Ecclesiastes is necessary for our spiritual maturity because it eloquently captures the beauty and the frustration of life. This book exposes to us man’s longing for relevance and meaning in a sinful world. Its overarching theme is that life should not be expected to be self-fulfilling because life only has meaning when it is lived in a right relationship with God. Ecclesiastes 1:2 states that life under the sun is “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”
After discussing the vanity of wisdom and pleasure, Solomon turns his attention to the life of a workaholic who fails to find satisfaction in work. In our section this morning (2:18-26), we shall learn that we will not find satisfaction in our work when our work becomes our god. Only God can enable our work to become satisfying.
Toil is vanity. It is fleeting and frustrating. Solomon wrote: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun…” (2:18). Toil is vanity for the four following reasons:
- The fruit of our toil will be left to someone who didn’t toil for it. (2:18,20-21)
- All our hard work could be left to a foolish person who will squander it. Solomon wrote: “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” (2:19).
- What have we actually accomplished? Solomon wrote: “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart for which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation” (22-23).
- It is difficult to rest. Solomon wrote: “even in the night his heart does not rest” (24).
We work and work and work and what do we have at the end of the day? More work! You will not find satisfaction in working. This is especially important for those of us in the United States. It is common to ask when meeting someone for the first time: “What do you do?” It’s an understandable question and not necessarily a bad one. But, it could also be a subtle way to try and determine someone’s value. Consider: “You’re a doctor!” vs. “Oh, you are unemployed?” In other words, tell me your occupation so that I can properly assess your value. A person’s value is not determined by the work they do. Many “successful” people are miserable while many “unsuccessful” people are filled with joy. Toil is vanity because it is fleeting and frustrating. It cannot provide lasting meaning.
Enjoy Your Toil
Toil is vanity because it is fleeting and frustrating. Since toil is vanity, what should we do? Solomon answers: “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). If that answer seems confusing; that is because it is! Toil is vanity so enjoy it. This answer reminds me of a few Yogi Berra quotes: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” When he was asked about a particular restaurant, he said: “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
The answer given in verse 24 may seem unhelpful, but let’s keep reading. Solomon wrote, “this also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment” (2:25). Derek Kinder wrote:
The compulsive worker of verses 22-23, overloading his days with toil and his nights with worry, has missed the simple joys that God was holding out to him. The real issue for him was not between work and rest but, had he known it, between meaningless and meaningful activity. As verse 24 points out, the very toil that tyrannized him was potentially a joyful gift of God (and joy itself is another, 25), if only he had the grace to take it as such.
In 2:26, we are told: “For to the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but the sinner He has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God.” Herein lies a warning to the ungodly: God may give you prosperity, but He will not give you the means in which to enjoy it.
Work is not the result of sin. Adam was placed in the garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it (Gen 2:15). Extremely hard and incessant toil is a curse God has placed upon mankind as a result of sin. It was after Adam’s rebellion that he was told: “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Life without God leads to emptiness, futility, and a lack of meaning. Toil is vanity and will lead us to despair. But, if we heed Paul’s instruction in Colossians 3:17 we can find joy in our toil. Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
Is your toil unenjoyable? Do you dread doing what you are doing? No matter what you are doing, recognize that all work that is done on this earth will be extremely hard and exhausting. Therefore, remember that God cares for you. Enjoy God and allow Him to transform your anxious toil into a joyful gift. Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father. This will make the difference between anxious, vain toil and gracious, meaningful labor.