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The Vanity of Labor

Introduction

What are some different views or approaches to work?

  • A man must work to provide for his family.

A mentality that was once prominent in society seems to have waned in the last couple of generations; a mentality that demands hard work to be a characteristic of the responsible man. It was a common characteristic for men to be the primary provider for the home. He would work long hard days and would find pride in that fact. While there are many that would still hold to that position, that mentality has seemed to wane as of late.

  • Men are to be characterized by hard work.

There are some who place the emphasis on the need to work diligently, irregardless of the profession or type of work. They believe that satisfaction is found in diligent work and the provision for their families.

  • You need to work in a field or profession you enjoy.

There are others who would agree that hard work is important but feel that the type of work or profession is of equal or more importance . They would say that someone can’t truly be satisfied if they are not working in a profession they enjoy – even if they work hard.

  • You can’t be satisfied in life if you are not satisfied in your work.

Let’s assume for a second that you have adopted one of these approaches above. Let’s as well assume that you have been “successful” in that approach. Will this chapter apply to you.

Solomon’s negative view of work carries over to even the person who is successful. Solomon concludes that all labor, even labor for the successful individual, is vanity.

Let’s take an initial look – at Solomon’s conclusion in these first few verses – that of vanity or futility. This “futility” is a common thread throughout all that we have read in Ecclesiastes. Everything is futility. In these few verses he states three times that labor is futile. Another phrase, seen a number of times in these few verses, is ‘on earth.’ Before we continue to assess the potential satisfaction found in labor, let’s remember the negative conclusion that Solomon came to in reference to labor on the earth or labor that seeks for present gratification and earthly profit.

Solomon, as he approaches this discussion, reflects on a time of hatred and despair. Some would like to see this time of ‘despair’ as a step of repentance on the part of Solomon. It is true that the word speaks of a change of direction or turning, but there is no indication that the turning was to God. In despair his heart turned from attempting to find satisfaction in his work, but his heart did not yet turn to God. Why does he come to such a negative conclusion concerning work?

Ecc 2:18 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. 2:19 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!

2:20 So I began to despair about all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so hard on earth.

2:21 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!

2:22 What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!

Remember that Solomon is looking at work “on earth” or “under the sun.” As he views work on earth, he comes up with some conclusions.

The Future Results of Your Labor

The Fruit of Labor may go to a fool

Ecc 2:18 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. 2:19 Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool?

I recall a job I once held. When I entered into the business my particular aspect of the work was not well organized. The beginning of my employment came at the onset of a move for the company, and I was responsible for setting up my area of the company. I took great pride in making sure everything was done well and orderly. I put together a notebook to offer guidelines for the next employee who would take my position. I had very specific ways of doing things; and I had this naïve idea, that if I organized the position right, my manner of doing the job would continue on long after I left. What I found was that other people didn’t really care about my way of doing things. My order didn’t really matter to them. The man I trained to take my position began overlooking some of my methods even before I had left. I had felt a lot of pride in my manner of work, and yet it didn’t seem to matter to the next employee. In no way was the man a fool, but I did have to leave my work to someone who didn’t accept the organization I had taken a couple years to establish.

Imagine Solomon, the wisest man alive. Everything he did was probably extremely well done. He knew that someday he would have to leave his work to someone else, and it was inevitable that his successor would not follow the example he had set.

If our focus in work is on leaving a earthly legacy or establishing a permanent way of doing something we are going to feel unsatisfied.

The Fruit of Labor may go to someone who didn’t work

Ecc 2:21 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!

I imagine that someone would be frustrated if they had worked all their life in a particular field, and then had to leave all the fruit of their labor to some young guy who had never worked in the field. Consider …

  • A parent working hard to establish an inheritance only to leave it to a lazy child.
  • After having transformed a business, seeing that same business dismiss you and go back to their prior way of business.
  • Receiving no appreciation for the hard work you did.
  • An executive being let go so the business could hire young blood.
  • An older pastor leaving a church to a younger pastor.
  • A layman seeing their church, that they had worked so hard to establish, change.

The Present Traits of Your Labor

Characteristics of Labor

Drudgery

Ecc 2:22 What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!

The root word for ‘labor’ often refers to “drudgery of toil” rather than the “nobility of labor.” It relates to the dark side of labor, the grievous and unfulfilling aspect of work.

This idea of drudgery carries with it a very negative connotation. Once again, Solomon is not looking at work as a means of fulfilling a greater purpose, but is instead wanting to find satisfaction in the labor. His focus is on the fact that he has to work hard but will have to leave all his work to someone else. With that mindset it is easy to see why a job would be drudgery.

If a job was viewed as merely a means to fulfill a greater purpose, the aspect of drudgery might diminish. If we see a job as a means to provide for our family, if we see a job as a means to minister to other people, if we see a job as a divinely appointed meeting established by God, if we see a job as an opportunity to glorify God in all that we do … we might not struggle as much with the feeling of drudgery.

Wisdom, Knowledge and Skill Required

2:21 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!

Wisdom

Knowledge

Skill

(1)Reflected in OT wisdom is the teaching of a personal God who is holy and just and who expects those who know him to exhibit his character in the many practical affairs of life. (2) In Greek philosophy if a person had perfect knowledge he could live the good life (Plato). Knowledge was virtue. 1

This root expresses a multitude of shades of knowledge gained by the senses. Its closest synonyms are “to discern” and “to recognize.”

The root expresses to be right and proper to; to prosper (Eccl 11:6); skill; success (Eccl 2:21; 4:4); advantage (Eccl 5:10).

These three terms convey a very successful, well-balanced man. His wisdom suggests that he is a morally sound man with the great ability of discernment. His knowledge suggests years of experience. This man is not only book smart but is as well street smart. His wisdom and knowledge have resulted in great success. He is accomplished in his field.

While it is obvious that these qualtities are not characteristic of everyone, it appears that they are characteristic of most successful workers. This successful worker has many years of experience. He has invested a lot, both mentally and physically, and has been rewarded for his hard work. As he looks back on his life of successful business ventures, he finally realizes that he will soon leave it all to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much work or is foolish.

Consequences of Labor

Ecc 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!

Painful

Although this word can be used to express physical suffering, it much more commonly has to do with mental anguish.

Frustrating

The root meaning is to vex, agitate, stir up, or provoke the heart to a heated condition which in turn leads to specific actions.

Unrest

The primary meaning conveys the idea of ‘lying down’. His mind continues to run at night keeping him from truly resting.

Solomon’s Conclusion

Don’t look for Lasting Satisfaction in Labor

Ecc 2:26c This task of the wicked is futile – like chasing the wind!

Attempting to find lasting satisfaction in work is going to leave one feeling empty. As well, don’t use the fruit of your labor (power, money, prestige) as a means to satisfaction. Some might attempt to find satisfaction in the actual fulfillment of the job. Others might attempt to find satisfaction in the fruit of their job. Either way, you will be unsatisfied.

Enjoy the rewards of your labor

Ecc 2:24 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. 2:25 For no one can eat and drink or experience joy apart from him.

Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day!)

Two views concerning vs. 24:

  • The first view is that Solomon is presenting, reluctantly, that ‘there is nothing better.’ He could have said ‘this is good.’ Apparently he was resigned to the fact that this was the best there was, even though he wishes there were a better option. Since man can’t find any satisfaction in the fruit of his labor, he might as well enjoy the simple pleasures that come along. After all those might be the only pleasures he ever receives.

Ecc 3:22 So I perceived there is nothing better than for people to enjoy their work, because that is their reward; for who can show them what the future holds?

Ecc 8:15 So I recommend the enjoyment of life, for there is nothing better on earth for a person to do except to eat, drink, and enjoy life. So joy will accompany him in his toil during the days of his life which God gives him on earth.

  • A second view is that Solomon is not necessarily being resigned. He is acknowledging that God has given man the ability to enjoy life in the present. Verse 25 keeps the enjoyment in the context of God’s presence. While we ought to live life with the future in mind, it is not inappropriate to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Remember that God is Sovereign

Ecc 2:26 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.

We can see displayed in this passages that attribute of God’s sovereignty. Not only does God gift the righteous, but uses wicked people to accomplish His own purpose. Someone might look at this passage and think that God is arbitrary and that we are at the whim of an unpredictable God. The reverse is true. Great comfort can be found in knowing that there is a God who rules over our lives and that we are not merely left to our own fate.

1 All three definitions are summaries from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, used in Bible Works.