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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:What Are Your Achievements Under the Sun?
Text:Ecclesiastes 2:1-26 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912
Psalter 280 - Tender Mercies of God
Psalter 4 - Christ's Inheritance
TH 109 - Lord, My Weak Thought in Vain Would Climb
TH 714 - We Plow the Fields
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

When it’s election time, the whole country’s abuzz with news on campaigns and political rallies. Some parties outline their plan for more government spending to attract voters. Some say the government dangles carrots to secure votes. And it’s the same all over. In the US, presidential candidates will make promises - to build a wall, create jobs, establish universal healthcare, bring world peace. But after 3 years in office, he begins another campaign. He goes round the circuit, shakes hands, carries babies; but has little time to focus on things he promised. At the end, the wall’s not built, few jobs created, healthcare still in shambles, and the world’s not at peace. What were his achievements?

A few years ago, Singapore was key in the peace summit between the USA and North Korea. Many commitments were made. Something was achieved. Then 2 years later, it all fell apart. What was achieved? After World War I, the League of Nations was formed to promote world peace. Something was achieved. Then World War II happened. There are still wars. What’s been achieved? “They lived happily ever after” doesn’t exist under the sun. Life under the sun is vanity and vexation of spirit. We achieve things. But many achievements are vain.

In chapter 2, Solomon questioned the meaning and value of his achievements and work. And as we look at this chapter, we ought to ask these questions too. How’ve we spent the past week? How will we spend next week? How about the next decade? Retirees, how have you spent your work life?

Here, Solomon calls us to consider 2 sobering thoughts. Firstly, achievements under the sun are not vain. Secondly, achievements under the sun are vain.

In chapter 1, Solomon introduced his quest. He would experience everything man experienced on earth. Verse 13 - “And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.” 

And the first thing he did was to experience work and achievements; and he found that achievements under the sun were not vain. That’s the first point. But if everything under the sun is vain, how are achievements not vain? In this chapter, Solomon described his ambitions. But there was one overarching ambition. He wanted to be satisfied.  Verse 1 - “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure.” He wanted mirth and pleasure. And who doesn’t want satisfaction? Is it wrong? Some people think so. Let’s explore this. 

So how did he try to create satisfaction on earth? He tried by working hard. He did great works. Verse 4 - he built houses and planted vineyards. Verse 5 - he planted gardens, orchards, and fruit trees. Verse 6 - he dug canals to water the trees. So he had a fruit industry that was well irrigated. And he enjoyed it. Verse 3 - he drank his wine. Verse 7 says he had a lot of cattle. He hired workers to take care of them. He had a meat industry. Verse 8 says he was a financier - he had silver and gold. And he had an entertainment industry. And he was more successful than anyone before him. Verse 9 - “So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem.” In other words, he worked hard and it showed.

He also tried to create satisfaction by gaining wisdom. Verse 12 says, “And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly.” He was a thinker, a philosopher. And what he wanted to know was deep. Verse 12 says - “for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.” Meaning, he wanted to know what his legacy would be once he died. I’ve done so much in life - I’ve created my own little garden of Eden with fruit trees, orchards, animals. What are all of these achievements for? Why have I done all of this? What is the significance? When I’m dead and gone, what is my legacy? And in verse 19, he realized that he would leave his work to someone else. And he realized in verse 21 that the person he would leave it to, was a person who did not work to achieve it.

Now, was it vain for Solomon to spend time working and thinking to find satisfaction and pleasure? Is finding satisfaction wrong? No. It’s human nature. Blaise Pascal - the Catholic mathematician said - “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

Seeking pleasure is a natural desire. We work so we can enjoy the fruit of our labors. We buy a home. We invest money. We educate our children and help them succeed. We enjoy the food and entertainment our money buys. Solomon did this. Finding pleasure in achievements is not vain. God himself did it. When he created heaven and earth, and all animals, plants, and man - God said it was very good. He found pleasure in his work. God is not opposed to work or pleasure. When he created mankind, he put them in a garden to work. God planted a garden with fruit trees, and watered them; it had 4 rivers - but they cultivated it. God created them to subdue the earth and have dominion. God created man to work. So Solomon was only doing what God commanded and himself did. Solomon planted vineyards and orchards, he dug pools of water, he raised cattle. And God is not opposed to wisdom. Proverbs tells us to get wisdom, because it guards us. Solomon concluded that wisdom was good. Verse 13 - it’s better than being foolish. Verse 14 - it helps a man to see. So pleasure in achievements and wisdom is ok.

In verse 1, when Solomon says, “I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure,” we may be suspicious how a spiritual man wants to seek pleasure. But the Hebrew word for pleasure means joy. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. In him are joys forevermore. Now, there’s sinful pleasure and godly pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying what God has given to us. 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” To richly enjoy what he has given is right. There’s a difference between sinful and godly joy.

Could Solomon with his smarts give himself to sinful pleasure? Yes. Now, some look at verse 8, especially in the NIV and ESV, and we’re shocked. The word there for musical instruments is translated as concubines and a harem. We may ask how that can be a legitimate pleasure when it is clearly sinful. Now, this word is hard to translate. The NIV and NKJV have footnotes to say that the exact meaning is uncertain. So while Solomon did have concubines later in life, that may not be the meaning here. So as far as we can tell, Solomon’s ambitions were legitimate. So he did what all men do - seek pleasure by working - like God in the Garden of Eden. 

And this is what we do. We work hard, bear fruit, have children, raise them; some of us have fruit trees, spice gardens in our corridors. We find pleasure in knowing that the contract has been approved, the tree bears fruit, I passed my exam, my work is accepted; we find pleasure in achievements. Achievements and ambition with God’s wisdom are not vain. They are legitimate and commanded by God. And we are right to find pleasure in them. Solomon said in verse 24 - “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.”

But was Solomon completely satisfied with what he achieved? Was it absolute satisfaction? No. He found that his achievements were, in the end, vain. That’s the second point. Work is good - but work is vain in the end. Verse 11 - “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” Why? Because they are not lasting. No matter what you achieve in life, verse 21, when you die, or leave the workplace, it’ll be left to someone who did not work to get it - “For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.” 

Wisdom is good - but in the end, it’s vain. Verse 15 - “Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.” We all make decisions with our money - I’m never going to get scammed! Never going to join a Ponzi scheme. In the Bernie Madoff scandal, international banks were duped. We put our money into diversified multi assets like cash, bonds, and equities, to manage risk and enhance yield and return. But sometimes, it all goes south - the returns don’t come - all the assets are lost. In the end, what happens to the silly investor impacts the wise investor. And what’s so good about being wise? Verse 16 - “how dieth the wise man? as the fool.” The wise man can’t escape death.

If achievements and wisdom are good, then why are they vain? Because of death and imperfection. You work hard and achieve a lot of things. But when you retire, who knows whether your successor is a fool and will undo your work, verse 19? If you earn a lot and then die, will your children treasure the inheritance, verse 21? This is why life is frustrating. Because of sin everything is broken. We work hard and think hard, and in the end, we die. 

Even if we achieve much in life, we still die. And we don’t know if our legacy will continue. There may be world peace now, but it won’t last. When they leave office, other leaders come, and another war is waged. You shake hands with people, who will curse your name next time. You plant curry leaves in your corridor, your neighbor plucks them. You plant fruit trees, but the bats get to them. Your newly renovated home - nicely done up - then the tiles pop out. Your trusty appliance you got as a wedding gift 50 years ago, must be replaced - it would still work except there’s no spare part. Some problems can’t be fixed. No where is spared from imperfection. Our work, our families, even our churches. 

And you know what else is vain? Solomon realized that people don’t have the same opportunities, not everyone has the same wisdom, not everyone gets the same chances. Verse 26 says God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those he’s pleased to give. And even when a person becomes wealthy, God may take away that wealth and give it to someone else, as it pleases him. Some get more, others get less. It’s frustrating!

You know, some of us are still learning that lesson. Don’t you hate it when you buy something, and it turns out to be a lemon? But you can’t let go. You’re upset that life seems to have dealt you a bad card. Sometimes regret rules your life. The locksmith was so expensive! I was cheated! This is not Wagyu beef but I paid Wagyu beef prices. And you cry and mull over it. Why aren’t things the way I want them to be? I studied so hard! But I don’t have the same opportunities! Life is unfair. Yes, it is. Life is crooked. We remember the words of Ecclesiastes 1:15 - “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” 

Now, remember what Solomon was trying to do. He was trying to find satisfaction. He planted gardens, fruit trees, built pools, filled his garden with animals. This was what God did in making the Garden of Eden. Solomon was trying to establish the ideal place. But you can’t have heaven on earth. There’s no utopia. Eldorado, Shangri-la, Xanadu, Atlantis, Wakanda - they don’t exist. There’s no Eden on earth any more. And that’s what Solomon realized.

So how would you expect Solomon to react after realizing this? Nothing works, all achievements are vain, even the wise die, and no one gets what they’re supposed to get?! He asked an important question in verse 22 - “For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath labored under the sun?” What should man do with all the vanity in his work and life? Some decide to live life as hermits. Others decide to end their lives. And many have a cynical attitude. There’s no hope la - people, work, life - it’s like that. Perhaps some of us have that cynical attitude. We’re tired. We’re jaded. Nothing works! We are affected spiritually and emotionally. 

But what did Solomon do? And this is interesting. Even though all things were vain, he enjoyed his achievements. Solomon said in verse 24 - “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” Despite the imperfections, the frustration, despite all the vanity, he could enjoy life. This is something that many of us cannot do. 

You’re angry with our public transport system not working, but it’s far beter than other places. You wish you were educated in this or that school, you got this or that grade, but you can’t give thanks for the opportunities you already have. You wish you could eat grade A5 matsuzaka beef, but you can’t enjoy your Burger King angus burger. Your aircon broke down, but you have a strong bladeless fan. Solomon could enjoy what he had. 

How? Because of surrender. This is the principle of Matthew 10:39 - “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” That’s the problem with many of us - we want to find the lives we want - we’re not happy. When things don’t go our way, we bang our heads against the wall to find a way through. And we lose it. 

When Solomon surrendered, he enjoyed life in Christ. In order to find satisfaction in vanity, and in the things God has called us to do, we have to let go first. That’s the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. That’s the gospel. To see your need for Christ, you need to see that you’re fallen and messed up. We see how fallen and broken others are. How bad work is. How messy church is. But when we see our fallenness, we run to Christ. That’s the gospel - we are not our own, but we belong, body and soul, to Christ, who has delivered me, that we should henceforth live unto him. Only when God opened his eyes to his vain achievements, could Solomon enjoy them from God’s hands.

Are you having trouble with work or school? Things aren’t going as they should? Your work and career are not your salvation. They will not satisfy you. They’re crooked; you’re fallen. Are you having trouble in singleness, marriage, and family? Your family, spouse, children, and friend won’t satisfy you. Are you having trouble with other Christians? You won’t find satisfaction in them - they are imperfect. But when you give them to God, accept their imperfections and surrender them to him, then you receive them back from him with thanksgiving, knowing that they are imperfect and that you are too - and you can learn to enjoy them. 

There are many joys in a crooked world. There are many good gifts - in our homes, in our work, in our church. But we don’t see it because we have not surrendered. We are still expecting things to work the way we want and see fit. And you think by your smarts and your manipulation, you can get them the way you want them. You will not enjoy them, because you are not surrendering yourself. But when you realize you’re broken in your thinking - you will run the the Lord Jesus Christ, whose body was broken for us - so that we might be made healed in our thinking about the world and about our achievements. And we will live in that tension of vanity and joy, until we reach the glorious joys of heaven.


1. Achievements Are Not Vain

    A. His ambitions in life

    B. They were legitimate

2. Achievements Are Vain

    A. Because of death and imperfection

    B. Enjoying achievements in Christ

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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