all his toil brought him nothing more than greater stress and sleepless nights. And if you think his experience was unique, consider that 1 in 6 Americans take medication to combat depression and anxiety. [2] What will all your hard work amount to after you retire, after you hand it over to someone else who tears it all down and starts over? Nothing. Apart from God, even work is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.


Depressing, isn’t it? It’s depressing to think that all your hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve spilled to acquire wealth and experience pleasure is nothing more than chasing after the wind. But it’s the soul-crushing truth. It’s why many people today struggle to summon the energy to get out of bed in the morning, why others just live for the weekend when they can drown their despair in parties and substances, why so many of us need the constant distraction of music, movies, and entertainment – anything to escape the dark, silent emptiness of life under the sun. That’s idolatry for you, and idolatry when viewed from that perspective is pretty horrifying, isn’t it? It’s dark and empty and meaningless. Idols consume their worshipers from the inside, leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. This is life without God, life without Christ at the center. Why? Because it’s not who you are. You are not the sum total of what you own and what you’ve done. You’re so much more than that. You were created by God, redeemed by God, adopted by God to live forever with God. And without God at the center of your life, your being, your identity, all you do and all you have under the sun is truly meaningless. But God offers us a better way. In spite of our futile attempts to find happiness apart from him, God graciously gives us a new way of life. He enables us to see beyond the horizon of life under this sun, to find the true meaning of life in his Son, Jesus.


In the final verses of our text, Solomon points us in the right direction: a man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Hang on, I thought Solomon just finished arguing that all work, pleasure and wealth is meaningless, now he says that there is nothing better than eating and drinking and working? Did you catch the key phrase? Without him – without God – no one will find contentment or happiness, but with him we can be joyful whether we are rich or poor, whether the meal is the chef’s special or Chef Boyardee, whether we are running our dream business or just counting the minutes to 5 o’clock. Because Jesus has redeemed this life by destroying the one thing that makes it all meaningless: death. He left his place at his Father’s right hand, he emptied himself of his glory and power as the Son of God, he became poor so that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He despised all other earthly pursuits apart from his pursuit of your salvation; which led him to the cross where he willingly suffered the horrifying wrath of God and the miserable, meaningless death and hell we deserved for our sins of greed, idolatry, gluttony and lust. The blood he shed won for us the greatest treasure of all: the forgiveness of sins. When you have this treasure, then death is not the end, but the beginning of true life. When you have this treasure you can be certain that you will pass the test on the night God calls for your life – because you have Christ and his righteousness. Through baptism this treasure is yours – which means that you don’t have to chase your best life now because your best life is still to come, when you will finally be free from sin and the futility of chasing the wind of meaning in this life.


And therein lies the secret to a meaningful life here and now. The secret is not having a better life now, but rather a better perspective on life. Knowing that Jesus has secured the eternal riches of heaven for you – frees you to actually enjoy life now. While the unbelieving world tries to squeeze meaning out of pleasure, wealth and work, believers understand that the good things of this life are just that: things of this life – to be used, enjoyed, and, eventually, left behind; just like the wind. Don’t fall for the lie that happiness is something that lies just over the horizon, after just a little more work and a few more years of saving (when you’ve moved into your dream house, bought the perfect car, brought the baby home, gotten the promotion or pay-raise, or finally reached retirement) – because if you do, you won’t just find yourself perpetually disappointed – you will miss the wonderful gifts God has already given you. Instead see that the meaning of the pleasure and wealth and work you have today lies in the simple fact that the God who created and redeemed you has given it to you for your enjoyment – nothing more and nothing less.


The meaning of life isn’t the sum total of the pleasure we’ve experienced, the wealth we’ve acquired or the hard work we’ve completed. The meaning of life is that God has loved us so much that he gave us life, gave us his Son, gave us faith to believe in him, and has promised to give us a place in his heavenly mansion. Try to grasp hold of what this life under the sun has to offer and you will find yourself empty handed, like trying to catch the wind. But open your hands to receive Christ in faith and God will fill those hands with everything you need for this life and more (Matthew 6:33). The Christian life is the simple life: 1) trust in God to take care of the big picture – now and forever – and 2) enjoy the life under the sun he has given you – because you already have eternal life in his Son, the one who puts an end to all of our chasing by giving us the one thing we could never get for ourselves: true, lasting happiness. Amen.


[1] Incidentally, havel was the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, whose life was so meaninglessly cut short by his brother Cain (Genesis 4:8)