the heart of unbelief
8th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 13) LSB #’s 730, 861, 702
Text – Ecclesiastes 1:14
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, & behold, all is vanity & a striving after wind.
The Heart of Unbelief
Vanity, vanity, all is vanity
That’s any fun at all for humanity.
That is the gist of the prophet’s case
From Bishop Cannon to Canon Chase,
The prophet’s chant & the prophet’s chatter,
But somehow it never seems to matter,
For the world hangs on to its ancient sanity
And orders another round of vanity. “Ha! Original Sin!,” by Ogden Nash
Have you had one of those Aha! moments when you realized you were experiencing the frustration of striving after the wind? Solomon is talking about longer term issues then we often encounter, but things like weeding a garden, dusting the house, or trying to elect honest politicians can seem like chasing after the wind.
There are times in life when we painfully recognize that the material things we strive for are “a chasing after the wind” – like possessions that break down frequently or constantly need maintenance & repair. And yet, irrationally, we continue to strive after the wind. We just can’t let go, & we order still more rounds of vanity.
Ogden Nash was born in 1902, & vanity is not a commonly used word today. So, what is the meaning of the word as Solomon writes the book of Ecclesiastes? The root idea speaks of vapor, something you cannot grasp or hold on to. It slips through your fingers & as such is worthless, pointless or meaningless. Vanity is like a mirage.
Have you ever found yourself searching for satisfaction & yet not achieving it? The
human search for satisfaction in life is as fleeting as an exhaled breath. Solomon uses the word vanity to describe the futility of human effort in this sinful world if that effort is without the blessing of God. Human beings are incapable of creating reality that lasts. Every single thing that any of us does without God is as permanent as an exhaled breath of air.
However, king Solomon is not simply writing about the frustrations of life that all of us endure because of sin. In spite of the fact that God made this king the wisest human creature to ever live, this son of David is writing with a heart of unbelief. That gift of wisdom from God had gone to Solomon’s head & distorted his self-image.
As Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek & to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” (1:13a ESV) For His part, God lets this quest for answers to crucial questions turn out to be an unhappy business & a striving after wind – pure vanity. And who does Solomon blame?
“It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” (1:13b ESV) God gave to us the good gift of freedom, yet mankind makes a sinful use of it. To top it off we then blame God for our sin. Our sin has made an unhappy business of living, & the greatest frustration is that you & I can do nothing to fix it.
Not even the wisest human creature, in king Solomon, could lift a finger to find purpose & meaning in all his wisdom, nor in all that he accomplished as he ruled over his kingdom. He saw everything that is done under the sun & it was vanity & a striving after wind. When you have felt that in your heart & soul then you know what the heart of unbelief is like.
Now, that sounds terrible to good, pious Christians, but don’t refuse to contemplate your own unbelief. All Christians on earth suffer with it each day of their lives. Our sinful nature refuses to be reformed. That’s why the Lutheran faith encourages us to drown the Old Adam in us by daily contrition & repentance. In other words, we should regret our sins & confess them & believe that God forgives them – even our sins of unbelief. The Holy Spirit works that forgiveness in us through our baptism. At baptism, God promised to put our heart of unbelief to death each day of our lives. He also promised to raise us from that death each day.
We find that promise in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (ESV) Your new life is now one of daily contrition & repentance. Holiness does not come until we are brought into heaven.
That is a source of great frustration for us here on earth. Because of that frustration, for a good portion of his life, king Solomon saw all of life as nothing more than vanity & a striving after wind. Living by faith instead of by sight is an impossible task without God the Holy Spirit. Yet, that is exactly what Solomon was trying to do & He writes about it in Ecclesiastes.
It’s why this book rings so true for so many people, even if they cannot put their struggles into words. Solomon does it for them, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, & behold, all is vanity & a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14 ESV)
All the battles you are fighting in this life are painted for you as a striving after wind by you know who. Satan wants us to despair of life, even the very life that the heavenly Father has created for us out of love. Satan wants us to throw that gift to the wind & follow him. Listen again to the words of the wisest human creature to ever live:
“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, & who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? …So I turned about & gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom & knowledge & skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity & a great evil. What has a man from all the toil & striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, & his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 ESV)
At John 10:10, Jesus essentially begins at the same place as Solomon, with despair & hopelessness, but Jesus gives a very different description of the possibilities in our living: “The thief comes only to steal & kill & destroy. I came that they may have life & have it abundantly.” (ESV)
Solomon was a sinful man who was not drowning his Old Adam with contrition & repentance, but he was dealing with reality honestly. Without God everything truly is vanity & a striving after wind. This is where the heart of unbelief can leave you, dead. Solomon was missing an essential piece of the reality that God creates.
In the ditch on the other side of the road are people who do not deal with reality honestly. They deny the despair of sin & pretend that everything is good by them. This group can include Christians & non-Christians, & they too are missing an essential piece of the reality that God is creating. They, like the rich man in Luke, also operate with the heart of unbelief.
In John 10, Jesus was acknowledging both aspects of reality. We are sinful & unclean & everything we do, without God, is vanity & a striving after wind. It’s the equivalent of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (19:26 ESV) God acknowledges the reality of our sin & then He saves us because we cannot.
Verse 12 of the OT reading gets to the point. Solomon states that he has been king over Jerusalem, yet his was a failed kingship in which nothing that he accomplished lasted. All his works were but a breath & even the kingdom split in two upon his death. Yet, verse 12 alludes to another king over Jerusalem. He reigned on a cross outside the city walls. Jesus came to be another Solomon – the great & wise king – but Jesus is infinitely greater, & also less depressing, than Solomon. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (4:17-18 ESV)
In the OT reading, Solomon is looking only at the things that are seen. He recognizes that they are a mere vapor, vanity, a striving after wind, but Solomon is not seeing the things that are unseen, the things of God that are eternal & powerful & filled with meaning & purpose. Solomon is looking at everything under the sun with the heart of unbelief.
God’s Word of Law has crushed the heart of Solomon, but the king has not yet turned back to the Good News of salvation in the promised Messiah. The OT reading is meant to strip away our vanities, our shoddy goals, our false hopes, & all our self-delusions, so that we might be desperately open to the Gospel truth that our Lord Jesus is “the one thing needful.”
Jesus toiled & labored under the sun & all that He earned was credited to those who follow Him. Christ accumulated the righteousness, & we, in the goodness of God, inherit it, we who have “not toiled for it” – indeed, we could not toil for it even if we wanted to. Our Old Adam has died & our lives are now hidden with Christ in God.
That’s not an easy way to live, but it is the only true life in this world. In the next world we will have all of eternity to see, & no one there will ever order another round of vanity. Amen.
Christ be my Leader by night as by day; safe through the darkness, for He is the way. Gladly I follow, my future His care, darkness is daylight when Jesus is there. Christ be my teacher in age as in youth, drifting or doubting, for He is the Truth. Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand, doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand. Christ be my Savior in calm as in strife; death cannot hold me, for He is the life. No darkness nor doubting nor sin & its stain can touch my salvation: with Jesus I reign. Amen. LSB 861.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet