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Is Work Vanity?


Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 (text); Ephesians 6:5-8
October 26, 2014 • Download this PDF sermon


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, we began our study of the Book of Ecclesiastes with an introduction on why the author says that all of life is meaningless. First, he says that wisdom and knowledge is meaningless because all have the same destination: death.

With his frustration with wisdom, he plunged into mad and foolish pleasure. He turned his kingdom into a powerful and rich empire. He hoarded personal riches. But the most foolish step he made was to gather for himself a harem of hundreds of pagan women. This turned him into worshiping their pagan idols, incurring the wrath of God. Therefore, he saw wisdom and pleasure as meaningless and in vain.

Our text today is his second in the list of vain things in life: human work, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun” (verse 18). Why so pessimistic about life in general and work in particular? But in the last few verses of our text, there is a turning point from viewing work as vanity to delighting in work. How did this turnaround come about?

This is why the theme today is a question: Is Work Vanity? We will answer this question in three parts: (1) Meaningless Work Under the Sun; (2) Joyful Work Under the SON; and (3) Rest from All Work.

Meaningless Work Under the Sun
The Teacher begins this portion with an extremely negative view of all he had worked for and accomplished as king, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun.” All his wisdom and riches and pleasure that he worked for and obtained did not give him satisfaction.

From this complaint, it seems that the Teacher is saying that work is part of this sinful world, even a curse by God against sin. Remember the curse pronounced by God on Adam and Eve after they sinned? “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen 3:19). No longer will there be an abundance of food and resources for him without pain, frustration and hard toil. Without his blood, sweat and tears, Adam will not enjoy the fruits of his labor.

But before he sinned, Adam was given a verdant garden to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), just as priests were to serve and guard the Tabernacle of God in the wilderness (Num 3:7-8; 18:7). He was to prepare, cultivate and tend the garden, but without the “thorns and thistles” of a cursed ground. There were no drought, pestilence, infertile soil, extreme heat, extreme cold, thieves, robbers, swindlers, and recessions. So work is not a result of sin, but was part of God’s purpose for man from creation. It was something to be enjoyed and have pleasure in.

Work was also part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:9, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” The same word for “work” is used in Genesis 2:3, after God completed his six days of creation work, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” Even God did work, and was pleased with all the fruits of his good work of creation.

But in our text of nine verses, the word for “toil” was used nine times. Here, this word also means pain, trouble, sorrow, or misery. The Teacher hated all his toil under the sun; not that he was always working and sweating in extreme heat, but all the work that he had to do in this world. Just as he came to “hate life,” the Preacher also “hated” all his hard toil in the sense of being frustrated and pained by it. God’s purpose for main in enjoying and taking pleasure in work is gone.

Why did he come to this utter dissatisfaction with work? First, although not explicit in the text, he became weary of it in all of its aspects: physically, mentally and emotionally. He has no rest. Even after physically toiling the whole day, at night he has no rest because he’s still thinking about his work, “For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest” (Eccl 2:23).

Second, his enjoyment was diminished by the question, “What happens to all the fruits of all my work after I die?” He knew that “he can’t take it with him” when he dies, “seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me” (verse 18). Someone else will enjoy all that he worked for all his life! And worse, he asks, “Who knows whether [that man] will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun” (verse 19). This fact of life leads the Teacher to despair of life and work, and conclude that work is meaningless.

The Bible is full of this kind of sayings. “Man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” (Psa 39:6). “For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psa 49:10). So the psalmist even says that man lives 70-80 years, “yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psa 90:10).

Remember the prodigal son? After shaming his father by demanding his inheritance before his father died, he went away and squandered his inheritance in “wine, women and song.” There goes everything that his father had worked for for his younger son! Is there anything more painful and frustrating than a son squandering his father’s fruits of hard work all his life.

This reminds me of multimillionaires whose children squander their inheritance. Recently, in California, Korbel Champagne baron Gary Heck sued his daughter, Richie Ann Samii and fought in court for three years over more than $9 million in trust-fund income after she was arrested for sexually assaulting two employees.

Maybe Solomon was the author of this book, because his frustration about the vanity of work was fulfilled after he died. During his reign, Israel experienced the greatest peace and prosperity in her history! Yet, when his son Rehoboam became king, Israel literally fell apart, dividing into two kingdoms. Rehoboam overtaxed the people and rejected the wisdom of Israel’s elders, resulting in a rebellion against Solomon’s son. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel separated from King Rehoboam’s southern kingdom, and declared one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam, as king. The two kings then led their kingdoms into idolatry and apostasy. But the ultimately responsibility fell upon Solomon for his idolatry (1 Kgs 11:11).

How then do we know that what we worked for will not fall into the wrong hands, to children who will squander the fruits of our labors? We don’t. Parents can only teach their children the discipline and nurture of the Lord, and pray hard that they will live righteous and godly lives. And this takes us to our next point.

Joyful Work Under the SON
The despair and frustration with the vanity of toil in verses 18-23 gives way to some glimmer of hope in the last three verses, 24-26:

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.”

Here, despair turns to enjoyment, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” How does the Teacher find enjoyment in hard work after saying that it’s all meaningless? As in the other parts of the book, he finds meaning only when God comes into the picture, “This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”The enjoyment of the fruits of our labors is “God’s gift to man” (Eccl 3:12-13; Eccl 5:19).

The Teacher isn’t saying God magically turns our life from hard toil into all good times and pleasures. That is the false gospel of prosperity. But only those who who believe in God and do his commandments will find true satisfaction in life and in work.

Paul commands us Christians, in working “under the sun,” even under cruel, unfair slave drivers, as if we work “under the SON,” under Christ himself. We are to work “as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Eph 6:6-7). When our minds are set upon serving Christ first, then our families, employers and country second, our perspectives in life fall in line with Scriptural principles.

We are first of all citizens of God’s kingdom, and only secondarily citizens of the kingdom of man. We are first of all members of God’s household, the universal church, then members of our own families. We are first of all servants of Christ, then servants of our companies.

If we see ourselves as Christ’s servants, then whatever we do for a living become a labor for Christ and his kingdom. The Reformers called this the “priesthood of all believers.” As the King’s servants, we are “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), serving Christ’s kingdom, his temple. No, we are not all “ministers” or “pastors” who preach the gospel and administer the sacraments in public worship. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A32 says that the general office of Christian priesthood means that I as a servant of Christ “may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him.”

So whenever we gather together as a family around the table, remember that the rice, fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and drink that we all enjoy are the fruits of the labors of many Christians —meat and vegetable farmers, fishermen, truck drivers, street sweepers, construction workers, warehouse workers, bakers, street and market vendors, people at the checkout counter, accountants, janitors. While our fathers daily do their work to provide for our families, our mothers quietly plan, shop and cook everything on the table.

The priesthood of all believers means that all of these Christian brothers and sisters from all walks of life, doing all kinds of vocations are servants of Christ. Although there are ministers who are ordained by Christ to serve the church to oversee his flock, not all are called to have a “full-time” ministry. All vocations are God’s good gifts to his people, and therefore are noble and honorable, so we are to perform them diligently, honestly and joyfully in the Lord.

What we will eat and drink and wear for tomorrow? What will happen to all that I have worked for all my life after I die? These are valid concerns. But instead of losing sleep over these uncertainties in life, let us turn our minds to the highest meaning of all our toil: to glorify and honor Christ our Master. When we do, our focus will turn from worry and despair because of our hard toil, to joy and thanksgiving to God for his good gift of work and its fruits.

This is what Paul means when he says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). And ultimately, Christians work with eternity in perspective, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27).

Finally, the Teacher says that in the end, everything that the wicked worked for will be given to his people, “To the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God” (verse 26). This is an echo of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 13:22, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.”

How is this possible when we see all around us Christians suffering at the hands of the wicked who persecute, rob and even martyr them, burn their homes and churches, and drive them away from their lands. But the Teacher is referring to the reward that God will give to his faithful people.

Did the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt as paupers? No, the Egyptians themselves let Israel plunder them of their treasures of gold and silver and clothing (Exod 12:35-36). How did Solomon get so rich? He became so powerful and famous that kings of the “whole earth” brought their nations’ treasures as tribute to him every year (1 Kgs 10:23-24). But the greatest picture of nations bringing their treasures to Christ and his kingdom is the coming of the wise men from the east to worship the newborn Jesus, bringing with them their treasures as gifts (Matt 2:11).

This is why the Old Testament prophesies that Gentile nations bringing glory to Israel, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising … the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (Isa 60:3-5). This will be fulfilled when all believers will finally dwell in the new heaven and the new earth, “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it … the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24-26).

Rest from All Work

As we look forward to this great day, let us remember that our Triune God is still at work to bring all the nations to his glorious kingdom. The Father elected his people before the creation of the world, and is working out all things for their good. So both the Father and his Son are working until now for their salvation, as Jesus has said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). So he prayed to his Father in the Garden before he saved his people from sin by offering himself as a sacrifice on the cross, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do”(John 17:4). And the Holy Spirit applies the Son’s completed work of salvation to God’s elect, giving them new hearts, uniting them to Christ, and transforming their minds (John 3:5; Gal 4:6, 5:22-23).

One day, God will complete his good work in you and in all of his elect. On that day, he will rest from all his work of salvation, because he has accomplished his work of saving his people. This is his promise to all of you who believe “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

As God ceased from all his work of creation on the seventh-day Sabbath, so on the last day, he will cease from all his work to give his Sabbath rest to all his people. So also we cease from all our work today, every Lord’s Day, the first day of the week when Christ rose from the grave and ascended into heaven to finish his redemptive work. And when Christ returns from heaven, we finally gain our eternal Sabbath rest, heaven itself. But as we await that blessed hope, we rest from all our hard toil of good works for salvation.

To those of you who find no meaning in life, in wisdom, in pleasures, and in your earthly labors, God promises spiritual rest for you today when you put your faith and trust in his Son Jesus Christ, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:9).

This is why Jesus invites everyone of you to rest from all our spiritual toil:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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