Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Have you ever felt that your labor is in vain? Have you found yourself worrying that your work–whether paid on unpaid–is not amounting to much? Have you sometimes feared that you might be squandering your life?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, be assured that you’re not the first one to do so. In yesterday’s devotion, I admitted that there were times in my life when it felt as if I were laboring in vain. To be sure, I’m not the only one to have this experience. In fact, Scripture includes a centuries-old example of one who lamented the vanity of human labor. The book of Ecclesiastes, written from the perspective of King Solomon, opens by saying: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:2-3, ESV). Later, after boasting of all the work he did in life, the Preacher concludes, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11, ESV).
How are we to make sense of this teaching on the vanity of our work? Ecclesiastes certainly doesn’t offer an upbeat appraisal of the value of our work. I agree with the Theology of Work commentary on this book, which observes, “The almost-overwhelming preponderance of negative observations about work threatens to swamp the reader.” We wonder what happened to the vision of work in Genesis, where human beings were created as workers, based on the image of God the Worker. What happened to the intrinsic value of work, to the promise of our work somehow contributing to God’s work in the world?
Ecclesiastes offers neither the first word nor the last word when it comes to the Bible’s teaching about work. It does offer one very important word, however, a word that challenges us to confront the shallowness, materialism, and selfishness of the world around us, the world “under the sun.” If this world is all there is, then, in the end, our labors turn out to be vanity. Yet if this world is not all there is…
When it comes to our work, Ecclesiastes invites us to take a fresh look at what we’re doing and why. It challenges us to ask tough questions of ourselves concerning our work. It resists easy answers and pat formulas. And it prepares us for a new perspective on work, one that we find elsewhere in Scripture, in 1 Corinthians 15:58, for example.
To this text we will return tomorrow. For now, I would encourage you to engage with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Allow him to confront you with questions about the true meaning and value of your labor.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How do you respond to the message of Ecclesiastes? Is everything vanity, including our work? Why or why not?
Have you ever found yourself thinking like the Preacher? If so, when? Why?
How might the teaching of Ecclesiastes prepare us for the Gospel?
Gracious God, thank you for the peculiar gift of Ecclesiastes. This book doesn’t let us remain in our status quo. It pierces our thin arguments and unsettles our lives. It challenges us to think more deeply and more truly. And it prepares us to listen to you in a new and fresh way.
Help us, dear Lord, to consider deeply the meaning and meaningless of this life, including our work. Help us to find true and lasting meaning for all we do. Ground us in your truth, your meaning, your purpose, and your grace. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary: Pleasure (Eccl 2:1-11)
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