The Problem with Work

Week of March 24, 2019

The Point: Our work gains meaning when it’s done to honor Christ.

The Vanity of Toil: Ecclesiastes 2:18-23.

[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. [ESV]

“Working Things Out [2:18-23]. Remember Qoheleth’s quest. In headlong pursuit of the meaning of life, he explored the claims of wisdom and folly. Then he indulged in all the pleasures of the flesh. After that, he reconsidered the advantages of wisdom, as over against folly. But no matter what he tried, his quest failed. Eventually he ended up hating life entirely, everything under the sun [2:17]. One of the things that he hated the most was his work – not just life in general, but work in particular [2:18]. Many people expect work to give them a sense of purpose in life. But according to Ecclesiastes, work is the wrong place to look for meaning in life. As far as Ecclesiastes is concerned, there are two main problems with our earthly business. The first is that in the end someone else will profit from all our hard work. As a bottom-line thinker, the Preacher wanted to know what kind of return he would get on his investment. He had been thinking about death, and as he looked ahead, he realized that one day he would have to leave everything behind [2:18]. We could almost accept the loss of our possessions if they went to someone we loved and respected, but we can never be sure what will happen, especially after we die. Even if the person who gets our property is wise, he still won’t deserve it. What we gain from our work ought to belong to us, as the reward for all our labor. Instead it will go to someone else. This is part of the Preacher’s frustration [2:20-21]. 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. The Curse of Work. Leaving it all behind is bad enough, but there is another serious problem with work. It was not just the loss of work’s reward that the Preacher hated, but the work itself! The first problem is that our work will be someone else’s reward. The second problem is that the work itself is toil and trouble [2:22-23]. To emphasize the weariness of work, the Preacher describes it as toil and striving. 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. 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. Even in the night his heart does not rest [2:23]. Day and night, there is no rest for the weary, and the worker is always weary. Notice how long his problems will last: all his days. From beginning to end, life is a weary labor, with little or nothing to show for it. Therefore, work is as vain as every other aspect of our existence. If we try to find significance in our work, it will only end in disappointment. If you make your work your life, it will leave you empty. What kind of difference have you made? Do you have anything to show for all your work? When Qoheleth considered what a man gains from his labor under the sun, the Preacher came to this conclusion: all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation [2:23].” [Ryken, pp. 67-71].

“Theological Implications. For Qohelet the repetitiveness of history, the end of life for all in death, and one’s lack of control over one’s legacy lead him to his conclusion that all is enigmatic. Living prior to the Christ event, Qohelet would not have had access to a clear doctrine of the afterlife and the renewal of all things through Christ at the end of history. However, contrary to much of the Old Testament he espouses a view of history as cyclical, rather than cyclical and linear. It is the cyclical repetitiveness of history that seems to be central to Qohelet’s thought [12,16], and because Qohelet lacks a New Testament perspective on the coming and consummation of the kingdom, one needs to have some sympathy for his struggle with history and the problem of death. On this side of the Christ event there is less room for sympathy as regards such a struggle. Qohelet rails against death and refuses to go gently into the dying of the light. He confronts us with the abnormality of death and rightly denaturalizes it. Any wisdom worth its weight has to come to grips with death, the great enigma of life. Qohelet confronts us with its reality but at this stage provides no answer to the enigma. From a theological perspective death remains “the last enemy” but is contextualized in the story of God’s purposes with the world. Bringing God into the picture makes all the difference. Biblically, death is a consequence of sin and the divinely imposed penalty on it. Death is a thick concept that should not be reduced to physical death. The effect of sin is that God’s image bearers forfeit their right to exist and their reason for existence – Qohelet’s great struggle. But God does not give up on His good creation. He makes room for the renewal of life, for His unfolding plan of salvation, for planting a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem, for the empty tomb, for the church, for the coming of the kingdom, and ultimately for a Paradise regained, where death will be forever banished and life in its fullness restored. For the present, however, death remains as “a living enigma,” the riddle of our existence – the relentless grip of death in the midst of a divinely preserved life, but for the wise its sting is neutralized. Death becomes in Christ the gateway into God’s presence. Death for the fool becomes the gateway to judgment and ultimate death. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, the effect of Christ’s resurrection is that death has been swallowed up in victory.” [Bartholomew, pp. 144-148]

From Dust to Dust: Ecclesiastes 3:9-15.

[9] What gain has the worker from his toil? [10] I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. [11] He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. [12] I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; [13] also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man. [14] I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. [15] That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. [ESV]

 “All in Good Time [3:9-15]. The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty. We are born with the longing for another world – a life with God that is beyond the reach of mortal time: he has put eternity into man’s heart [3:11]. Having said that God is sovereign over time [3:1-8], the Preacher returned to the subject of work and asked a question he had asked before: What gain has the worker from his toil? [3:9]. In his ongoing quest to find meaning in life, the Preacher always wanted to know what kind of return he would get for the investment of his time and effort. Some interpreters understand the Preacher to be answering his question in verse 9 with an emphatic “No!” The implication is that he gets nothing at all. The trouble with this interpretation is that verse 11 makes such a strong affirmation of the goodness of God, who has made everything beautiful in its time. Some people resent God’s control over time and eternity; they would rather set their own agenda. But the Solomon of Ecclesiastes could see the beauty of God’s sovereignty. Not only is there a time for everything, but God always does things at just the right time. Therefore, the Preacher praised God for His beautiful timing. Something beautiful is something good; it is right, pleasing, and appropriate. It is in this sense that God can be said to have beautiful timing. At whatever time He does things, God is always right on time. He knows when it is time for breaking down and building up, for keeping and casting away, for war and for peace. When the Preacher says that God has made everything beautiful in its time, he is not just talking about the way that God made the world in the first place, but about the way that He has ruled it ever since. The seasons of nature and the patterns of human activity are under His sovereign superintendence and providential care. From beginning to end, God does everything decently and in order. Do you believe in the timeliness of God, not just for the world in general but for your own case in particular? Do you trust His timing for the seasons of your own life? People often criticize God for being too late, or else too early. Yet in retrospect we discover that His agenda was better all along. Because a door was closed when we wanted it open, we ended up going a different direction, which turned out to be the right direction all along. We were not ready for the relationship we wanted when we wanted it, but only later. Something happened to change our schedule, and we ended up having an unexpected conversation that changed our whole direction in life, or maybe someone else’s direction. Rather than insisting on having everything run according to our own schedule, we need to learn to trust God’s timetable. Between Time and Eternity. Knowing that God is in control does not necessarily mean we always understand or appreciate His timing. Often we do not, and this can be a real frustration for us. So having affirmed the beauty of God’s sovereign authority over time, the Preacher pointed out one of the basic dilemmas of our earthly existence: God has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end [3:11]. Here the Preacher finds himself caught between time and eternity. On the one hand, God has put eternity into our hearts. We were made to live forever, and thus we have a desperate longing for never-ending life with God. The trouble is that we are still living in a time-bound universe. There is a huge gap between our present mortality and our future destiny. The eternity in our hearts gives us a deep desire to know what God has done from beginning to end. But as finite creatures living in a fallen world, there are so many things we do not understand. No matter how hard we look we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Whereas God has a complete view, all we have is a point of view. Our limited perspective is unable to span the mind of God. This has been part of the Preacher’s frustration from the beginning. He is looking for meaning in life but finds it hard or even impossible to understand. Some people respond to this frustration by leaving God out of it entirely and coming up with their own interpretation of the universe. There is another way to respond, however. Knowing that we are caught between time and eternity can help us find our way to God. Up to this point in his quest, Qoheleth has failed to find anything on earth that can fully satisfy the human mind or heart. But this still leaves open the possibility of finding satisfaction in God and in His Heaven. So rather than giving up on our desire for understanding, we should conclude instead that our longing for eternity proves that we were made for another world. God has put the beauty of eternity into our hearts so that we will find our way to Him. Our deepest longings will never be satisfied until we come to a personal knowledge of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, who is the beginning and the end [Rev. 21:6]. One day we will know what God has done from beginning to end – or at least as much of what He has done as He wants us to know. In the meantime, the Preacher tells us two things that we should all be doing. Verse 12 and verse 14 both begin with the words I perceived. In his struggle to understand how to live as a man caught between time and eternity, the Preacher had gained two very important insights: one about doing God’s business and one about trusting God’s sovereignty. First, we should take whatever time we have been given and use it joyfully in the service of God. In verses 12-13 the Preacher tells us to get busy. This is the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with [3:10]. Here he tells us how to go about that business – joyfully and energetically, with gratitude to God for the pleasure of serving Him. The Preacher tells us to be joyful. We may not always be happy about the way things are going in life, but we can always find joy in the grace of our God and the work He has given us to do. No matter how bad our circumstances may be – whether through the natural hardships of life or the harm done to us by others or the painful consequences of our own rebellious sin – in every situation there is always a way for us to glorify God, and this should give us joy. The Preacher also tells us to do good – a phrase that should be taken in its moral and ethical sense. To do good is to do good works. This does not mean that we could ever earn our way to Heaven, of course, but it does mean that we should do the good work that God has given us to do, for as long as He gives us to do it. Out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus, forgiving all our sins, we should get busy doing the work of His kingdom. In His grace, God has given every one of us something good to do for Him. We do not work because we have nothing better to do, but because God has called us to work for Him as long as we live.

Trusting God’s Sovereignty. The other thing the Preacher tells us to do – his second insight – is to let God be God, reverently accepting His sovereignty over time and eternity [3:14-15]. Whatever God does includes everything that God does, at whatever time He does it. He is sovereign over the times and the seasons. Whatever He does will endure: no one can add to it or subtract from it. If we cannot add anything to what God has done or take anything away from it, then there is absolutely nothing that we can do about our situation in life. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? In other words, is the absolute rule of God a source of hope or discouragement? Ecclesiastes gives us the answer when it tells us why God does what He does: so that people fear before him [3:14]. The fear of God is one of the most positive concepts in the entire bible. To fear God is to revere Him and to tremble at His mighty power. Both the Psalms and the Proverbs say that such fear of the Lord is the very beginning of wisdom and that anyone who fails to see this is a fool [Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7]. In fact, when we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, we will discover that this is the point of the whole book. After saying everything else that he has to say, the Preacher will leave us with this simple instruction: Fear God [12:13]. To fear God is not to give up on finding meaning in life, but to rest our lives on the only solid foundation for time and eternity. To fear God is to trust in His foreknowledge, believing that He knows all things, including our present joys and trials. To fear God is also to believe that He is still in control, even when we cannot see (or do not understand) what He is doing. Do you believe in the doctrine of divine sovereignty? Can you accept that God is really God? Have you learned to fear your Maker? Far from discouraging us into giving up, knowing that God is in control of everything from here to eternity encourages us to keep pressing on. Eternal redemption is our hope whenever we feel caught between time and eternity. What we do in this life matters. The work of God endures forever, including whatever good work we are busy doing in the name of Jesus. Therefore our lives and our labor are not in vain. The same God who put eternity into our hearts will make everything beautiful, including things past that now seem lost or broken. All in His good time.” [Ryken, pp. 89-97].

 Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Verses 2:18-23 describes two problems with work. What are they? What is the solution to these problems? How can you turn your work into a source of praise to God who has given you this work at this particular time in your life?
  2. What is the world’s view of death? What ways do non-believers today try to deal with the fact that all of us will eventually die? What is the Biblical view of death? What is a linear view of history? How does the Bible teach this? How should believers deal with the certainty of death?
  3. Do you see the beauty of God’s sovereignty over your life? Do you believe in the timeliness of God, not just for the world in general but for your own case in particular? Do you trust His timing for the seasons of your own life? How can you live your daily life in a way that glorifies God’s sovereignty?
  4. With the use of I perceived, the Preacher tells us two things that all of us should be doing in light of God’s sovereignty [3:12-15]. What are these two things? Why can we find joy in our work? What does it mean to fear God? (Note how Ryken describes the proper fear of God). Have you learned to fear God in this way? Have you learned to find joy and rest in who God is and where He has placed you?


Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway.


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