Discovering Life in the Mystery: The Futility of Greatness
DISCOVERING LIFE IN THE MYSTERY - Unlocking Ecclesiastes
The Futility of Greatness
If you chase Jesus instead of the wind, you’ll know and experience the greatness that does fulfill!
Everyone in our society is trying to be great. It’s not new. Social media has just exacerbated it, but greatness and glory have always been the pinnacle of value and purpose.
Perhaps the most famous line written by Vince McKewin for the movie The Replacements was, “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.”[note] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/glory?page=2 [/note] (Vince McKewin)
I mean, by definition, if you’re great doesn’t that equal value, purpose, and fulfillment? If I can just get to the top of the flow chart of society and experience glory, won’t I be able to put my head on my pillow at night and feel satisfied; won’t I feel like I have achieved something that gives me peace; that gives my life true meaning?
Well, King Solomon of Israel wondered the same thing and he decided to find out if was true. To really process this idea of greatness out to see if it brought the true sense of fulfillment, purpose, and value that made life make sense; that made it all worthwhile. However, for Solomon, this wasn’t simply an academic exercise, but a real-life experiment.
Solomon achieved incredible success just after a time period known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. u Israel was basically unknown on the world scene until Solomon’s dad, David, defeated the Philistines and created a truly unified and identifiable Kingdom. But still, on the world scene, there was nothing really great about Israel until Solomon took the military and political success of David and used it to create a true economic competitor in the Middle East with Egypt and the Phoenicians. Solomon’s wisdom in accomplishing this made him famous, and as such, people came from all over the world to meet him. World leaders like the Queen of Sheba (Queen of Egypt) even came to learn from him.
So, listen, when Solomon tells us that no manner of greatness under the sun can fulfill you; that is, no manner of greatness under the sun will ever allow you to put your head on a pillow at night and experience a true sense of peace, purpose and value that makes life truly meaningful and complete; you can know it’s not coming from some guy who failed to achieve greatness and now he’s just trying to come up with some excuses to make him feel better about failure. The conclusion that no manner of greatness in this world will ever fulfill you is coming from a guy who achieved some of the greatest success available under the sun!
The question then is, why? Why doesn’t it fulfill? Greatness and the glory it achieves have been the goal of humanity throughout history! So is Solomon saying it doesn’t work?
Greatness doesn’t change your destiny – you’re still going to die. (2:12-17)
12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
Solomon is talking about the wisdom that achieves greatness.
The wise person has eyes on his head, that is the wise person has the ability to see things as they are (light) and thus make the decisions that make you great.
On the other hand, a fool doesn’t see things as they are and as such they walk in darkness. J.E. Smith noted,
“The person who possesses true wisdom has the eyes of his heart or understanding enlightened; he looks into the nature of things; he focuses on what is most important; he sees where to go. The fool, on the other hand, walks on still in darkness, stumbling as he goes, knowing not where his road will take him.”[note]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (p. 721). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.[/note] (J.E. Smith)
So that’s a good thing for sure! Walking in the light gives you the ability to not turn your life into a huge mess and as such be successful at whatever you’re doing – education, marriage, parenting, career, etc. We will talk much more about wisdom later in the book, but for now, it just needs to be noted that the context of his current discussion on wisdom has to do with what it takes to become great. A few verses prior to where we are today Solomon wrote, 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. (Ecclesiastes 2:9)
So what became of applying all this wisdom and work to becoming great? Well, Solomon then reports,
And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, "What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?" And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!
It’s better to live wise because it produces a better “now,” however, wisdom has no impact on the end – both the wise and the fool die, and both are forgotten.
Though wisdom is superior to folly in life, in two respects the wise and the foolish are equal. … 1. Both the wise and the foolish are doomed to death (2:14b–15). … 2. Both the wise and the foolish are forgotten (2:16).[note]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (p. 721). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.[/note]
Now obviously Solomon was not forgotten, I’m standing here preaching a sermon from a book he wrote and as such telling you all about him. However, his point about being forgotten I think is captured well in J.E. Winter’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. Winter writes,
“Gordon Keddie sums it up well, when he writes, ‘Death is the wall that under-the-sun secularism cannot climb. Even the remembrance of those who have died perishes with those who knew them personally. Beethoven may be said to live on in his music, but the truth is we know the music, not the man.’”[note]Winter, J. (2005). Opening up Ecclesiastes (p. 31). Leominster: Day One Publications.[/note] (J.E. Winter)
But it's not just the concern that he and all his greatness will be forgotten, but more so that, “the wise dies just like the fool!” Solomon realized the death bed has no consideration for a person’s greatness!
Walter Peyton, one of the toughest and most dominant running backs in NFL history died of one of the most common causes of death in the world – cancer.
Henry David Thoreau, one of the world’s most influential poets died of a bacterial infection called tuberculous. In 2018, before COVID, the CDC reported that, “In 2018, 1.7 billion people were infected by TB bacteria — roughly 23% of the world’s population. TB is the leading infectious disease killer in the world, claiming 1.5 million lives each year.”[note]https://www.cdc.gov/globalhealth/newsroom/topics/tb/index.html [/note]
Joe Diffie and Charley pride, two highly successful country singers died of COVID.
Natalie Wood, who stared in 56 movies as well as Rudolf Diesel (the inventor of the DIESEL engine) drowned!
Stephen Covey was one of the most successful business and leadership consultants in the world. He is best known for his book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for an unprecedented 250 weeks. He died in a car crash.
Ronald Regan, a famous actor, former Governor of California, and two-term president of the United States died of Alzheimer’s.
The point is, that Solomon’s observation has proved correct every day of humanity’s existence. Greatness doesn’t excuse you from death nor even the manners of death that everybody else faces.
Therefore, to no surprise then, Solomon writes this,
17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
The visceral effect on Solomon is that after achieving all this greatness and actually looking at it in the light of what he had accomplished is that he hated life!
“The verb “hated” might be more properly represented in the modern idiom by the word “disgusted.” The more wisdom one acquires the more he becomes aware of the injustice, inequality and unfairness of life. … All that man accomplishes in this world is “vanity and grasping after the wind.”[note]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (p. 722). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.[/note]
Greatness doesn’t have any real effect on when and how you die! “Chasing wind This Hebrew phrase occurs only in Ecclesiastes, although a similar phrase occurs in Hos 12:1. In Ecclesiastes, it almost always appears in parallel to the Hebrew word hevel (see note on Eccles 1:2). It refers to a senseless or futile activity where nothing can be gained. Just like trying to catch the wind, these efforts are unending and ineffective.”[note]Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ec 2:17). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.[/note]
When Solomon realized greatness had no impact on death at all, it angered him and made him see life with disgust!
You can almost hear the cry of the person who's achieved greatness. “I’m better than everybody else and accomplished more than everybody else, so how is I have the same terminal disease, the same terminal end as everybody else?” “Doesn’t being at the top entitle you to something different?” “Doesn’t being at the top mean something?” “I outdid everybody on earth, therefore I deserve to have something everybody on earth doesn’t – a death that honors me, or better yet, no death at all!”
When you die you have no control over what’s done with your greatness. (2:18-23)
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night, his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
So, there are a couple of things going on here that I want to highlight.
I’m going to bounce around these verses for just a minute. Did you notice Solomon said,
22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night, his heart does not rest.
Every small business owner, CEO, Plant manager, school principal, and even pastors should totally relate to what Solomon just said. The more success you have, the greater you become, the more “responsibility” you have; and as such, the less sleep you’re going to get! You carry the weight of the responsibility of all the people your decisions affect and it becomes near impossible to just turn it off, not to mention near impossible to escape from it!
Greatness doesn’t relieve you of burdens, it adds them! Every rung you climb up the ladder of success is a rung that places more on you. It’s why it's best you never climb the ladder if you aren’t also willing to embrace the burden, otherwise, you’re going to fall off the ladder – which is never good!
However, Solomon’s bigger point in that passage is in verses 18-20.
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
To achieve greatness takes an incredible amount of sacrifice and effort. Nothing great is ever accomplished without tremendous levels of work, and all the burden and pain that goes with it. You claw your way up the mountain, overcoming all the obstacles in your way, carrying all kinds of people with you, not only to get to the top and eventually die like everybody else but also hand the product of all that work over to somebody who didn’t earn it and as such can’t really appreciate what it took to achieve it. This often results in a person ruining what they inherited!
For Solomon, it was almost as if it he could see it coming. When Solomon died one of his son’s named Rehoboam became King and he made a total mess of things!! He completely ruined all that David and Solomon built!
1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 And as soon as Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. 3 And they sent and called him, and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam,
4"Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you." 5 He said to them, "Go away for three days, then come again to me." So the people went away. 6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, "How do you advise me to answer this people?"
7 And they said to him, "If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever." 8 But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him.
9 And he said to them, "What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, 'Lighten the yoke that your father put on us'?" 10 And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, "Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, 'Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,' thus shall you say to them, 'My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs.
11 And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'" … 16 And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, "What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David." So Israel went to their tents.
17 But Rehoboam reigned over the people of Israel who lived in the cities of Judah. … 19 So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day. 20 And when all Israel heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. There was none that followed the house of David but the tribe of Judah only. (1 Kings 12:1-11, 16-17, 19-20)
Solomon’s Application: Greatness fails to fulfill so learn to settle for less. (2:24-26)
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Verse 26 is a bit of a sidenote and it's seen when Solomon writes “This also.” But, “what does he mean by “this”? Here is the central idea of the passage. The moral government of God places restrictions upon the ability of a person to enjoy the fruit of his toil. For a sinner to labor and toil to amass wealth when the disposition of that wealth is in the hands of God is nothing but striving after wind on the part of that sinner (2:26).”[note]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (pp. 726–727). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co.[/note]
There is a lot we can talk about here, like the parable of the talents where Jesus gives the talent of the unfaithful servant to one of the faithful ones, but, the bigger picture is that Solomon is saying the achievements of a wicked person don’t matter because they are going to all eventually stand under the judgment and wrath of God!
But the bigger point being made here is in the context of what Solomon has been writing about concerning the greatness he achieved. Solomon is basically saying that it is a total fallacy to think that greatness will somehow fulfill you and allow you to experience a purpose and value that makes life make sense; that greatness puts you on the top of the mountain where you can escape all the rest of what humanity has to endure; that greatness ends up bringing you a sense of true meaning!
Therefore, being great doesn’t work, being that failed, I need to figure out a way to embrace and enjoy the reality of my failure. I need to find a way to settle for something less than I aimed at – fulfillment. Therefore, his conclusion is,
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
Solomon is saying, any success you have in this life is ultimately from God. You had to work hard to achieve it, but if God didn’t bless it then it would have never happened. Whether your level of success is being the first in your family to graduate High School, earning a career that frees you from living in Government housing or taking you all the way to the top of society.
Whatever rung on the ladder of success you achieved you need to know God provided the ladder. God is the one who gave you the opportunity to climb the ladder and the ability to climb it! He’s the one who kept the ladder from falling over while you climbed it and He made sure that whatever it was attached to didn’t crumble!
So given success isn’t possible apart from God, the fruits of success are a blessing from God and should be enjoyed; not abused or served (we talked about that last week), but certainly enjoyed.
“The phrase “to eat and drink” is merely a periphrasis for living in comfort, peace, and affluence. The phrase refers to the simplest forms of enjoyment.”[note]Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms (p. 726). Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co. [/note]
“In view of the impermanence of the fruits of a man’s toil, Solomon recommended that a man enjoy its fruits (eating and drinking are only metaphorical for partaking of all its fruits) and find satisfaction in his work (cf. 3:13; 5:18; 8:15) as he himself had done (2:10).”[note]Glenn, D. R. (1985). Ecclesiastes. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 983). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. [/note]
“find delight in his toil The author advocates finding enjoyment in work. Since any profit from work is temporary, people should look for enjoyment, not wealth”[note]Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ec 2:24). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.[/note]
Now, Solomon’s application didn’t have the light of the Gospel to help him, so the only good he saw was enjoying whatever positive benefits came from his success. However, Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection change our application! The Gospel turns the light on into life after death. I believe Solomon believed in life after death, but He couldn’t know it or look into it like we can. As a result, we should have a totally different view and application of greatness!
The Gospel Application: The greatness we have in Christ truly fulfills, so much so that by comparison, what the world considers greatness (all that is under the sun), the Bible considers rubbish!
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
Nothing in this world gives you eternal life. Nothing in this world redeems the body! But through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we have been made great enough to be sons of daughters of God!
It is not greatness we earned; it is a gift of God that no one can boast of achieving. All of us fall short including those of us who are already saved. Our salvation is not maintained by the measure of our holiness, but by the measure of His Holiness, His Righteousness, His Works, and His deserving of praise!
Furthermore, because we have been given His greatness and righteousness, He is going to resurrect our bodies to be just like Him! All who have repented and believed in Him will spend eternity with Him on a fully restored earth in fully restored bodies that are made in total perfection and greatness.
So, listen, the New Testament doesn’t tell us greatness doesn’t matter. It actually tells us greatness truly matters! But, it makes it real clear that you and I can never achieve that greatness. It is only achievable by God and therefore only experienced by us if He gives it to us! So, the challenge is real obvious today,
Challenge: Are you living in repentance, believing Jesus to be and do all He said, and as such following Him in a life of true GREATNESS, or are you living your life chasing the wind?
If you chase Jesus instead of the wind, you’ll know and experience the greatness that does fulfill! The problem is we won’t repent, believe, and truly follow Him! We won’t let go of the idea that we have to be great. I’m not suggesting laziness, nor am I saying there is anything wrong with ambition.
But how many times do we hide within ourselves the belief that if we just achieve greatness (no matter the venue – parenting, marriage, career, education, business, politics, ministry, etc.!) then we will somehow experience a fulfillment that makes it all better!
It’s a lie that we as Christians not only have clarity on through the Gospel but we also have the answer! Life in Christ does fulfill because it is true greatness! The problem is we don’t really believe it, or we lack the faith to truly repent from our faith in the greatness achieved under the sun.