What benefit can a worker gain from his toil? I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied. God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives. I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God. I also know that whatever God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it. God has made it this way, so that men will fear him (Ecclesiastes 3:9-14).
If life under the sun is futile, absurd, and a chasing after wind, what benefit or value can remain?
The Preacher has set forth many challenging truths in his discourse so far: all of life is futile and absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). Time is more cyclical than linear; what has been done will soon be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11). All pursuits under the sun are like chasing after wind: a never-ending and ultimately futile task (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13). The three main pursuits of mankind cannot deliver on their promises: pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11), wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:14-18, 2:12-17), and labor (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26) all ultimately prove futile and a chasing after wind. A time and a season exist for all things under the sun: yes, those things we enjoy, but also those things we work diligently to avoid (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
The Preacher established such things in order to compel the hearer to consider many of the vain pretenses under which he or she pursues existence. The hearer will naturally find what the Preacher establishes abhorrent; yet such contempt, disgust, and/or hostility stems from the exposure of such pretenses. Humans want their lives to matter and to be full of meaning. In their corruption, and in the face of death, humans are easily tempted to invest in various earthly projects in order to find that meaning and to make their mark on the creation. Who among us wants to believe we will be forgotten within a century, most likely left as an entry with a birth and death date on some future descendant’s family tree?
While the natural human within us wants to resist the Preacher’s message, we do better to heed his wisdom. Yet we can understand why many would find him nihilistic to this point: if life is so meaningless, then why bother? Thus the Preacher would go on to provide exhortation about what can be enjoyed about life and work in Ecclesiastes 3:9-22; and he began by speaking of God’s work and man’s work in this creation.
The pericope (or section) began asking again what benefit a worker can gain from his effort (Ecclesiastes 3:9). To answer it the Preacher made appeal to God and His work: God has given labor to humans to keep them busy (Ecclesiastes 3:10). The Preacher confessed how God made everything beautiful in its own time and way (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has made the creation so that mankind cannot ascertain how God has begun it or how it continues, or even how long they will live (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The text maintains vagary about what God has placed in the human heart: we can read the text, along with the ASV, as saying God has placed eternity in man’s heart, or, along with the NET, as saying God has placed ignorance in man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We may have a preference regarding which way we want to read the text in Ecclesiastes 3:11, yet either would make for robust theology and reflection. God has made mankind in His own image, and God is eternal (Genesis 1:27, Revelation 1:4). Humans indeed have eternity in their hearts: we have strong intuitions that there is more to living than this life. Cultures throughout time have expected some kind of afterlife for a part of themselves which was not consigned to physical death. Yet even though we might have intuition of eternity, we remain woefully ignorant regarding the spiritual realm and its operations. We do not know how long we will live, let alone how things will turn out for us.
Many decry and lament such ignorance; they believe they would like to know how their lives will turn out. We might understand such a desire for a moment, but upon reflection we can hopefully understand how terrible it would be. Generally we humans want to know things in order to master them; we might imagine we can find out how things will happen so we can make corrections or whatnot. But if we changed some matters of our existence which we would not have otherwise changed, would it not change our trajectory, thus invalidating whatever we were shown would take place? Such is the time traveler’s dilemma: if we could travel back in time in order to change a circumstance or event, then the reality in which we would exist would reflect the changed circumstance; how could we then know the circumstance or event needed changing? We thus cannot master what would happen. To know our end could easily paralyze us into fatalism. We understand and sympathize with the anxiety regarding the unknown regarding the future; yet such an unknown also allows life to have its vitality. Despite what we may think, ignorance regarding our end under the sun remains bliss.
The Preacher confessed how God’s works will endure forever, without addition or elimination; God has made the creation thus to give mankind reason to fear and revere Him (Ecclesiastes 3:14). And God’s gift to mankind is life (Ecclesiastes 3:13). God has not given us the pretensions of the institutions, powers, and principalities over this present darkness; God has not given us the delusions of eternal satisfaction of pleasure, wisdom, or labor. But God has given us the ability to enjoy the creation He has made, to eat and drink, and to find some enjoyment in the work we do (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).
The Preacher again devastates human pretension. No matter how much effort we put into this creation, we cannot add to or take away from it. There is as much created stuff at the end as there was in the beginning; we may have changed its form, eliminated life, built up the things we call “development,” but it is all still made of the basic elements of the creation which God has made. When it is all said and done, God will purge it by fire and reconstitute it all according to His good plan and purpose (Romans 8:18-25, 2 Peter 3:1-13). We remain part of the life cycle of this planet; we have not withdrawn ourselves from it, and we never will. Here the Preacher affirmed, in his own way, what Paul would set forth in Romans 1:18-20: the creation testifies to its Creator. We should fear and revere God because He made it all, we are merely part of the system He created, and we cannot find any lasting form of meaning or purpose outside of Him. If we try to find meaning or purpose in His creation, we give the glory due the Creator to His creation, and He will give us over to such debased thinking, and we will prove miserable (cf. Romans 1:25).
Thus we can strive for what endures forever through what God has done in Christ. But when it comes to life under the sun, we do best to “stop and smell the roses.” The “little things” we can enjoy in life remain the only joys we can fully expect to enjoy. We should enjoy the warmth of the sun and the majesty of what God has made. We should enjoy the taste of the food and drink with which God has blessed us. We should rejoice, cherish, and laugh with our family, friends, and associates with whom we share life. We need to find what we can enjoy in our labor and effort so as to make it worthwhile. The “little things” are ephemeral indeed. Yet so are we! Let us enjoy what God has given us to enjoy in His creation, and may we invest our hopes of eternity in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry