What gain has the worker from his toil?
Every Monday morning, millions of Americans ask themselves that very question as they once again start their workweek. It is a legitimate question. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, what do we really gain by working hard? A paycheck, a sense of satisfaction at a job well done, a measure of self-esteem, slight changes in the way the world works? These are all good things, but they are not permanent things. They are hebel, “vanity,” things that go “Poof!” At the end of their lives, most people realize that their lives are not more meaningful because they spent extra hours at the office.
First, work is God’s gift to us. “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (3:10). It is a gracious gift that causes us to spend our time on earth productive, honestly, and in a meaningful fashion.
Second, God has given us work for a good purpose. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Sometimes, when our work frustrates us, we need to remember that it is a thread in the divine tapestry of history. We may not see that beauty at the present moment, when we are tired of toil, but that does not mean the beauty does not exist.
Third, part of the purpose of work is to show us that there is more to life than work. “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). In other words, God gives us work—a hebel, a vanity, a thing that goes “Poof!”—to drive us to himself. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Precisely!
So, fourth, while life lasts, we ought to take pleasure in the work God gives us. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12, 13). Work may frustrate us; it may not be the source of our ultimate happiness—which is God alone—but it can be a penultimate joy.
The Preacher’s theology of work is a healthy tonic for the overworked American soul. I think many of us place far too much value on what we do, looking to work to fill a spiritual void that in reality only God can fill. Is work good? Yes. Is work frustrating? Often. Is that the way God planned it? Absolutely. He uses good, but frustrating, experiences to show us our need for him. He uses the time we spend on earth to direct our thoughts to eternity. Everything under the sun is vanity, the Preacher endlessly reminds us. But God is not. “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever…so that people fear before him” (3:14), i.e., approach him with reverence and awe.
So, what do we workers gain from all our toil? God, if we are paying attention and letting him accomplishes his purposes through our work.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.