A July 2016 survey came out with this paradoxical title, “Job Satisfaction Hits a 10-Year High – But It’s Still Below 50%.” Work is something God created humanity to do even before the Fall. It is something that can give us a sense of worth and significance, that helps us provide for our families and our future.
According to Sinclair Ferguson:
Man was made to work, because the God who made him was a “working God.” Man was made to be creative, with his mind and his hands. Work is part of the dignity of his existence.
And David Atkinson adds:
We work essentially because we have been given gifts of creativity to use in God’s world. Work is our human activity which corresponds to the work of God in His providential care for the whole created order .
One of the most common questions you will get is “What do you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?” We are defined by our jobs. But according to Ecclesiastes, work is the wrong place to look for meaning in life.
Michael Carroll cites a 2015 Gallup poll that found that two-thirds of Americans come to work “disengaged.” According to the poll, whatever passion and enthusiasm they once had fades in the face of “feeling expendable; having too much to do and not enough time to do it; constant financial pressure – the list goes on.”
Remember Lee Dorsey’s song “Working in a Coal Mine”?
The verses go like this:
Five o’clock in the mornin’
I’m already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on?
‘Course I make a little money
Haulin’ coal by the ton
But when Saturday rolls around
I’m too tired for havin’ fun.
The best the world can offer goes something like this:
Try not to look at work with such drudgery. Try to alter your work experiences into something enjoyable and if your current position is truly awful look for a new one. Who knows maybe your next job will be one you don’t want to leave.
Solomon explored work to see whether this God-given task would give him a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Here is what he concluded:
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. 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.
Two observations highlight this section: (1) “under the sun” occurs repeatedly in a crescendo and (2) “this also is vanity” closes each sub-section. “Under the sun” occurs four times in the first 29 verses of the book (1:3, 9, 14; 2:11), but five times in just these six verses (2:17, 18, 19, 20, 22). “This too is vanity” concludes verses 18–19, 20–21, 22–23, and 24–26.
Verses 12–17 contrast wisdom and folly, light and darkness, and life and death. An additional contrast between rest and labor arises in verses 18–23. “I hated all the fruit of my labor” in verse 18 is the second half of the anaphora that starts with “I hated life” in verse 17. Irony exists in this declaration since Solomon has already declared, “my heart was pleased because of all my labor” (v. 10).
These two expressions of hate (vv. 17-18) express a deep lament akin to that of Job or Jeremiah in Lamentations. Ray Stedman notes the progression from depression (hating one’s life and work in vv. 17-18), because he became increasingly disgruntled when he saw the diminishing returns for all the effort he put into making life work. Then, he was frustrated by the unfairness of working and having those who come after you enjoy the fruits of your labor. Finally, in v. 20, he sinks into despair.
This leads many people to consider or commit suicide, people like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, or Freddy Prinz and Robin Williams.
This brother needs some Prozac! He sounds nothing like the famous California preacher, smiling ear-to-ear in his sun-filled Crystal Cathedral while he recites his second Be-Happy Attitude: “I am really hurting, but I will bounce back.” Rather, Solomon sounds like Job on the ashes (“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul,” Job 10:1), Jeremiah in the stocks (“Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” Jer. 20:14), and Jesus on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt. 27:46).
Clearly Solomon didn’t find meaning and satisfaction in his work and he isn’t afraid of giving us an honest assessment.
Again, “under the sun” leaves God and a relationship with God out of the picture. This “despair” Solomon came to is the ultimate result of leaving God out of one’s life.
One problem with work, Solomon says, is that we won’t be the ones to benefit from our labors. No one goes to heaven with a UHaul trailer containing all his stuff. The more he has toiled at his life’s work, the more galling is the thought of its fruits falling into the hands of others—and as likely as not, into the wrong hands (the hands of the fool).
When Solomon died, he left all of his earnings as a bequest for his oldest son, King Rehoboam. Solomon may not have foreseen whether or not his successor would be wise, but we certainly know the truth: Rehoboam was such a fool that he lost ten-twelfths of his father’s kingdom (see 1 Kings 12).
Adam Clarke makes this point:
“Alas! Solomon, the wisest of all men, made the worst use of his wisdom, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and yet left but one son behind him, to possess his estates and his throne, and that one was the silliest of fools!”
All the labor and wisdom that Solomon has exerted will come under the mastery of another, and not himself. Ultimately, he will be unable to experience the pleasures of all his labors.
Again, death enters the picture and changes everything.
Here is one of the great frustrations of our existence. We are born with a longing for permanence, a deep desire to do something that will endure or to make something that will last. Yet the under-the-sun reality is that we will spend our whole lives working to gain something we cannot keep. It was enough to drive the Preacher to despair.
Not only will we have to leave it all behind, but work itself can be laborious and draining.
“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 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” (Ecclesiastes 2:22–23).
The words Solomon uses in these verses indicates both physical and mental work. Every occupation has its own unique demands, but no matter what kind of work we do, it always takes its toll on us. Hard work can be exhausting for the soul as well as for the body. There is “too much strain,” writes James Limburg, “without much gain.”
Work is also “sorrow” and “vexation.” Think of all the worry that work brings. Sometimes we are anxious about having enough work to support ourselves and our families. At other times we have so much work that we worry about getting it all done. It would help if we could get a full night’s sleep; instead we are awake in the night obsessing about today’s on-the-job conflict or worrying about tomorrow’s project. “Even in the night” the weary laborer’s “heart does not rest” (Ecclesiastes 2:23; cf. 8:16).
You see, we engage in work and service because we want to make a difference. It bothers to think that we’ve made hardly a dent in this life, and when we and those who know us are gone, even that mark will disappear.
Warren Schmidt learned this lesson in the 2002 film About Schmidt . After retirement, as Schmidt looks back on his life as an actuary for an Omaha insurance company, he realizes that he has little or nothing to show for all his hard work. Here is what he writes to the poor, needy child he has started to sponsor in Africa:
I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? . . . Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.
No wonder Solomon said back in verse 20 that he was in despair.
But in verses 24-26 Solomon speaks of something which gives us delight. A more cheerful note breaks in on this melancholy tune.
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.
This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7—12:1a), and they make the point with increasing intensity and solemnity.
The compulsive worker of vv. 22-23, overloading his days with toil and his nights with worry, has missed the simple joys that God was holding out to him. As v. 24 points out, the very toil that tyrannized him was potentially a joyful gift of God (as joy itself is another gift in v. 24), if only he had had the grace to take it as such.
One can find joy in the simple things of life—in eating, drinking, and yes, working.
Warren Wiersbe reminds us…
“Solomon is not advocating ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’ That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith. Rather, he is saying, ‘Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.'”
With all simplicity, the entire posture of the trusting child of God toward his Creator is found in 12:13, “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Already at this point, and again in 5:17-19, Solomon begins to explain summarily how this childlike faith is exercised—or perhaps more accurately, how it is not exercised—in one’s day to day existence. Whereas Solomon’s life was so terribly complicated during his period of wandering “under the sun” and away from God, the life of the believing child is amazingly simple and finds pockets of joy in the blessings that God gives.
“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” (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 73.
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” (“Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:46).
Instead of trying to figure it all out, enjoy the moment. Enjoy the gifts that God has given.
Yes, we are supposed to enjoy God above all else, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy God’s good gifts for his sake.
How should we respond to all the enigmas and confusion of life (and death)? By trusting God with the big problems and enjoying the little gifts God gives us.
Notice three things in vv. 24-25. First, “we should eat and drink and find enjoyment” in our work. That is fitting and it is also possible. Instead of regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, enjoy God’s simple gifts now.
Second, we enjoy them because these gifts are “from the hand of God.” They are gifts of God and we should receive them with gratitude.
Third, notice how verse 25 weaves together the enjoyment one receives from God’s gifts with our relationship with Him. He said it like this, “apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”
There is a break in the dark clouds of life “under the sun” and we get here our first glimpse of the fact that joy only comes from life with God. It is impossible without God and a growing, personal relationship with Him.
Solomon is cluing us in to the fact that although we cannot “shepherd the wind,” we have a Shepherd who is in charge of the wind, the storms and the sunshine.
Those who learn to fear God today are enabled to enjoy this world as a gift of the Creator and therefore as a channel of gratitude and worship. The fear of God leads to the approval of God, which frees you and me to delight in today as we hope for tomorrow.
One is reminded of an old cartoon in which a publisher is pleading with Charles Dickens to change the most famous opening line in the history of the novel: “Mr. Dickens, either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times. It can’t be both.”
But of course it can be both, and often is. We live in a world that is cursed by sin (see Genesis 3:17–19), but it is also a world that God created essentially good (see Genesis 1 — 2) and that he has visited in the flesh and is working to redeem through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Thus we experience joy as well as sorrow, especially if we know God in a personal and saving way.
Finally, in verse 26, Solomon reflects again on how wisdom, knowledge and joy are gifts of God towards the good, or righteous man. Also, that sometimes what others work for benefits the righteous (unlike what he had implied in vv. 18-19). Even this is “vanity and like trying to shepherd the wind.”
Zack Eswine concludes…
God created us. His good gifts remain for us and our joy. Counterfeit gifts, forged advantages, and illusory pleasures now abound like weeds bent on choking out the flowerbed. Everything is without meaning now. But there are these flowers that bloom, these leftover beauties that do not quit. These small voices give witness still to the moaning world. (Recovering Eden, p. 16)