Russell and Duenes

What Does Man Get For All His Toil?

with 2 comments

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.

What does the worker gain from his toil?

There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless— a miserable business!

So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot.

Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

The previous statements all come from the wisdom of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes. But what are we to make of them? I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes with my students, and this business of “work, toil and labor” has been leaping off the page. Yet I find that I don’t know what to think about it. In one sense, the Preacher is telling us that all of our labor and work is a vanity, a chasing after the wind. In another sense, he sounds like some kind of 20th century existentialist, telling us to enjoy the sensate pleasures of life – eating, drinking and doing enjoyable work – because that is our lot in life. And then we have to look at these verses through the lens of the New Testament, which conveys to us – quite often in fact – that we should be about the business of making disciples and denying ourselves for the sake of the gospel. Hardly something that sounds consistent with “eat, drink and enjoy your labor, since you are quickly going to the grave.”

Of course the New Testament does tell us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” And aren’t most of us spending the vast majority of our waking hours preparing and eating meals, commuting to work, making beds, taking showers, cleaning dishes, taking out trash, pushing papers, working farmlands, reading stories to children, paying bills, cleaning bathrooms, watering the lawn, sitting in business meetings or meeting with clients, chit-chatting with friends and family, going to the grocery store, and on and on? And is it not the “gift of God” to enjoy these things and find satisfaction in them? Indeed, does it not honor Christ by enjoying them and doing them “with all our might” and with excellence? And none of this precludes us from verbally sharing the gospel or from taking it to the ends of the earth. But it may cause us to question our understanding of what it means to “make disciples” and “take up our crosses.”

This doesn’t mean I understand exactly what the Preacher is counseling here, but I think there is a certain earthiness to his words, a sense that life is not always as complicated as we make it here in the “modern world.” Perhaps we ought to take more seriously the notion of simply trying to enjoy our day-to-day labors and toils of “eating and drinking” and vocational activities. For our days on this planet are few, and it is a true gift from God to be able to use our bodies and minds in productive labor, and we don’t know what is going to happen to all that we’ve produced once we’re dead. And if we carry on our work with gratitude and faithfulness to Christ, hoping to exalt his name in all of our doings, then perhaps we will not need to worry so much about all the particulars, about finding that “one perfect job” that we think God wants us to find, lest we be “out of his will.” If we are “boasting only in the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:14), then perhaps we can choose to find something enjoyable to do, knowing that God will be pleased with it, since it comes from him and is offered back to him with faith and thankfulness. But I’d love to know others’ thoughts on this.



Written by Michael Duenes

September 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology, Work

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Mr. Duenes,

    As you said, “it is a true gift from God to be able to use our bodies and minds in productive labor.”
    I think we should enjoy our toil not with desires for fame, money, or anything measured by the standards of man and society, but with contentment in doing what God is leading us to do. And as long as we see God as the ultimate purpose of our striving, everything we do should spontaneously follow God’s directions and be inspired by Him.

    Ivy Xing

    September 25, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    • Well said, Ivy.



      September 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm

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