Ecclesiastes 2:18-22 (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, 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. 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.
If anything is striving after wind, it would have to be the labor and travail of our everyday work.
Up every mornin’ just to keep a job
I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob
Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain
While another day goes down the drain.
These lyrics from the Vogues’ 1965 hit single “Five O’Clock World” capture the futility and frustration of working on the job. You work away day after day, but what do you have to show for all your effort? Another day working is another day wasted.
The Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes felt the same way. He never had to commute in heavy traffic, push for a sale to make his commission, or cover for all the coworkers who got laid off, but the Preacher-King did suffer the curse of work, and thus he found that this too was vanity and striving after wind.
Many people still expect work to give them a sense of purpose in life. This explains why one of the first things people ask when they meet someone new is, “What kind of work do you do?” or “What do you do for a living?” We are defined by our jobs. But according to Ecclesiastes, work is the wrong place to look for meaning in life.
You can spend your whole life gathering a collection of some kind or building a business or making a home or establishing a school or amassing a large fortune, but you can’t take it with you. Maybe you will lose it before you die, through some misfortune (the collapse of a financial market, for example). But whether it happens sooner or later, one day you will have to leave it all behind. Your collection will go to a dealer. The contents of your home will be sold at auction. Someone else will manage your portfolio. Then everything that you have worked a lifetime to gain and to maintain will be gone.
Nothing can prepare us for what happens next in Ecclesiastes because suddenly the book takes a surprising turn. Without warning, the Preacher says the first truly positive thing in the entire book:
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?
These verses are an oasis of optimism in a wilderness of despair. As such, they mark a turning point in Ecclesiastes — not just on the subject of work, but for the argument of the book as a whole. “Having experienced the bankruptcy of our pretended autonomy,” writes Michael Eaton, “the Preacher now points to the God who occupies the heavenly realm, and to the life of faith in him.” Martin Luther called the end of Ecclesiastes 2 “a remarkable passage, one that explains everything preceding and following it.” It is “the principal conclusion,” he said, “in fact the point of the whole book.”
The way to experience this pleasure is to work for God and not simply for ourselves. It is so easy to get caught up in our career ambition, our work schedule, and our paycheck without ever stopping to consider whether our work is pleasing to God — both what we do and the way we do it. Difficult work is more satisfying and even more enjoyable when it is done for the greater glory of God.
For the believer in Christ, our true Boss and ultimate Master is the Savior who gave his life for our sins. Whatever our job happens to be — whether we work as a teacher or a student, a homemaker or a cabinetmaker, a buyer or a seller, an office worker or a factory worker, in food service or financial services, we are working for Christ and for his kingdom. To put this another way, we are working under the Son, and not simply under the sun. So the Scripture gives us this command: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24; cf. Ephesians 6:5-8).
This blog post is an except from “Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters” by Philip Graham Ryken.