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Today, I would like you to reflect with the Preacher and me for a few moments on the topic of work. Our text is Ecclesiastes 2:18–26.
What we do for a living is very important to us. For many people, work is central to their identity. It is so central, in fact, that one of the first questions we ask people when we meet them is, “What do you do?”—as if this tells us more about them than their family, education, hobbies, or driving passions in life. In traditional societies, what mattered most was whom you were related to. Did you have an aristocratic pedigree? Were you born into a low caste? Would your clan come to your aid if you found yourself in trouble? In modern societies such as our own, what matters most is what you do with your life, not who your parents are. It is achievement, not ancestry, that counts.
Because of the importance of work in modern societies, then, many people look for psychological fulfillment in what they do for a paycheck. They do not merely want a job that pays well, they want a job that gives their lives meaning. Now, in a wealthy society such as ours, with its complex division of labor, a person who dislikes one form of work can always find another. But in the relatively simple, traditional society in which the Preacher lived, work was considered “toil” (2:18) It was hard, backbreaking labor, and while it may not have been all that fulfilling, at least it paid the bills.
In addition to its toilsome nature, the Preacher highlighted another problem with work. Even if you were quite successful in your endeavors, your successor might be a fool and ruin what you have spent a lifetime building (2:18–19). King Solomon, for example, built Israel into a magnificent kingdom, filled with wisdom, wealth, and power. His idiot son Rehoboam, however, destroyed his legacy by raising taxes and dividing the kingdom (1 Kings 12). Forty years of diligent labor disappeared in an instance. “Poof! Poof! Everything goes poof!” Such is the ephemeral, unreliable nature of work. It is hardly something that you want to build your identity and sense of personal fulfillment on, for who knows what bad decisions will wreck your good ones?
So, should we despise work? Is it meaningless? After what he has written about his toils, you might expect the Preacher to answer both questions affirmatively. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, he writes, “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…” (2:24). Not only does God give us work to do, but he also crowns our labors with success: “to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy” (2:26).
So, as you sit at work today, remember that however toilsome you may find it, your work is a gift from God, and if you do it well, God will bless you. But, by the same token, do not expect too much from what you do for a living. Like all creaturely things, it goes “Poof!” Ground your personal identity and find your sense of ultimate self-fulfillment elsewhere.