Meaningless Labors… and a Different Point of View

Ecclesiastes 2:17-26

With verses 17 ff. we continue the Teacher’s warm and cozy view of our lives under the sun, this time we are talking about work. In verses 17-23, we see a very high concentration of markers making it more clear than at any time before this that we are talking about life “under the sun” which he repeats no less than five times. Could something be in the works here?

The main point in this passage is that we might work diligently all our lives, we might achieve great things, as Solomon surely did, and yet even though we might act with wisdom and knowledge and skill our entire career, the day will come when we turn our accomplishments and fortunes over to someone who may or may not be wise, and who certain did not earn them. He concludes that this is not a good situation, using the term “meaningless” no fewer than three times in the process.

Solomon isn’t the only person to make this observation, and over the centuries many volumes have been written about great reputations and fortunes that were squandered by foolish heirs on riotous living. What do we get from all of our hard work under the sun? We get stress, grief and anxiety, and in the end, we leave it all behind… meaningless!

Something happens in verse 24:

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God

At first, we might think that Solomon’s rant is continuing, but then we see something different, eating, drinking and finding satisfaction “in their own toil” is a gift from God; this doesn’t seem to follow. This is because 24 and 25 are transitional verses:

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

Our vantage point is no longer “under the sun”; from here through 3:22, Solomon gives his counterpoint to life under the sun, a contrast that makes this adventure of ours a most excellent adventure, rather than a depressing one, for there really is a ray of hope for better things.

To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (v. 26)

By linking wisdom and knowledge with happiness, Solomon is making a distinction that this time, wisdom and knowledge are not vanity, as in the previous verses, for these are not the vain strivings of merely human wisdom and knowledge, but of a divine gift. This person, who is pleasing in God’s sight, understands the difference between that which is eternal, and that which is not, and their priority is in the right place, thus they can find happiness even in this life. By contrast, the one who is not pleasing in God’s sight does not find this kind of happiness and deep satisfaction, for if they have obtained even human wisdom, they realize that all is for naught in the end, no matter what they do. They come to recognize that they have merely been chasing the wind.

Approaching the next chapter, we see that Solomon is going to develop this new theme more fully; actually he will take on a persuasive structure in the process. Ready to dive into chapter three?

Oh come now dear reader, you know the drill; we will have to wait until next time for that, and I will look forward to seeing you then!

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9 thoughts on “Meaningless Labors… and a Different Point of View”

  1. There was a James Garner movie, don’t remember the name anymore. A multimillionaire passes and leaves his fortune to his son, with one caveat. He has to start with nothing and work at several tasks (like the trials of Hercules), only upon completion of the tasks will he receive his inheritance. The purpose is to learn both the value of money, but the value of working as well, unless you know what it is to work you cannot appreciate the value of the money.

  2. This section brings up what I’ve always considered to be one of The Great Atheist Questions: How do you live your life, working for countless years and striving, when you believe in the end that it is totally pointless? I think I’d wake up in tears every morning if I truly believed that we have no purpose other than to accumulate green paper, reproduce, and then die.

    1. One commentator I read, or heard, said that the religious Jews didn’t/don’t ask what is the meaning of life, but rather, what is the purpose of life. That has always stuck with me. (Otherwise, why would I have remembered to mention it? 🙂 )

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