What does Ecclesiastes Teach us About Work?

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(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog and was published on The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.)

In our Tuesday lunch Bible Study, our school chaplain has been taking us through an OT survey.  Two weeks ago, we were about to discuss Ecclesiastes.  Recalling that I had quoted it numerous times throughout my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, I prepared a one-page handout for the group containing a series of quotes I pulled from several chapters of my book.  I thought it might be valuable to others.

Regarding the doctrine of the Fall of mankind and our response to it

The book of Ecclesiastes often paints a bleak picture of work, highlighting what we know from Gen. 3:16-19 as the curse.  The preacher, possibly Solomon, emphasized in Eccl. 1:2 his theme, which he boiled down to one word—meaningless (NIV).  Other versions use the word vanity.  He says that everything is meaningless, especially work.  He asks, “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3).

Ecclesiastes 1:2–9 shows us that our work environment remains uncooperative and will be marked by futility.

Ecclesiastes 2:17–23 paints a vivid description of the effects of the curse on our work and how empty it can be.  “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” (v. 17).  He continues, “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” (vv. 22–23).  Stevens offers this concise summary: “Work ‘under the sun’ is impermanent, unappreciated, without results, unfair and seductive.”

Ecclesiastes 7:20 indicates that people are always going to be sinful (including you).

Regarding finding a job that fits our purpose and leads to flourishing

In Eccl. 2:4–11, he (Solomon) outlines the kind of work that he pursued.  He “built houses,” “planted vineyards,” “made gardens,” and “made reservoirs.”  He also bought slaves, owned herds and flocks, accumulated silver and gold, and managed entertainers.  In Eccl. 2:11 and in later in Eccl. 2:17-23, he concludes that work is “grievous to me” and is a “chasing after the wind.”  He grew to hate the results of his labors.  He did not know what was going to happen to the investment of his time and energy after he was gone.  He was frustrated, and asked, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” (Eccl. 2:22).

Yet, in Eccl. 3:11, we find a curious admonition.  The writer asks us to consider that God is in control and has “made everything beautiful in its time.”  He then states that man should “be happy and do good while they live … eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God . . . there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot” (Eccl. 3:12–13, 22).  We learn here that it is indeed possible in the Lord to find satisfaction in our work.  It is a gift!

Regarding how Christians should work

Ecclesiastes 5:12 says that hard workers sleep well and that riches keep you up at night with worry.  We are reminded in Eccl. 5:15–19 that we cannot take anything that we earn with us when we die, which has implications on our priorities and how we view our compensation.  We are exhorted in Eccl. 9:10 to put our hearts into our work because there will come a day when our work on earth will cease.  I appreciate what is said in Eccl. 10:10, which tells us to keep our tools sharp or else we will work harder than is necessary.

Regarding the doctrine of eschatology (last things)

When Jesus returns, the wicked are judged, and the redeemed enter into the New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21 and 22), the hopeless message of vanity of Ecclesiastes will vanish.  There will be no more meaninglessness in life and work under the sun because we will all be under the Son.

I highly recommend that you read this interesting OT book of wisdom literature for yourself.  You may be surprised at what you find.  God will always speak to us when we seek Him.

(Note: I invite you to read a similar article to this one regarding what the Psalms, the Minor Prophets, and the Gospel of John have to say about work.)

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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