Sermon: What Are You Building? (Eccl 3; 6; 7)

Things fall apart, and they don’t bear fruit like they should. Sometimes, a farmer plants a seed in the ground—and there is no rain. Sometimes, an entrepreneur builds a great business by wise decisions and honest dealings—and a hurricane wind comes through and wipes her investment away. Sometimes, a married couple tries for years and years to get pregnant—with no success. Sometimes, a single mom works for years scrubbing floors to get out of debt—and then she gets sick, can’t work, and falls right back into debt. In a broken world, wisdom, hard work and obedience to God’s law don’t always yield the results they should.

But the good news, Paul says, is that there is hope for redemption and re-creation. Human beings subjected the world entrusted to them to frustration, to futility—but because of what one perfect Human Being has done, all of creation can be reborn. The creation itself, Paul says, groans as if in labor pains, waiting for us as reborn human beings to be re-created in our resurrection bodies. In one sense, the creation has more “faith” and hope than we humans have! The trees and beasts of the field know that Jesus Christ is risen, and when he returns they will rejoice to see him restore creation to its full purpose.

This is the video (37.17, 222 MB) of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen, NJ, on June 20, 2021 (Father’s Day). The main texts are Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; 6:1-2; and 7:15-17.

We always enjoy our visits to Dunellen, one of ECO’s bilingual churches! Here is the service in Spanish, if you are interested in hearing the songs and the sermon bilingually.

Introduction

It’s a really great blessing to be back with you all, after two years! I know that things are still not fully back to “normal” here, but I think we can all be grateful to be meeting together in person. We bring you greetings from our church in Lithuania, where we serve at LCC International University. LCC is a Christian liberal arts university, with students from over 50 countries. We’ve spoken before about our ministry there, but if you’d like to hear more we’d be happy to chat with you after the service, and please sign up for our email updates, if you’re not already. You can also learn more about our work at giffonefamily dot com.

I think we can all agree that this has been a very strange time in our world. The Bible has a lot to say about suffering, grief, isolation, government power, migration—these are all really important issues that we should be thinking about biblically—but we won’t address them today!

During the pandemic, and probably continuing until now, many of us faced or are facing serious difficulty, or even crisis, in our work—and I’m including jobs, studies, and the work of the home. For some jobs, the pandemic and restrictions temporarily or permanently destroyed them. For other jobs, they proceeded online more or less effectively. Others were deemed “essential” and continued on with varying degrees of normalcy and effectiveness.

Whatever the nature of the disruption, the pandemic got many people thinking differently about their jobs. Can or should I be doing this job, or do I need to do something else? Now that my job is on furlough, should I try to learn some new skills and do something different? If I put my life’s effort into building a business that can be evaporated in such a short time, what am I striving for? Could I ever do this again? If what makes my job valuable is connecting with people, and I can’t connect with people, should I find something different that allows me to connect with people? What is work for, anyway, besides earning money—if anything?

Today is Father’s Day. Of course, the issues of work, vocation, self-worth, and meaning affect all of us—but perhaps men more so, in general. Even before COVID, we heard a lot about “deaths of despair” afflicting many men who found themselves unable to work or to find work, and whose depression led them to suicide or overdose. But all of us, adult men and women, retired folks, and young people in school, need to feel like our daily work means something, not just for putting food on the table, but for something that is bigger than ourselves—family, community, eternity.

This morning we’re going to look at a few different texts from the book of Ecclesiastes that problematize or complicate the notion of hard work and human effort in this life. The author of Ecclesiastes is a student of human nature, who is annoyingly great at tapping into our fundamental longings, desires and anxieties—one of those has to do with work, and what we are building. But he mainly takes stock of human life “under the sun,” that is, this present life in a fallen world. We will conclude by looking at how Romans 8 responds to Ecclesiastes about work and human effort, and how our work relates to eternity.

I’d like us to keep these questions in the back of our minds—questions for husbands and fathers, but really for all of us: wives and mothers, children, single people, grandparents…   First: What am I building in this life? Second: Why am I building this? Third: How can I know that what I’m striving to build will last?

Prayer

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that you would give us eyes to see and ears to hear what you would speak to us today. Let the indwelling Holy Spirit illumine our hearts to understand. In Jesus’s name we pray: Amen.

Explore Ecclesiastes

Before we look at some foundational texts in the Old Testament, let’s get a little bit of background on the book of Ecclesiastes.

The book of Ecclesiastes, like most books in the Old Testament, does not say who wrote it. The speaker in the book calls himself “Qohelet,” which means something like, “the Preacher,” or “the one who speaks to an assembly.” Traditionally, Qohelet was thought to be King Solomon, because he claims to have been “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” But there are good reasons for thinking that someone other than Solomon composed this book, and even most evangelical scholars today do not believe that Solomon was the author. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense that Solomon would only partially conceal his identity and not use his own name, when the scribes weren’t hesitant to attribute most of the book of Proverbs to him by name. Second, the language of Ecclesiastes looks like a variety of Hebrew that was spoken centuries after Solomon lived—sort of like reading the works of T.S. Elliot as if they were written by Shakespeare.

This doesn’t mean that reading the book of Ecclesiastes alongside the life of Solomon isn’t helpful. Some of what Qohelet criticizes in the first few chapters can be seen in the narrative of Solomon’s life in 1 Kings 1-11. I think a helpful way to read Ecclesiastes is as a sort of dramatic thought experiment. The experiment is: What if wisdom, as articulated in the book of Proverbs and other scriptures, doesn’t always work in real life? What if there is no differentiated afterlife—that is, what if the righteous and the wicked go to the same place when they die? It certainly sounds unorthodox, in the sense that it undermines the truth of the other scriptures—though we’ll see in a little while that it complements other scriptures.

One of the key ideas in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word hevel, translated in many English versions as “vanity,” and in the NIV as “meaningless or meaninglessness.” Scholars have debated the range of meaning of hevel, which literally means something like “mist” or “vapor.” Qohelet pronounces various people, teachings, things, life truths, pleasures, follies and even wisdom itself, to be hevel, “vanity.” I think that the key idea that comes through over and over again as he labels these things as hevel is that of temporariness, ephemerality, fleetingness. Like warm breath on a cold day, these things are visible one moment and then gone the next.

Core Testimony

So with this background in mind, let’s look at some of the scriptural wisdom that Qohelet then scrutinizes. Of course, we can’t explore all of scripture’s wisdom and all of Qohelet’s critiques, but what I have in mind for this morning is the doctrine of retribution, which basically means, “if you do the right thing, you’ll be blessed by God, and if you don’t follow God’s ways, you will be punished.” If you’d like you can turn in your Bibles to Psalm 1, and Proverbs 3, though we won’t read them fully. These are two foundational passages from the Wisdom Literature in which we find this straightforward teaching about doing the right thing leading to rewards. In Psalm 1, the blessed man, we are told, does not associate with the wicked, but instead immerses himself in the “law of YHWH God,” that is, God’s revealed truth. He is rewarded with blessings: productive work, and sustained life and prosperity, like a tree that gives its good fruit in time. By contrast, the wicked are not “firmly planted,” but are blown away to perish in the judgment.

In Proverbs 3, verses 5-6, and 13-16, we see that whoever gains wisdom will have “long life,” and “riches and honor.” Submitting to YHWH’s wise ways and acknowledging his sovereignty will yield “straight paths.” One manifestation of “wisdom” in Proverbs is diligence in our work, service to God and neighbor. Laziness is a sin; diligent work at the vocation that God has given us, whether a job outside the home, tending a garden, tending children, encouraging and guiding the next generation—these all lead to blessings. We also work to prepare for the future, and to have something to share with those who are in need.

We could pick up any number of passages in other books of the Old Testament that teach this straightforward idea that obedience leads to blessings, and disobedience leads to suffering—so, I’m not going to belabor this point. If God created the world and human beings, then it makes sense that living as he says we should, will lead to the best outcomes.

Ecclesiastes

So, this idea of retribution makes perfect sense—until we actually experience life. That’s what we find in Ecclesiastes: many observations from real life. Let’s turn now to Ecclesiastes, where we see this idea of reward for obedient labor called into question. I’ll summarize these three points as:

  1. God has already determined the future, so I shouldn’t bother working hard.
  2. Even if I work and do the right thing, I won’t get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
  3. The wicked and disobedient profit from their wickedness, and the wise and obedient suffer because of their obedience. Why bother with wisdom and obedience?

Determinism and Hard Work

Let’s begin with this first point about the future, in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verses 9 to 15.

Eccl 3:9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
15 Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.

(Ecclesiastes 3:9-15 NIV2011)

Qohelet (the Preacher) seems to envision a sequence of events that cannot be changed one way or the other. Workers are foreordained to…work hard. There are a handful of people in society who never have to work—but for most people, making ends meet and staying afloat in this life is a struggle. Along with toil, Qohelet says that we have “eternity in our hearts,” a longing to be connected with something bigger—that which has survived the past, and that which continues into the future. Toil, and longing for eternity—stuck in mortal bodies! Doesn’t sound great. But thankfully, God has given us food and drink, and some temporal satisfaction in toil. I would add to that list many little things—joys in life like loving family, friends, and community with others.

But all this, he says, can’t really be changed. What God has decreed will come to pass, and this cycle of toil, temporary pleasures, and death, seems to be unchanging. Is there any escape from this cycle? It doesn’t sound like the long life and abundance that was promised to the Israelites in the Promised Land. Conversely, it doesn’t seem like the toil is the punishment for disobedience. It doesn’t seem like there’s any incentive for wise living or obedience.

Today the so-called “Bottom Billion” in our world lives on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day. What is the point of all their toil? Is there any escape for them from this cycle of subsistence that their families have endured for generations? What is the value of their work and their lives?

Someone Else Enjoys My Fruit

Let’s move on to Ecclesiastes chapter 6, verses 1 and 2.

1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: 2 God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.

(Ecclesiastes 6:1-2 NIV2011)

Here, we have a situation where some person (it’s actually singular in the Hebrew, not plural “some people”) is not allowed to enjoy the benefits of his labor. In these verses, it doesn’t say what the cause of the wealth and possessions is, but in the verses before and after, it seems clear that these are the result of the person’s labor. After all, it wouldn’t seem like much of an “evil” if God took away possessions and wealth from someone who didn’t work for them or deserve them in some sense.

Verse 2 doesn’t say why, how, or when a stranger enjoys the fruit of this person’s labor. Was the reward stolen from him while he was alive? Does it mean that his kids enjoy them when he dies prematurely? Does someone take them from his kids after he dies? Each of these scenarios rubs us the wrong way, because it just feels wrong for someone else to enjoy the fruits of my hard work!

It rubs us the wrong way because this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, according to a straightforward reading of God’s Law. In Deuteronomy 20:5-7, military officers are instructed to offer these caveats to their soldiers before going into battle:

5b “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. 7 Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.”

(Deuteronomy 20:5b-7 NIV2011)

There is something beautiful and right and God-glorifying about working to produce something in a God-given domain, and then enjoying the fruit of that work. God loves for his human images to work in his world to produce things and enjoy them, as he worked in creation for six days and then rested on the seventh to sit in enjoyment.

Yet, as Qohelet observes, this isn’t always how life is. Think of a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, stricken with cancer, who will never see her children graduate from high-school or hold her grandchildren. Think of a couple, two years from retirement, whose small business was wiped out because of lockdowns. Think of the man in Jesus’s parable who built huge barns for his harvest, only to find out that he would die without enjoying all that he had worked for. This, Qohelet says, is hevel, fleeting, ephemeral—but he also says that it is ra‘, “a very bad thing.”

Don’t Be Too Wise or Righteous!

So, we’ve seen the seemingly inescapable cycle of toil without hope of improvement by obedience. We’ve seen that sometimes someone else may enjoy the fruits of my labor. In our last passage, Qohelet takes on the question of retribution and reward more forcefully. Let’s look at chapter 7, verses 15 to 17.

15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
16 Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

(Ecclesiastes 7:15-17 NIV 2011)

Like the psalmist in Psalm 73, Qohelet observes that the wicked often prosper because of their wickedness, and the righteous suffer because of their righteousness—despite what Psalm 1 seems to teach, as we alluded to earlier. Qohelet concludes that the best strategy is not to be too wise or righteous, but also not to be too wicked or foolish, because that can turn out badly as well.

This hearkens back to chapter 2 verse 15, where Qohelet concludes that he’s wasted quite a bit of effort becoming wise: “Then I said to myself, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’” (Eccl 2:15a NIV2011) In both 7:15 and 2:15, Qohelet calls this state of affairs hevel, “meaningless, absurd.”

Qohelet’s Paradoxes

What are we to do with Qohelet’s paradoxes? In some places it seems like he’s offering a critique of bits of wisdom taken too far, but in some places what he’s saying seems almost heterodox—or at least, self-contradictory. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a message of, “don’t be over-righteous, and a little wickedness is OK” smells fishy.

In our world of over-polished presentation, we crave authenticity, and gravitate toward politicians, reporters, comedians, leaders who seem to be “telling it like it is,” who cut through the jargon and the party line. I imagine Qohelet as a teacher of wisdom who has realized the limits of “wisdom” or “the proper teaching” to explain real life. Yes, the party line makes sense—except when it doesn’t. Yes, God rewards the righteous—except when he doesn’t. Yes, hard work pays off—except when it doesn’t. Yes, wisdom leads to long, satisfying life—except when it doesn’t.

What are we to do, then, with Qohelet’s critique of God-given wisdom?

Futility and New Creation

Let’s now come back to this idea of Ecclesiastes as a sort of thought-experiment to show what it would be like to find meaning only in our earthly existence, only in this life “under the sun.” In the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus in his earthly ministry, his death, and his resurrection, we find that our work in this life has meaning, even if we don’t see or enjoy its fruit right away—or even if we never see fruit at all in this life.

Turn with me, if you would, to Romans chapter 8. Let’s read from verse 18 to verse 25.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

(Romans 8:18-25 NIV2011)

Here in Romans, we start to find the resolutions to the paradoxes that Qohelet observed. Paul says that creation itself, the physical world, was subjected to a frustration, a futility—and here, Paul uses the Greek word that corresponds to the Hebrew hevel found in Ecclesiastes (μάταιος, ματαιότης). If Adam and Eve had continued on in obedience to YHWH God, they would have extended the Garden of Eden’s vibrant fruitfulness throughout all of YHWH’s creation, as he had intended. But instead, Paul says, the creation was in “bondage to decay,” because of their sin–and, in them, our sin as well.

Things fall apart, and they don’t bear fruit like they should. Sometimes, a farmer plants a seed in the ground—and there is no rain. Sometimes, an entrepreneur builds a great business by wise decisions and honest dealings—and a hurricane wind comes through and wipes her investment away. Sometimes, a married couple tries for years and years to get pregnant—with no success. Sometimes, a single mom works for years scrubbing floors to get out of debt—and then she gets sick, can’t work, and falls right back into debt. In a broken world, wisdom, hard work and obedience to God’s law don’t always yield the results they should.

But the good news, Paul says, is that there is hope for redemption and re-creation. Human beings subjected the world entrusted to them to frustration, to futility—but because of what one perfect Human Being has done, all of creation can be reborn. The creation itself, Paul says, groans as if in labor pains, waiting for us as reborn human beings to be re-created in our resurrection bodies. In one sense, the creation has more “faith” and hope than we humans have! The trees and beasts of the field know that Jesus Christ is risen, and when he returns they will rejoice to see him restore creation to its full purpose.

This hope of resurrection, far from being a reason for us to sit on our hands and wait for death, actually provides motivation for all the work that we do in this life. God did not abandon his creation to sin and decay, but rather rolled up his sleeves, condescending to take on human flesh and to redeem his world at great cost. Everything we do in this life to extend God’s dominion over human souls and the physical creation is anticipating and participating in that redemption. When you teach your children from Scripture about God’s glory and his mercy—that matters. When you write emails and do spreadsheets as a large or small piece of a work project that produces value and thereby improves people’s lives—that matters. When my wife teaches her 12-year-old student how to play the piano and experience the beauty and harmony of music that God created—that matters. When I scrub the toilet and clean out the gutters and mow the lawn—that matters. When we see God’s strength perfected through the weakness of those who bear up under sickness, suffering and death, trusting in God along the way—that matters. When we have been adopted as sons of God, everything we do in the name of our heavenly Father has meaning because it builds his coming kingdom.

At the beginning, I planted three questions in our minds for consideration as we looked at Ecclesiastes. First: What am I building in this life? Second: Why am I building this? Third: How can I know that what I’m striving to build will last?

It’s surprising to me how many people don’t really know what they’re building in life, or how to get to what they really say they want. In my previous career in big pharma, I worked with a lot of younger people who made decent white-collar salaries—and then didn’t know what to spend it on besides alcohol, cars, cruises, and clothes. Now, working at a university, I talk to a lot of young people—Christians and non-Christians—and ask them about their career plans, etc. But then I ask them what life they hope to have when they’re 40, and it’s usually some version of: wanting to be happily married, with a couple of kids, living near enough to their parents. I ask them what steps they are taking to try to find a partner in life who shares their values and will be committed to them—and they admit they have no idea how to go about doing that.

Some of us think we know what we’re building by our work, but it’s been a long time since we considered why we’re building it. Are you saving for a comfortable retirement out of prudence and a desire to be generous, or as a hedge against fully trusting God to provide for your needs? Are you building “the perfect home” in order to raise children who are courageous, godly servants, or do you just want others to be impressed by their behavior? Do you serve the church out of love for God, or out of obligation? True wisdom and obedience that yields fruit for the kingdom of God is not just doing a wise thing, but trusting and honoring God while doing it.

When we set out to build our own lives, for our own glory, we know that what we build will eventually crumble to dust—our labor is hevel, as Qohelet observes. But when we seek to build God’s kingdom, we can be fully confident that our work is not hevel. In Ephesians 2, Paul calls the church God’s “new temple,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. That temple is still being built, ever expanding. So: men, fathers—and, women, mothers, grandparents, children—the question today is: are you building into God’s kingdom?

Let’s pray.

Prayer of Application

Father, we praise you for your Word, given graciously through the prophets and apostles, and revealed most fully in your Son, Jesus. We see the wisdom and balance and beauty and goodness in the world that you created, and yet we also see that this world is broken by sin and marred with futility and fruitlessness. Sometimes, it’s difficult to trust that you have control and purpose when we see suffering and futility.

But Lord, we know that in Christ, because of what Jesus did on the cross and at his resurrection, life has meaning. Help us to entrust to you our lives and efforts, knowing that all that we have and all that we are is yours, anyway. Use us for your glory. We build your kingdom, with confidence, because we know the ending to the story.

In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.


Audio and text: ©2021 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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