So I loathed all the fruit of my effort, for which I worked so hard on earth, because I must leave it behind in the hands of my successor. Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master over all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so wisely on earth! This also is futile! So I began to despair about all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so hard on earth. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance to someone else who did not work for it. This also is futile, and an awful injustice! What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile! There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. I also perceived that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God. For no one can eat and drink or experience joy apart from him. For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but to the sinner, he gives the task of amassing wealth – only to give it to the one who pleases God. This task of the wicked is futile – like chasing the wind! (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)
As with pleasure and wisdom, so with labor: it cannot provide ultimate meaning.
The Preacher advanced his general thesis: everything is hevel, a vapor, futile, absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2). Everything continues as it has in the past; life is cyclical, and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11). The Preacher has seen how everything under the sun is a chasing after wind; wisdom leads to frustration (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
The Preacher then specifically explored three of the main domains in which people have invested ultimate meaning. The first was pleasure: he satisfied himself with all forms of pleasure, but none of them could truly deliver what was promised (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Then he explored wisdom: he found it better than folly, but the wise man and the fool both die, so even wisdom was ultimately futile (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17). The Preacher then turned to consider labor (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26).
Work and labor easily defines human life. In our modern society, we often speak and think of ourselves in terms of what we do for work. Institutions of labor encourage workers to thus define themselves and to encourage belief that the labor they provide for that institution has lasting and significant meaning and value. Humans may die, but they nourish the hope that the work they have done will not. Thus humans seek to invest their labor with long lasting value and meaning.
When the Preacher considered labor under the sun, he found two forms of futility. The first involved the ultimate end of the fruit of labor: a person might work hard throughout their lives and amass some resources, but those resources will be enjoyed by descendants, regardless of whether those descendants prove wise or foolish (Ecclesiastes 2:18-21). The second futility centered on what the laborer would acquire for which he or she worked: they suffer pain and frustration during the work, and cannot rest well on account of anxieties about the labor and/or uncertainties in the future (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
Few exemplify the futility of the ultimate end of the fruit of their labor than Solomon himself. Throughout his life he worked to amass great wealth, prosperity, and stability for the Kingdom of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 3:1-10:29). His son, Rehoboam, would behave foolishly, overseeing the division of the kingdom, the invasion of Judah by Egypt, and the loss of all the wealth his father had accrued (cf. 1 Kings 12:1-24, 14:21-31). Many times wealth is obtained through deceptive, exploitative, or oppressive means; yet even when wealth is earned through noble and upright effort, what will happen when a person’s descendants inherit it? Perhaps a person’s heir was well raised and trained to appreciate what was given, and uses the wealth wisely. But what will come with the next generation? Eventually a fool will arise and what had been gained well will be lost. So it has gone with every dynasty of power and wealth.
The modern worker likely well understands the bitterness of what they acquire for their work. The majority of people are compelled to “live to work”. They may have to work multiple jobs in order to maintain even the most basic quality of life. Employers often demand many hours or flexibility according to their needs without much regard for the quality of life for their workers. Workers put in a good day’s work and receive their appropriate pay, and yet concerns remain about making sure they can pay the bills and make ends meet. Those who have proven more financially successful in our present meritocracy would maintain the presumption that such laborers are not working well or hard enough; in truth, they are working harder than anyone else, yet not getting anywhere. They suffer the constant anxiety that comes from being poor or living near the poverty line. Lamentably, the Preacher is not wrong: there really is nothing new under the sun.
Yet the Preacher maintains a glimmer of hope: God has given people the ability to find enjoyment in eating, drinking, and in their labor (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Without God there would be no food, drink, labor, or life itself (Ecclesiastes 2:25). God blesses those who seek and please Him with wisdom, knowledge, and joy; yet sinners are given the task of obtaining wealth that will ultimately be enjoyed by those who please God (Ecclesiastes 2:26). The wicked suffer from futility, chasing after the wind.
In this way the Preacher has begun to reveal the ultimate purpose of his discourse: to strip humans of their pretensions to great or ultimate meanings so they can rediscover and dedicate themselves to the simple joys of the lives they are granted to live under the sun. It would be inappropriate to condemn the Preacher as a hedonist; he has already explored the end of pleasure (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Instead, he essentially reminds his audience to “stop and smell the roses”: humans do not have the control they would like to think they have, their pretensions toward eternity will not be satisfied by anything “under the sun,” tomorrow is not guaranteed, so enjoy what you do have in the moment. Enjoy food, drink, and work. Labor is much easier to endure when one can find enjoyment in what one does. How many things prove more lamentable than a person who expends the short life they have under the sun in labor which they detest and provides them no form of joy or satisfaction? Likewise, how demonic is a system or group of people who develop forms of employment which dehumanize those who participate in it and provide no opportunity for enjoyment?
In light of the Preacher’s message we do well to resist all impulses to make life all about work. Work is an important part of life, but it should only be a part of life. Those who labor should be able to eat and enjoy the fruit of their labor. They must not invest their life’s meaning and purpose in their work, and always remember the importance of the experiences they can enjoy and especially the people with whom they share their lives. Yet those who employ should consider themselves well. Is God glorified when people work but cannot eat and enjoy the fruit of their labor? What does it say about a people and a society when many jobs cannot provide any real benefit to anyone, and cause great suffering to those who are employed within them? What employer has any right to demand for any employee to make work their life’s primary purpose, providing no opportunity for enjoyment and rest?
As Christians we must balance what we hear from the Preacher with what we learn about God in Christ. The Apostle Paul affirmed that our work in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58): what we do here in this life will have implications for life in the resurrection to come. Thus Paul exhorted all who labor to do so as unto the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9); we cannot imagine that our work is divorced and separated from our life of service to Christ, but must find ways to glorify God and submit our work lives to Jesus. And yet the Preacher’s words endure: under the sun, all our labor is ultimately futile. What will remain is not what we have built with our hands, but the impact we have imprinted on other people. May we all serve the Lord Jesus in all we do, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry