“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17)
If there is anything in life that can lead to frustration, anguish and disappointment, it is the daily grind of our jobs. As Dolly Parton once said, “Workin’ nine-to-five, what a way to make a livin’, barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’; they just use your mind and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.” Interestingly, that’s how Solomon felt as he reflected on the problems of work in a world that has forgotten God.
From the beginning of Ecclesiastes, it’s clear that Solomon regards his work as a very important part of his life. It’s just that when God is taken out of the picture and he looks at work in isolation, he finds it a very frustrating experience. In fact, work seems pointless from a purely secular perspective: “what does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3)
While our problems with work might relate to our low pay or our treatment by employers, as far as Solomon was concerned, the real problem with work relates to the fact that ultimately we will have to leave all the fruits of our labour to someone else. Further, work also involves a lot of toil and trouble (2:18, 22, 23). These two issues were like goads – sharp stabbing pains – that continually irritated him as he tried to find fulfillment in his work. Whenever his work gave him an immediate sense of satisfaction, these thoughts – never far from the surface – would return to him and make any sense of delight very short-lived indeed.
If we see our work in complete isolation from God, then Solomon says that we have a major problem. One day we will die and all the fruit of our labour will be left to someone else. Does this make sense? Does it help us to face the daily grind? Solomon says it only leads to despair. If you think it would be a tragedy if someone broke into your house and took away all your possessions, why would it not be equally tragic if people that you don’t know comb through all your possessions after you die?
Solomon says that the thought that all the rewards of our work could go to unknown and undeserving strangers should force us to reevaluate the significance of work. So should all the grief and pain associated with our jobs. If we try to find significance in our work alone, it will only lead to disappointment. Indeed, whenever we dismiss God from any aspect of our lives, we will feel empty.
Is there any hope, then, that work can take on new meaning? “Yes,” says Solomon, “there is.” We need to see our work as a gift from God to which we have been specially appointed. We work for God and not simply for ourselves. Whatever our job happens to be, we are working for Christ and His kingdom. As Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive an inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord, Christ” (Colossians 3:23). When we see our work as a gift from God, our whole perspective changes.