Why is Work Such a Problem? (Ecclesiastes 4:4-8)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  In our portion today we see Solomon dealing with some of the troubles of life when we live it “under the sun,” without God and without holding eternity and spiritual realities above the here and now and material possessions.  Here Solomon circles back around to the issue of work.  Since the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, nearly 1/3 of our lives, we had better get it right!

Here’s what the Preacher says…

4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.  This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?”  This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 

The first problem we see in this passage, one that is empty and vain, like wrestling with wind, is comparison, especially as it has to do with work.  Solomon notes that “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.”

“Every labor and every skill” (v. 4) undoubtedly means every type of labor and skill, rather than every individual instance of these things.  Solomon uses hyperbole here because there are other motivations for working (like getting rich, or simply providing for one’s family).  But much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior to others, either financially or socially.

We have a tendency to compare ourselves with others, observing that they are richer, smarter, more beautiful, more popular, have more obedient kids or a more attentive husband, a better job, a bigger house, a bigger church, a more sporty car.

As Derek Kidner puts it, we have a “craving to outshine or not to be outshone” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 45).  He goes on to say, “To feel oneself a failure is to discover in one’s soul the envy that Qoheleth detects here, in its pathetic form of resentments and grievances enjoyed” (ibid, p. 45).

Now, the Bible uses comparisons to help us gain wisdom.

For example, when Samuel wanted to say that loving God is more important than simply going through the religious motions, he said, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).  Or when Solomon wanted to praise the harmony of a loving home, he said, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

You can find many comparisons in the book of Proverbs.

But we often compare ourselves and our lives to that of others and we envy them.  This is what Asaph did in Psalm 73…

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.  3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

There seems to be nothing that riles us worse than seeing something get ahead, be favored, or pass us by.  This rivalry has already been hinted at in the words “evil work” in v. 3.

That’s why Marilyn Monroe once related:

Success makes so many people hate you.  I wish it wasn’t that way.  It would be wonderful to enjoy success without seeing envy in the eyes of those around you.

But the Greek author of tragedy Aeschylus said:

It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.

And Harold Coffin quipped:

Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.

Carol Ruvolo, in an article in Table Talk, informs us that…

Envy is not a form of admiration.  It does not think or say, “That person has godly qualities, spiritual gifts, efficient habits, productive skills, and proven ability that I want to imitate.”  Well-placed admiration is a good thing.  In fact, it is a key ingredient in spiritual mentoring.

The apostle Paul encouraged the Philippians: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17).  Admiration looks to the exemplary lives of others and gratefully, joyfully, humbly, and earnestly patterns its life after them for the purpose of walking worthy of our high calling in Christ and giving God glory. 

Envy doesn’t admire and pursue imitation of worthy mentors.  Instead it finds fault with them, attempts to bring them down, and lashes out in spiteful hatred when it is foiled.  It looks like Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife plotting to destroy a righteous man; it looks like Haman trying to frame Mordecai; and it looks like the Pharisees seeking to kill Jesus.

Envy is acquisitive, resentful, and selfish; it is always bad. It wants what others have simply because they have it, bears grudges against those who have what it doesn’t, and accuses God of being unfair.  It looks like Jacob conniving to steal the birthright from Esau; it looks like Rachel begrudging Leah her children; it looks like Peter pointing at John and asking Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 

Donald Whitney asks…

Can you serve your boss and others at work, helping them to succeed and be happy, even when they are promoted and you are overlooked? Can you work to make others look good without envy filling your heart? Can you minister to the needs of those whom God exalts and men honor when you yourself are neglected? Can you pray for the ministry of others to prosper when it would cast yours in the shadows? 

God wants us to be content with what we have, rather than wanting what others possess. Paul tells us that contentment is something we can learn.  Like Harold Coffin said, we should first learn to count our own blessings, reflecting on how good God has been to us.

We should be content even when bad things happen to us, but also when good things happen to others.  They may have more than us, look better than us, have all the success, but we can choose to be content with what we have.

In Hebrews 13:5 we read…

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Or just look at the Tenth Commandment: most of the things it tells us not to covet are things that money can buy.

Qoheleth has told us already that work is a gift from God (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:24).  But like all of God’s blessings, work has been corrupted by the fall.

The second problem Solomon deals with is laziness.  The opposite of the man who worked too much, it was a man who refused to work at all: “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (Ecclesiastes 4:5).

“We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference” (Eaton, p. 90).  Notice that he is called here what he is, a fool.

Now, this verse doesn’t mean that this man actually cannibalizes himself.  It just means that he is unwilling to do anything to help himself and thus ends up destroying himself.

A similar thought is voiced by Solomon in Proverbs 6

How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. 

That is why Solomon had advised:

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. 7 Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, 8 she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. 

And, in Proverbs 24, Solomon tries to speak to the heart of the sluggard:

30 I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, 31 and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. 32 Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. 33 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.

“His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care, and, in the end, his self-respect” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 46).

This is like so many today, people who want everything handed to them and given to them instead of working for it themselves.

These are the drop outs.  As the Preacher describes it, the fool eats what he has until he has nothing left at all:

He is the picture of complacency and unwitting self-destruction, for this comment on him points out a deeper damage than the wasting of his capital. His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care and, in the end, his self-respect. (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 46)

These verses describe two equal and opposite errors. “As toil can be all-consuming, so idleness is self-cannibalizing” (William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes (Louisville: John Knox, 2000), p. 50.) 

Which of these errors is more of a temptation for you?  Maybe you are tempted to envy what other people have and then wear yourself out trying to get it.  Or maybe you think you are above all of that, yet you have such a negative attitude about work that sometimes you avoid it altogether.

Either way Qoheleth has some good advice: “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6).

Against the background of people who worked with their hands, he first spoke of hands folded in laziness and here he points out the vanity and trying to seize the wind with “two hands full of toil.”

Again, this is a picture of contentment.  The quiet person is peaceful and composed. Rather than always striving for more, he or she is satisfied already.

It pictures Paul’s expression in Philippians 4

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The contrast of indolence and scrambling for more is reinforced by the difference between having a single handful and having “two hands full.”  The person with two hands full is a two-fisted consumer, always grabbing as much as he can and always grasping for more.  But sometimes less is more, and the quiet person has found the right balance.  His hands are not folded, like the fool.  He is working hard enough to have a decent handful of what he needs in life.  But that is enough for him.  He does not keep demanding more and more but accepts what God has given through an honest day’s work. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiates: Why Everything Matters)

This beautiful expression “manages to convey the twofold thought of modest demands and inward peace: an attitude as far removed from the fool’s selfish indolence as from the thruster’s scramble for pre-eminence” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 46).

But a worse situation yet is found in vv. 7-8

7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?”  This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 

As Derek Kidner says:

“But if anything can be more tyrannous than envy, that thing is habit, when habit has turned into fixation.  Verses 7 and 8 picture the compulsive money-maker as someone virtually dehumanized, for he has surrendered to a mere craving and to the endless process of feeding it….Although for the sake of clarity that we are looking at a man with no family, we may well feel that his loneliness is no accident and that he will have no friends either, living for his routine as he does.  Such a man, even with a wife and children, will have little time for them, convinced that he is toiling for their benefit although his heart is elsewhere, devoted and wedded to his work” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 46-47).

This is the man married to his work, who sacrifices his family in the very process of providing for his family.

Catholic Thomas Merton once said:

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Hopefully you and I won’t spend our “whole lives” pursuing what will fade away, sacrificing what is permanent.  Hopefully we will realize the value of contentment and spend more time with our families.

Workaholics are addicted to their work in much the same way an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol.  Such a person rarely rests.  He is constantly worried about the next sale, business matter, or task.  A workaholic businessman often has difficulty seeing his friends as merely friends and not business prospects.  A workaholic pastor runs the risk of seeing people more as aids or obstacles to a project than as individuals in need of ministry.

What suffers most is our families and our spiritual lives.

As Christians, we must be careful not to let the cares and allurements of the world distract us from our devotion to Christ or from our responsibilities to our families and friends.  It is impossible to always be working or thinking about work and simultaneously be developing good relationships with others.  Workaholism invariably puts a strain on the family.  When a pastor or worker in full-time ministry succumbs to workaholism, the damage can include the family’s negative view of who God is.

So, fellow workaholic, I urge you, if you desire the blessings of God that he promises through the means of grace, do not delay to re-arrange your life and disentangle yourself from the things of this world that so easily make you too busy and tired to attend to them.  I am not suggesting that you refrain from working hard—far from it!—but I am suggesting that you consider whether your commitments have become an idol and if you have chosen to give priority to your professional calling over your spiritual calling and your responsibility for the spiritual life of your family.   If this is so, I urge you to repent.

Find quiet rest in your Savior more often than you do now.  Trust Him for your future and be content with what you have.

Find your satisfaction in the goodness of God, like the little girl who misquoted Psalm 23 but spoke better than she knew.  Rather than saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” she said, “The Lord is my shepherd; that’s all I want.”

Most of us want so many other things in life that it is hard for us to say that, but whether Jesus is all we want or not, the truth is that he is all we need.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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