The Theology of Work: Labor and Vanity

The Theology of Work: Labor and Vanity

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. This is the starting premise of the book of Ecclesiastes. In the profound words an astute thinker, Ecclesiastes guides us toward an examination of the vanity and value of all things – including work.

Click here to view part one – The Theology of Work: Work in the Torah

Click here to view part two – The Theology of Work: Proverbial Lessons on Work

Work in Ecclesiastes

When Solomon nearly divided the infant with the sword, he was displaying his wonderful capacity to look at an issue, examine it, and get right to the heart of the matter. The book of Ecclesiastes displays that same insight. Join with me as we consider what was going through Solomon’s head when he penned the first verses of this book.

People say they want to change the world. A few years later, they are dead, but the world remains unchanged. So it has been for thousands of years. As Solomon observes this, his brow furrows.

The sun rises. The sun sets. It rises again and sets again. The wind blows one way, then another. There is a continual motion and return, cycles and courses which happen endlessly, yet never seem to finalize their purpose. Is there any overarching reason for this? Questions like these make Solomon gloomy.

Then his gloom darkens. When he thinks about the sea, Solomon realizes that all rivers flow into it, yet it never fills up. Is there any purpose, anything to make this endless cycle of motion and effort come to completion?

The premise is soon clear. All things are full of labor. There are cycles, sequences, rotations, and successions, but they never come to an end. This means that all is vanity and vexation of spirit – an endless effort toward an impossible goal.

Solomon applies these principles to his own life and work, and the results are worse than discouraging. He says, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun…” (Ecclesiastes 2:18).

To put it simply – from a natural viewpoint, work is pointless – it has no ultimate object, no attainable goal, to give it true meaning and value. It is endless effort for evaporating resources!

Then Solomon lifts his eyes to heaven. He had focused intently on earth, but then he remembers the hand of God.

Remembrance of God helps Solomon to solve the riddle. But he doesn’t come up with all the answers. Men die just like animals. The oppressed have no comforter. Powerful men pervert judgment. Great men still die. The poor man’s wisdom is despised. All of these things are deep questions. Solomon doesn’t claim to give profound answers to them all.

Instead of smug confidence, Solomon comes away from his studies with a very different attitude. Unable to explain all the injustices of the world, he recognizes that God is the one who gives and takes away. His analysis of the world is not esoteric, but practical:

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).

Life is given to be enjoyed, but that is not its main purpose. Solomon astutely realizes that there is a reason man was placed in the world.

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

What does all this have to do with work? It gives purpose and meaning to work. Work is that which man was given to do, just as the sun was made to rise and set each day, and the rivers to flow into the sea. Because this temporary life is man’s only chance for obedience, he should do all his work diligently, in the fear and obedience of God. Soon he will be in the grave, and then he cannot fulfill ‘the whole matter.’

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).