Ecclesiastes P4: No Gain for Toil?

We spend much of our life working – indoors, outdoors, home chores, office-work, paper-work. There is always work to do. Walking is work, words are work. What do we get for our work? The gardener sows a seed and eats its fruit, the salesman is paid for his sale, the doctor helps someone to live. Solomon, in all his working, comes up with this conclusion:

[Ecclesiastes 2:22-24] – “For what has man for all his labour, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity. Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labour. This also, I saw, was from the hands of God.”

In this, we are given three revelations about how we can relate to work.

  1. Work can make us sorrowful. There are conflicts, mistakes, tough decisions, and times when we are just tired at work. People talk about separating work from home because it can be tempting to worry about the things that are left unfinished at work. People look forward to leave, and to long weekends. Even those who love their jobs experience work stress at times. Work can be a burden that we must overcome hour after hour, and day after day. It can be a necessity that we need to endure in order to live.
  2. Work can make us joyful. At the same time, work can give us gladness. There is a satisfaction when we fix a problem, help someone, see a finished work. There are the funny workplace stories we share with our workmates, the pride in a clean house, the sense of achieving, the sense of contributing, the sense of earning. There are the testimonies God works with us – stories of healing, stories of restoration, stories of character strengthening. Work can be something we look forward to, something we prepare for, something we enjoy.
  3. Both the sorrow and the joy are from God. Whether we are struggling through work, or thriving in it, we can God at work in our work. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 3, “to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…”. That means while there are times of weeping, losing, and breaking down, there are also times of laughing, healing and building up. All of this is from God and there is a purpose in it all. Perhaps in our sorrow, we turn to God and call out to Him. Perhaps in our enduring, He teaches us contentment. Perhaps in our joy, we praise Him.

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Solomon also suggests some things that can affect our perspective on work. For example, he is distressed to think that his hard work might fall into the hands of someone who does not care to sustain it, and this causes him to despair of his work since it seems unfair [Ecclesiastes 3:18-20]. However, Solomon also recognises that God uses both the good and bad in the world for His purposes, and that God gives to those who are good in His sight. Though Solomon also considers this vanity, it gives us one more thing to think about in reviewing our own attitude to work – what are we working for?

[Ecclesiastes 2:26] – “For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God…”

Again we come back to the realisation that the ability to produce our own reward for toil is not fully ours to control, but God’s. Therefore, let us embrace the joys and struggles of the work we do as if doing it all for Him who is for us!

[Ecclesiastes 3:10-11] – “I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work God does from beginning to end.”


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