Proper 13 • Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–26 • August 1, 2010
By Dr. Francis C. Rossow
Comments on the text
1. Whether intended or not, there are remarkable similarities in the emphases of the readings appointed for this Sunday. The “All is vanity” message of the Old Testament reading, our text, is dramatized by the Parable of the Rich Fool in the Gospel, Luke 12: 13–21. Both readings demonstrate that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). The rich man’s construction of ever more and bigger barns turns out to be what our text describes as “a chasing after the wind” (Eccl 1:14). The question of God to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Lk 12:20) echoes the observations of our text that “I must leave them [the things I have toiled for under the sun] to the one who comes after me” (Eccl 2:18) and “he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it” (Eccl 2:21). Also the Epistle, Colossians 3:1–11, cautions against “greed, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5) and urges, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:2).
2. “All is vanity” is the theme not only of our text but also of the entire book of Ecclesiastes. Other translations use different words for “vanity” (“futility,” “emptiness,” “meaninglessness”), but we get the idea.
3. Or do we? Ogden Nash in his poem “Ha! Original Sin!” quips, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity/That’s any fun at all for humanity,” then continues,
The prophets chant and the prophets chatter,
But somehow it never seems to matter,
For the world hangs on to its ancient sanity
And orders another round of vanity.
We painfully recognize that the material things we too often live for are “a chasing after the wind”—and yet, irrationally, we continue to chase after the wind.
4. There is nothing theoretical or philosophical about the “All is vanity” conclusion of our text. It’s not something the biblical author once read about and subscribes to. It’s something he experienced in life. He learned it while he was king over Israel (Eccl 1:12–14).
5. Profound and eloquent as our text is, it is hardly a Gospel text. It is Law: severe, stinging, crushing Law. No apology for that. For it is Law designed to prepare us for the Gospel. The text strips us of all our vanities, all our shoddy goals, all our false hopes, and all our self-delusions, so that we might be desperately open to the Gospel truth that our Lord Jesus is “the one thing needful,” “the Joy of man’s desiring.” “All is vanity” may be the rule, yes, but the Lord Jesus and the salvation he has provided us are the glorious exception to that rule. That is, “All is Vanity—except Jesus and his salvation!”
6. Although the text has nothing to say about the Jesus event and its meaning for us, it does hint at the gracious nature of God in 2:24, where the writer points out that ordinary daily activities like eating, drinking, and working and the satisfaction we derive from these activities are blessings from the hand of God. (It would even be a greater vanity if such daily routines were not gifts from a merciful God!) The following verse strengthens the “Gospelly” aspect of this truth by asserting that there can be no enjoyment apart from God: “for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
7. Ecclesiastes 2:26 provides the best textual opportunity for Gospel when it asserts that “God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy” (KJV). Here, of course, Gospel will need to be imported from numerous places in the Bible that inform us in clear, direct terms that a man can be “good in [God’s] sight” only when God declares him to be good in his sight through the righteousness of his Son, Jesus, credited to him by God’s grace.
8. As indicated above, Gospel will need to be imported to this text when the preacher makes it the basis for his sermon. This importation will seem less forced and arbitrary if one uses a Gospel handle. Ecclesiastes 2:21 provides such a handle. The RSV version of that verse reads, “Sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it.”
The man talked about in this verse is any man and every man. It could be anyone of us. A person works wisely and industriously in this life. And what may well happen? He leaves the accumulated fruits of his labor to another person who is nowhere near so wise and industrious and hard-working as he.
Yet, come to think of it, isn’t that precisely what the Man, the God-man, Christ Jesus, has done? He spent a lifetime on earth toiling “with wisdom and knowledge and skill.” He went about the land of Palestine doing good and being good, keeping every one of God, his Father’s, commandments perfectly. And what was the outcome? He left “all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it!” He left it to you and me. Christ accumulated the righteousness, and we, in the goodness of God, inherit it, we who have “not toiled for it”—indeed, could not toil for it even had we wanted to. Our Lord is a classic instance of “a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill” and has left it “all to be enjoyed by a man [you and me] who did not toil for it.”
That is not what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes meant to say in our text. But it is what God tells us in the Bible. And this is not vanity. This is the Gospel!
The Rule—and the Exception to the Rule
I. The rule: “All is vanity.”
A. The author of our text experienced the truth of this rule (Eccl 1:12–14).
B. The rich man in today’s Gospel experienced the truth of this rule.
C. Alas, we too have experienced the truth of this rule.
1. An enumeration and analysis of our individual vanities,
shoddy goals, false hopes, and self-delusions.
2. Despite better knowledge, we still pursue these vanities, we still “chase after the wind.” (Refer to the Ogden Nash
poem quoted above.)
II. The exception to the rule: “All is vanity–except Jesus and the salvation he won for us!”
A. Even the cynical author of our text hints at the gracious nature of God (Eccl 2:24–25).
B. Clarify that “the man who is good in God’s sight” (Eccl 2:26) is a man who has been declared good in God’s sight through the righteousness of his Son, Jesus, credited to that man through God’s grace.
C. Import additional Gospel through the Gospel handle provided by Ecclesiastes 2:21 (cf. No.8 above).