As we continue to prepare the way for the answer to the question, “Why am I here (on earth)?” we come to Solomon’s first case study to deconstruct supposed self-satisfiers. He begins with the subject of work, briefly introducing the subject at the beginning of the book and then developing it further in chapter two. In the third verse of the book he wrote,
What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun? (Eccl. 1:3)
He used a financial term (“profit”) as though he was doing a kind of cost-benefit analysis. What’s the ‘bottom line’ from all of man’s labor? He gets around to the conclusion shortly after asking that question and the review he gave wasn’t exactly glowing, though it did start off promising. He said that his heart rejoiced in all his labor and that this was the reward from his labor (2:10). After reading that you might be thinking, “Okay, well, that’s positive; his heart rejoiced in his labor and that was the reward… enjoying the work itself…,” but then comes verse 11:
11Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun. (Eccl. 2:11)
It was empty. And he wasn’t indifferent to that reality. You’ve heard the expression, “No pain, no gain,” well according to the preacher it’s all pain and no gain. He said in chapter 2:17,
17 Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
He considers some of the ways in which labor leads to vanity as he continues. He loathed his effort because he had to leave all the fruit of his labor to another (2:18); he couldn’t take any of it with him; and then, he didn’t know whether that man would be wise or a fool (2:19). It’s like a parent establishing a successful business, passing it down to a child, and that child running it down into the ground. Sadly and ironically that is, in a sense, what happened to Solomon. After he brought the kingdom of Israel to great heights his son Rehoboam’s foolishness led to the division of the kingdom. Only Judah remained completely loyal to the house of David, as well as part of the tribe of Benjamin. Everything Solomon worked for began to quickly crumble to the ground.
The preacher considered it an injustice that he worked so hard and would have to pass down his labor to someone who didn’t work (2:21). He describes this laborious man’s life as “sorrowful,” saying, “his work is burdensome,” and “even in the night his heart takes no rest. This is also vanity” (2:23). He saw how work could become a god, a mental leach that sucks the life out of a person who can’t seem to take his mind off of it. Oftentimes people who overly invest in their work, dramatically under invest in the integral relationships of life, and end up having work and not much else.
And even after he gives advice saying that man should enjoy the work that God has given them to do, he still summarizes it by saying, “This also is vanity and grasping for the wind” (vs.26). Why – because eternity is not in view. God is given a proverbial head nod (remember the preacher was not an atheist) but God and eternity did not influence his laboring and therefore it was ultimately meaningless. So learn a lesson from the preacher – don’t try to find your satisfaction in your labor. Under heaven, when done in response to the reason for which you exist, your labor is far from meaningless; it’s meaning-full. Noble. Valuable. Potentially one of the many outworkings of why you are here (on earth). But don’t use it for something it wasn’t meant to be. Motor oil is good for your car but if you put it on your salad you’re going to have big trouble. Labor is good (under heaven), the preacher is not denigrating work, but it’s not your God, and it cannot satisfy you. And if done only “under the sun” without the fundamental reason for why you exist in view, it’s vanity. Jesus expressed a similar line of thinking when He said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mk. 8:36). The implied answer is simple – nothing. It would be vanity. How much better, then, to labor for One who provided salvation for all who look to Him alone for the forgiveness? At that point, when unto Him, as a means to serve Him and glorify Him, work is not meaningless but ultimately full of meaning and eternal significance (Col. 3:23,24).