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Ecclesiastes 2:1-26 - Saved From the American Dream

Ecclesiastes - Joy At The End of the Tether  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  37:40
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The American Dream cannot save you; Jesus will save you from the American Dream

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Introduction

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “The American Dream”? It’s one of those interesting concepts that everyone has heard of, and everyone says they understand—but once you ask for an actual definition of “The American Dream”, suddenly you realize that there is not nearly as much consensus as you thought!
For the most part, when people talk about achieving the American Dream, it seems to follow along the lines of “a belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American dream is believed to be achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.” (Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-dream.asp).
Everyone in this room was brought up to believe that you could do anything you want if you work hard enough for it, that if you take responsibility for yourself and sacrifice you can achieve your goals and find happiness. And I really do think that Americans as a people are a very optimistic people, that there is nothing we can’t accomplish if we set our minds to it, that hard work and sacrifice will build the life we want.
And I think that is part of the reason that we find it hard to digest the message of Solomon here in Ecclesiastes—we are a people who naturally gravitate towards the sunny side of the street; Solomon wants us to know that he’s been over there, and all that sunshine left him with nothing but a pretty bad sunburn!
I continue to maintain that we are living in a time when God is shaking the United States of America, “so that what cannot be shaken will remain” (Hebrews 12:27). And part of what God has been shaking—with the virus and the race riots and the political skullduggery and woke-police and all the rest—is that God has been shaking our notion of the American Dream itself. He is shaking our settled convictions that your self-determination to hard work and sacrifice and “playing by the rules” will open the door to happiness, wealth and opportunity.
And I believe that this is an act of mercy on God’s part, that He should be shaking us out of our American Dream—He is acting in kindness to this nation by doing so, because the American Dream is not going to save anyone, is it? And this is precisely Solomon’s point here in Ecclesiastes 2—that everything he chased after to bring him true joy and peace left him utterly empty in the end. And so as we follow through Solomon’s train of thought here in this chapter, what I hope for you to see here is that
The American Dream can’t SAVE you; only CHRIST can SAVE you FROM the American Dream
The way Solomon lays out his argument here in this chapter seems almost perfectly-tailored to the way we pursue happiness in our society, doesn’t it? There are three different ways Solomon sought to find satisfaction and happiness and meaning in his life—and we find ourselves today chasing after the same things, hoping that they will bring meaning to our lives. But just as they let Solomon down in the end, they will just as surely let us down too. The first thing we see in verses 1-11 is that

I. Living for PLEASURE will let you down (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

Solomon writes in verses 1-3,
Ecclesiastes 2:1–3 ESV
1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
In the mid-70’s, one of the most popular television shows on the air was M*A*S*H—a sitcom that followed the lives and times of an Army surgical unit during the Korean War. The creator of the show, Larry Gelbart, originally intended the show to air without a laugh track (“Just like the Korean War”, he is said to have remarked). The network heads at CBS weren’t comfortable with that plan, so they compromised—there were no laugh tracks added to the O.R. scenes, but “LFN” (“Laughter From Nowhere”) was added throughout the other scenes. Gelbart eventually got his way; as the show progressed, LFN was added less and less frequently, with many later episodes containing none at all. (In fact, if you purchase the DVDs of the show, you can choose to play the shows with no LFN at all.) (Thompson, CSF Devotional, 2009)
Solomon says the same thing here—the laugh track doesn’t cover up the futility.
There is no ESCAPE in ENTERTAINMENT (vv. 1-3)
Solomon makes his point very forcefully at the end of verse 3—he was trying to “see what was good for the children of man to do under heave during the few days of their life”. In other words, Solomon says, if this really is all there is—if we get a few days to roam around the surface of this planet and then just wink out of existence—then why not spend our time “amusing ourselves to death”? Why not get drunk and stay drunk, if this is all there is? If nothing really matters, then we may as well just spend our lives scrolling through Netflix and YouTube for something to make us laugh to try to distract us from the inevitability of death and the eternal darkness that follows.
We fill every waking second of our lives with some sort of entertaining distraction—music in our airPods, streaming videos on our phones, the drone of the TV in the background—because we’re afraid of where our minds will go if we turn our distractions off! Solomon sees that, and he calls it out. Living for pleasure will let you down because there is no escape in entertainment.
Not only that, but living for pleasure will let you down because
There is no RETURN to PARADISE (vv. 4-7)
In verses 4-7, we read
Ecclesiastes 2:4–7 ESV
4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
Historians and archaeologists tell about the exquisite gardens that Solomon built during his reign, but there is something more here than just his desire to have a refreshing and beautiful place to spend a quiet evening. The way that he describes “planting all kinds of fruit trees” (v. 5) and the water flowing to “water the forest of growing trees” is worded the same way as the description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:
Genesis 2:9–10 ESV
9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.
Solomon wasn’t just trying to build a pretty garden to relax in—he was trying to re-create the Garden of Eden! But there is no way back to that paradise, is there? Certainly not through our own attempts—Solomon tried to get back by re-creating the Garden, and in our day we try to reverse the effects of the Fall through everything from surgeries and therapies to “reverse aging”, to experiments with genetic codes and gene splicing and CRISPR and cloning to try to attain God-like power over life and death. We know that we have lost Paradise, but we insist on trying to re-create it ourselves instead of submitting to God.
Living for pleasure will let you down—there is no escape in entertainment, there is no return to paradise, and
There is no COMFORT in WEALTH (vv. 8-11)
Ecclesiastes 2:8–10 ESV
8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
In short, there was nothing that Solomon did not try in his quest for satisfaction and happiness. Let your imagination wander as far as you dare; he most likely tried it. And what he found, after all of the parties and all of the “companionship” and all of the pleasure he bought (and he bought a lot), he said
Ecclesiastes 2:11 ESV
11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
After everything Solomon had done, after he had pursued every single avenue of pleasure he could conceive of, he came up empty. No matter how great the party was, the next morning all of that pleasure was ancient history. Living for pleasure will let you down—beloved, we live in the midst of a people who are desperately seeking some kind of fulfillment, some kind of meaning in their lives by chasing the American Dream—that promises wealth by which they can buy their entertainments and attempts to recapture Paradise. But they need to hear that the American Dream can’t save anybody—only Jesus Christ can save you from the American Dream!
So perhaps living for pleasure is a waste of time—perhaps by some kind of self-improvement will bring meaning. Maybe the answer lies in intellectual pursuits and philosophical attainments—go to college, get a degree, go pursue wisdom and knowledge in academic achievements. But Solomon goes on to warn in verses 12-17 that

II. Striving for EDUCATION will let you down (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17)

Ecclesiastes 2:12–13 ESV
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.
At first, Solomon seems to have struck onto something: “I saw there was more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness...” (v. 13). It’s clear enough to Solomon that
WISDOM is better than FOOLISHNESS... (vv. 12-14)
It is better to be wise than to be a fool. It is better to “have eyes in your head” than to “walk in darkness” (v. 13). But, apart from God’s gift of understanding, he can’t quite put his finger on why it is better to have wisdom than be a fool!
I see this in my day job all the time—there are many hard-working and dedicated people there who are deeply committed to gaining knowledge passing it on to others. And there is an honest sense of how important it is and how valuable it is to have education and training and knowledge, but when you ask the reason why it is important to have a college education, do you know what the most common answer is? “Because people who earn a college degree go on to earn, on average, over a million dollars more in their lifetime than someone who doesn’t!” So it’s obviously better to be a college graduate!
But you know what the problem with that reason is? It’s what Solomon says in the next verse:
Ecclesiastes 2:15 ESV
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.
Wisdom may be better than foolishness,
...But EVERYBODY still DIES (vv. 15-17)
Ecclesiastes 2:16 ESV
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!
Yes, your college degree might earn you a million dollars over the course of your lifetime, but the guy who digs your grave will get fifteen bucks an hour!
Ecclesiastes 2:17 ESV
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.
I work every day with people who spend tens of thousands of dollars for an education that may or may not enrich their lives, but won’t extend their lives one second. We live in the midst of a people who put such a high value on education, because they see it as a key to the American Dream—get a degree, get a great career, make lots of money. But Solomon warns that it doesn;t matter how much education you have, it will all vanish away the moment you pass away—there is no enduring remembrance for the wise or the fool. Striving for education will let you down—the American Dream cannot save you, only Jesus Christ can save you from the American Dream.
Living for pleasure will let you down, striving for education will let you down, and

III. Sacrificing for CAREER will let you down (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23)

If there is one aspect of the American Dream that people recognize, it is the entrepreneurial spirit—start a business in your garage, build it and scale it into a company, establish a multi-million dollar enterprise and become the next Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. But remember—Solomon has been there! He built and expanded the Kingdom of Israel to its greatest heights. And what did he say?
Ecclesiastes 2:18 ESV
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,
All you are doing when you follow that entrepreneurial spirit of the American Dream is
Gathering WEALTH that you cannot KEEP (v. 18)
Even while he lived, Solomon could not shake the realization that “someday, all this will be someone else’s!” Everything he was building, everything he had spent his life creating, would someday go to someone else—and the worst of it was that he had no idea if that person would even be worthy of it!
Ecclesiastes 2:19 ESV
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.
When you sacrifice and give up so much for the sake of finding meaning in your career, you are gathering wealth you cannot keep, and you are running the risk of
Turning your life’s WORK over to FOOLS (vv. 19-21)
Ecclesiastes 2:20–21 ESV
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.
And in fact this is exactly what happened to Solomon—when he died, his kingdom went to his foolish and wicked son Rehoboam, whose reckless and egotistical rule caused the kingdom to split into two, never to be reunited again (1 Kings 12-14).
So many people believe that their career is the way that they will achieve the American Dream—they will sacrifice their marriages, give up being with their kids, give up the best years of their lives to build an inheritance for themselves and their family, and they wind up miserable and alone,
Living in SORROW and RESTLESSNESS (vv. 22-23)
Ecclesiastes 2:22–23 ESV
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. This also is vanity.
And then when they die and leave behind all of that money and that business empire—all the things they said they were doing “for their family”—what happens? Their family tears itself apart fighting over the money they left!
There are so many people chasing after the American Dream—living for pleasure, striving for education, sacrificing for careers. But all of those things will let them down. The American Dream can’t save anyone; only Jesus Christ can save you from the American Dream!
In the last few verses of the chapter, Solomon comes to the heart of the matter—after all the ways he has tried to find some kind of lasting meaning in this world, he comes to this:
Ecclesiastes 2:24 ESV
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,
Now, remember what we saw last week about this verse: Solomon is saying, “I have gone to the extremes of pleasure, work, career, achievement, entertainment, indulgence—all of it. And I don’t have the ability to enjoy any of it!” He says there is nothing within a person to enable them to enjoy anything in this world. He has all this wealth, but no capacity to enjoy it. He has all these accomplishments, but no way to take satisfaction in them. He has done his best to re-create Paradise, but can’t enter into it.
“There is nothing better for a person that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil…” And he goes on to say that this is exactly the way God intends it to be: “This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” In other words, God has so ordered this world that it is impossible to find true satisfaction in it apart from Him!
Ecclesiastes 2:25 ESV
25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
And this is why we say that the American Dream cannot save you—but that Jesus Christ can save you from the American Dream! In these last few verses, Solomon gives us the key to finding meaning in all of these things:

IV. Seeking God’s FAVOR will NEVER let you down (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)

Ecclesiastes 2:26 ESV
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.
God created the world in such a way that it can only be truly enjoyed in fellowship with Him. “To the one who pleases Him, God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy...” The Garden of Eden was built to be enjoyed by our First Parents as they walked with God. In Genesis 2:8 we read that God would come and walk with Adam and Eve “in the cool of the day”—but when they broke their fellowship with God, the Garden became a place of terror and danger:
Genesis 3:24 ESV
24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
The entire story of the Bible is the story of God providing a way back to Eden—a way back to fellowship and favor with God. God promised that one day there would be a descendant of Eve who would crush the head of the Serpent who had deceived her, even as the Serpent bruised the heel of the Son—the first promise of the coming of Jesus Christ, right in the very first pages of the Bible!
Through His death on the Cross and His resurrection on the third day, Jesus Christ purchased your favor with God. When you come to Him in repentance for your sin, when you believe that He died for your sins according to the Scriptures, was buried and raised the third day according to the Scriptures, you are brought into eternal favor with God. And that means that
In Jesus we can ENJOY EVERYTHING (Romans 8:32)
in this vain world! Surely this is part of what the Apostle Paul would write centuries later in his letter to the churches of Rome:
Romans 8:32 ESV
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
If he has given you Christ, then He has given you the wisdom, knowledge and joy to truly be satisfied in this world—because you realize that everything in this world is a gift! You can truly enjoy the pleasures of this life, you can truly enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, you can truly enjoy the work of your hands and the achievements of your life because you know that they are—every single one of them—blood bought gifts of the grace of God through Jesus to you!
In Jesus Christ you are pleasing to God—and so in Him you have the key to enjoyment of everything under the sun! But Solomon goes on to say that “to the sinner He has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” (v. 26). In Jesus we enjoy everything, but hear this warning that
Everything is MEANINGLESS WITHOUT Jesus
If you want to insist on trying to find enjoyment in this world apart from coming to faith in Jesus Christ—if you say that you can find your own pleasure and worth and contentment and meaning in yourself—Solomon says that you’ll have more luck scooping up the wind with a fishing net—and you’ll get just about as much out of it.
And, if you’re honest with yourself, you already know that everything Solomon says in this chapter is true. You’ve had your pleasures turn to ashes in your mouth, you’ve woken up the morning after a party and realized that none of that fun was worth it, you’ve worked hard to find meaning in your work and accomplished all your goals in your education, your job, your economic status—and when you get there you realize that none of it satisfies you.
You’re trying to eat a can of peaches without a can opener. You’re trying to drive a car that has no spark plug. You’re trying to drink a glass of chocolate milk with only powdered mix and no milk—you’re trying to get enjoyment out of a world that was created to be enjoyable only when you are right with its Creator!
Centuries after Ecclesiastes was written, Jesus Himself spoke of Solomon’s search for satisfaction in this world. He said:
Matthew 6:27–33 ESV
27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Here it is—when you seek the world first, you get a world you can’t find satisfaction in. When you seek Jesus first, you get eternal life in Him and all the world thrown into the bargain! Stop trying to find meaning in this world apart from repentance and faith in Jesus Christ—stop seeking everything but Jesus by chasing the “American Dream”. The American Dream can’t save you, but Jesus will save you from the American Dream! Give up chasing all the false promises that this world offers you—stop piling up pleasures that you can’t enjoy, and come to the One Treasure that will unlock your joy in all of the others—your Savior, Jesus Christ!
BENEDICTION
Ephesians 3:20–21 ESV
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

How have you heard the idea of “The American Dream” defined? How do you understand what is meant by that idea? How do Solomon’s experiences with pleasure, intellectual pursuits and career accomplishments mirror the way people try to find significance in our day?
What does it mean that every pleasure in this world becomes a “blood-bought gift of grace through Jesus Christ” for the Christian? How does your relationship with Christ give you the ability to truly enjoy the pleasures of this world?
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