BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES/The Emptiness of Work
Wednesday, June 18, 2014 1:00 PM
The Preacher takes us from the contemplative life; wisdom is the way of meaning, to the sensuous life; pleasure as the way of meaning and satisfaction, to the active life, work, vocation, projects, activity as the way that meaning can be supplied for life. "Work is important and beneficial; maybe I can find meaning in life through my work." That is what he was saying, and that is what many of us are saying. Work is a wonderful and good thing, but the evil one can use even good things against us and if we are trying to find meaning, significance, and satisfaction in our work alone, then the Preacher is telling us we will not find it there. In fact, in this passage he will tell us three things about work. First, he will tell us why work will not work as the way of meaning and satisfaction, and you will see that in verses 18 and 19. Then in verses 20-23, he will tell us why work alone, work apart from a living relationship with God, always leads to despair. Finally, in verses 24-26, he will tell us about the kind of work that satisfies.
An Assessment of a Fulfilling Work Apart from God
In verses 18 and 19, the Preacher tells us that work cannot be the source of providing us with meaning and significance in life. He says apart from God, work is but toil and emptiness. That work, however fulfilling, cannot supply the answer to meaning or provide satisfaction apart from God.
The word he uses for work, in verse 18, is a very broad term. It can be used for toil, our daily responsibility, and it can more broadly apply to those greater quests that people embark upon, whether it's politics, social reform, or something else. In verse 18, he says, "Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I labored under the sun." What the Preacher is saying is that, upon reflection, he has hated the fruit and the results of his labor. That's interesting because, in verse 10, while he was doing his labor, he enjoyed it, and got a lot of results from it, and enjoyed the results of the labor, but when he pulls back and reflects upon it and asks the question, "Can this supply my life with meaning and fulfillment and satisfaction?" his answer is an emphatic, "No." It's important to note that his frustration is not with the work. He enjoyed the work. And his frustration is not that he's not getting enough return for his work. He's grieving that the fruit of his labor has not served to fulfill his deepest yearnings and desires as a human being. The satisfaction one derives from one's work is not merely tied to the income derived from it. That can make it sweet. But that's not where ultimate satisfaction comes from and the evil one lies to you and says, "More will do it, more will give you that satisfaction that you're looking for," but the Preacher says, "No." He's had the more, he's had the most, and it didn't do it.
Notice in verses 18 and 19, the facts that he draws to our attention. He attributes the futility of work to these particular facts. First, that everything that we do has to be left to a successor. Why? Because we all die. So, from one standpoint we don't fully enjoy the fruits of our labors, and on the other hand, it is left to someone who didn't work for it. Secondly, notice he says that there's no guarantee that one's successor will be wise. He may be a fool. He may misspend everything that you've earned. Thirdly, notice that even a foolish inheritor, however, will have control over the usage of all that the one who has left the legacy has accomplished and amassed. Whatever is left behind may be misused; whether it's your reputation, whether it's an estate, whether it's the project that you've poured your whole life into. It may be twisted by fools to make a trap for naves. There's no guarantee of the continuation of your work for good in the next generation. And that is just a picture of the kind of futility that the Preacher is speaking about.
The Result of Work Apart from God
He sums up in verses 20-23 and he tells you why work considered apart from God leads to despair. He's giving you a summary of the condition of today's working man apart from God. And he says there's only despair in all work that's done under the sun; in all work that's done apart from God. What a total contrast verse 20, "I despaired of all of the fruit of my labor" is to 1 Corinthians 15:58! Do you remember when Paul says to Christian disciples, "My beloved brothers, be steadfast and immovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that your labor is not in vain?" And just as surely as Paul can say to Christians, "There's no wasted labor that you do in this life if it is done as unto the Lord." So also the Preacher can say there is assuredly no meaningful labor in this life if it is not done unto the Lord. He's pointing out that work plus success minus God equals emptiness. Work is not the way to find meaning in life apart from God. Work and its most dramatically fruitful results fail to supply the meaning of this life.
The Blessing of God, the only way to know blessed labor
And then, in verses 24-26, finally we get a ray of light in this book. And he tells us that work done with and for God is one of the greatest blessings of life. He's telling us here about the kind of work that satisfies. In verses 24-26, the Preacher says that in relationship with God, the work that can never supply the meaning of life apart from Him, does become a great blessing in Him and with Him and through Him. Enjoyment in work doesn't come from having the right employer, or employee, it doesn't even come from being in the right profession, it doesn't come from making a lot of money; it comes from the gift of God.
And then he says something very dark and disturbing in verse 26. He says that the sinner, the person who is living this life under the sun apart from God, the person who is not living a life of trust in and obedience to the living God, cannot enjoy his work-it is empty to him. Matthew 13:12 says, "For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he will have an abundance; but he who does not have, even that which he does have shall be taken away from him." In other words, it is not just that those "in God" will have more, and those not "in God" will have less, but that those who are in God, trusting in God through Jesus Christ, will have all; and those who are not, will have nothing. "In Jesus" there is no meaningless work; there is no unimportant labor. All is seen, and is rewarded. All is blessed in and by Him. But outside of Jesus, there is no blessing, no meaning, no satisfaction, and no reward. There is only emptiness and futility.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at email@example.com.