Throughout 2014, Susie and I are working through the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. It’s never too late to start! You ought to join in. Don’t know who Robert Murray M’Cheyne is? Don’t know how to pronounce M’Cheyne? Perfect. I don’t know either of those things and it doesn’t matter.
Recently we read through Ecclesiastes, which is always a fascinating book to read because it resounds when you’re having “one of those days.” Too often the Christian subculture is fogged up with butterflies and rainbows, without taking into consideration the difficulties and despairs of life.
Much of Ecclesiastes is somewhat cloudy due in large part to the ambiguity of the Hebrew word הבל (sounds like “hebel”), which is translated in a myriad of ways, most commonly “vapor” or “vanity,” or another word that expresses the fleeting, temporary nature of things.
A few days ago we read Ecclesiastes 2. I love how candid this book is, especially because of the perspective it gives to life. Notice Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 (ESV):
I 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.
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.
Perhaps the New Living Translation provides a more helpful, surface-level understanding:
I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.
Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.
So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.
I graduated from college over a year ago, and have really only been in the “real world” since about September as I spent last spring preparing for marriage and the summer
having fun working at a summer camp.
Since arriving in the real world in September, I have, at times, said the same as Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, ” 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.” Work is “hebel,” a vapor, here and gone.
I feel this way sometimes, whether it be toward work or school, and I love both!
I can’t imagine the Sisyphean-level of boredom and frustration one who hates his job must feel.
This feeling of frustration, pointlessness, and monotony is inevitable. Whether you’re serving or having lunch with executives, your job and your work, no matter how enjoyable, cannot fulfill your deepest need.
Susie and I watch Mad Men regularly. We love the show. I can’t speak for Susie, but one of the main reasons I love it is because it so clearly chronicles the futility of wealth and prestige.
The show revolves around a number of characters all of whom live for their work. Mad Men, if it communicates nothing else, shows that no matter how many beautiful women you woo or how much you win at work, it’s all as futile as chasing the wind.
Thankfully, our purpose need not be found in the daily grind of our work. Whether you’re a student who can’t afford a pizza or your an executive who owns a couple of pizza joints, your work and your wealth cannot and will not fulfill the deepest desires of your heart.
Genesis 3:19 reminds us that we are made of dust, and it is to dust that we will return. Your worldly work is useless in eternity if it is not done for the purpose of making much of God and loving others as Christ has so loved you. This doesn’t mean any job outside of ministry is pointless—certainly not! But use your work as a ministry, no matter what field it is.
Many take the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes as discouraging and pitiful rather than encouraging and hopeful. Solomon knows that we exist for far more than what we do at our jobs and with our money.
Our work and our wealth are not to be worshiped, rather, they are to be used to worship the One who made them.