Missio on Ecclesiastes: Vanity and Meaning in Work

It used to be common to bind a New Testament together with the book of Psalms in a small, pocket-sized version.  The idea was that you heard the gospel in the New Testament and then responded to it with praise via the Psalms.  A pastor friend of mine once made the comment that it would be appropriate to bind the book of Ecclesiastes to the front, in the sense that Ecclesiastes gets you ready for the gospel.[1]  In a sense Ecclesiastes serves as an “idol buster” – not in the sense of busting ancient idols made of wood and stone, but more in the sense of busting the modern worldviews and purposes that we idolatrously put in the place of the worship of God.  Ecclesiastes debunks the more modern idolatries (though they were certainly also ancient) of success, wealth, power, etc.

Unsurprisingly, then, Ecclesiastes has much to say about work.  But at times the book seems like it’s talking out of both sides of its mouth.  Regarding work, it says in Eccl. 2:24:

There 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.  (ESV)

So work is a good thing, a blessing, right?  But then consider the text leading up to this conclusion:

tireds-1541798I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? 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 over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 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. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 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.  (ESV, Eccl. 2:18-23)

How do these fit together?  Of course, there are many biblical scholars who propose that they don’t, that these are the contradictory comments of an original speaker and his later editors.  But leave those arguments aside for a moment – could the book as it now stands be harmonized to have a single message about work?  Yes.  Verse 24 does not end the meditation on work from Ecclesiastes 2:

There 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, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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.  (ESV, Eccl. 2:24-26)

Work done out of its own value will become an idol, and idols become worthlessness.  Because work originates in Genesis 2; it is a created thing, and not the creator.  (As has often been remarked in this blog, note that work does NOT begin in Genesis 3.  Work is originally a GOOD created thing, not a part of the fall.)  But even good created things, when elevated to become an ultimate, when placed into the spot where only God deserves to be – those are idols, and they are vanity and striving after the wind.

Such is the paradox of work.  A good thing, when in its place – as part of worshiping God in all we do.  But when elevated to the level of idolatry, suddenly a worthless vanity.

Have I given my work too much, making it an idol in the place of God and forgetting Eccl. 2:18-23?  Or have I given it too little, forgetting that it is a gift from God (forgetting Eccl. 2:24-26)?

[1] Like many of these adages, I’m reasonably sure my friend had himself heard this comment from someone who had heard it from someone who had heard it from someone, so who knows the original source of the observation.  Regardless of its source, though, the point rings true.

Images:FreeImages.com/acscom, Serkan GUL

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