When work and wisdom disappoint: Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26
In 2007, New York-based designers teamed up with Florida-based high-rise builders, Las Vegas architects, and a team of investors to create what would have been one of Las Vegas’s “largest, most unapologetically glamorous hotels”—the $2.9 Billion Fountainebleau. But just two years into the construction the economic recession brought everything to a grinding halt. To this day the project sits 70% complete, beams exposed, with no sign of completion in sight. All the wisdom that went into designing and planning this magnificent creation, all the hard work that went into constructing it . . . and nothing to show for it.
There’s an uncomfortable parallel between this building and our lives in a fallen world. At the beginning of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher poses a searching question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). In other words, is there any lasting gain in this rat race we call life? Will our work, wisdom, and everything else we do here and now amount to anything of lasting value? Or must we resign ourselves to living out our days in despair, hating life itself?
We already know where he’s going, and it’s not pretty: “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher (1:2). But in order to search honestly for lasting gain and significance, Solomon begins a series of “research projects,” examining all of life under the sun—life as we see and experience it day in and day out in this fallen world. The first of these projects extends from 1:12 through the end of chapter two, and zeroes in on two objects: human achievement and human wisdom. Verses 1:12-15 introduce his study of human achievement and activity (“all that is done under heaven”), which he then elaborates on in 2:1-11. And then 1:16-18 introduce his study of wisdom itself, which he elaborates on in 2:12-16. He offers his reaction and conclusions to the whole of his first study in 2:17-26.
So far at Westgate we’ve considered the introduction to his study (1:12-18), and his examination of human activity and achievement (2:1-11). This Sunday we will turn to consider his investigation of wisdom itself (2:12-16), along with the depressing and surprising results (2:17-26). Depressing, because an honest assessment of life in this fallen world, when viewed strictly from ground level, can result in no other conclusion. There is no lasting gain to be found under the sun (2:17-23). Surprising, because the Preacher doesn’t leave us at ground level, but lifts our eyes momentarily to see the sun break brilliantly through the clouds, if only for a minute, showing us life on earth from God’s perspective (2:24-26).
With God, there is joy to be found in our wisdom and our work, even if the fruit of our hands fades in time. This is God’s gift, and it’s made possible through the wisdom and lasting work of Jesus Christ on our behalf—a work and wisdom that no recession can derail and no human can thwart (Col. 2:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Heb. 7:11-28). Our work and wisdom, when seen as a reflection of his—even if but a short and dim one—can be undertaken with a satisfaction and joy that comes from the lasting gain and significance we have in Christ.
So join us this Sunday (May 20) at Westgate Church in Weston, Mass., as we look for joy amid the vanity of life.