FROM ECCLESIASTES 2:18-26
A person’s career—how we earn a living is in many cases how we define—how we think about ourselves. This is true not only among unbelievers but sadly, believers can also define themselves by their careers. Some in the church are bothered more by problems at work than by their sins. For many—men especially, but increasingly for women, what we do for a living and how well we do it is our priority in life. If a man gets his sense of value or worth from his job but is for some reason unable to work through downsizing or disability, that’s a train wreck for him. Too many evangelicals draw their sense of identity, not from Christ and the gospel, but from their job--their professional title or their corporate rank. It may also come from their salary. Their sense of value or worth may derive from their recognized level of expertise, the professional honors-and the expressions of appreciation they have received through their careers. Their professional reputation, the amount of money they will have at retirement and the size of their estate when they die have gradually, insidiously become the measure of their worth—in spite of what they may sing in church on Sunday. The word of God speaks powerfully to this in many ways, but today it’s from the book of Ecclesiastes. This week, as we return to this book, we will again follow Qohelet or “the Preacher” as he seeks for meaning in life. This week, he addresses this area of his work or what he calls his “toil” as a potential source of lasting satisfaction.
We have seen that, in his previous searches for meaning in the areas of wisdom and pleasure, he finds no lasting satisfaction. Today, we’ll see that this wise man, who in most instances operates from a worldview without God in the equation, finds toil or one’s professional life to be wholly inadequate to provide any lasting satisfaction to life. This area of work as a possible source for ultimate satisfaction is very relevant to America which ranks fifth among the most workaholic nations on the planet. We trail only South Korea, South Africa, Australia and Japan. Studies show that 43% of Americans in the work force don’t take all their allotted vacation days. Countless more may take all their vacation days, but they bring work home with them—either in their smart phones or briefcases or in their craniums as they constantly thinking about matters related to their jobs. Eighty percent of those in the workforce admit to taking work-related emails or phone calls after hours. Cell phones and other technologies that make us accessible to our employers 24/7 have caused the average American in the work force to work an average of 30 hours extra a month during what used to be considered “off hours. Based on statistics like those, it would seem that a whole lot of Americans—including many self-self-professed evangelicals are looking to their jobs to provide lasting satisfaction. Don’t misunderstand. Countless people find their work rewarding on a human level. The creation accounts in Genesis tell us that we were created in the image of a God who works. Work is not the enemy of humanity. God ordained that Adam work before the fall—it’s a way humanity expresses God’s image and that’s why work--both in and outside the home--can be rewarding at some level. The Preacher however is looking at our toil as a possible source of lasting, ultimate satisfaction. He comes to the clear conclusion that this cannot be found in your professional expertise, the skill of your hand or the sweat of your brow.
These words of wisdom from the Preacher could spare a lot of Americans needless disappointment because he couldn’t be more blunt about work as a possible source of genuine meaning. He says in verse 18, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun…” He doesn’t hate his work because his career wasn’t a “good fit” for him or because he wasn’t paid enough. As a retired king of Israel, he probably had as much job satisfaction as any of his contemporaries. As we discover in the rest of his treatment, the reason he hates toil is because he determines that it gives his life no lasting meaning. He gives several reasons why this is. First, speaking of what he has earned from his career, he says in verse 18, “seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me.”
Ultimately, most people work to make a living—to make money. And if you do well in your career and responsibly manage your money, there will be money left over after you die and perhaps a healthy sum of it. The preacher’s point is—you worked for that money—or perhaps, the money you worked for earned money for you through your investments or retirement accounts. That money represents your sweat and blood--perhaps tens of 1000’s of hours of your life. On a strictly human level, YOU earned that money but when you die your work is someone else’s gain. As the preacher would say, “I must leave it to the man who will come after me.” So his first reason for not drawing ultimate satisfaction from work is you can’t even keep all you earn. The implication is that something as impermanent as the money you earned at your job cannot possibly provide ultimate meaning. In verse 19, he expands on this point when he says, “and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?”
When we die, we can stipulate through our wills and trusts and legal documents who gets what from our estate, but the blatantly obvious fact is--you lose all control of your money after you die. The problem here is at least two-fold. First, as we read in verse 19, those who receive it may use it unwisely. Let’s assume your heirs take some of the money you worked for to take a two-week Caribbean Cruise. You never felt YOU could take a Caribbean cruise with that money, but you give it to someone else and before there’s grass on your grave--boom—they’re booking a trip on the Love Boat...with YOUR money! They may take the money you spent decades laboring for and give it to charities you would never in a million years have donated to. Perhaps you’re a conservative republican and these heirs of yours give half of the money you spent years working for to the Sierra Club or “Save the Whales.” You may think, “That could never happen.” But that leads us to the other problem with not having control over your own money. That is—the fruit of your work may end up in the hands of people you neither know nor like. For the sake of argument, let’s say you leave the money to your beloved daughter, the apple of your eye.
But your daughter dies of a malignancy a year after you die and it all goes to the son-in-law you never really cared for. He gets remarried to a woman you’ve never even met and she gets control of how YOUR money is spent. You may share nothing in common with her and yet, she is spending YOUR money. Again, for the sake of argument, maybe (to her credit) she’s very responsible with the inheritance, but when she dies, she leaves it to one of her kids from a previous marriage who shares none of your DNA and whom--if you were still alive, would have considered to be a bum. No job, no ambition--doesn’t even attend church and he’s got a drug habit. In six months, he burns through all the money you worked years at your job to acquire in order to feed his insatiable addiction. That thought would never even occurred to you, but there’s YOUR money being used to buy drugs.
Even with all the complicated legal trusts that can be set up to provide as much control as possible over what happens to your money, that kind of thing can still happen. Let’s say--the daughter who gets your estate doesn’t die an early death, but she goes off the deep end and joins some cult to whom she gives all the money you spent years earning. YOUR money is providing the funding for people to go door-to-door sharing a message that will lead people straight to hell! You can hear the disgust in the preacher’s tone as he considers these kinds of possibilities in verse 19. He says of his heir, “Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair and over all the toil of my labors under the sun.” Its vanity—a meaningless vapor—all YOUR money—the bounty of your years of hard labor--goes up in smoke.
At this point, you may be thinking—“This doesn’t sound like a very “spiritual” way to look at these things.” Remember, this is Qohelet’s wisdom about things “under the sun.” That is—this is the truth about toil without God in the picture. I have intentionally articulated a Godless point of view because that is the Preacher’s perspective here. He continues this same line of thought in verse 21 where he says the reason for his despair is “…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.” The money you leave as an inheritance is there because you managed it at least reasonably well and/or you possessed a certain set of skill sets—what Qohelet calls, “wisdom and knowledge and skill.” On a human level, it’s those skill sets that allowed you to acquire some level of wealth. The Preacher’s source of frustration is—the person who ends up spending the money that those skills sets allowed you to earn--might not be able to do any of the things you were able to do to earn that money, but he’s spending it just the same. His final verdict over this lack of control over the reward for all your hard work is, “This also is vanity and a great evil.” If you are worldly-wise like the Preacher and you’re trying to find meaning in your career, this lack of control is very troubling—especially as you near the end of your life.
In verse 22, we see another reason why trying to find ultimate satisfaction in your career is a complete waste. “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.” Another reason our jobs or career are not sources of ultimate satisfaction is because—what you leave to others did not come easily to you. Qohelet speaks here of the difficulties that are part of any job. He describes these as a “striving of heart,” and “all his days are full of sorry and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest.” He’s pointing to what we would call the extreme stress our work can bring at times. Life is complex and that means our response to our jobs is complex and the Bible explains many of those complexities. For instance—we said earlier that God created humanity to work—work is a good thing and the reason it can be very rewarding is because when we work we’re expressing the image of God. However, as we know--work can also be extremely stressful because, though God created us to work and work is good, this world is fallen. The impact of the fall on our work is related in Genesis 3:17-19. After Adam’s sin, God tells him, “17.…Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The Bible explains why our work can be both a source of happiness and at the same time be very frustrating, stressful and just plain difficult, if not humanly impossible at times. The Preacher’s point in context is—not only do you eventually lose control over the money you earned on the job, that money was not just given to you—it came by the sweat of your brow. It represents years of pain and stress—YOUR pain and stress! Depending on your job or chosen career, the money (over which you will eventually have no control) represents a host of trials--things like: countless heated arguments with your boss or employees, crushing deadlines, impossible quotas, difficult students, physically taxing labor that’s left you in chronic pain and perhaps disability—trouble with the union, late night hours, trips that take you away from your family for several days at a time. All that pain and suffering is represented in the inheritance you leave. And as we’ve already mentioned, the Preacher adds, “…even in the night his heart does not rest.” Many people never completely leave work—except perhaps on vacation. You spend your days working at your job and you spend your nights lying awake thinking about it. An implication of Adam’s curse is that in our sin, we can easily allow ourselves to obsess over our jobs. The Bible calls this idolatry because we allow it to get in the way of living full out for God as a faithful husband, wife, parent, church member, etc…
The implied argument is--how could you hope to find ultimate meaning in something that—even though it’s rewarding—has caused you countless hours of frustration and stress? To try to find ultimate meaning in a job that can cause things like divorce, strokes, heart attacks, knee replacements and broken or superficial family relationships—that’s pitiable. Why would a person even think about pursuing their job to give there life meaning? The answer is—because they don’t have God in their lives to give them ultimate satisfaction. I hope it tugs on our hearts that tragically, for the many people without God with whom we rub shoulders every day—our co-workers, our neighbors--their jobs or careers are where they are looking for ultimate meaning. The Preacher is clear—“This also is vanity.” Just when you think Qohelet could not possibly have anything positive to say about his toil…he turns a corner. In one of the notably few places in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher temporarily brings God into the picture and his perspective immediately changes.
in verse 24, “24
is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw,
is from the hand of God,
25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Notice that when the Preacher—in a rare moment of piety—brings God into the equation, the light comes on. He says “the hand of God” is behind a person who can “eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” The capacity to enjoy things like food and drink and work is a capacity given by God. We see the same truth later in 6:2, “2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.” God is the source of two gifts here. Not only does he give you what you possess, he also must give you the power to enjoy that.
In verse 26, he elaborates on God giving the power to find joy in our work and possessions. He says, “26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” In the context or work, what he is saying here is that God gives the wisdom, knowledge and joy necessary to find joy in your work to those who are in right relationship to him. Although these people are not looking to find ultimate meaning in their work, because of this God-given gift, they can experience genuine, God-given joy through it. Here’s the secret according to Qohelet: these people do not make their work the end—it’s only a means to an end—for them to bring glory to God. In one of the ironies of life in the kingdom, it’s the person who is not looking for ultimate meaning in their work that God grants the capacity to enjoy it—as they do it as an opportunity to glorify him. Some believers get very “spiritual” about their work. They say things like—“My job is just a way to earn a paycheck—it means nothing to me.” Well, it should! It’s one of the chief ways God has given you to glorify him. Now, to those who are not pleasing to God—to those who look to their jobs as the way to get meaning out of life, he gives them only the power of meaningless “gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God.” We see a strain of Old Testament wisdom here. That is—that God blesses the righteous but not the wicked. Proverbs 14:24 says, “24 The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.” There’s also a strain of Old Testament wisdom that asks the question, “Why do the wicked prosper?”
Again, the point is—the Preacher concludes this section of the book with this rare flash of godly wisdom--for those who are right with God and who look for joy in him as they offer their work to him in worship, there is true joy. But for those who are not rightly related to God, they will dig and dig and dig trying to find satisfaction in their work itself and they never find it. In fact, when pursued for ultimate meaning, their work is reduced to the de-humanizing task of “gathering and collecting.” In response to that reality, he says—“This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” To the Preacher, that is vanity—a wasted life trying to find meaning in a job or career that cannot possibly provide that. So his final and concluding point is—Only God can bring lasting joy from your work because it is he who gives his people the capacity to worship and serve him through their career. If we are to find genuine joy in our work, we must by his grace tightly tie it to God—the source of all joy and satisfaction.
The question for us is—do I see my work as a way to find meaning in life, or as a means to an end as I offer my work up to God in worship and find lasting joy? Paul says in First Corinthians 10:31, “31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If by God’s grace, we do our work with God as our ultimate boss and our desire is to glorify him in it, then he will give us the capacity to find in it a source of genuine joy—not for the money it can bring us or the status or recognition or professional standing, but because our jobs are a way we can serve the living God for his glory. If however, you continue to look to your work and whatever it gives you—money, possessions and status as a way to fill that God-shaped hole in you, you will end your life without any lasting satisfaction. You’re expecting your work to provide something to you it is unable to give. Only God gives meaning to a life. The tragedy here is that by the time many finally come to the conclusion that their work is not a source of ultimate satisfaction, it’s too late. At their retirement, as they look back on their careers, there’s an emptiness that fills their souls because the lasting satisfaction they were looking for in their jobs or career never materialized. When they begin spending the retirement money they’ve stored up, they discover too late that the blessings their career has brought them in retirement can’t bring meaning into their lives in spite of what the TV commercials claim. It’s sad that many professed evangelicals will not discover until it’s too late that their careers—to which they are sacrificing so much as they look to them for ultimate satisfaction, are in fact--a dry well. They have wasted their lives with a godless view of their work and as a result have only awards, certificates, temporary worldly achievements and a retirement account to show for it. But there’s no ultimate satisfaction—their professional lives have played the ultimate cruel trick on them—for decades promising something it could never deliver.
the Preacher reveals—that we will one day lose control over the money for which we have sweat and sacrificed and
it will often end up in the hands of people who will spend it foolishly. Allow
those realities to teach you today that trying to find your sense of value from your work is a fool’s errand. Repent of your idolatry of looking
for your work to provide for you what only God can-- and by God’s grace transform your career as a means to accumulate
wealth and recognition into—a way to worship and serve Jesus Christ. A
believer who has internalized the gospel will want to do this. Jesus
worked for us by going to the cross to die for us—to make us right with a holy God and to cleanse us from all our
idols and sin.
Now, he offers
believers the opportunity to work for him—for his glory through their jobs as a way to express our love to him
for all he has done for us—to worship him. It’s
when we do that, our work will take on eternal significance and have the capacity to be far more than a way to
buy the rusting treasures or chase after the fallen pleasures of this world. May
God grant all of us the grace to give our jobs to God for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 11/27//2012
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